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Human Rights

Meeting of the Socialist International Committee on Human Rights, London

20 October 1997

Chaired by Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development, The Labour Party, Great Britain, the SI Committee on Human Rights, SICOHR, met in London on 20 October. SI member parties from all continents attended (full list of participants) and the focus of the meeting was `Building a Human Rights Agenda for the Years Ahead'. The Committee discussed a paper, drafted by the Chair, which sought to identify a working strategy to build on the progressive and comprehensive human rights agenda adopted at the XX SI Congress. Four areas were identified as a framework to prioritise action taken by the SI on human rights issues. Firstly, developing shared analysis, so that the efforts of SI member parties and other non-governmental organisations are better coordinated. Secondly, reaffirming that economic and social rights should be seen as fundamental human rights. Thirdly, self-evaluation and dialogue among SI member parties to review internal human rights records. Lastly, facilitating more effective, immediate intervention in the defence of human rights.

The proposed programme of work for the Committee balanced a proactive and reactive approach to human rights activities and emphasised that the International's distinctive contribution in this field could be to campaign for economic and social rights given the fundamental social democratic tradition of fighting for social justice. In terms of campaigning work, among other matters the Committee looked forward to the fiftieth anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights in 1998 and urged all member parties to plan celebrations to mark this momentous event. In order to implement the proposed strategies the Committee agreed to find rapporteurs to act in different areas, one matter for consideration being how to strengthen policy on the issue of impunity. The Committee will also establish a process of self-assessment, using annual questionnaires to member parties as a basis for its report to Council.

The Committee agreed it was vital to use the Socialist International's structures and mechanisms to achieve effective coordinated action in the face of human rights violations, whether individual, economic or social abuse. As the Chair stated, `by working together we can be a stronger voice for human rights in the world'.



1. The Socialist International (SI) adopted at its New York Congress in 1996 a progressive and comprehensive human rights agenda. The challenge now facing the SI Committee on Human Rights (SICOHR) is to identify a strategy and tactics which will advance that agenda effectively. At its meeting in London in October 1997, the Committee considered what would be the comparative advantage of action by the SI on human rights and how it could enhance not duplicate the work of other human rights organisations, bearing in mind the limitations of the time of its members and staff, and of its resources.

2. Four criteria were suggested as creating a strategic framework within which to prioritise action by the SI in addressing human rights issues:

a) a commitment to better co-ordination of member parties

In the field of human rights co-ordinated action is particularly necessary. At the UN 1997 Commission on Human Rights, China was able successfully to exploit divergences over how to address its human rights violations. In the European Union and the Council of Europe, a common approach is necessary if effective human rights pressure is to be brought to bear on, notably, Turkey or Croatia - both countries which are members of the Council of Europe and aspiring to strengthen their links with the EU. A co-ordinated position is especially important where there is tension between human rights principles and competitive commercial interests - for example over arms sales, both in general and in particular situations (eg Indonesia).

Around the world, the SI has 139 member parties, many of whom are in government. SICOHR should develop a shared analysis of global human rights issues. This would then lead to a clear strategy around which all SI member parties can unite and act in a co-ordinated way. This could create a potentially very significant cumulative impact around the world.

b) a new priority for economic and social rights

As a political organisation, the SI is well-placed to co-ordinate campaigning on political rights, for example the rights of trade unions and women. This would lead us to prioritise action against violations of political, particularly labour movement, rights, for example in Burma. As a body formed from democratic socialist parties, the SI has a particular locus and interest in promoting social, economic and cultural rights, which historically have not received so much attention as civil and political rights. The globalisation of the world economy creates new threats to these rights, which need to be challenged by an internationally co-ordinated response.

c) a need for self-assessment and dialogue amongst member parties

Some member parties come from countries with poor human rights records. This may offer the SI a particular opportunity to develop constructive initiatives. However, social democratic parties and governments in Europe tend to be too complacent regarding their own human rights performance. Thus the response to racism in Europe could be a major priority.

A good human rights record and commitment should be a criterion for entry to the SI. SICOHR should discuss the process for addressing responsibility or complicity of a member party in human rights violations. This might include sending a delegation for discussions and there should ultimately be a process for suspension or exclusion.

d) a capacity for more effective intervention in defence of human rights

As an international democratic organisation, the SI ought to be able to respond rapidly and effectively to major human rights violations such as those perpetrated in Rwanda and Bosnia. This would also support the work of the UN, which relies on the rapid development of a common approach among a strong group of countries in these situations. The SI needs an analytical framework to enable it to decide when a violation merits action, and if so, what level and form of action. Action could range from co-ordinated public statements and expressions of solidarity to missions of investigation or mediation.

i) An SI human rights analysis

3. There are a number of themes on which the SI should commission further policy development work, either through individual member parties willing to take on a particular issue, or through left-leaning think-tanks, academic institutions and trade unions around the world. SICOHR should be a forum which encourages fresh, forward-looking discussion within the international movement. The committee's meeting in October agreed that SICOHR will appoint someone - either a member of the Committee or a co-optee - to act as rapporteur on each issue listed below: ie social and economic rights, the arms trade and impunity. The committee therefore invites nominations and volunteers to take on the work of rapporteur on any of those issues.

4. The rapporteur will be given responsibility to liaise with other committees in the SI, and to consult more widely, as appropriate. Getting a common position recommended to and adopted by the SI will be the starting point on each issue. The position should then be promoted through member parties and intergovernmentally, where possible. SICOHR should develop a network of member parties in dialogue and contact with each other, able to act rapidly and in a co-ordinated way on human rights issues.

Economic and social rights

5. Given that social justice is a key principle for democratic socialist parties, SICOHR agreed that promoting international commitments on economic and social rights is a natural area of work for the SI. A rights-based approach to development and poverty eradication is right for the SI, as it emphasises that poverty is not just about need but about the denial of basic rights. Social and economic rights have previously been seen as second order issues within international work on human rights, perhaps partly because they are seen as collective rights whereas human rights work has been focused on the rights of individuals. This is a distinction we must end.

6. We now face the challenges posed by globalisation of the world's economies and by the threat of environmental catastrophe. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes economic and social rights, and a greater mobilisation to honour these rights can help us meet these challenges. Most of the countries of the world are already signed up to the UN commitments and OECD targets on social and economic development. If the SI were to encourage its member parties, and through them their government, to fully implement these commitments, it would be helping to make these human rights a reality. Similarly, the SI could be a vehicle for increasing support for a non-protectionist human rights clause in trade agreements, currently viewed with suspicion by many developing countries, and for making the international financial institutions more accountable. SICOHR believes that we should work closely with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) on these issues.

The arms trade

7. There are many dilemmas involved in tackling the arms trade question, in particular the employment issue and the argument that if one country stops selling arms because of human rights concerns, others might step in. The SI could have a role in encouraging self-scrutiny by its member parties and in developing a co-ordinated study of the problem which gets away from the rhetoric. The SI could be a useful vehicle for building international support for codes of conduct on the arms trade.


8. As recognised in the 1996 SI Human Rights Agenda for the 21st Century Declaration, the ability of human rights violators to get away with their crimes is a major impediment both to tackling individual crimes and to enabling a society which has lived through a period of human rights abuses to deal with the legacies of this. There are lessons - good and bad - to be learnt from different experiences around the world (eg South Africa, Guatemala, Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia), and Latin America in particular has much experience in this field of drawing up principles of transparency, process and justice.

9. A study which examined past experiences and produced a distillation of principles on which international action should be based, would be a useful contribution for the SI to make. There are many difficult questions to be answered. When are human rights violations so terrible that international as well as national action is required? How do national and international jurisdictions apply and relate to each other? SICOHR also strongly recommends that the SI work actively for a permanent International Criminal Court, to ensure crimes can be dealt with in a less ad-hoc fashion than at present.

ii) Campaigning on particular issues

10. These would require a different order of work by the SI. Recognising that the SI does not have the capacity as an organisation to run campaigns itself, any work suggested by the Committee would need to be of a co-ordinating kind, encouraging members to take up particular issues, with perhaps one member party agreeing to take the lead or sponsor a particular campaign. There are a number of issues on which it would be appropriate for the SI to organise/co-ordinate campaigns through its member parties:

Women's rights

11. Much good work has been done by the Socialist International Women (SIW) on women's political participation and representation, which is a deeply important political right. The Human Rights Committee should support this and spread information on good practice within the member parties. SICOHR should actively support the SIW in this work.

Strengthening the work of the United Nations on human rights

12. The United Nations is presently at a watershed in its human rights work. A new opportunity exists to make progress, but the UN as an organisation needs bolstering in this field. The forthcoming fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) offers an opportunity to demonstrate social democratic parties' traditional support for the UN. SICOHR agreed that the SI should use its position within the UN system to circulate information and documents. It was also suggested that the SI ask to speak at the Human Rights Commission meeting next spring.

Defending the Defenders

13. The best way of marking the 50th anniversary of the UDHR would be through a campaign defending human rights (and their defenders) today. Not only is this symbolically important, but it would also give practical support to defenders of human rights in vulnerable situations, by providing links with the outside world, publicity and respectability. It would be particularly appropriate for the SI to focus on people from social democratic parties and trade unions.

14. SICOHR agreed that the Chair should write to member parties, encouraging them to celebrate and publicise the principles of the UDHR. The letter should also suggest campaigning activities and other actions to show solidarity with human rights defenders today, for example symbolic invitations to meetings and annual conferences, holding benefit events etc.

Racism and xenophobia

15. This is an issue on which fast progress could be made as it unites countries of both North and South. There is a danger that it could be too wide for a campaigning issue and one suggestion is that from a human rights point of view, campaigning could focus on discrimination against migrant workers - another key human rights question identified in the Human Rights Agenda for the 21st Century Declaration. This makes the point that human rights are violated all over the world and that no country can afford to be complacent.

16. It was noted that the European Parliament (EP) had taken strong initiatives on this issue and it was agreed that the Parliamentary Group of the Party of European Socialists would ensure that SICOHR are informed in advance of events and actions taking place as part of the EP campaign on racism and xenophobia, and other similar campaigns in the future. This would enable the SI to help support spreading information about the campaign.

Political education

17. Campaigning to enhance democratic political practices in countries with new democracies would be a useful contribution for the SI to make. This could be linked to suggestions from the Human Rights Committee on internal initiatives which the SI could take to improve the human rights records of member parties.

18. SICOHR noted the success of the work of the European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity (EFDS), which had proved a useful umbrella body to pull together different initiatives in political education and democratic capacity building. It was agreed that the SI Secretary General and the International Secretary of the UK Labour Party would examine and report on whether the experiences of the EFDS could be extended to work in Africa and elsewhere. It was also noted that there were budget lines in the European Commission to support non-party-political training, which the PES agreed to investigate further.

iii) SI structures and encouraging self-assessment

19. The 1989 SI Congress adopted a comprehensive statement of principles for the SI. These include the commitment of democratic socialists to fundamental democratic freedoms and human rights. SICOHR agreed that it would be useful to investigate how to implement further these principles within the internal structures of the SI. If we as democratic socialist parties wish to promote the cause of human rights globally, it is important that we have our own house in order.

20. Currently the SI Statutes provide that all decisions concerning the admission of new members and the suspension or expulsion of existing members shall be taken by a two-thirds majority of those parties voting at Congress. This would be on the recommendation of the Council. In the case of applications for membership a recommendation is made to the Council by the Finance and Administration Committee. Automatic expulsions only occur when a member party has failed to pay its dues for three years. Amendments to the Statutes are by Congress (with a two-thirds majority of those parties voting) on the recommendation of the Council.

21. SICOHR proposes that we should send member parties an annual questionnaire on how they have promoted human rights both within the party and more widely (particularly if they are in government). It was envisaged that these questionnaires would form the basis of a report to SICOHR and then to the SI Council. It was also suggested that SICOHR could ask member parties to give evidence to the committee on their human rights record when a complaint has been made against them, perhaps in closed session. There would have to be safeguards built into any procedures to ensure parties receive adequate warning that a complaint is being made against them, and that they have the right to defend themselves and appeal against any decisions.

22. It was agreed that SICOHR progress this proposal, perhaps through a sub-group. The Chair would liaise with the Secretary General and clarify existing procedures and principles so that work done by the group could build effectively on these.

iv) Specific cases of human rights violations

23. The Socialist International should develop the capacity to respond quickly and effectively to specific instances of human rights violations. It should decide whether to take action in such cases according to the following criteria:

  • the seriousness of the problem - does it merit international action or not?
  • the likelihood of the SI wielding a positive influence in the particular situation, perhaps because of the political parties involved or because of historical links;
  • what type of action is best suited to deal with the problem - eg mediation, fact-finding missions, statements of solidarity.

24. The SI should be careful not to duplicate the work of other national or international bodies, and in particular if a mission is agreed upon, this should not be wasteful and should have a clear purpose. We should also be careful to distinguish between mediatory and fact-finding missions. In either case, however, concrete proposals should result from the mission and should be taken to the SI Council.

25. The Committee agreed to commission a paper setting out the process by which the SI might respond to a developing situation. We should use e-mail and other forms of modern technology to enable more rapid responses, so that statements can be issued by several member parties jointly. The Committee also needs a mechanism for authorising actions in between meetings, which could be done by the Chair in consultation with the Vice-Chairs of the Committee and the Secretary General of the SI. However, this should not mean that other individual parties could not take the initiative in collecting support. The paper should also consider whether, in on-going serious problems such as Burma, the Committee should appoint a rapporteur to monitor and co-ordinate actions as appropriate.

26. There are also regional and political considerations. The Committee should ensure that its criticisms are not focused in only one region of the world. Missions must be broad-based and representative, and the question of richer parties subsidising poor ones should be considered. The committee also needs to ensure that fact-finding missions are independent and are not stage-managed by the government in question.

27. The committee agreed to hold its next meeting some time before the next Council meeting, date and venue to be agreed later.


Chair of SICOHR
Clare Short
(Great Britain, Labour Party)

Secretary General of the Socialist International
Luis Ayala

ARF Armenian Socialist Party

George Beshirian

Australian Labor Party, ALP

Michael Beahan

Social Democratic Party of Austria, SPÖ

Irmtraut Karlsson

Democratic Labour Party, PDT

Nilo Batista
Vera Malagutti

EDEK Socialist Party

Marcia Alexakis

Socialist Party, PS

Guy Raffi

Labour Party

Nick Sigler
Jessica Crowe
Ian Martin

Hungarian Socialist Party, MSzP

Iván Harsányi

Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, PDKI

Parviz Zabihi
Ismail Bayazidi

Israel Labour Party

Daphna Sharfman (Vice-Chair of SICOHR)

Socialist Union of Popular Forces, USFP

Abdelaziz Nouaydi

Labour Party, PvdA

Ellen Van Koppen

Socialist Party of Senegal, PS

Jacques Baudin

Swedish Social Democratic Party, SAP

Thomas Hammarberg


Ilan Halevi
Janeen Albina

Social Democrats USA, SDUSA

Joel Freedman

Democratic Action, AD

Isabel Carmona de Serra
Albertina Benedetti

Office of SI President
Vera Matthias

Socialist International Women, SIW
Hilda Tchoboian

International League of Religious Socialists
Chris Herries

Parliamentary Group of the PES
Nadia Van Hamme

Party of European Socialists, PES
Ton Beumer


Other activities

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