A HUMAN RIGHTS AGENDA FOR THE 21st CENTURY
No other period in human history has been so strongly linked to the quest for human rights as the 20th century. It will stand out as the century of human rights as well as the century of the most abject denials of these rights and freedoms.
At the end of this century it is therefore necessary and legitimate to draw the lessons of one hundred years of human progress, and of human failure, in one of the most noble objectives of political endeavour: to provide to the men, women and children of this planet an equal degree of human rights and freedoms as expressed in so many instruments and declarations and found wanting in so many dramatic and tragic failures and shortcomings.
More than at any time in the past, human rights have mobilised not only academics and specialists, government experts and lawyers but also large numbers of ordinary people who have organised, in a now huge field of NGOs, what is today the vast international human rights movement. Moreover, human rights concerns today have also created a vast number of institutions and occupy the workings of many national and international organisations, beginning with the United Nations.
While periodically pushed to lower rank on the international agenda and from the minds of international decision-makers, while constantly discriminated against in favour of more worldly and also material concerns of states and governments - not least in favour of economic advantage - human rights are here to stay, moving higher and higher in world political concerns, not least thanks to a new degree of international awareness in a global information society that leaves few spots in the international arena unexplored.
But there is no doubt that despite this dramatic advance in consciousness and awareness, in sensitivity and concern, the overall balance sheet in the promotion and defense of human rights and fundamental freedoms worldwide remains bleak.
While human ingenuity and technical progress have been successful in many instances in fighting the evils haunting mankind - such as illnesses and ignorance or the risks of unforeseen disaster - it would be hard to say that human rights abuses could be definitively eradicated. In particular, there remains a major contradiction between the norms adopted internationally and the practices tolerated at the national level.
This fact is amply documented by the growing volume of reports issued by national and international authorities, governments, international organisations and major international human rights NGOs, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, or the International Commission of Jurists. It thus appears imperative to draw up, after the experience of decades past and present, a new human rights agenda for the 21st century.
This agenda must build on the challenges and threats of the past as analysed and identified by a host of international conferences and meetings, not least the 1993 Vienna International Human Rights Conference and some other UN mega-events such as the Copenhagen, Cairo, Beijing, and Istanbul Conferences on Social Affairs, Population, Women and Human Settlements.
The following analysis and proposals will not depart from the now universally accepted view of human rights and fundamental freedoms, namely their indivisibility and interdependence, without privileging any category or generation of human rights: civil, cultural, economic, political or social.
On the basis of past experience and current trends it will endeavour to establish the elements of a human rights agenda for the 21st century that should build on the idea of a universal set of human rights and fundamental freedoms. It will include a considerable body of human rights concerns that dominated the 20th century and that will remain relevant in coming decades.
A human rights agenda for the 21st century, while not fundamentally different from the current one as far as the human rights content is concerned, should however also be bolder and more ambitious. It should be aimed towards a much higher level of awareness and preparedness in their defense, introducing new systems of much refined and safer procedures, thus creating a new and unprecedented degree of human rights security. A new universal human rights order: general principles
Any new universal human rights order, as indeed past efforts to create such an order amply demonstrate, must be based on a number of general principles to be universally acceptable and accepted.
Human rights standards, although rooted in many cultures, are universal. Through their universality human rights must afford protection to all of humanity, including special groups such as women, children, minorities and indigenous peoples, workers, national minorities, refugees and displaced persons, the disabled and the elderly. Whilst recognising cultural pluralism, we must not tolerate cultural practices which derogate from universally accepted human rights, including women's rights.
As human rights are of universal concern and are universal in value, the advocacy of human rights cannot be considered to be an encroachment upon national sovereignty.
Indivisibility and interdependence
Human rights - be they civil, cultural, economic, political or social rights - are individual and interdependent. For that reason, neither set of rights can be accorded priority over the other. Nor can it be argued that one set of rights is, in practice, a prerequisite for the enjoyment of others. Such arguments are without legal or empirical foundation but can easily destroy the basis on which to build an international human rights consensus.
Human rights, however, are interdependent, as can be exemplified by the fact that economic rights demand a fair distribution of resources and income, and the right to freedom from hunger and poverty. These can only be protected where people are able to exercise their civil and political rights, for example, the right of workers to organise and form unions to protect their economic rights. Poverty arises from wrong development in the face of systematic denial of human rights.
There must be a holistic and integrated approach to human rights. Once set, those rights cannot be used to bargain for others.
The North-South dimension of the human rights agenda is of fundamental importance. Solidarity as understood in the Declaration on the Right to Development is "solidarity between industrialised countries and their developing partners and solidarity in every country with the most disadvantaged". The right to development is universal and inalienable.
In the year 2000 and beyond, four fifths of the people of the world will be living in the developing countries, the number in absolute poverty and despair will still be growing.
Solidarity with the people of all countries requires a community of interests and values to manage problems that respect no borders - from environmental degradation and migration, to drugs and epidemic diseases. All people are made less secure by the poverty and misery that exist in the world. Development matters: properly applied in propitious environments, aid works.
The international community needs to sustain and increase the volume of official development assistance in order to reverse the growing marginalisation of the poor and achieve progress toward realistic goals of human development.
A global development partnership should work to achieve early in the next century:
Development policies should also ensure that current trends in the loss of environmental resources are effectively reversed at both global and national levels.
The success or failure of poor people and poor countries in making their way in an interdependent world will have a profound influence in shaping the 21st century and the place that human rights and fundamental freedoms will occupy in it.
Human rights activities should not be treated or pursued in isolation but should be integrated into other activities, such as development cooperation, peace-keeping and other forms of conflict settlement. Careful distinction should be made however, between authentic human rights fact-finding and monitoring on the one hand, and advisory services or technical cooperation on the other. The differences between the two types of activity are fundamental and the distinction must be retained. Similarly, while peace-keeping, the exercise of "good offices" functions and conciliation efforts are of major importance, and should as far as possible reflect integrated human rights components, they cannot be seen as substitutes for human rights monitoring, nor will it be appropriate in many instances to combine responsibility for the different functions in the same entity. Rather, in many situations, human rights monitors are needed to scrutinise the promotion of human rights and other activities of technical advisers, peace-keepers and others, rather than being replaced by them.
The building blocks for the further development and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms
Democracy, freedom of thought and expression
Democracy is more than a legalistic or formal process. Democracy is more than the ritual casting of a ballot at multi-party elections. True democracy involves participatory democracy by the people at all levels so that they have a voice in the discussions and decisions by which they are governed. But democracy must not only govern the political process, but should pervade all spheres of society, including economic and social life. It is also a dynamic concept that needs constant development and movement towards ever stronger foundations.
It must be realised in the form of people's empowerment and participation at the grassroots and other levels with responsive and accountable processes and institutions both locally and nationally. It demands good governance, freedom from corruption, and accountability of state and other authorities to the people. It involves the protection and participation of those groups which are not in the majority, namely minorities and disempowered groups. It is intertwined with the issue of land and social justice for rural people and other disadvantaged groups.
Democracy is a way of life: in the home, in the workplace, in the local community and beyond. It must be fostered and guaranteed in all countries.
Democracy, development and good governance
Democracy and development are linked in fundamental ways. They are linked because democracy provides the only long-term basis for managing competing ethnic, religious, and cultural interests in a way that minimises the risk of violent internal conflict. They are linked because democracy is inherently attached to the question of governance, which has an impact on all aspects of development efforts. They are linked because democracy is a fundamental human right, the advancement of which is itself an important measure of development.
Therefore, to an increasing degree the problem of the form of government in the members of the international community, the nation states, has become part of the international political agenda. In particular, progress towards a universal democratic order and good governance is more and more seen - not least in the words and philosophy of Boutros-Ghali's "Agenda for Peace" - as the ultimate goal of all international efforts of peace-making and peace-building.
Holding elections is only one element in democratisation. Member states have sought and received United Nations assistance in facilitating decolonisation, thereby implementing the right to self-determination in designing procedures to smooth and facilitate transitions to democracy and in building democratic alternatives to conflict. United Nations support has also been provided for activities such as drafting constitutions, instituting administrative and financial reforms, strengthening domestic human rights laws, enhancing judicial structures, training human rights officials and helping armed opposition movements transform themselves into democratically competitive political parties.
While democracy is not the only means by which improved governance can be achieved, it is the only reliable one. By providing for greater popular participation, democracy increases the likelihood that national development goals will reflect broad societal aspirations and priorities. By providing appropriate mechanisms and channels for governmental succession, democracy provides incentives to protect the capacity, reliability and integrity of core state institutions, including the civil service, the legal system and the democratic process itself. By establishing the political legitimacy of governments, democracy strengthens their capacity to carry out their policies and functions efficiently and effectively. By making governments accountable to citizens, democracy makes particular governments more responsive to popular concerns and provides added incentives for transparency in decision-making.
Sustaining democracy and development within states is closely linked to expanding democracy in relations among states and at all levels of the international system. Democracy in international relations provides the only basis for building mutual support and respect among nations. Without true democracy in international relations, peace will not endure, and a satisfactory pace for development cannot be assured.
Democracy within the family of nations is a principle that is integral to the system of international relations envisaged in the Charter of the United Nations. It is a principle that means affording to all states, large and small, the fullest opportunity to consult and to participate. It means the application of democratic principles within the United Nations and other international organisations, global or regional, themselves.
Democracy in international relations also means respect for democratic principles in interactions taking place outside the United Nations and the modern system of international organisations. It means bilateral discussions instead of bilateral threats. It means consultation and coordination in addressing problems of mutual concern. It means cooperation for development.
The right to self-determination is well established in international human rights instruments and international law. However, it is well understood that self-determination does not necessarily imply secession or statehood. Pluralistic political structures, permitting greater autonomy to distinct groups, may often be a better way in which self-determination can be realised.
What is essential is that all peoples have the right to cultural, political, social and religious self-expression, taking into consideration also Resolution 1514 of the General Assembly of the United Nations.
In that regard, the United Nations seems best suited to create a specific body to consider the issue of self-determination and to produce criteria by which claims to self-determination can be judged according to objective, universally acceptable standards.
Freedom of expression and thought
Freedom of expression and thought, necessarily interrelated with the call for civil and political rights as well as with democracy, is severely constrained in many countries. In many parts of the world there are no media independent from governments or powerful economic monopolies. People cannot express themselves without fear. Journalists and also ordinary citizens are persecuted, jailed and even killed because they express their thoughts or write the truth.
Sometimes the truth is suppressed by economic lobbies and cartels - including the evil power of drug barons - but more often than not the pretext for curbing freedom of expression is national security or a presumed system of "law and order". This is mostly a façade for authoritarianism and for the elimination of democratic aspirations.
There is a growing concern over the increasing militarisation of many countries and the diversion of resources for this purpose. Militarisation has led to the destruction of civil society, undermined the right to self-determination, and denied the people the right to liberate themselves and to be free from fear. At times, militarisation has taken the guise of civilian groups, such as vigilantes.
It has particularly harmed indigenous peoples and national minorities and has resulted in forced migration. It is interrelated with violence against women, such as sexual slavery, rape and other crimes committed in armed conflicts. It has particularly harmed children. They suffer from physical health problems, emotional disorders and social maladjustments due to traumatic events such as arrest and torture, evacuation, massacres, disappearances, and other forms of human rights violations.
To deal with this problem effectively, richer countries should exercise particular responsibility and restraint in relation to the export of arms. Regional and international codes of conduct should govern the export, import and transfer of arms. Such codes of conduct should prohibit the export, import and transfer of arms to regimes that would use them for purposes of repression.
Rule of law
The rule of law must be based on the existence of an independent judicial system, providing justice and non-discriminatory treatment for all citizens. Trials need to be in public and people's rights need to be clearly stated as well as the means of redress if they are undermined. In many countries the continuing existence of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment gives rise to increasing concern. These practices must be eradicated.
In many countries, suspects are tortured by law-enforcement personnel in order to extract confessions. This inhuman practice is officially encouraged by some authorities as a cheap and convenient method of crime control. These so-called confessions are used as evidence in court cases.
The action needed to counter such practices needs to be both preventive and curative. The latter implies prosecution of those responsible, as well as rehabilitation assistance for torture victims.
Abolition of the death penalty
One of the most fundamental amongst human rights is every individual's right to life. Universal abolition of the death penalty therefore contributes to the enhancement of human dignity and the progressive development of human rights. No one should therefore be condemned to such a penalty or executed. States should, in accordance with universal or regional human rights instruments, abolish the death penalty and no state that has already done so should reinstate it. When deprivation of life forms part of the crime of genocide, the provisions of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide shall fully apply.
Racism, racial discrimination, antisemitism, xenophobia and ethnic violence
Racial discrimination is now understood as "any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life". Racial discrimination, particularly in its vicious manifestations, is a matter of criminal behaviour and should be dealt with accordingly in terms of legal action. At the same time, the term "racism" indicates a state of mind which is regrettably too common to be called an aberration, but which reveals a perversion and sickness of the mind. As the UNESCO Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice states: "racism hinders the development of its victims, perverts those who practise it, divides nations internally, impedes international cooperation and gives rise to political tension between peoples". The struggle against racism, racial discrimination and antisemitism requires a broad strategy of action, ranging from legal and political measures, including measures of conflict-resolution and confidence-building, to policies in the fields of teaching, education, culture and information. Victims of racial discrimination are entitled, individually and collectively, to effective measures of protection as well as to remedies and, as the case may be, to affirmative action in the economic, social and political fields in order to repair and to make up for the adverse and often degrading and disgraceful situations in which they find themselves.
The most frequent victims of racism, xenophobia and ethnic violence are minorities, whose rights need particular protection, especially in the development process.
Minorities are characterised as representing a smaller portion of the population, having non-dominant status and in some respect differing from the total population: there are national, ethnic, cultural, linguistic, religious minorities and international minorities (such as the Sinti and the Roma). They can either be scattered or live relatively close together in one region.
Amongst minority groups, there is a higher proportion of the rural poor, urban migrants and in particular, women and children who are often doubly vulnerable.
Intolerance towards minorities and refusal of the right to be different are also apparent today in the proliferation and violent behaviour of fundamental religious movements and political extremists. Therefore respect for religious and philosophical freedom must be guaranteed. This objective can be promoted through cultural exchanges and learning about people of different origins, particularly through youth exchange programmes and the teaching of different religions and philosophies in public and private schools.
The broadening and deepening of the democratisation process is crucial for minority rights, minority participation and stable development. This will imply greater transparency and dialogue regarding this delicate issue. Minority rights are to be developed also by means of new international legislation. Sufficient effective rules of international law have to be created to give individuals the right to claim their rights as members of a minority.
An important instrument to promote the rights of minorities should be the participation of minorities through a truly effective democratisation process. There should also be funding for support to civil society, including NGOs' action research projects, information and education programmes on inter-racial justice and projects that empower vulnerable minority communities.
The world is home to many indigenous peoples. A basic issue among these indigenous peoples is the fact that many are not recognised as indigenous by governments and as such are denied the right to self-determination.
They are denied their specific cultural identity and entitlement to protection under relevant international human rights instruments. They are victims of the ethnocide and genocide perpetrated by certain governments - whether from the North, the South or together - international financial institutions and transnational corporations. International legal instruments presently available are weak in ensuring collective human rights protection.
In many parts of the world their right to land and other rights are not respected. Among the consequences are the expropriation and despoilation of their lands, armed conflicts and displacement as refugees. This has been accompanied by persecution and suppression by force. On another front, tourism has at times led to the degradation of indigenous lifestyles through commercial exploitation.
The activities of the United Nations aimed at resolving the problems of indigenous peoples should be stronger and the efforts to elaborate a draft declaration on the rights of indigenous people should be expedited.
Refugees and displaced persons
The problem of refugees and displaced persons is widespread and growing: it is becoming a permanent phenomenon. It is intermingled with political repression, armed conflicts, ethnic discord, and natural disasters.
Inadequate attention is paid to their plight. Their position is compounded by the lack of effective national and international machinery to ensure their protection and assistance.
The safety of refugees and displaced persons is often jeopardised by restrictive state policies and discrimination. The basic right of refugees not to be pushed back to the frontiers of danger is violated on many occasions. The procedures established to determine refugee status are often defective, and voluntary repatriation to the country of origin is not always guaranteed. The human rights of refugees and displaced persons, including freedom of expression, are violated in the name of restrictive national policies.
Few countries have acceded to the relevant refugee instruments. This displays a reticence to recognise international human rights standards and to render the situation more transparent internationally.
The rights granted in the Geneva Convention should be carefully observed by the international community and a set of additional rights should be adopted in the light of recent experience, including "de facto refugees", persons who are displaced because of civil wars, ethnic persecution and natural disasters.
Measures are also required to ensure fundamental rights for the increasing number of migrants and their families, who face long periods of their lives as "guest citizens" in a foreign country.
A variety of abuses and exploitation of children persist. These include child labour, children in bondage and sexual slavery, child prostitution, sale and trafficking of children, children in armed conflict situations, children in prison, children in situations of poverty and other deprivations, and child abuse in families compounded by family break-up and breakdown. Basic needs, such as physical and mental health, nutrition, education, shelter, and participation are often unsatisfied. The advent of AIDS has increased the plight of children; discrimination is increasing both against children with AIDS and orphans of AIDS-affected families.
Children's rights are endangered in a wide variety of situations. At a very early age, they are exposed to violence in many forms by governments - poverty, malnutrition, disease, and lack of education which stultify their growth and deprive them of their childhood.
The scenario is much linked with discrimination against the girl child, militarisation, and the distorted development process. Although many countries have now acceded to the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, implementation remains weak, with much lip service rather than effective action to protect children and to assist their families.
The human rights of women
Women continue to be discriminated against all over the world as regards the recognition, enjoyment and exercise of their individual rights in public and in private life and they are subject to many different forms of violence. Violations of women's human rights should be combatted with greater efficiency in the promotion and protection of human rights.
The prohibition of discrimination on the basis of gender is a part of all human rights instruments. Underdevelopment, certain social and traditional practices and cultural patterns, and all forms of violence and extremism create obstacles to the full realisation by women of all their rights. Human rights are universal and should apply to women and men equally. Violations of the human rights of women have not been fully dealt with by the overall mechanisms of human rights instruments, the avenues for redress in the case of violations are not adequate and the process of achieving de facto equality has been slow.
In spite of the ratification of international and regional human rights instruments, states still maintain laws and practices which discriminate against women. Selective traditions and customs are used by states to perpetuate discrimination against women and to condone it in the private sphere, contrary to obligations freely assumed by states and to the expectations of the international community. This is particularly true in the field of access to land and other economic resources, legal status and capacity, and rights within the family.
The issue of women's rights has not been visible in the human rights discourse in human rights institutions and practices. Patriarchy, which operates through gender, class, caste and ethnicity, is integral to the problems facing women. Patriarchy must be eradicated. Women's rights must be addressed both in the public and private spheres of society, in particular in the family. To provide women with a life of dignity and self-determination, it is important that women have inalienable, equal economic rights (e.g. rights to agricultural land, housing and other resources and property). It is imperative for governments and the United Nations to guarantee these rights. Crimes against women, including rape, sexual slavery and trafficking, and domestic violence are rampant. Crimes against women are crimes against humanity, and the failure of governments to prosecute those responsible for such crimes implies complicity.
Indigenous women experience the impact of colonialism and racism as well as sexism. Women who come from countries which were colonised by western powers also experience the continuing effects of colonisation when living in the West, as well as discrimination and exploitation based on their sex. In general, western women experience systematic discrimination in employment and education, in the justice system, in political life, and in access to adequate health care. Violence against women is of epidemic proportions. Also, despite living in so-called developed countries, many women are poor, and both they and their children suffer the complex and damaging effects of poverty on their health, education and self-respect. In western societies women are subordinate to men in both the public and private spheres. They have less power, less status, less income, less security, and less control over their bodies and their lives.
In all regions it has been found that the United Nations and governments have, by and large, failed to promote and protect women's human rights, whether civil and political or economic, social and cultural. Women's subordination throughout the world should be recognised as a human rights violation with due account to those structures of oppression that interesect with and compound such subordination.
Lesbian, gay and bisexual human rights
Lesbians, gay men and bisexuals experience abuses of their human rights on a daily basis. They continue to be unequal to heterosexuals in law. Homophobia contributes to the violation of human rights and is a matter of criminal behaviour and should be dealt with accordingly in terms of legal action.
Lesbians, gay men and bisexuals do not currently enjoy the same freedoms and treatment before the law as heterosexuals. For example, discrimination at work on the grounds of sexuality is lawful in most countries (unlike discrimination on the grounds of gender and race) and same-sex relationships are not afforded the same legal recognition as opposite-sex relationships in most countries. The struggle against homophobia and sexual discrimination requires a broad strategy of action, ranging from legal and political measures to policies in the fields of teaching, education, culture and information. Lesbians, gay men and bisexuals are entitled to the same human rights as heterosexuals. Those rights must be enshrined in law through the enactment of legislation to ensure equal treatment, regardless of sexuality, in all areas of political, social and economic life.
Human rights in the 20th century: the negative balance sheet
To sum up one might register as most important the following concerns regarding human rights violations:
- failure to adopt international human rights instruments (as well as too many "reservations" upon accession) and refusal to implement them at national and local levels;
- lack of regional and national intergovernmental mechanisms to protect human rights in an independent and accessible manner;
- lack of access to information to empower people to protect their human rights; discrimination and national oppression of minorities and indigenous peoples, and inadequate protection of tribal peoples;
- governmental action undermining the universality and indivisibility of human rights;
- lawlessness on the part of governmental authorities;
- proliferation of armed conflicts enmeshed in ethnic discord, with threats to civilians;
- political repression by means of killings, disappearances, torture, particularly of political prisoners, and suppression of civil and political rights, including self-determination, freedom of expression and assembly;
- harassment of persons, including health and church workers carrying out their humanitarian functions;
- attacks on the rights of workers, particularly migrant workers;
- threats to agrarian and rural communities;
- increasing number of threats to refugees and displaced persons, particularly through lack of fair and effective refugee screening procedures, violations of their human rights, and menace to their right to seek asylum and safety;
- impunity of those who commit human rights violations;
- religious intolerance mixed with extremism, and other forms of discrimination on the basis of religion;
- numerous constraints imposed upon the mass media;
- non-recognition of and continuing violations of women's rights, due to patriarchy, including economic rights and the inadequacy of processes to enhance the empowerment of women and gender equality;
- widespread sexual exploitation;
- discrimination against and oppression of sexual minorities (i.e. lesbians, gay men and bisexuals);
- breaches of children's rights due to economic needs, socio-cultural constraints, criminality, consumerism, discrimination and militarisation;
- insufficient protection of the disabled, whether physical or mentally impaired;
- lack of services and assistance for the elderly;
- escalation of AIDS and related exploitation;
- violation of the right to health, and underdeveloped health care systems, characterised by unequal distribution and inaccessibility of resources to the poor majority;
- denial of health services to survivors of human rights violation;
- increasing environmental degradation and depletion of natural resources;
Elements for a human rights agenda for the 21st century
In 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted as a "common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations", the standards it contained were said by virtually all governments not to be legally binding upon them. At that time, no specific human rights violations, apart from genocide, were effectively proscribed. Virtually all states shielded behind article 2(7) of the UN Charter in arguing that any other human rights matter was strictly an internal affair for the state concerned. While a UN Commission on Human Rights was set up, its work was dominated entirely by governments, with independent experts being accorded no role whatsoever, and NGOs being restricted in formal terms, to stiff ad hoc appearances. The Commission's mandate was largely confined, in practice, to the drafting of new treaties and other legal instruments.
Today, however, less than fifty years after the adoption of the UN Charter, very significant progress has been made. The standards contained in the Universal Declaration are, in practice, applicable to every state, whatever its formal attitude to their legal status. The view that human rights violations are essentially domestic rights matters, while still put forward in an almost ritual manner from time to time, receives very little credence from the international community. The Universal Declaration has been supplemented by a vast array of international standards, the most important of which are the six "core" human rights treaties. In addition to the six expert treaty bodies created by the UN to supervise the compliance of states parties with their obligations under those treaties, regional human rights conventions and implementing machinery have been set up in Europe, the Americas, and Africa. The UN has also created a complex array of other, additional monitoring mechanisms.
In brief, the international human rights system has developed to an extent that would have been considered inconceivable by the vast majority of observers in 1945. Even at the time of the first World Conference on Human Rights, not a single treaty monitoring body was in existence, there were virtually no procedures for the investigation of violations, and states were simply not held accountable, except when egregious violations coincided with the short-term political interest of geopolitical blocs. In the space of the last twenty-five years the United Nations system has made immense progress. Of course, it is by no means sufficient and enormous inadequacies remain.
They include such facts as:
- many serious situations have been neglected by UN bodies, either completely or for many years;
- the techniques available to them and country rapporteurs to encourage or compel an end to specific violations are extremely limited, and the procedures that have been developed leave much to be desired;
- the follow-up measures that accompany these procedures are too often ineffectual and many of the governments targeted have succeeded in ignoring them, or made only token gestures in response;
- the UN system, broadly defined, continues to isolate human rights concerns within a narrow range of its activities, despite some recent breakthroughs;
- in relation to certain issues very little progress has been made; they include most notably economic, social and cultural rights, minority rights, and women rights; and
- the financial and human resources available to carry out the various UN mandates are lamentably inadequate.
But, despite the many shortcomings of UN human rights endeavours, there are grounds for optimism. International public opinion and the work of international and domestic NGOs can make an enormous difference to the positions taken by governments and can create conditions in which international organisations are able to become more effective.
In order to further promote the cause of human rights and fundamental freedoms a call should be made to all the component parts of the present international system, international organisations, governments, NGOs and civil society as such to give priority attention to the following general and specific recommendations.
- Promote and protect the universality and indivisibility of human rights by:
- Human rights and fundamental freedoms are indivisible and interdependent, equal attention and urgent consideration should be given to the implementation, promotion and protection of economic, social and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights.
- Review and reform of laws, policies and practices which are detrimental to the full realisation of the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of their people.
- Ensure that development strategies are sustainable, equitable, people- based, and in a balance with the natural environment, with the aim of assuring equity and enhancing the freedoms and the dignity of all women and men.
- Develop guidelines for assessing the human rights impacts of the policies, actions and omissions of the Bretton Woods institutions and to establish appropriate mechanisms of accountability.
- Counter socio-cultural practices and extremism which constrain human rights, particularly women's rights, and in particular to reform laws, policies and religious and cultural practices that tend to deny women's independent existence and to take measures, such as community mobilisation, mass education and long-term development, to initiate and enhance the process of empowerment and equality.
- Lift - wherever they exist - constraints on political rights imposed under pretext of national security and law and order, by repealing repressive laws, ending arbitrary arrests, and releasing all political prisoners, liberalise political systems so as to democratise the decision-making process, guarantee people's participation at all levels of government, and abide by good governance.
- Address the root causes of armed conflicts.
- Reduce arms purchases and re-allocate arms expenditure to development needs; no arms exports to countries that violate human rights.
- Ensure that human rights have the first call on state resources, by reducing arms purchases and diverting the funds from militarisation to human rights promotion and protection, and by re-allocating from other sources.
- Stop the sale of certain weapons and security know-how to military and police forces that would use them for repressive purposes. In particular education about interrogation techniques which include torture should be outlawed.
- Respect the work of human rights activists/defenders and social and legal movements, including non-governmental organisations; cease harassment, intimidation and other malpractices against this sector, and facilitate, rather than obstruct, the operations of these catalysts of social change.
- Guarantee the independence of the judiciary, while nurturing a commitment to responsibility to the people, providing adequate remedies for human rights violations through judicial and other channels, including the availability of legal aid and assistance, and to counter the impunity of violators by effective legal and other measures.
- Promote comprehensive human rights education and training, including an increase in the provision of information, the development of awareness and of skills. Participatory learning methods will enrich the process and contribute to the promotion and protection of universal human rights standards by utilising the cultural wealth of the region.
- Introduce or amend domestic legislation.
- Ensure compliance with these international obligations, in particular with the standards of equality and non-discrimination, and to resolve conflicts between the customary laws of a group of people and those of the state in conformity with the universality of human rights, according priority to those which conform to the spirit of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
- Ensure the protection of the rights of women, children, indigenous peoples, national minorities, peasants and workers and all marginalised groups.
- Guarantee the freedom of religious and philosophical expression.
- Abolish forced evictions to guarantee the basic human right to a place to live in peace and dignity, today actively denied to millions throughout the world.
- Develop human-rights-based relocation guidelines, eviction-impact statements and codes of conduct for use in exceptional circumstances.
- Abolish the death penalty.
- Cease all forms of political repression, including organised sexual violence, torture, enforced or involuntary disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and arbitrary detention.
- Ensure protection of the rights of all victims of human rights violations, particularly torture victims and prisoners.
- Provide the basic needs of political prisoners, torture victims, refugees and displaced persons.
- Ensure the right to object to armed military service.
- Provide compensation, indemnification and total health services, including rehabilitation to survivors and families of victims of organised violence sponsored and sanctioned by the state, including torture, sexual slavery (including victims of the devadasi - slaves of god - system), forced labour, involuntary disappearances, summary executions, police and military oppression, political repression, unjust detention and internal displacement.
- While welcoming new initiatives by governments to set up regional mechanisms for the protection and promotion of human rights, to subject such measures to the following conditions:
- Adopt, following public consultation, a gender-sensitive national policy on human rights education and training which provides, among other things, for specific programmes designed for government officers and employees, and law enforcement officials. There should be programmes - both formal and informal - on human rights in the curricula of all educational institutions, for which governments should be held primarily responsible, and effective use of the mass media. Particular emphasis should be given to programmes designed specifically for marginalised members of the community. NGOs should be assisted and encouraged to conduct human rights education and training.
- School and college curricula should involve teaching about different religions and cultures. All must have the same access to education, including being educated within the local community. All educational institutions must have clear policies on equal opportunities, including how to deal with racism and sexism.
- Education exchanges are needed to reduce the lack of understanding of other countries. Young people should have the opportunity of experiencing life in another country for part of their education. Learning another language should begin in elementary or first school and continue for everyone throughout their school life.
Wider acceptance of international instruments and procedures
The centrepieces of international action to combat human rights violations should continue to be the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; and the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
States which still have not done so should be encouraged to become parties to the conventions. All states parties to the conventions should also be encouraged to make declarations on individual petitions. The existence of individual petitions procedure and its potentials as an international recourse for victims should be duly publicised. All states should also be encouraged to become parties to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Member of their Families as a matter of priority, in view of its possible early entry into force.
Many important human rights instruments have been internationally agreed upon but the work on standard-setting must continue. There is a special need for instruments to improve the protection of individuals and organisations working actively for the defence of human rights, an international ban on capital punishment, and for the protection of refugees - not least in relation to those who have fled from war situations or are displaced within their own countries. There is a need for further international agreements to combat terrorism, both by private groups and by states.
In armed conflicts people have little or no protection. Children are particularly victimised in modern wars. Some are recruited as child soldiers; others suffer from indiscriminate attacks since weapons and military tactics are used which do not spare children or other innocent civilians. Humanitarian law needs strengthening on these points, and such improvements must be combined with a dramatically increased vigilance for the implementation of agreed standards.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child should be followed up by more precise standards for the protection of children in specially difficult circumstances.
While regional human rights conventions have been agreed in America, western Europe and Africa, no similar initiatives have been taken by the governments in Asia and eastern Europe. Such instruments have proved to be valuable not least because they allow for more detailed and culturally relevant approaches than the UN texts.
In that regard, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should be authorised to propose the adoption of new standards.
Better monitoring of agreed principles
There is a strong need for measures to enforce agreed standards. Governments which have ratified international conventions are among the worst violators of human rights. The efforts of supervisory bodies established under the conventions to monitor the practice of states should be supported. The ad hoc monitoring systems set up by the UN Commissioner on Human Rights - with observers, rapporteurs and working groups - should be developed into more permanent and independent procedures, involving also the UN High Comissioner for Human Rights.
In particular, the time is ripe to adopt an individual complaints system for the international monitoring of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, similar to the procedure established by the first Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. If all human rights are indivisible, interrelated and interdependent, then there is no more convincing reason why the monitoring procedures under both covenants should remain different. That economic, social and cultural rights are less justiciable than civil and political rights has proven to be an argument which does not even hold true any more at the domestic level.
An individual complaints procedure will definitely be the best opportunity, by means of developing case-law, to define the precise meaning and the limits of economic, social and cultural rights. Furthermore, since international complaints may only be submitted after the exhaustion of all available domestic remedies, such a procedure will actually become one of the most effective means to put pressure on states to develop relevant domestic remedies and thereby make economic, social and cultural rights justiciable or at least enforceable by quasi-judicial remedies such as complaints to national human rights commissions, ombudspersons, parliamentary commissions or similar institutions established by domestic law.
Establishing permanent international courts on human rights
A permanent international court on human rights with compulsory jurisdiction over all cases of human rights violations as well as a permanent international criminal court, to which individuals have direct access, to provide both criminal sanctions and civil remedies against war crimes, crimes against peace and crimes against humanity including gender-specific abuses in international, internal and armed conflicts should be established at the global as well as at the regional level.
Promotion of interaction between national and international levels
National and international NGOs involved in efforts to combat human rights violations should become more closely associated with the work of relevant Committees of the United Nations and regional human rights mechanisms. Exchange of insights and information, monitoring developments at national and international levels and assistance to persons wishing to make use of national and international recourse procedures are forms of interaction and cooperation between national and international levels.
Protection of human rights in times of war
Stronger mechanisms are needed to enforce humanitarian principles during armed conflicts. Modern armed conflicts entail enormous human costs. Civilian casualties are high not only because modern wars have no clear-cut front lines, but because civilians are often deliberately targeted. Such acts of terror are forbidden by international law. The 1949 Geneva Conventions ban military attacks against civilian targets. This norm has been violated repeatedly, not just by insurgents but also by governments, sometimes in raids against other countries. In particular strong support, financial and otherwise, should be given to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
A structure for humanitarian initiatives should be created within the UN Secretariat - in collaboration with UNICEF, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and for Human Rights, as well as the International Red Cross and other voluntary agencies - in cases where warring parties refuse to make provision for