On Wednesday the 192-member General Assembly marked the occasion by
awarding the 2008 United Nations in the Field of Human Rights to several prominent rights workers as well as to the rights group Human Rights Watch.
Louise Arbour of Canada, former UN human rights commissioner, Ramsey Clark, former US attorney general, Dr Denis Muekwege – a doctor who has worked to assist female patients recovering from sexual and physical violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo – and Dr Carolyn Gomes, executive director of the citizens action group, Jamaicans For Justice, were the four honoured.
But critics have questioned the effectiveness of the document, saying the UN’s focus has shifted to other concerns – such as “fighting terrorism” – and often at the cost of human rights.
“What the 9/11 attacks did was expose the hypocrisy of Western democracies that, until then, had been champions of human rights abroad”
Irene Khan, head of Amnesty International
Rights advocates list the suffering of Palestinians, atrocities committed in Sudan’s Darfur region, the humanitarian disaster in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the US human rights record following the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York, as failures of the human dignity standard.
“What the 9/11 attacks did was expose the hypocrisy of Western democracies that, until then, had been champions of human rights abroad,” Irene Khan, the head of Amnesty International, said.
Khan urged Barack Obama, the US president-elect, to put human rights at the top of his agenda when he takes office in January.
Navi Pillay, the UN human rights commissioner, also said she hoped Obama’s presidency would return the US to the “international family” after “scant participation” from the US in the UN human rights council under George Bush, the current US president.
Speaking on Tuesday, Pillay welcomed Obama’s pledge to close the US military prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which has been mired its association with torture.
Article five of the UN rights declaration states that “no one shall be subjected to torture”.
The US, which was a leader in creating the declaration, has made an exception for the interrogation technique known as “waterboarding” which critics say is simply torture.
Defending policies implemented in the wake of the 2001 attacks, Steven Groves of the Heritage Foundation, said that the US “has to protect its own citizens first and worry about human rights second”.
“You have to understand the US’s first goal is to protect the human rights of its own citizens, and the foremost among those is the right to life.”
Coinciding with the anniversary, the group Action by Christians Against Torture (ACAT) called for both a banning of the death penalty and the stepping-up of efforts to end torture, which is thought to still be used in half of all countries around the world.
Survival International, meanwhile, issued a plea for the rights of indigenous peoples around the world to be respected – from Paraguay’s Ayoreo-Totobiegosode Indians to the Kalahari Bushmen in Botswana.
As part of Wednesday’ celebrations in Paris, five non-governmental organisations were to be recognised for their works in Somalia, Lebanon, Morocco, Uzbekistan and Tunisia.