Human rights eroding, analysts warn

The war on terror and flagrant violations have undermined the Universal Declaration.

guantanamo bay protests US court
Amnesty International says several countries have violated human rights treaties [GETTY]

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was a significant document which enshrined the liberties of all peoples when it was adopted by the UN in 1948 but has seen its significance erode from one conflict to another, analysts have said.

Human rights experts and advocacy groups say politicisation of the UDHR by governments in the past 20 years has severely undermined its value along with its power to inspire.

Mary Robinson, the former UN high commissioner for human rights and the first woman president of Ireland, believes that despite the UDHR’s efforts to bridge social and racial differences, the world today is more divided than ever.

“We are more divided on values than we should be, given the Universal Declaration and that’s because human rights have become too politicised.”

She says lines have been drawn between the West and the Islamic world, the poor and the rich.

Injustice, repression, torture

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Drafted and signed on December 10, 1948, the declaration marked the first time in history that nations had come together to agree on basic principles of justice, equality, and rights for all.

The US was influential in drawing up the document and the two primary international covenants — on political and civil rights (ICCPR) and on economic, social, and cultural rights (ICESCR) — that transformed the principles of the nonbinding declaration into treaty-based legal obligations.

Immediately hailed as a triumph, the declaration united very diverse and even conflicting political regimes, religious systems and cultural traditions.

Six decades later, it has become the foundation of international human rights law, serving as a model for numerous treaties and declarations.

Amnesty International’s 2008 State of the World’s Human Rights report shows that 60 years after the UN adopted the UDHR, people are still tortured or ill-treated in at least 81 countries, face unfair trials in at least 54 countries and are not allowed to speak freely in at least 77 countries.

According to Curt Goering, the deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA, the whole human rights structure is based on the accountability of governments and it remains the task of governments to implement fundamental human rights standards.

“We see around the world in every region governments holding people imprisoned for nothing more than for the peaceful expression of their views, probably 50 or 60 countries are holding prisoners of conscience.

“I think the biggest threat to the future of human rights is governments continue to espouse the rhetoric of human rights and don’t follow their promises with concrete actions.”

Some of the world’s most neglected populations suffer the worst human rights abrogation, as well as the added burdens of disease and malnutrition.

Where human rights are ignored, health care tends to be unequal, inadequate, or non-existent.


Robinson recently revisited the Middle East. She says the human rights situation has grown worse in Gaza since she was last there eight years ago.

“I went there as UN High Commissioner for human rights and the reason is there is a siege and in a way there is order because Hamas has created order to a certain extent but there is no rule of law, there is a reduction in the freedom of speech, freedom of association and the freedom of the press under the regime of Hamas,” she told Al Jazeera.

She said there is grave concern over the impact the siege is having on poor families who may not have adequate food and no avenue for assistance.

“I heard about how drugs are not getting in, children who have cystic fibrosis are not getting proper treatment and there have been 257 unnecessary deaths, some people who could not get to either the West Bank or to Israel for medical treatment. They used to be able to get out to get treatment but that now is virtually impossible.”

Horror of war

Reeling from the horrors of World War Two, the UDHR signed on December 10, 1948, was designed to safeguard the rights of refugees, people caught in conflict, and to combat racism, gender inequality and the repression of the right to free expression.

And despite continued attacks on the universality of human rights, all countries have accepted the declaration, and some have incorporated it into their constitutions and laws.

Jean Marc Coicaud, the head of the UN University Office in New York, said: “I think most of the dramatic work in the field of human rights is done now.

“The challenge is to make sure now the gap existing between the norms and reality is being filled up as much as possible and that is the difficulty today.”

War on terror

Analysts say the war on terror has been used to clamp down on human rights [AFP]

Upholding civil liberties in the post-9/11 period may prove to be quite challenging, however.

Robinson says that while international standards protecting civil and political rights were challenged by many countries, including the US, as part of their so-called war on terror, the current political climate around the world requires a return to the rule of law and protection of human rights.

“Protection of human rights allows steps to be taken in situations of emergency and in situations of real fear about security but they must be precisely time limited and they must be under very careful scrutiny,” she said.

“In almost 30 other countries around the world, the problem was because the US did not impose standards, other countries felt security was the main paradigm and it was no longer necessary to impose standards of human rights. And it has really been very damaging.”

Although the US government frequently criticises other countries for their human rights transgressions, international rights experts say it has been one of the most flagrant violators.

The US has refused to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

And while the US worked with other countries for 50 years to create the International Criminal Court, it has failed to ratify that treaty as well.


Robinson says the UN is not perfect but the best hope the world has [EPA]

The protection of human rights, alongside peace and security, and economic and social development has been one of the three pillars of the United Nation’s work since its creation.

The organisation has also established a range of mechanisms to promote and protect these rights and to assist governments in meeting their human rights obligations through the UN Human Rights Commission.

The Commission was intended to examine, monitor and publicly report on human rights situations in specific countries or territories as well as on major phenomena of human rights violations worldwide.

But in 2006, the highly-politicised Human Rights Commission which had been dogged by accusations of bias and politicisation was replaced with the Human Rights Council as part of ongoing UN reform.

Ironically, the Human Rights Council has become an arena for tensions between Islamic and Western nations.

“Having watched for five years from within the UN system I tend to apply a little bit what Winston Churchill said about democracy. He said democracy was the worst system except for all the others,” Robinson said.

“So the UN is not the greatest system but it is the only one we have.”

Source: Al Jazeera