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2002 In Review: On Human Rights, World Has Miles To Go And Promises To Keep

  • Don Hill

Since the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948, the civilized world has been slowly building a consensus on the fundamental rights of humankind. But agreements and universal declarations don't halt abuses. The year 2002 saw a continuation of slavery and human trafficking, torture, terrorism, attacks on unarmed civilians, child conscription and labor, genocide, and illegal imprisonment. Human rights organizations told RFE/RL that the advanced Western democracies are part of the problem.

Prague, 13 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Human rights observers, assessing the status of global human rights at the end of 2002, say rights abuses are rampant in Chechnya, the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere in the world where terrorism has taken a recent toll. They also express dismay over trends in the United States and other leading Western democracies.

Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, says the creation in 2002 of the International Criminal Court, or ICC, is one of history's major advances in human rights. In an interview with RFE/RL, Vieira de Mello said that without institutions like international courts, global human rights declarations and norms lack weight. "You know, international norms have absolutely no credibility unless they are sanctionable. And there had been no jurisdiction able to sanction serious crimes like genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in the recent past, with the exception of two ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda," Vieira de Mello said.

Vieira de Mello expressed hopes the United States, which this year removed its signature from the ICC treaty -- marking the first time in 225 years that the United States has removed its signature from an international treaty -- will soon join with other opponent countries in making support for the court unanimous.

The new high commissioner -- he succeeded Mary Robinson in the office four months ago -- is a career UN diplomat known for his temperate style in public. He said that the success of the Yugoslavia and Rwanda courts leads him to believe that U.S. support can be won for the ICC. But there is no sign in the United States, where opposition to the court is bipartisan and deep-seated, that it is likely to change.

The director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division, Betsy Andersen, said her organization currently considers U.S. opposition to the ICC to be the most troublesome of the world's human rights problems. "Most prominently, we see the U.S. role vis-a-vis the International Criminal Court as problematic, to say the least. [The United States] has not only expressed an unwillingness to participate in the court, but it has, over the past year, pretty actively worked to undermine the court," Andersen said.

U.S. political leaders have opposed permitting an international court to have jurisdiction over U.S. citizens on the grounds that it might expose them to politically motivated persecution. American diplomats have negotiated bilateral agreements with 12 countries to exempt U.S. citizens from such jurisdiction. Their pressure continues on other countries to join the list.

Human rights advocates say they are concerned at what they see as an erosion of civil rights in the advanced Western democracies since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. The United States has drawn international criticism for a series of incommunicado detentions of terrorist suspects, without allowing them access to legal counsel; for its imprisonment of fighters captured in Afghanistan at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; as well as for other responses it has had to fears of terrorism.

Andersen noted another rising trend in the wake of 11 September. "Well, I think another important trend over the past year in Europe that can't be missed is what might be characterized as a growing xenophobia in Western Europe," Andersen said.

A report issued by the EU's European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia supports Andersen's concern. It says that holding anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic views is gaining legitimacy in Europe. Andersen said the problem has been exacerbated by public pronouncements by political leaders that appear to support such xenophobic opinions.

High Commissioner Vieira de Mello said he recognizes the responsibility -- even the obligation -- of national governments to protect the security of their citizens. But, he said: "We must make sure that the fundamental human rights values and principles that are the bedrock of democratic societies are not eroded in the process. Measures, in other words, that are taken to fight terrorism should always be compatible with international obligatory human rights norms," Vieira de Mello said.

Amnesty International's chief press spokesperson, Kamal Samari, said his group is concerned that Western democracies are forgetting their democratic principles. "The major human rights concern for Amnesty now is that, unfortunately, after the horrific events of the attacks of 11 September, which we denounced as a crime against humanity, Western democracies now have taken steps to undermine the very basic foundation of the human rights mechanism," Samari said.

The human rights advocates also pointed to specific human rights tension spots around the world. Vieira de Mello was in New York in mid-December to attend a UN Security Council discussion of how to protect unarmed noncombatants during armed conflicts. "The question [is] of protection of civilian populations in armed conflicts. I believe that this, [together] with the scourge of HIV/AIDS, remains -- because, unfortunately, this is not new -- the greatest challenge for humanity and for the human rights community," Vieira de Mello said.

Addressing the issue of civilian rights in wartime, Andersen of Human Rights Watch condemned Russia's recent intensification of its campaign in Chechnya. "Well, Chechnya, I think, we have to characterize as the most intense human rights situation in Europe today, and we've seen that war grind into its fourth year this year. And in the last two months, particularly since the hostage taking in Moscow, we've seen the violations that have characterized that conflict escalate in an alarming manner," Andersen said.

At Amnesty International, Samari faulted what he calls a Western "double standard and selectivity" in approaching conflicts like Russia's war in Chechnya. "After all, what is happening in Chechnya now, you know, in other times -- on the 10th of September 2001, [for instance] -- you would certainly have heard an outcry from Western democracies about what is happening in Chechnya. But now it seems that it is a fair game that we turn a blind eye," Samari said.

The United Nations celebrated International Human Rights Day on 10 December, the 54th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. High Commissioner Vieira de Mello said he is amazed that it took so long after World War II and its horrors for the world to develop an international criminal court.