Thursday, May 8, 2008

Human Rights

What are human rights?

Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.

History of human rights

The history of human rights covers thousands of years and draws upon religious, cultural, philosophical and legal developments throughout recorded history. Several ancient documents and later religions and philosophies included a variety of concepts that may be considered to be human rights. Notable among such documents are the Cyrus cylinder of 539 BC, a declaration of intentions by the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great after his conquest of the Neo-Babylonian Empire; the Edicts of Ashoka issued by Ashoka the Great of India between 272-231 BC; and the Constitution of Medina of 622 AD, drafted by Muhammad to mark a formal agreement between all of the significant tribes and families of Yathrib (later known as Medina), including Muslims, Jews and Pagans. The English Magna Carta of 1215 is particularly significant in the history of English law, and is hence significant in international law and constitutional law today.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen approved by the National Assembly of France, August 26, 1789.

Much of modern human rights law and the basis of most modern interpretations of human rights can be traced back to relatively recent history. The British Bill of Rights (or “An Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown”) of 1689 made illegal a range of oppressive governmental actions in the United Kingdom. Two major revolutions occurred during the 18th century, in the United States (1776) and in France (1789), leading to the adoption of the United States Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen respectively, both of which established certain rights. Additionally, the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 set up a number of fundamental rights and freedoms.

These were followed by developments in philosophy of human rights by philosophers such as Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill and Hegel during the 18th and 19th centuries. The term human rights probably came into use sometime between Paine's The Rights of Man and William Lloyd Garrison's 1831 writings in The Liberator saying he was trying to enlist his readers in "the great cause of human rights"

Many groups and movements have managed to achieve profound social changes over the course of the 20th century in the name of human rights. In Western Europe and North America, labor unions brought about laws granting workers the right to strike, establishing minimum work conditions and forbidding or regulating child labour. The women's rights movement succeeded in gaining for many women the right to vote. National liberation movements in many countries succeeded in driving out colonial powers. One of the most influential was Mahatma Gandhi's movement to free his native India from British rule. Movements by long-oppressed racial and religious minorities succeeded in many parts of the world, among them the civil rights movement, and more recent diverse identity politics movements, on behalf of women and minorities in the United States.

The establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the 1864 Lieber Code and the first of the Geneva Conventions in 1864 laid the foundations of International humanitarian law, to be further developed following the two World Wars.

The World Wars and the huge losses of life and gross abuses of human rights that took place during them were a driving force behind the development of modern human rights instruments. The League of Nations was established in 1919 at the negotiations over the Treaty of Versailles following the end of World War I. The League's goals included disarmament, preventing war through collective security, settling disputes between countries through negotiation, diplomacy and improving global welfare. Enshrined in its Charter was a mandate to promote many of the rights which were later included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

At the 1945 Yalta Conference, the Allied Powers agreed to create a new body to supplant the League's role. This body was to be the United Nations. The United Nations has played an important role in international human rights law since its creation. Following the World Wars the United Nations and its members developed much of the discourse and the bodies of law which now make up international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

Concepts in human rights:

Indivisibility and categorization of rights:

The most common categorization of human rights is to split them into civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights.

Civil and political rights are enshrined in articles 3 to 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the ICCPR. Economic, social and cultural rights are enshrined in articles 22 to 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the ICESCR. The UDHR included economic, social and cultural rights and civil and political rights because it was based on the principle that the different rights could only successfully exist in combination:

“The ideal of free human beings enjoying civil and political freedom and freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his civil and political rights, as well as his social, economic and cultural rights”-International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, 1966

This is held to be true because without civil and political rights the public cannot assert their economic, social and cultural rights. Similarly, without livelihoods and a working society, the public cannot assert or make use of civil or political rights (known as the full belly thesis)

Although accepted by the signatories to the UDHR, most of them do not in practice give equal weight to the different types of rights. Western cultures have often given priority to civil and political rights, sometimes at the expense of economic and social rights such as the right to work, to education, health and housing. For example, in the United States there is no universal access to healthcare free at the point of use. That is not to say that Western cultures have overlooked these rights entirely (the welfare states that exist in Western Europe are evidence of this). Similarly the ex Soviet bloc countries and Asian countries have tended to give priority to economic, social and cultural rights, but have often failed to provide civil and political rights.

Opponents of the indivisibility of human rights argue that economic, social and cultural rights are fundamentally different from civil and political rights and require completely different approaches. Economic, social and cultural rights are argued to be: positive, meaning that they require active provision of entitlements by the state (as opposed to the state being required only to prevent the breach of rights)

  • resource-intensive, meaning that they are expensive and difficult to provide
  • progressive, meaning that they will take significant time to implement
  • vague, meaning they cannot be quantitatively measured, and whether they are adequately provided or not is difficult to judge
  • ideologically divisive/political, meaning that there is no consensus on what should and shouldn't be provided as a right
  • socialist, as opposed to capitalist
  • non-justiciable, meaning that their provision, or the breach of them, cannot be judged in a court of law
  • aspirations or goals, as opposed to real 'legal' rights

Similarly civil and political rights are categorized as:

  • negative, meaning the state can protect them simply by taking no action
  • cost-free
  • immediate, meaning they can be immediately provided if the state decides to
  • precise, meaning their provision is easy to judge and measure
  • non-ideological/non-political
  • capitalist
  • justiciable
  • real 'legal' rights

In The No-Nonsense Guide to Human Rights Olivia Ball and Paul Gready argue that for both civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights it is easy to find examples which do not fit into the above categorization. Amongst several others, they highlight the fact that maintaining a judicial system, a fundamental requirement of the civil right to due process before the law and other rights relating to judicial process, is positive, resource-intensive, progressive and vague, while the social right to housing is precise, justifiable and can be a real 'legal' right. Another categorization, offered by Karel Vasak, is that there are three generations of human rights: first-generation civil and political rights (right to life and political participation), second-generation economic, social and cultural rights (right to subsistence) and third-generation solidarity rights (right to peace, right to clean environment). Out of these generations, the third generation is the most debated and lacks both legal and political recognition. This categorisation is at odds with the indivisibility of rights, as it implicitly states that some rights can exist without others. Prioritization of rights for pragmatic reasons is however a widely accepted necessity. Human rights expert Philip Alston argues:

“If every possible human rights element is deemed to be essential or necessary, then nothing will be treated as though it is truly important.” Philip Alston

He, and others, urges caution with prioritization of rights:

“...the call for prioritizing is not to suggest that any obvious violations of rights can be ignored.” Philip Alston

Priorities, where necessary, should adhere to core concepts (such as reasonable attempts at progressive realization) and principles (such as non-discrimination, equality and participation.” Olivia Ball, Paul Gready

Some human rights are said to be "inalienable rights." The term inalienable rights (or unalienable rights) refer to "a set of human rights that are fundamental, are not awarded by human power, and cannot be surrendered."

The adherence to the principle of indivisibility by the international community was reaffirmed in 1995:

“All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and related. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis” Vienna Declaration and Program of Action, World Conference on Human Rights, 1995

International human rights law

Human rights law is a system of laws, both domestic and international, designed to promote human rights. Human rights law includes a number of treaties which are intended to punish some violations of human rights such as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. There are also a number of international courts which have been constituted to judge violations of human rights including the European Court of Human Rights and the International Criminal Court.

An important concept within human rights law is that of universal jurisdiction. This concept, which is not widely accepted, is that any nation is authorized to prosecute and punish violations of human rights wherever and whenever they may have occurred.

Geneva Conventions

The Geneva Conventions came into being between 1864 and 1949 as a result of efforts by Henry Dunant, the founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The conventions safeguard the human rights of individuals involved in armed conflict, and build on the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions, the international community's first attempt to formalize the laws of war and war crimes in the nascent body of secular international law. The conventions were revised as a result of World War II and readopted by the international community in 1949.

The Geneva Conventions are:

  • First Geneva Convention "for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field" (first adopted in 1864, last revision in 1949)
  • Second Geneva Convention "for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea" (first adopted in 1949, successor of the 1907 Hague Convention X)
  • Third Geneva Convention "relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War" (first adopted in 1929, last revision in 1949)
  • Fourth Geneva Convention "relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War" (first adopted in 1949, based on parts of the 1907 Hague Convention IV)

In addition, there are three additional amendment protocols to the Geneva Convention:

  • Protocol I (1977): Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts. As of 12 January 2007 it had been ratified by 167 countries.
  • Protocol II (1977): Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts. As of 12 January 2007 it had been ratified by 163 countries.
  • Protocol III (2005): Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Adoption of an Additional Distinctive Emblem. As of June 2007 it had been ratified by 17 countries and signed but not yet ratified by an additional 68 countries.

All four conventions were last revised and ratified in 1949, based on previous revisions and partly on some of the 1907 Hague Conventions. Later conferences have added provisions prohibiting certain methods of warfare and addressing issues of civil wars. Nearly all 200 countries of the world are "signatory" nations, in that they have ratified these conventions. The International Committee of the Red Cross is the controlling body of the Geneva conventions (see below).

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

"It is not a treaty... [In the future, it] may well become the international Magna Carta." Eleanor Roosevelt with the Spanish text of the Universal Declaration in 1949.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a non-binding declaration adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, partly in response to the barbarian acts of World War II. Although the UDHR is a non-binding resolution, it is now considered to be a central component of international customary law which may be invoked under appropriate circumstances by national and other judiciaries. The UDHR urges member nations to promote a number of human, civil, economic and social rights, asserting these rights are part of the "foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." The declaration was the first international legal effort to limit the behavior of states and press upon them duties to their citizens following the model of the rights-duty duality.

“Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

The UDHR was framed by members of the Human Rights Commission, with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt as Chair, who began to discuss an International Bill of Rights in 1947. The members of the Commission did not immediately agree on the form of such a bill of rights, and whether, or how, it should be enforced. The Commission proceeded to frame the UDHR and accompanying treaties, but the UDHR quickly became the priority. Canadian law professor John Humprey and French lawyer René Cassin were responsible for much of the cross-national research and the structure of the document respectively, where the articles of the declaration were interpretative of the general principle of the preamble. The document was structured by Cassin to include the basic principles of dignity, liberty, equality and brotherhood in the first two articles, followed successively by rights pertaining to individuals; rights of individuals in relation to each other and to groups; spiritual, public and political rights; and economic, social and cultural rights. The final three articles place, according to Cassin, rights in the context of limits, duties and the social and political order in which they are to be realized. Humphrey and Cassin intended the rights in the UDHR to be legally enforceable through some means, as is reflected in the third clause of the preamble:

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law. Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

Some of the UDHR was researched and written by a committee of international experts on human rights, including representatives from all continents and all major religions, and drawing on consultation with leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi. The inclusion of both civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights was predicated on the assumption that basic human rights are indivisible and that the different types of rights listed are inextricably linked. This principle was not then opposed by any member states (the declaration was adopted unanimously, with the abstention of the Eastern Bloc, Apartheid South Africa and Saudi Arabia), however this principle was later subject to significant challenges.

The Universal Declaration was bifurcated into two distinct and different covenants, Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and another Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Over the objection of the more developed states [Capitalist], which questioned the relevance and propriety of such provisions in covenants on human rights, both begin with the right of people to self-determination and to sovereignty over their natural resources. Then the two covenants go different ways (see, Louis Henkin, The International Bill of Rights: The Universal Declaration and the Covenants, in International Enforcement of Human Rights 6-9, Bernhardt and Jolowicz, eds, (1987))

The drafters of the Covenants initially intended only one instrument. The original drafts included only political and civil rights, but economic and social rights were added early. Western States then fought for, and obtained, a division into two covenants. They insisted that economic and social right were essentially aspirations or plans, not rights, since their realization depended on availability of resources and on controversial economic theory and ideology. These, they said, were not appropriate subjects for binding obligations and should not be allowed to dilute the legal character of provisions honoring political-civil rights; states prepared to assume obligations to respect political-civil rights should not be mitments. There was wide agreement and clear recognition that the means required to enforce or induce compliance with socio-economic undertakings were different from the means required for civil-political rights. See Louis Henkin, Introduction, The International Bill of Rights 9-10 (1981).

Because of the divisions over which rights to include, and because some states declined to ratify any treaties including certain specific interpretations of human rights, and despite the Soviet bloc and a number of developing countries arguing strongly for the inclusion of all rights in a so-called Unity Resolution, the rights enshrined in the UDHR were split into two separate covenants, allowing states to adopt some rights and derogate others. Though this allowed the covenants to be created, one commentator has written that it denied the proposed principle that all rights are linked which was central to some interpretations of the UDHR.

THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Article 1.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4.

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6.

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7.

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8.

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10.

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11.

(1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense.

(2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Article 12.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14.

(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 15.

(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.

(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Article 16.

(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 17.

(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 18.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Article 21.

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Article 22.

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23.

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24.

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25.

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, and housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 26.

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 27.

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Article 28.

Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

Article 29.

(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 30.

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

International bodies:

The United Nations: The United Nations (UN) is the only multilateral governmental agency with universally accepted international jurisdiction for universal human rights legislation.[17] All UN organs have advisory roles to the United Nations Security Council and the United Nations Human Rights Council, and there are numerous committees within the UN with responsibilities for safeguarding different human rights treaties. The most senior body of the UN with regard to human rights is the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The United Nations has an international mandate to:

“…achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion” Article 1-3 of the United Nations Charter

Human Rights Council: The United Nations Human Rights Council, created at the 2005 World Summit to replace the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, has a mandate to investigate violations of human rights. The Human Rights Council is a subsidiary body of the General Assembly[19] and reports directly to it. It ranks below the Security Council, which is the final authority for the interpretation of the United Nations Charter. Forty-seven of the one hundred ninety-one member states sit on the council, elected by simple majority in a secret ballot of the United Nations General Assembly. Members serve a maximum of six years and may have their membership suspended for gross human rights abuses. The Council is based in Geneva, and meets three times a year; with additional meetings to respond to urgent situations.

Independent experts (rapporteurs) are retained by the Council to investigate alleged human rights abuses and to provide the Council with reports.

The Human Rights Council may request that the Security Council take action when human rights violations occur. This action may be direct actions, may involve sanctions, and the Security Council may also refer cases to the International Criminal Court (ICC) even if the issue being referred is outside the normal jurisdiction of the ICC.

Security Council: The United Nations Security Council has the primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security and is the only body of the UN that can authorize the use of force (including in the context of peace-keeping operations), or override member nations sovereignty by issuing binding Security Council resolutions.

Created by the UN Charter, it is classed as a Charter Body of the United Nations. The UN Charter gives the Security Council the power to:

  • Investigate any situation threatening international peace;
  • Recommend procedures for peaceful resolution of a dispute;
  • Call upon other member nations to completely or partially interrupt economic relations as well as sea, air, postal, and radio communications, or to sever diplomatic relations; and
  • Enforce its decisions militarily, if necessary.

The Security Council hears reports from all organs of the United Nations, and can take action over any issue which it feels threatens peace and security, including human rights issues. It has at times been criticized for failing to take action to prevent human rights abuses, including the Darfur crisis, the Srebrenica massacre and the Rwandan Genocide.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court recognizes the Security Council the power to refer cases to the Court, where the Court could not otherwise exercise jurisdiction.

Other UN Treaty Bodies: A modern interpretation of the original Declaration of Human Rights was made in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993. The degree of unanimity over these conventions, in terms of how many and which countries have ratified them varies, as does the degree to which they are respected by various states. The UN has set up a number of treaty-based bodies to monitor and study human rights, under the leadership of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR). The bodies are committees of independent experts that monitor implementation of the core international human rights treaties. They are created by the treaty that they monitor.

  • The Human Rights Committee promotes participation with the standards of the ICCPR. The eighteen members of the committee express opinions on member countries and make judgments on individual complaints against countries which have ratified the treaty. The judgments are not legally binding.
  • The Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights monitors the ICESCR and makes general comments on ratifying countries performance. It does not have the power to receive complaints.
  • The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination monitors the CERD and conducts regular reviews of countries' performance. It can make judgements on complaints, but these are not legally binding. It issues warnings to attempt to prevent serious contraventions of the convention.
  • The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women monitors the CEDAW. It receives states' reports on their performance and comments on them, and can make judgements on complaints against countries which have opted into the 1999 Optional Protocol.
  • The Committee against Torture monitors the CAT and receives states' reports on their performance every four years and comments on them. It may visit and inspect individual countries with their consent.
  • The Committee on Migrant Workers was established in 2004 and monitors the ICRMW and makes comments on reports submitted by states every five years. It will have the power to receive complaints of specific violations only once ten member states allow it.

Each treaty body receives secretariat support from the Treaties and Commission Branch of Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva except CEDAW, which is supported by the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW). CEDAW meets at United Nations headquarters in New York; the other treaty bodies generally meet at the United Nations Office in Geneva. The Human Rights Committee usually holds its March session in New York City.

International Committee of the Red Cross: Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has legal status as a non-governmental sovereign entity. It has a mandate to be the controlling authority of International Humanitarian Law.

“The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is an impartial, neutral, and independent organization whose exclusively humanitarian mission is to to protect the lives and dignity of victims of war and internal violence and to provide them with assistance.” Mission of ICRC.

The ICRC directs and coordinates international relief and works to promote and strengthen humanitarian law and universal humanitarian principles. The core tasks of the Committee, which are derived from the Geneva Conventions and its own statutes, are the following:

  • to monitor compliance of warring parties with the Geneva Conventions
  • to organize nursing and care for those who are wounded on the battlefield
  • to supervise the treatment of prisoners of war and make confidential interventions with detaining authorities
  • to help with the search for missing persons in an armed conflict (tracing service)
  • to organize protection and care for civil populations
  • to act as a neutral intermediary between warring parties

The ICRC drew up seven fundamental principles in 1965 that were adopted by the entire Red Cross Movement. They are humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, volunteerism, unity, and universality. Although the ICRC has no powers to enforce the rights enshrined in the Geneva Conventions, its statements carry significant force, and few countries or warring parties deny the ICRC access to the individuals it exists to protect. Doing so has a significant effect on public opinion and international standing and can be taken as an implicit admission of wrongdoing. The initial refusal of the United States to admit the ICRC to its detention facility at Guantanamo Bay drew considerable international condemnation.

Human rights in Asia:

Membership and expansion of the Asia Cooperation Dialogue. Note that the Republic of China (Taiwan) is recognized or acknowledged by the member states as part of the People's Republic of China (PRC), but de facto does not have any representation. There are no Asia-wide organizations or conventions to promote or protect human rights. Countries vary widely in their approach to human rights and their record of human rights protection.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a geo-political and economic organization of 10 countries located in Southeast Asia, which was formed in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. The organization now also includes Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. Its aims include the acceleration of economic growth, social progress, cultural development among its members, and the promotion of regional peace

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is an economic and political organization of eight countries in Southern Asia, representing almost 1.5 billion people. It was established in 1985 by India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives and Bhutan. In April 2007, at the Association's 14th summit, Afghanistan became its eighth member.

The Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (CCASG) is a trade bloc involving the six Arab states of the Persian Gulf, with many economic and social objectives. Created in 1981, the Council comprises the Persian Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) is a body created in 2002 to promote Asian cooperation at a continental level, helping to integrate the previously separate regional organizations of political or economical cooperation. The main objectives of the ACD are as follows:

  • To promote interdependence among Asian countries in all areas of cooperation by identifying Asia's common strengths and opportunities which will help reduce poverty and improve the quality of life for Asian people whilst developing a knowledge-based society within Asia and enhancing community and people empowerment;
  • To expand the trade and financial market within Asia and increase the bargaining power of Asian countries in lieu of competition and, in turn, enhance Asia's economic competitiveness in the global market;
  • To serve as the missing link in Asian cooperation by building upon Asia's potentials and strengths through supplementing and complementing existing cooperative frameworks so as to become a viable partner for other regions;
  • To ultimately transform the Asian continent into an Asian Community, capable of interacting with the rest of the world on a more equal footing and contributing more positively towards mutual peace and prosperity.

None of the above organizations has a specific mandate to promote or protect human rights, but each has some human rights related economic, social and cultural objectives. A number of Asian countries are accused of serious human rights abuses by the international community and human rights organizations.

Human rights in Bangladesh:

In recent years, the Government of Bangladesh has taken steps towards establishing a national human rights commission. Amnesty International welcomes this initiative, and is taking this opportunity to put forward a series of recommendations aimed at ensuring that the body will be fully independent, empowered and effective in the promotion and protection of human rights in Bangladesh and providing redress to victims. Amnesty International hopes that these will inform discussions and any future parliamentary debates on the establishment of such a body.

"The project will seek to find out ways and means to build a mechanism for protecting and safeguarding human rights as guaranteed under the Constitution of Bangladesh at the grassroots level and to see the effective implementation of the existing legislation and enactments mentioned above [i.e., legislation and ordinances such as the Dowry Provision Act of 1980, the Children Act of 1974, the Cruelty to Women Ordinance 1983 (Deterrent Punishment) and the Women and Children Oppression Act of 1955]."[Inception report, 'Action research study on the institutional development of human rights in Bangladesh under UNDP projects No BGD/95/005.A/01/99' (March 1996, Ministry of Law Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, Government of Bangladesh)].

A National Consultative Committee (NCC) comprising members from "government agencies, NGOs and eminent personalities" was set up to advice on the project. It began its meetings in November 1996. The Minister of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, Abdul Matin Khasru chairs both IDHRB and NCC.

In September 1996, the Law Minister and UNDP representatives decided that an expert consultant should be invited to contribute to the project. Subsequently, Brian Burdekin, special adviser to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, visited Bangladesh in December 1996 and met with members of IDHRB and the National Consultative Committee. IDHRB also organized study tours visiting national human rights commissions in a number of Asian countries.

The report gives further details of its findings on people's attitudes towards these bodies:

"No money is required for Salish by village elders who are easily available for quick and effective dispensation of justice. UP Chairman is less expensive and justice by him is prompt and effective. Justice through court is [very] costly, time consuming and not available at the doorstep. Therefore, common people are reluctant to go to law courts for redressal of their grievances, unless they are forced to do [so]. Local MP is not easily available and very often he takes a partisan view on political consideration in resolving a dispute resulting in denial of proper justice. People are [very] reluctant to go to police for redress.. Have no confidence in them because police, according to them are guided by monitory consideration and political pressure."

The report fails to clarify the functions and duties of a future NHRC with regard to such institutions of quick justice. It appears to promote the role of Salish (village courts) and UP chairman in providing quick justice. Amnesty International is concerned that in the past, Salish arbitration has at times resulted in the imposition of cruel, inhuman or degrading punishments such as whipping and stoning to death [ See: Bangladesh: Taking the law in their own hands; the village Salish (AI Index: ASA 13/12/93)]. These punishments are not only themselves grave human rights violations, which should be terminated - and not, in effect, institutionalised by the government. They are usually imposed by people open to bribery and influence through the local clergy or landlords. There is no provision in the Constitution of Bangladesh or the Code of Criminal Procedure (1898) to delegate judicial authority on criminal cases to local bodies with no appropriate legal background and training. The Government of Bangladesh has a duty to supervise such bodies and to ensure that they do not take the law into their own hands.

Amnesty International's general recommendations for the establishment of a national human rights commission in Bangladesh:

Amnesty International representatives attended a number of meetings in Dhaka in December 1996 in which the NHRC was discussed. They noted at that time a strong emphasis by the participants on the need to research the human rights situation at the local level, to identify persons or groups, including women and children, particularly at risk of human rights violations, as well as the need for transparency of the investigation and monitoring process. The government stated during these meetings that it would be working with non-governmental human rights organizations (NGOs) at home and abroad to ensure that the NHRC would carry out an effective program of monitoring and defending human rights.

In May 1997, Amnesty International proposed to the Government of Bangladesh a set of standards for the establishment of national human rights institutions (see Appendix). It recommended that these standards, in addition to the Principles adopted by the United Nations (UN) as an annex to General Assembly resolution 48/134 of 20 December 1993 (the "Paris Principles"), should inform discussions and decisions throughout the process of establishing the proposed NHRC.

The need for an independent, impartial, adequately resourced and accessible judiciary:

Amnesty International believes that while the creation of a national human rights commission can be an important mechanism for strengthening human rights protection, it can never replace, nor should it in any way diminish, the safeguards inherent in comprehensive and effective legal structures enforced by an independent, impartial, adequately resourced and accessible judiciary. Amnesty International wishes to recommend to the Government of Bangladesh that:

the creation of a national human rights commission should go hand in hand with a thorough review of existing legal and other institutions in order to make these more effective instruments of human rights protection;

these initiatives should be accompanied by a determined government policy aimed at holding the perpetrators of human rights fully accountable, thus ensuring that those who violate human rights cannot do so with impunity.

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