Human rights are not just concerned with abuse, torture and firing squads - they are about healing the desperate divisions of our world, as Nikki van der Gaag explains.
|DYLAN GARCIA/ STILL PICTURES|
Time to go - a child and her family are
evicted by military police in Brazil
The gate slowly opens, controlled by unseen hands and I am in, entering a small cabin to be 'processed'. A sign on the desk details a list of prohibited items. Apart from guns, knives and alcohol, it includes any fresh, home-baked or tinned food, any bottles of whatever size, mirrors and combs. My bag is thoroughly searched and I go through a metal detector which, I am told, is likely to beep at the tiniest hairpin.
Finally I am through. More gates, the forms are passed on to another official and I walk into the Visitors' Room.
A prison, you would guess. A place where people who have committed serious crimes are locked up for the protection of society. But you would be wrong. The place is Campsfield Detention Centre, in the heart of rural England, only a few kilometres from the NI office. And those locked inside - for months and sometimes more than a year - have not been accused of any crime. In fact, they are victims themselves; people, young and old, who have fled persecution in their home countries only to face stringent asylum laws and the further trauma of imprisonment.
Some of the detainees seem very young and very bewildered. I ask if their parents and families back home know where they are.
'No, they would be too worried if they knew - they just think I am in London. I don't tell them. My mother worries about everything,' says Joseph (not his real name), who has a father high up in an opposition party in an African country and is therefore in danger himself.
Joseph is one of 15 million people who have been forced to flee violence and persecution in their home country. Escaping human-rights abuse in one place, he encounters it where he least expected to - in a country he had hoped would be a safe haven.
Safe havens are now few and far between. In 1997 many rich-world governments tightened up their laws on refugees. 'Governments are increasingly showing a callous disregard for the effect their policies have on desperate asylum-seekers,' says Pierre San, Amnesty International's Secretary-General. More and more governments 'are constructing impenetrable barriers to such people, even preventing them reaching their countries and accessing legal asylum procedures.'
It is the rich world and not the poor one that is closing its doors. Contrary to popular assumptions, 85 per cent of refugees are in countries of the Majority World - those who can least afford to welcome them are the most generous in doing so. Human rights are full of such paradoxes.
Five decades ago, millions of refugees were fleeing a different war. The horrors of the Second World War are still a reminder of what violations of human rights on a large scale can mean. And it was those horrors that provided the impetus for the founding of the United Nations and for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it formulated in 1948. The UN was a very different body then from that of today. For a start, there were only 58 members (now there are 185). In that post-War period it was dominated by the victors, the Big Four: the US, Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Few countries from Africa, Asia or Latin America belonged - indeed, the majority of these were still under colonial rule.
In drawing up the document, the Americans, British and French wanted an emphasis on what are now called 'first- generation' rights; such as the right not to be tortured or the right not to be imprisoned unless you have committed a crime. With the persecution of the Nazi years firmly in mind, they wanted rights for individuals that would ensure such things never happened again. The Soviet Union, remembering famine as well as persecution, wanted to include 'second-generation' rights - the right not to be poor and to have a decent standard of living.
The American bloc won - by 48 votes to eight. The eight abstentions were Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the Soviet Union and five countries of the Eastern bloc. The final document paid lip service to economic and collective rights - Article 3 talks of the right to 'life and liberty' and Article 25 of the right 'to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself (sic) and his family' - but focused mainly on civil and political ones.
The divisions of a polarized world were already manifest and by 1952 it was clear that some crucial areas had been left out - namely, what came to be called 'third-generation' rights. The right to development, to self-determination, to a sustainable environment.
These were included in two separate documents which are integral to the Universal Declaration: the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Despite the two Covenants and a string of subsequent documents, the disagreements of 1948 still provoke furious debate. With one vital difference. The end of the Cold War has meant that the Soviet mantle has fallen on the countries of the Majority World. It is they who now insist that economic rights should be taken seriously and who say that 'human rights' as a concept is a Western weapon with which to beat the countries of the poor world. Mahathir Mohamed, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, is a prime mover here, as Angela Lee Nga Kam explains in her article.
But it is a thesis also put forward by those whose politics are very different. Winin Pereira, radical Indian author and former nuclear physicist, argues that: 'Western policies regarding human rights are carefully planned and stage-managed hypocrisy. These policies - and the violations that result from them - are not the passing aberration of a few immoral individuals but official directives, "legally" enacted and implemented over centuries.'1
Pereira goes through the rights enumerated in the Declaration and convincingly shows how each one has been used to shore up oppression against the peoples of the Majority World.
Hand to mouth: poverty is just
as much an abuse of human rights
as torture or inprisonment.
We are witnessing a quantum shift towards official acknowledgement that poverty is also an abuse of human rights. Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and recently appointed High Commissioner for Human Rights, has put herself clearly on the line by stating that: 'Poverty is a violation of numerous basic human rights.' She goes on to say that she is committed to 'treating economic and social rights with the same priority as civil and political rights. They must be treated as interdependent and indivisible if either set is to be realized.'3
In the 50 years since the Declaration poverty has fallen more than in the previous 500 says the 1997 Human Development Report. But the High Commissioner is right to emphasize the importance of addressing both kinds of rights.
A quarter of the world's people continue to be haunted by the spectre of poverty, living on incomes of less than a dollar a day. This is not just confined to the Majority World. Over 100 million people in industrialized countries live below the income-poverty line.4
There are still vast inequalities. In many countries of the Majority World the poor are getting poorer. And yet between 1989 and 1996 the number of billionaires in the world increased from 157 to 447. The net wealth of the world's ten richest people is more than 1.5 times the total national income of all the least developed countries. Yet the costs of eradicating poverty have been put at just one per cent of global income. A sum so pitiful that the clamour of its reproach should be echoing across the oceans of the world.
It is all too easy to hide behind hypocrisy; to condemn torture while at the same time condoning the inequality of poverty as something we can do nothing about. We can do something about it - as Felicity Arbuthnot points out in her scorching attack on the duplicity of Western 'human rights' in Iraq .
And we must. Otherwise the fine words of the Universal Declaration and its successors - 'justice', 'equality', 'liberty' - are just weasel words aimed at protecting the strong against the weak and justifying an unequal world system.
It is not just people in the Majority World who think that the words masked a strong political bias. This bias has also excluded women. When the Declaration was drawn up, women were subsumed under the generic term 'man'. The Declaration fails to address any abuses that are particular to women: domestic violence, rape, infanticide, female genital mutilation, dowry deaths...
Since then, women have campaigned for their rights to be recognized. 5 But it was not until the UN Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 - the first UN Summit on Human Rights in 25 years - that these were officially recognized. The Conference affirmed that 'the human rights of women and of the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights.'
Opening the General Assembly in September 1997, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that 'violence against women has become the most pervasive human-rights violation'. Since then, a new Declaration of Human Rights from a Gender Perspective has been drawn up by women's groups in Latin America and the Caribbean. 'The situation of real inequality in which women find themselves,' they say, 'has been perpetuated on the one hand by the difficulty of exercising the rights already legally achieved and on the other because many women's needs were simply never translated into rights.6' Their alternative Declaration attempts to remedy this.
But women's rights continue to come a poor second to those of men, from the stark oppression in Afghanistan, through the 250,000 raped in Rwanda in one year of the war, to the half-a-million who die unnecessarily in childbirth each year. But can all the declarations and conventions in the world really prevent such abuse? History would say no. The lofty language of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 - 'We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' - did not prevent the massacre of more than 56,000 Indians in the hundred years that followed. Nor did the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 prevent murder and mayhem in Europe.
Today, despite the Universal Declar-ation, people are still killed, imprisoned, raped and tortured. In 1997 alone, Amnesty International reported thousands of cases of extrajudicial executions; of people who had 'disappeared' and whose fate remains unknown; of detainees subject to torture and ill-treatment including rape; of prisoners of conscience; of unfair trials and executions
DEATHS AND DISAPPEARANCES
The Amnesty International Report 1997 documents the following:
- Thousands of extrajudicial executions were reported in at least 69 countries including Algeria, Colombia, India, Somalia and Turkey.
- The fate of hundreds of thousands of people in at least 39 countries who 'disappeared' in recent years remains unknown. Many of those, in countries including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burundi and Rwanda, Colombia, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Venezuela, may subsequently have been killed.
- Tens of thousands of detainees were subjected to torture or ill-treatment, including rape, in at least 124 countries, such as Cuba, Egypt, Burma, the Russian Federation and Nigeria.
- Prisoners of conscience were held in at least 94 countries, including Afghanistan, Equatorial Guinea, Greece, Peru and Tunisia.
- More than 39 countries, including Burundi, China, Greece, Israel and the Occupied Territories, and Peru imprisoned people after unfair trials.
- At least 78 countries, including China, Iraq, the Russian Federation, Rwanda and Venezuela held tens of thousands of people in detention without charge or trial.
- Thousands of people were executed in at least 41 countries including China, Iraq, Nigeria, the Russian Federation and the US. The real figure is believed to be far higher.
- Armed opposition groups committed abuses including torture, hostage-taking and deliberate and arbitrary killings in at least 38 countries including Algeria, Burundi, Colombia, Sri Lanka and the UK.
Having a Universal Declaration seems to have done little to protect these people. But what it has done is to give perpetrators and victims alike a standard by which to measure their crimes. It has given the world the ability to condemn if not yet to punish. And it is possible that 1998 will see the setting up of an International Criminal Court which will be able to judge those crimes against international standards and also to mete out punishment, as Ali Qassim explains in Tyrants on trial.
In addition, the Declaration provided the impetus for the birth of many human-rights organizations which are able to lobby governments and to document abuses.
For it is easy to forget that there is a person behind each statistic. A person like Joseph in Campsfield Detention Centre, imprisoned in a strange country for being in danger in his own. Or Ourda, aged 17, kidnapped and tortured by Islamic terrorists in Algeria (see box). Or Edvin Sirin, a street child in Guatemala who died last year of poverty and neglect; the only people who came to his funeral were other street children.
There are two main reasons why human rights is such a complex arena. First, we all - consciously or not - have a hierarchy of rights. For governments, civil rights compete with economic ones. And different groups of people are perceived to have different rights. History shows this clearly. In the US of the 1830s President Andrew Jackson urged troops to root out 'Natives' from their 'dens' and kill women and their 'whelps'. Jews, for Hitler, were a sub-race, as were gypsies, homosexuals and disabled people
Women have always been considered part of the spoils of war. In Algeria, fundamentalist terrorists are 'allowed' to take women as 'temporary wives', legitimizing rape and licensing murder. This is one girl's story.
'My name is Ourda. I am 17 years old. Until 13 October 1994 I was a secondary-school student and I lived with my family in the downtown area of Algiers. I studied music at a school directed by a famous master. I was very happy at home and very coddled because I am the youngest child.
But my life was turned upside-down on that horrible day. I'd just left school and was heading home when a young man approached me. Before I knew what had happened he'd violently shoved me into a van that was parked nearby, tied me up and blindfolded me. Then the van sped off. I was completely terrorized by what had happened and by the knife that the man was holding against my cheek so that I wouldn't scream. However I still hadn't realized that I was on my way to hell.
Finally the van stopped. I was taken out and one of the young men removed the blindfold. First I saw an old house in ruins. Then, when I saw all the young girls there, I began to feel a little calmer. There were ten of them. Some were my age, three were over 20 and two were only about ten years old. The girls had all been kidnapped either off the street as I was or directly from their homes.
Every morning the group leader meted out different tasks: cooking, washing, mending and so on. I had to wash their clothes and of course just like all the other girls I was raped every day. I was left to the guards because I wasn't that pretty.
I'm free now because of the alertness and help of some people living in a village where our abductors had taken me with some other girls so as to transfer us to another terrorist hideout. I was in a deplorable state. I had become very thin and was ridden with lice. The few pieces of clothing still on my body were in tatters. I had to use some of my clothes as sanitary napkins. I hadn't been able to wash properly because, just like the other girls, I was only entitled to a litre of water every two days and I didn't have a change of clothes.
Although I've come home to a loving family I am continuously plagued by an obsession that makes me cry out in fear every night. I'm afraid the terrorists will try to retrace me, even though we've moved to a new address.
What kind of life can be ahead of me now? How can I heal my deepest wounds and dream of the future? How can I ever dream of falling in love and having children?
My family tell me I'm young and that I'll get over the nightmares and the pain, that some day I'll be able to look at my own body without hating it, that some day I'll stop hating men. But I'm not there yet. I still shudder when I think that those who are guilty of these crimes are still ruthlessly plaguing our country...'
From Without Reservation: the Beijing Tribunal on Accountability for Human Rights edited by Niamh Reillly (Center for Women's Global Leadership 1996).
We are in the middle of a major conflict of 'rights' when it comes to free trade. The little-talked-about (and boring-sounding) Multilateral Agreement on Trade (MAI) is due to be implemented in the summer of 1998. The MAI aims to promote free trade by creating common and legally binding rules to reduce government regulation and control of foreign investors. So for example, governments will no longer be allowed to insist that transnationals employ local labour or re-invest locally some of the money they earn. This will seriously compromise some of the rights granted to people in the Declaration 50 years ago.
The MAI is one to watch out for over the coming year. But it is only the most pernicious in a long line of international agreements brokered by the West which uphold the rights of the rich against the poor, of the powerful against the powerless. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1995 did much to promote free trade but little to shore up human rights in the region. And in November 1997 the European Parliament approved the Life Patents Directive which will allow transnational corporations to take out patents on food, medicines and even body parts - to the detriment of the rights of citizens and governments alike.
It is a strange paradox that these moves towards a global marketplace are being given new impetus at exactly the same time that we are celebrating - if celebrating is the right word - the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
UN High Commissioner Mary Robinson has told her colleagues that she does not 'see the anniversary as an occasion for celebration'. She continues: 'Count up the results of 50 years of human-rights mechanisms, 30 years of multi-billion-dollar development programs and endless high-level rhetoric and the global impact is quite underwhelming... This is a failure of implementation on a scale which shames us all.'3
Nevertheless, that shame can be used to good effect. The Universal Declaration, for all its faults and imperfections, is a living document. Taken together with the two Covenants it is a powerful force for good; a standard by which we can measure the world's imperfections and work towards righting wrongs - past, present and future.
'My own approach to human rights,' says Robinson, 'is based on an inner sense of justice. Perhaps because I am from Ireland and have my roots in a past struggle for freedom, of famine and a dispersal of a people. Perhaps also from my experiences as a lawyer and a politician and, more recently, as a President privileged to visit and be a witness to profound suffering and deprivation in countries such as Somalia and Rwanda.'
We all need her passion for justice, together with her recognition of the needs of our complex world. The vision with which the Declaration was created must be renewed and revitalized as a force for change not just by a few powerful governments but by all the governments and all the peoples of the world. We do not have to live with the terrible things that happen each and every day. There must be no hiding place for evil.
1 Inhuman Rights - The Western System and Global Human Rights Abuse, Winin Pereira (The Other India Press/Apex Press/Third World Network 1997). 2 From an article written for the NI. 3 The Romanes Lecture, Oxford, November 1997 by Mary Robinson. 4 Human Development Report (UNDP 1997). 5 Global Campaign for Women's Human Rights, Center for Women's Global Leadership, 27 Clifton Ave, Douglass College, New Brunswick, NJ08903, US. Fax: (+1) 732 932 1180. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org 6 CLADEM, the Latin American Women's Organization. Full Declaration available at website: http://www.pdhre.org/fiftieth/cladem.html 7 More details in The MAI and the threat to Canadian Sovereignity by Tony Clarke and Maude Barlow (Stoddart 1997).
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