December 10th: Human Rights Day and NGO Action

The United Nations " spells – and it ought to spell – the end of the system of unilateral action, exclusive alliances, and spheres of influence, and the balances of power and all the other expedients which have been tried for centuries and have always failed" said President Roosevelt after the Crimean Conference where plans for the UN were laid. Yet today most of the expedients that Roosevelt said had always failed are back in full force. We see this clearly in the field of human rights.

Governments at the UN have developed to a fine art the ability to use human rights forums as a tool to deal with issues making no progress elsewhere. This is most notably true with the Israel-Palestine question, largely blocked in the Security Council. The conflict provides the subject for endless resolutions in the Commission on Human Rights, transformed in 2006 into the Human Rights Council. Alas, the resolutions change little on the ground. The same was true for a number of years during which there was no bilateral movement on the question of Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Both states decided to move their differences to the UN Commission on Human Rights where they used up much time and energy with statements and points of order. Now China needs only mention "trade" in a soft voice for all pressure on human rights violations in China to disappear.

It is easy to grow cynical as diplomats read the fine print of the rules of procedure to find new ways to block action. But as we rededicate ourselves to work for essential liberties on 10 December – marking the day in 1948 when the UN Declaration on Human Rights was adopted in Paris – it is important to note the land marks of progress. These are some of the victories where intense effort and creative cooperation among representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), UN Secretariat, independent experts of the Sub-Commission, and a few representatives of progressive governments created awareness, got resolutions adopted, and built structures for follow up. Each case would merit a fuller analysis and character sketches of some of the players, but that would make too long a presentation.

I list 10 victories which seem to me to be real advances. Others would no doubt make different lists, but as an NGO representative to the UN in Geneva, I had participated in each of these advances and knew the key players. Governments, who alone have the ability to vote UN resolutions in the end, happily take credit for advances. Yet in these cases progress was made by ideas coming from NGO representatives, helped by UN Secretariat who must keep a "low profile" and the representatives of some governments where an issue touched them personally – and did not go against their government’s policy.

1) Awareness of the rights and conditions of indigenous and tribal populations. When this issue was first raised in the early 1980s, "indigenous" was considered to be only the Indians of North America who had come in force to present their case in Geneva. Governments finally went along thinking that such analysis would be a subtle criticism of the USA without it costing them anything. However, the International Labour Organizations Convention N° 109 on indigenous peoples speakes of "indigenous and tribal". Thus, it was possible to raise issues of tribal groups in south-east Asia such as the Chakma of Bangladesh. Much of the advance is due to the skills and dedication of Ms. Erica Daes who for many years chaired the Working Group on Indigenous Populations. Now the indigenous and tribal issues cover a wide number of countries and have moved to center stage.

2) Torture. When the use of torture was first raised, it was thought to be a rare practice l limited to a small number of countries. It turns out that it is, in fact, widely used by by a large number of countries. Getting torture to be a recognized issue and having the Commission on Human Rights create the post of Special Rapporteur on Torture owes much to Sean MacBride (1904-1988) at the time chairman of the Amnesty International Executive Committee (1961-1974) and Nobel Peace Prize laureate (1974). MacBride had been the Foreign Minister of Ireland (1948-1951) and knew how governments work. He had also been a long-time member of the Irish Republican Army (1917-19+36) and knew well how police as well as insurgencies Work.

3) Death Penalty. The efforts for the abolition of the death penalty also owes much to Amnesty International and its long-time Secretary-General Martin Ennals. His role, often in the background but always on key issues, is an example of how NGO impact can be made.

4) Conscientious objection to military service; Conscientious objection as a human right was a long but successful fight on the part of a small number of NGOs such as the Quakers, the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the International Peace Bureau. It was led by the representatives of Ireland, Canada and Austria – all of which have armies but whose representatives went "that extra mile" to overcome opposition and get the resolution passed.

5) Child Soldiers. The attention now given to the human rights violations from the existence of child soldiers – both the fact that children are taken as soldiers and the human rights they are forced to commit was brought to the attention of the Commission by the Quakers and the NGO Defense for Children. This has led to the creation of a Special Representative on Children in Conflict as well as attention at the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court.

6) The Right to Housing. The right to housing and especially the destruction of houses in the process of slum clearing, often done without rehousing, owes its place on the human rights agenda to a small number of NGOs but who had dramatic examples of abuses. There is now an active Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing.

7) The Right to Religion and Belief. It was a 20-year effort to get the adoption in 1981 of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Belief It was an effort kept alive by a small number of states and NGOs. It is not sure that as far-reaching and complete a Declaration could be drafted today. The Declaration serves as a guideline in many of the current religious-based tensions.

8) The Rights of Women. It is always strange how difficult it is to get proper attention to the rights and condition of women since they are half and probably more of humanity. Nevertheless it has been a long effort largely carried by NGOs. It is a multifaceted effort and was helped by a series of UN-sponsored Conferences on women. Geneva-based NGOs such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom have played key roles. That women exist and Thus have rights has been a theme that has brought together NGOs who are often Divided on other issues.

9) Systematic rape. The awareness of systematic rape as a crime against humanity has grown as part of the broader effort on the equality of women mentioned in point 8. Many of the NGOs concerned with equality of women have been concered with domestic violence as well. Thus they reacted strongly to reports of systematic rape during the conflicts of former Yugoslavia. This issue has also been raised concerning the conflict in Darfur, Sudan and has become part of the mandate of the International Criminal Court.

10) Human Rights Defenders. I leave for last our auto-defense: the efforts to protect human rights defenders on the front lines. Raising human rights issues in a good number of countries can get you into trouble. Even writing to Amnesty International is not a danger-free practice is some places. The recent killing of Anna Politkovskaia, a journalist critical of the conflict in Checheny, is there as a symbol of all those on the front lines of human rights protection. Thanks to NGO efforts, the UN has created a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders – A constant reminder to government and in some cases non-governmental militias that they are being watched.

All these victories are fragile, and there are governments who would want them reversed or forgotten. But on Human Rights Day we can welcome these advances, remember those whose drive, skills and determination helped bring forward these issues which many would have left in the dark. We need to prepare for the next battles which are not far away.