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The Devastating Decline of Human-Rights Justice Across the World


The Jan. 21, 2017, women’s marches across America protesting the new presidency of Trump inspired similarly minded marches throughout the world, but the epicenter was in Washington, D.C., above. CREATIVE COMMONS

The soul of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights is being destroyed with the disappearance of human-rights justice in the world. Everyone should be concerned if not frightened.

The appointment of Michelle Bachelet of Chile as UN high commissioner for human rights, who has personally experienced injustice, offers hope that her voice will be heard in support of human-rights norms, in letter and in spirit.

But support begins in international law, which requires that governments comply with their obligations, be they related to conduct or result. The oldest supervisory body in the UN system, the International Labor Organization Committee on the Application of Standards, going back to 1919, set the baseline, initially followed by UN human-rights treaty bodies, that regardless of the political, economic, social, cultural, legal or philosophical complexion of a country, it must comply with its international human-rights obligations.

Justice should be the yardstick.

But no more at the UN. Its Human Rights Council prioritizes dialogue and cooperation over confrontation — the principled denunciation of violations. A devastating UN report on crimes against humanity in North Korea met with no referral to the International Criminal Court. Justice did not matter.

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China and Russia have moved resolutions in the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council that prioritize dialogue over justice. The General Assembly, as a result, called upon the human-rights treaty monitoring organs to give preference to talk and cooperation. The Human Rights Council, for its part, called for attention to “traditional values” instead of following international human-rights law.

The United States has a longstanding practice of occasionally submitting to the supervision of human-rights-treaty bodies. The US, like China, India and Russia, does not accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. US troops abroad may commit all manner of atrocities, yet are amenable, if at all, only to US justice.

In Britain, some in the ruling party rail against the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and press for the country to withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights. Domestic institutions are preferred to regional ones, even though the latter comprise many judges, highly qualified, from European countries.

Winston Churchill led the establishment of the Council of Europe and its human-rights machinery, but that does not count these days.

Russia carries out few decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, always threatening to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which supervises the implementation of the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, has been a splendid organ of justice, although many members of the Organization of American States have either withdrawn from its jurisdiction or threaten to do so. The body is in existential crisis.

In Africa, it took a long time for the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which supervises the implementation of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to grow strong and tough. It remains a matter of luck and chance whether its decisions are followed by the countries concerned. The African Court of Human Rights, based in the Gambia, is a more recent body, so its experience has been limited.

There is no pan-Asian human-rights body. An Asean human-rights commission’s remit is diplomacy, not justice. It hardly deserves the name of a human-rights commission.

The two major Asian powers, China and India, are both practitioners of realpolitik regarding international enforcement of human rights. China nominally professes adherence to the universality of human rights but  the Communist Party decides its own values and does whatever it wishes. Its writ is rule by law, not the rule of law.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is oblivious to human-rights concerns. It provides assistance to countries, such as Zimbabwe and South Sudan, regardless of their human-rights records. At the UN, China is making inroads in reducing the number of human-rights posts through various means in UN peacekeeping missions, a new phenomenon that Russia happily tags along with as well.

India also professes adherence to the universality of human rights, and its judiciary has a respectable record of applying the rule of law in the country. But Indian troops in contested areas may carry out atrocities at will, without domestic or international scrutiny.

The UN high commissioners for human rights and UN secretaries-general give voice to human-rights concerns and plead for justice sometimes. But their voices often do not carry far. And there are few instances of reparation or compensation for victims of violations of human rights.

The International Court of Justice, based in The Hague, has laid down some laudable principles of justice. But few countries would accept its jurisdiction on human-rights issues. It is instructive to see the published views articulated by the current Chinese judge, Xue Hanqin, on the World Court, taken from a book she published of her lectures at The Hague Academy of International law, word for word:

  • China is of the view that the human-rights cause should be promoted in line with each State’s social and economic development. China believes that as a social movement, human rights promotion should proceed in a gradual and incremental fashion. In principle, human right protection remains in relative terms for every country, subject to the level and degree of its development.
  • Second, while accepting universality and inseparability of human rights, China attaches importance to economic, social and cultural rights and the right to development in its human rights process. It shares the view that the essential task for most developed countries at this stage is first and foremost to pursue economic and social development. China accords precedence of economic and social rights over civil and political rights.
  • Third, China also emphasizes the correlation between the human rights cause and the rule of law. In promoting rights and freedoms China lays stress on duties and obligations of citizens under the rule of law.
  • Fourth, in promoting international protection of human rights, China advocates mutual respect, non-interference, non-confrontational and constructive dialogues. It opposes “the double standards practised against the developing world.”

The Chinese position represents the majority of the UN’s 193 member nations.

Where is the place, then, for justice to victims of violations? Who will stand up for justice for humanity in Donald Trump’s America First era and its rejection of American advocacy of democracy and human rights abroad — perhaps not even in the US itself!

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This is an opinion essay.

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