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Revealing the true face of human rights

Grafitti on a wall in the Czech Republic in 1992. Olivia Heussler.

A Swiss expert on international law has published an in-depth study of human rights, examining both the violations and the hope of a better life.

In an interview with swissinfo, Walter Kälin says human rights have come a long way in a very short time but he admits there is no miracle solution to ending abuses.

Kälin, who is a professor of international and constitutional law at Bern University, started work 15 months ago on The Face of Human Rights and describes the project as an “intense process”.

He collaborated closely with co-editor Lars Müller who developed the idea of a “visual reader”, with text and images working interactively.

The book runs to 720 pages, containing dozens of photographs and accompanying texts that cover the many aspects of human rights.

Photos range from elderly men enjoying the sunshine at a beach club in Barcelona, Spain, to the bloody victims of a bombing in Kosovo.

Texts cover provocative issues such as the death penalty, child soldiers, ethnic cleansing and human trafficking.

But they also deal with subjects that don’t always make the headlines: the right to housing, information and to get married.

Kälin is also the United Nations representative on the human rights of internally displaced persons and a member of the UN Human Rights Committee.

swissinfo: Who is this book aimed at?

Walter Kälin: Firstly, it’s aimed at the wider public – people who are not insiders, who are not specialists in international human rights, but who want to have a comprehensive picture of what the human-rights debate is about.

Secondly, it’s a book that is addressed at non-governmental organisations, especially small ones who can use it as a tool for dissemination and training.

Thirdly, it’s a great source of material – and even I myself have started to use it, because there’s so much information in there.

swissinfo: You cover every aspect of international human rights in this book…

W.K.: This was the idea from the beginning: to show the comprehensiveness of human rights. Because when people talk about human rights then it’s usually about genocide and torture.

But human rights are about so much more, the right to food, health, housing and privacy. We attempted to show that these are also very important rights and that there are violations that should be taken note of in those areas.

swissinfo: The book contains some beautiful, uplifting pictures as well as some brutal images of atrocities. A series early in the book shows a man being gunned down in East Timor.

W.K.: That was very intentional and was part of the concept. Human rights are on the one hand about violations, and you should show violations.

But at the same time human rights are also the vision of a good life, and we wanted to show what it means if human rights are fully implemented and enjoyed by people.

swissinfo: As far as the written content is concerned, you have academic texts, pieces from journalists and profiles of those who have been involved in human-rights work, such as Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN envoy who was killed in Iraq in 2003.

W.K.: It is an interesting mix and in a way it reflects the diversity we have with the different styles of images. It is also again an attempt to reach a wider audience: some people will start with the more legal and political texts; others will start with the literary texts.

swissinfo: In your preface to the book, you raise the question of whether international efforts to protect human rights have failed. But how can they stop being infringed when all states have their own agenda?

W.K.: Probably we will never arrive at the stage where all violations will be stopped. In a way it seems to be part of life that there is aggression and oppression. But the question is how to limit and prevent this.

Of course, there is no miracle solution, but one thing I very much wanted to do with this book is to show that much is being done – much more than the public is often aware of.

There are success stories and there are many organisations working to achieve that goal. So even though we should not be naively optimistic, we should not be too pessimistic.

swissinfo: You also state that no government can claim the treatment of its own people to be its own business. But it’s clear looking at Sudan, China, North Korea and even the United States, for example, that they do.

W.K.: There is a tension between the principle of state sovereignty and the principle of human rights, and I don’t want to deny that. But state sovereignty is important for human rights because first and foremost it is governments that implement human rights.

They have the instruments, they have the power, and we have seen in all the failed states what it means when you don’t have a functioning sovereign state. Then warlords or those able to trigger ethnic or religious hatred take control or anarchy breaks out.

One of the major responsibilities for states today is to take care of their own population, including protecting their human rights. The big question is what to do if a state is either unable or unwilling to fully respect and protect human rights. That’s where the international community has to come in.

swissinfo: But don’t US actions in Guantanamo Bay show that the international community is ultimately powerless to ensure basic human rights are upheld?

W.K.: The international community is the community of states and it cannot achieve more than the states are ready to do. If, in a specific situation, one of its most powerful members no longer accepts to respect some of the most basic human rights, then the whole human-rights system will be jeopardised.

At the same time, it is reassuring to see to what extent the US position was rejected by the other states, and how the US Supreme Court concluded that detention without any access to judicial control is illegal.

swissinfo-interview: Adam Beaumont

The book was edited by Walter Kälin, Judith Wyttenbach and Lars Müller.
It is 720 pages long and costs SFr68 ($57).
Walter Kälin is a member of the UN Human Rights Committee.

The book illustrates and documents how international human rights are violated, and shows what the international community and non-governmental organisations are trying to do to prevent abuses.

The Volkart Foundation, one of the book’s sponsors, has donated 500 copies to Amnesty International for distribution to smaller organisations in developing countries.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR