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“It is a dark period for human rights”


Human rights are not a priority in international relations, remaining a “poor cousin” to trade, security and economic issues, according to the director of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.

Speaking to on the occasion of International Human Rights Day, Andrew Clapham says however that progress has been made in recent years, notably with the creation of peer reviews in the Human Rights Council.

Clapham says the United Nations body is still experiencing growing pains though. Are human rights given the place they deserve now by states, individuals and human rights institutions?

Andrew Clapham: I would like to say yes, but I feel it is a dark period for human rights. The situation in Syria, where human rights are violated every day is not leading to the kind of concern one would expect around the world. There is a kind of frustrated concern, but people are still getting on with other priorities. Similarly within other contexts, the world of investment, the world of trade, even the arms trade, I don’t think human rights are given the priority they should be given.

So even if we have the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, with a large staff and offices around the world, I think in terms of international relations, human rights are still very much the poor cousin to other concerns related to trade, national security and economic development. One problem until recently was to get the Universal Declaration of Human Rights accepted as a common reference. Some countries refused it because of religious and cultural objections or traditions. Are human rights now universal?

A.C.: I think that on the whole we have gone beyond that debate. It’s very rare now at the United Nations for a state to complain that human rights are not applicable to them or that human rights are some kind of western construct.

That said, we have a universal acceptance at least at the official level, but the problem is that with that acceptance comes the risk that they are seen as everything and nothing, that they become a bit banal. If anyone says everyone has human rights and then people contradict one another on that issue, then somehow human rights have lost their bite. So it’s important not to continue convincing people human rights exist, but that we focus on catching those who violate them and preventing their abuse. When you talk about the difficulties related to the acceptance of human rights, is it a western problem, an eastern problem, a problem for developing or developed nations?

A.C.: Historically for example the United States has not been a great supporter of the concept of economic, social and cultural rights. However, President Obama, now about to start his second term, has referred obliquely to a right to health. Now that might not be a sea-change as a whole for America, but it represents the beginning of something. The healthcare programme did play a big part in the election and the idea that the state has obligations to ensure everyone has access to healthcare is more and more accepted in a country like the United States.

On the other hand, a country like China that has not ratified the civil and political rights covenant, and has rejected some claims about political rights and freedom of expression, doesn’t really deny at the United Nations or even to their people that those rights exist. They will claim they are applying a justified limitation in terms of national security and so on.

So the language of human rights is no longer ‘do we accept it or not’ or ‘do we accept some rights or no’. It’s much more detailed and I think that is a good thing. One issue for human rights has been the institutions in charge of monitoring their application. There was a change when the UN Human Rights Commission was replaced by the Human Rights Council. Has that change allowed us to forget the problems that beset the old Commission?

A.C.: The Council has succeeded partially. For example, the Commission only dealt with countries where there was a majority to condemn them. We had a lot of discussions about countries such Iraq, Iran, Haiti, Congo and so on, but not about heavyweights such as Britain, France, China, the United States and Russia. As far as I remember, none of these were ever condemned or properly discussed at the Commission. With the Council, every state is now discussed for an equal amount of time under the Universal Periodic Review. That has to be progress, not only because the bigger countries are discussed, but also smaller countries where there were human rights problems but nobody really cared to discuss it, also get discussed.

Are there early stage errors being made, growing pains? Yes, I think there are. I think the  UPR suffers from being overly friendly and diplomatic. If someone came down from Mars and started watching it, they would consider it a very gentlemanly club with people exchanging compliments, and that it wouldn’t be a review in the sense a periodic review was supposed to be. However, that was inevitable in the first round when people were finding their feet and I find it would be hard to believe that the review won’t be more robust in ten years’ time. Your academy helps train people on how to promote human rights. Do you believe that respect for human rights has to come from individuals before it comes from institutions?

A.C.: All progress in human rights has come because of individuals, sometimes working for governments or the UN, pushing forward the machinery for the protection of human rights. The big treaties at the UN have often been driven by dedicated individuals, usually working in the non-governmental sector. So for example the conventions on torture, disabilities or  disappearances all owe their origins to individuals working to get those rights protected and not states deciding to grant those rights out of a question of largesse or noblesse. So it’s a continuing struggle to demand those rights. Of course the machinery is built by states, so you need the two working together. But the history of human rights is based on the demand of the individual.

Andrew Clapham is the director of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights and professor of public international law at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

He teaches international human rights law and public international law.

Clapham has worked as special adviser on corporate responsibility to High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, and adviser on international humanitarian law to Sergio Vieira de Mello, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in Iraq.

He is notably the author of Human Rights, A Very Short Introduction, which focuses on issues including torture, arbitrary detention, privacy, health, and discrimination.

Human Rights Day is observed every year on December 10. It commemorates the adoption in day in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

When the assembly adopted the declaration, with 48 states in favor and eight abstentions, it was proclaimed as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”, towards which individuals and societies should “strive by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance”.

The declaration with its range of political, civil, social, cultural and economic rights is not a binding document. However, it provides the foundation for more than 60 human rights instruments.

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