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UN urges rich nations to take lead on human rights

UN human rights commissioner, Brian Burdekin, said global treaties needed to be backed up with national legislation Keystone

On international human rights day, Switzerland and other industrialised countries were being urged to lead by example by setting up independent humans rights bodies.

This content was published on December 11, 2001 - 08:12

Two parliamentarians on Monday presented to parliament an initiative to create a federal human rights commission in Switzerland.

The move coincided with human rights day which celebrated the 53rd anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It also follows pressure from the UN, which has long urged richer nations to supplement well-intentioned international treaties with national bodies.

Speaking in Bern last week, Brian Burdekin, the chief adviser to the UN High Commissioner for Human rights, Mary Robinson, said western democracies have helped to establish international standards, but must now cement their credibility by setting an example.

Someone else's problem

"If we want to be taken seriously in the poorer countries of the world, we need to have a hard look in our own backyard," said Burdekin. "In the past, there has been a tendency for the wealthy developed democracies to see human rights as someone else's problem.

"There are human rights' violations in all countries, and these require not only the attention of government, but of an independent body with a mandate to monitor, protect and promote human rights."

In the past 20 years, Switzerland has thrown its weight behind international efforts to protect human rights, both by signing all of the most important treaties, and making human rights a key aspect of its foreign policy.

Swiss lag behind world

However, the country lags behind much of the developed world in that it has no independent human rights body at national level, and has failed to create one despite pledging to do so at the Vienna World Conference for Human Rights in 1993.

Under the present system, human rights issues are dealt with by four different federal ministries, a process, say critics, which hinders transparency, causes delays, and can lead to conflicts of interests.

Supporters of a federal human rights commission say a central body would do away with these problems.

The proposed commission would have a mandate to monitor the human rights situation in Switzerland and to ensure that the country meets international standards.

It would also investigate possible violations, and inform and educate the public, the media and government officials on human rights issues.

One Swiss parliamentarian backing the commission, Vreni Müller-Hemmi, said she was shocked to learn about the extent of human rights violations in Switzerland.

"I was shocked to learn that we have the second-highest rate of child beatings in Europe," she said. "That is not a fact that is widely known, even in political circles. Many politicians are poorly informed about human rights issues."

Currently as many as 70 countries have or are in the process of implementing an independent national human rights structure following the UN model, which sets out specific guidelines to ensure the independence of the commission.

Burdekin says these are a natural progression from the international treaties already in place.

"While these treaties are tremendously important, the international standards have to be implemented at national level and across nations. Unless and until we do that, these international standards don't have a lot of meaning."

by Devra Pitt

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