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Introducing human rights law: Chris Sidoti (1997)

Rights Rights and Freedoms

Introducing human rights
law

Speech by Chris Sidoti, Human
Rights Commissioner, Hanoi, Vietnam, 2 May, 1997

Introduction

International law
deals with many matters of importance to everyday life: access to the
water of rivers for navigation, irrigation and drinking; transport by
sea and air; environmental protection; the arrest and extradition of those
accused or convicted of crimes. International law provides protection
in international life and locally.

Human rights constitute
a body of law, part of international law that, to a greater or lesser
extent, is reflected in the domestic law of individual countries. This
body of law is a set of legal principles and rules just like any other
body of law. It creates entitlements and obligations for states and individuals.

The origins of
human rights law

The origins of human
rights law can be traced back to ethical and philosophical positions thousands
of years old, found in cultures of great difference and diversity. The
legal origins lie in significant legal developments over the course of
a thousand years and in many countries.

For Australian law
we find aspects of human rights in the law we inherited from England.
The Magna Carta of 1215 is primarily about the rights of barons, particularly
about the rights of barons against the king. By sheer coincidence it also
dealt a little with the rights of ordinary people. The Bill of Rights
of 1688 is primarily about the rights of one house of the British Parliament,
the House of Commons. Like the Magna Carta it is an accommodation a contract
between the sovereign and a house of parliament. Again, it contains a
little bit about individual rights but not very much. Nonetheless these
two foundations of English law are rightly seen as significant advancements
in human rights because they deal with some limited rights of particular
individuals against the sovereign.

A much fuller expression
of human rights is not found in British law but first in the law arising
from the French Revolution, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man
and the Citizen of 1789 and second, shortly after that, in the amendments
to the United States Constitution during the 1790s. In these two documents
we find the first expression in law of human rights as rights that are
universal in their application to all citizens and not just to the aristocracy
or members of parliament.

Significantly the
most important advances in law arose not from domestic experience of individual
states but from international experiences, two particular international
traumas.

The first trauma
was World War I. The trench warfare in western Europe and the gassings
provoked a desire among nations to regulate what was permissible and what
impermissible in warfare. Major international conferences after the War
led to the development of international humanitarian law and to more prescriptive
laws governing the conduct of war. New treaties set out in particular
what one combatant could do to another combatant and what they could not
do. These developments, although very important, were limited to international
warfare.

The trauma of World
War II, most particularly the Holocaust in Europe and the mass murder
of civilians in East Asia, resulted in the most rapid development of international
human rights law. Indeed what happened in Europe and East Asia during
this War generated the enormous and still growing body of international
law dealing with human rights.

The basis of human
rights law

As human rights law
has developed it has become based upon a radical understanding of the
human person and of the relationship of the individual to the community.
In the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights of 1688 rights were
granted by the sovereign. Now in both international law and domestic law
human rights are not simply created or granted. They are recognized or
declared. They exist as inherent in our human dignity. They are not subject
to the whims of governments. They are not dependent on what governments
might say or what parliaments might do. They are grounded fundamentally
in the basic dignity and equality of each human person. The role of governments
and parliaments is to protect the rights to which we are each entitled.
And that role, of course, is at the core of human rights debate today.

International law
recognizes human rights in three principal ways: treaty law, the law generated
through the United Nations and customary international law.

Treaties

Treaty obligations

Treaties are binding
international agreements. They are not merely expressions of good will
or statements of aspiration or intention. A treaty is rather like a contract
between states, between the nations that are parties to the treaty.

Becoming a party
to a treaty is a legal process. A state might sign an international treaty
and later ratify it. Signing a treaty means that the state expresses an
intention to accept in the future all the obligations arising under the
treaty and in the meantime refrains from doing anything inconsistent with
these anticipated obligations. However, the state is not immediately bound
by the treaty. Ratifying a treaty means the state becomes a party to the
treaty, one of the contracting states, and it is bound by the treaty's
obligations.

(If you want to be
really technical, a state can also accede to a treaty. Accession replaces
the two-stage process of signing and ratifying a treaty that is already
in effect. A state can accede to the treaty and is immediately bound by
it. Signature, ratification and accession have different meanings and
consequences but they are often used incorrectly.)

International treaties
impose binding obligations on states that are parties to them. States
undertake to do certain things. They accept responsibilities towards each
other, mutual obligations. Because a treaty is a contract, one party to
the contract can call other parties to the contract to account for their
actions.

The United
Nations Charter

The first framework
for international human rights treaty law is found in the United Nations
Charter itself. The Charter is like the constitution of the United Nations.
In a number of different articles it provides that the United Nations'
role is to encourage and promote respect for human rights and fundamental
freedoms. It says that the United Nations should not impose any restrictions
on the eligibility of people to participate in the international community.
It gives the General Assembly of the UN responsibilities, functions and
powers including assisting the realization of human rights and fundamental
freedoms for all. It describes the purpose of the UN as universal respect
for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Article 1 defines
one of the UN's objectives to be

"... promoting
and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms
for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion"
.

Article 8 states
that

"the United
Nations shall place no restrictions on the eligibility of men and women
to participate in any capacity and under conditions of equality in its
principal and subsidiary organs. . . "
.

Article 13 states
that the responsibilities, functions and powers of the General Assembly
shall include

"assisting
in the realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.
. . "

Article 55 describes
the purposes of the UN in international cooperation including

"universal
respect for, and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms
for all without discrimination as to race, sex, language, or religion"
.

So through this most
central and fundamental of international agreements, the United Nations
Charter, nations that become members of the UN commit themselves to the
UN framework of human rights.

Human rights
treaties

Within that framework
there are a number of different types of human rights treaties. First
are two foundational treaties that form two of the three elements of the
International Bill of Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and
Cultural Rights. Civil and political rights are principally the rights
commonly known as civil liberties: the rights to take part in the political
process, to vote and to demonstrate; the right to privacy; the right to
marry and found a family; the rights to due process within the courts
and fair trial; the right to be presumed innocent until and unless found
guilty; the right not to be discriminated against; freedom of expression
and of the media; freedom of religion and belief. Economic, social and
cultural rights include the right to work; the right to an education;
the right to health care; the right to a decent standard of living and
to social security; the right to maintain one's own culture and to be
involved in cultural life and activity; the right to respect for and maintenance
of language; the right to be a social participant in the community.

One of the great
and continuing tragedies of international human rights law is that there
are two separate covenants, one dealing with civil and political rights
and one dealing with economic, social and cultural rights. The development
of two international covenants is a product of the Cold War. Although
the Cold War is long gone and almost forgotten its legacy in international
human rights law is the division between the two categories of rights.
The covenants were drafted in the 1950s and 1960s. The United States and
the Western Bloc were strong supporters of defending civil and political
rights but they were not very keen on economic, social and cultural rights.
The Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc thought economic, social and cultural
rights wonderful but preferred to ignore civil and political rights. The
drafting process began with the objective of having one treaty but it
split, with each bloc promoting the treaty of particular interest to it.
Both were approved by the General Assembly in 1966, after almost 20 years
of negotiation. States were asked to become parties to both. But the early
signing and ratifications reflected very much the Cold War division. To
Australia's credit it was one of the first Western countries to be a party
to both of those international covenants. And to Vietnam's credit it was
one of the first socialist countries to be a party to both.

In addition to these
two foundational documents there are human rights treaties that deal with
the rights of specific groups dealing for example with racial discrimination,
discrimination against women, the rights of the child. There are also
treaties that deal with specific issues: torture, apartheid, genocide.
Finally, there are human rights treaties that deal with particular regions:
the European Convention on Human Rights, the African Charter of Human
and Peoples' Rights and the American Human Rights Convention. There is
no regional human rights treaty or arrangement in our part of the world,
the Asia-Pacific region.

The basic universal
treaties have now received enormously wide ratifications by the nations
of the world. This indicates the extent to which these rights are recognized
and respected, at least on paper. Ratifications and signatures at 30 June
1996 were:

  • International
    Covenant on Civil and Political Rights     132 5
  • International
    Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 134 5
  • Convention on
    the Elimination of Discrimination against Women 154 7
  • Convention on
    the Elimination of Racial Discrimination 150 6
  • Convention against
    Torture 97 13
  • Convention on
    the Rights of the Child 195 3

Monitoring compliance

One of the difficulties
in international law is how to secure compliance by states with their
obligations. There is no international police force that chases after
recalcitrant states. The best that can be done at this stage is to ensure
that the treaties contain mechanisms for accountability and supervision
of state compliance. The human rights treaties have these.

First, each human
rights treaty provides that states parties must report periodically to
a monitoring committee established by the treaty on how it is observing
the treaty. The members of the treaty committee are elected by the states
that are parties to the treaty. They are usually individuals eminent in
the area covered by the treaty. They are elected in their own right, not
as representatives of their nation, although it goes without saying that
politics plays an important part in the electoral process. Australia is
extraordinarily honoured in having an Australian on each of the two most
important human rights committees, Professor Philip Alston on the Committee
on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Justice Elizabeth Evatt on
the Human Rights Committee that handles civil and political rights.

Under each human
rights treaty a state must report every specified number of years to the
treaty committee. The committee receives the report and examines the representatives
of the state in person over a day or two. In these examinations the committee
normally relies a great deal on the knowledge of its members and information
from non-government organizations. It has no independent investigative
arm and therefore requires this kind of assistance to be able to cross-examine
the state before it. Certainly the committee cannot and does not simply
rely upon what the state says about its own record.

This process of reporting
and examination can be quite a challenging exercise. Many countries are
very active during the six months before their cross-examination trying
to address issues where they fear criticism. There have been many instances
where countries have changed their laws at the time of their examination
to avoid criticism by the treaty committee. But, of course, other countries
are quite prepared to go before a committee and ignore the views of the
committee members and indeed of the rest of the world. Nonetheless this
system of reporting and monitoring is one mechanism of accountability.

Some of the treaties
provide a second mechanism for compliance. Two treaties (the ICCPR and
the CAT) provide that states can make declarations under the treaty to
accept the jurisdiction of the treaty committee to receive and determine
complaints of violation of the treaty. States that have made a declaration
can lodge with the treaty committee a complaint against the activities
of another state that has made a declaration. Australia has made declarations
under both treaties. It can now lodge a complaint against another country
that has made the declaration and can have complaints lodged against it.
On 30 June 1996, 42 countries had made declarations under the ICCPR and
35 countries under CAT. Vietnam has not made a declaration under the ICCPR
and is not a party to CAT.

Three treaties (the
ICCPR, in its First Optional Protocol, CERD and CAT) provide a third mechanism
for compliance. They enable individuals to complain to the treaty committee
against their own countries for violations of human rights. Again, this
is an optional extra. States do not have to accept this additional responsibility
but many do. Australia now has a perfect record. It has made the necessary
commitment under each of the treaties where the mechanism is provided.
As a result an Australian citizen, Nick Toonen, was able to complain to
the UN Human Rights Committee about the Tasmanian laws that penalise male
homosexual activity. That was possible only because Australia agreed to
accept the jurisdiction of that committee to hear complaints of violations
of Australia's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights. Nick Toonen lodged his complaint the day Australia's
declaration became effective. The committee sought submissions from Australia
and issued its opinion on the complaint. It found that the Tasmanian law
was contrary to Australia's human rights obligations under the Covenant.
The Australian Parliament changed the law in response to the Committee's
finding. On 30 June 1996, 89 countries were party to the First Optional
Protocol, and 34 countries had made declarations under CAT and 20 countries
had made declarations under CERD.

Law generated
through the United Nations

The second source
of international human rights law is law generated by the United Nations
system. The UN approves a large number of declarations and other statements
that concern human rights. These statements are not treaties and so they
do not have parties to them, they are not signed or ratified and their
legal effect is more uncertain. They may not, for example, bind states
and they have no mechanisms for monitoring observance. However, as they
are products of the UN system they are at least highly influential and
there is an argument that compliance is a necessary consequence of UN
membership.

The most fundamental
document on human rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is
a product of the UN system. It is the third and final component of the
International Bill of Rights. It is not a treaty. It was adopted in 1948
by way of a declaration of the UN General Assembly. It includes within
itself civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights.
It preceded (just) the Cold War conflicts that led later to the division
of rights in the two Covenants, as I have described. Fortunately, to counter
the tragedy of this division in the Covenants, the Universal Declaration
itself provides a clear statement of the indivisibility of rights.

Since 1948 and the
Universal Declaration there have been many other declarations on human
rights passed by the General Assembly. There are declarations dealing
with the rights of people with disabilities, people with intellectual
disabilities, ethnic and cultural minorities and migrant workers, with
the right to development, with violence against women and others. They
are declarations of the General Assembly, normally passed by consensus
after years of negotiation.

There are also UN
statements of lesser status, called principles or guidelines or rules.
In recent years the UN Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly
have passed principles dealing with the rights of the mentally ill and
of older persons. There are also rules providing standards for the treatment
of prisoners and others in detention and for juvenile justice.

Finally there are
resolutions of the Security Council and the General Assembly, of the UN
Commission on Human Rights and of other UN organs on particular human
rights cases.

Customary international
law

The third source
of human rights law is customary international law. It is not set down
in any particular documents or codes of rules. It exists and develops
as identified and accepted by international lawyers and tribunals from
time to time. Customary international law is associated with state practice.
A rule is identified on the basis that states act that way and do so out
of a sense of obligation. From the accepted behaviour of states towards
each other tribunals and international forums can deduce a binding rule
of customary international law. This source of international law has long
been accepted. The law against piracy, for example, is very ancient customary
international law. Customary international law now includes human rights.

I have described
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a foundational document.
But it is not a binding treaty and when adopted it did not create binding
obligations. There is much debate about whether the Declaration can now
be considered part of customary international law whether the Declaration
has passed beyond being simply an expression of opinion from the General
Assembly to being binding on all nations. My view is that it has, in its
entirety, that the Universal Declaration is now binding on all the nations
of the world.

The Universal Declaration
was one of the earliest pronouncements of the General Assembly. It was
made within the context of the UN Charter itself, which includes a commitment
from members of the UN to promote human rights. It describes itself as
a 'common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations'. That
is, the Declaration itself proclaims its universality. It is described
elsewhere in similar terms. In the Teheran Proclamation of the First World
Conference on Human Rights in 1968 and the Vienna Declaration of the Second
World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 the Universal Declaration was
said to be a commitment of all nations with which they are obliged to
comply. Article 2 of the Tehran Proclamation, made by 85 nations, says

"The Universal
Declaration of Human Rights states a common understanding of the peoples
of the world concerning the inalienable and inviolable rights of all members
of the human family and constitutes an obligation for the members of the
international community.

The Vienna Declaration,
made by 176 nations, emphasizes again that the Universal Declaration 'constitutes
a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations'. The
Vienna Declaration, in Article 1, asserts

"The World
Conference on Human Rights reaffirms the solemn commitment of all States
to fulfil their obligations to promote universal respect for, and observance
and protection of, all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all
in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, other instruments
relating to human rights, and international law. The universal nature
of these rights and freedoms is beyond question.

In this framework,
enhancement of international cooperation in the field of human rights
is essential for the full achievement of the purposes of the United
Nations.

Human rights
and fundamental freedoms are the birthright of all human beings; their
protection and promotion is the first responsibility of Governments."

I find no doubt that
the Universal Declaration is now international law that binds all nations
whether or not they have signed any or all of the human rights treaties.

Let me explain the
significance of this. Although most nations have ratified most human rights
treaties, many have not. For states parties discussing human rights, there
is a common basis for the discussions, the treaties the states have signed.
It is more difficult working with those that are outside the human rights
treaty system. However if the Universal Declaration has become part of
customary international law binding all nations it is the basis of mutual
obligations between states. Nations can be held accountable for their
compliance or non-compliance with it. Because the Universal Declaration
is now binding customary international law nations can properly expect
each other to comply with it. When discussing a human rights issue or
an individual human rights case with a country that has not ratified the
major treaties, we can still, say, "You are a member of the international
community and a member of the United Nations. You have to comply with
the provisions of this Declaration. Please explain why you are in violation
of the Declaration in the way you are treating a particular citizen or
particular citizens."

I consider it arguable
that many others of these treaties, principles and declarations, or at
least some of their provisions, have also passed into binding customary
international law. There are strong arguments that the two foundational
covenants on civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural
rights are also now part of customary law but that is more controversial
and many would disagree. But slowly, certainly, the human rights obligations
expressed in international instruments are finding their way into the
common law of nations and nations are bound to comply with them. We can
quite validly complain when they do not.

Issues in human
rights law

There are four significant
issues in international debates about human rights law:

  • universality
  • indivisibility
  • sovereignty and
  • the relationship
    between the state, the group and the individual.

I propose to deal
with each in turn.

Universality

The universality
of human rights is contested by some states. This argument is often associated
with statements about cultural relativism, that is, that human rights
law is Western derived and appropriate only in a European cultural context
and that it is contrary to Asian values and cultures.

One part of this
position is that the Universal Declaration was drafted and adopted when
there were only 56 members in the United Nations. Now there are almost
200 member states. But those 56 members in 1948 represented many cultural
traditions, excepting notably African cultures. They adopted the Declaration
by 48 votes to nil, with 8 abstentions. The committee that drafted the
Declaration had nine members including the Soviet Union, China, Chile
and Lebanon.

The argument for
universality, however does not depend on the composition of the UN in
1948. We can point also to the fact that another 150 nations have joined
the UN since, aware of the centrality of the Universal Declaration within
the UN system. We can point to the fact that the majority of the world's
nations, from all continents and all political, economic, social and cultural
systems and traditions, have ratified human rights treaties. And we can
point to regular re-affirmation of the universality of human rights. Let
me quote again Article 1 of the Vienna Declaration made by 176 nations.

"The World
Conference on Human Rights reaffirms the solemn commitment of all States
to fulfil their obligations to promote universal respect for, and observance
and protection of, all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all
in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, Other instruments
relating to human rights, and international law. The universal nature
of these rights and freedoms is beyond question.

In this framework,
enhancement of international cooperation in the field of human rights
is essential for the full achievement of the purposes of the United
Nations.

Human rights
and fundamental freedoms are the birthright of all human beings; their
protection and promotion is the first responsibility of Governments."

Article 5 of the
Vienna Declaration is even more explicit.

"All human
rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated.
The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair
and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While
the significance of national and regional particularities and various
historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind,
it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and
cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental
freedoms."

The second argument
about universality is that human rights can be interpreted and applied
in different ways in different regions and nations. This view is evident
in statements to the Vienna World Conference by a number of countries
and in statements since then, especially by some prominent leaders from
our region.

Certainly there is
room for variation in the measures taken to protect human rights. Article
2 in both the International Covenants recognises this. Article 2 obliges
states 'to adopt such legislative or other measures as may be necessary
to give effect to the rights recognised....'

However, differences
in measures of protection are not differences in interpretation and application.
There can no longer be any doubt about the universality of human rights.
They transcend political, economic, cultural, religious and ideological
divisions. They stand as a common statement of what it means to be human.

Indivisibility

The second argument
is about indivisibility. Some states give priority to some rights over
other rights or even accept some categories of human rights while rejecting
other categories. This approach is reflected, as I have said, in the adoption
of two covenants, one on civil and political rights and one on economic,
social and cultural rights.

That division continues
in a few cases. The United States, for example, has ratified the ICCPR
but not the ICESCR. And China has clearly argued for a hierarchy of human
rights. Its White Paper on Human Rights says:

"it is
a simple truth that, for any country or nation, the right to subsistence
is the most important of all human rights, without which all other rights
are out of the question. "

And China told the
Vienna World Conference on Human Rights:

"For the
vast rights of developing countries, to respect and protect human rights
is first and foremost to ensure the full realisation of the rights to
subsistence and development. The argument that human rights is the precondition
for development is unfounded. When poverty and lack of adequate food
and clothing are commonplace and people's basic needs are not guaranteed,
priority should be given to economic development. Otherwise, human rights
are completely out of the question."

But this argument
too is now closed.

The Teheran Proclamation
in 1968 said, in Article 13,

"Since
human rights and fundamental freedoms are indivisible, the full realisation
of civil and political rights without the enjoyment of economic, social
and cultural rights is impossible. The achievement of lasting progress
in the implementation of human rights is dependent upon sound and effective
national and international policies of economic and social development."

The Vienna Declaration
in 1993 said in Article 5,

"All human
rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated.
The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair
and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While
the significance of national and regional particularities and various
historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind,
it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and
cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental
freedoms"

Finally, the great
majority of the world's nations, including Vietnam and Australia, have
ratified both the ICCPR and the ICESCR.

Virtually all nations
now accept human rights law as indivisible and equally binding on nations.

National sovereignty

The third issue concerns
the relationship between human rights law and national sovereignty.

Countries that have
had to struggle for their independence, especially from colonial domination,
are understandably and properly committed to protecting their national
sovereignty. Many older independent states are equally protective of their
sovereignty. In both cases human rights law can at times seem like an
unjustified intrusion by the international community on national sovereignty.

Clearly there can
be tension between the two. This is even evident in the Vienna Declaration
itself. The World Conference says

"the promotion
and protection of human rights is a matter of priority for the international
community."

Article 4 says unequivocally
of the Vienna Declaration:

"The promotion
and protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms must be
considered as a priority objective of the United Nations in accordance
with its purposes and principles, in particular the purpose of international
cooperation. In the framework of these purposes and principles, the
promotion and protection of all human rights is a legitimate concern
of the international community. The organs and specialised agencies
related to human rights should therefore further enhance the coordination
of their activities based on the consistent and objective application
of international human rights instruments."

Article 2 of the
Vienna Declaration deals with the right to self-determination and the
difficulty in accommodating that right alongside national sovereignty.

There are two points
to be made here, however. First, accepting human rights treaties is not
inconsistent with sovereignty but an exercise of sovereignty. States decide
to ratify treaties, to become part of the UN, to accept the jurisdiction
of treaty monitoring committees and to implement treaties in domestic
law. Far from being in conflict with sovereignty these steps are all exercises
of sovereignty. They can even involve sovereign acts to limit the scope
of sovereignty.

Second, human rights
are inherent and inalienable. They exist as entitlements regardless of
what states and governments may think or want. We must acknowledge, therefore,
that they do place limits on the legitimate exercise of power by the states.
There are many other limits on the exercise of state power including weather,
natural resources and the international economy. At least their limit
is voluntarily accepted, not imposed. And it is directed towards promoting
and protecting human dignity, rather than constraining or violating it.

The state, the
group and individual

The final issue concerns
the relationship between the state, the group and the individual. Much
of human rights law asserts and protects the right of the individual against
the state. But it is wrong to see human rights only as relating to individual
rights. The individual is always seen as a member of a community. The
state, which should be the democratic expression of the will of the community,
is seen as the guarantor and protector of the rights of the individuals
who constitute the community.

Human rights law
recognises many group rights. Most notable is the right to self-determination
itself, expressed in Article 1 of both Covenants. The ICESCR deals with
many group rights, including the cultural and language rights of minorities.
The Declaration on the Right to Development is entirely devoted to a collective
right. The Vienna Declaration reiterated this right and dealt as well
with human rights and the external debt burden of many countries.

The regional treaty
for Africa, the African Charter of Human and People's Rights, confronted
this issue directly. In a clear statement that is fully consistent with
universal human rights standards, the Charter expresses the relationships
between the individual, the group and the state in terms of individual
rights and people's rights.

The key to this issue
is the right of the individual to participate fully in the life of the
community. Article 8 of the Vienna Declaration expresses this.

"Democracy,
development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are
interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Democracy is based on the freely
expressed will of the people to determine their own political, economic,
social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects
of their lives. In the context of the above, the promotion and protection
of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international
level should be universal and conducted without conditions attached.
The international community should support the strengthening and promotion
of democracy, development and respect for human rights and fundamental
freedoms in the entire world."

Non-government organisations
are a principal means of participation, particularly for the promotion
of human rights. Indeed the Vienna Declaration in Article 38 saw them
as having collective rights.

"Non-governmental
organisations and their members genuinely involved in the field of human
rights should enjoy the rights and freedoms recognised in the universal
declaration of human rights and the protection of the national law."

It asserted their
significant role in human rights protection.

"The World
Conference on Human Rights recognises the important role of nongovernmental
organisations in the promotion of all human rights and in humanitarian
activities at notional, regional and international levels. The World
Conference on Human Rights appreciates their contribution to increasing
public awareness of human rights issues, to the conduct of education,
training and research in this field, and to the promotion and protection
of all human rights and fundamental freedoms. While recognising that
the primary responsibility foe standard setting lies with States, the
conference also appreciates the contribution of non-governmental organisations
to this process."

The future

The central position
human rights occupy in international law and international relations is
recent. We often forget that and expect too much. It took centuries for
nations to develop their own criminal laws and to establish effective
police services to ensure the safety of their citizens. Indeed many nations
are still struggling to do so. International human rights law is barely
50 years old. The marvel to me is not that its effectiveness remains so
limited but that it is as effective as it is. In 50 years the nations
of the world have in fact developed a comprehensive body of international
law that recognizes the fundamental equality, dignity and rights of each
human person. They have also established in the United Nations system
the rudiments of an international legal process through which breaches
of rights can be examined and, at times, action taken to address them.
Clearly there is still much to do but let us not forget that much has
already been accomplished.

The future, I am
sure, will see further development of these initiatives. Already the debate
has changed from one which focuses on whether a country has any right
to raise these issues to one that sees states being required to give an
account of themselves and their actions to the international community.
Already there are treaty monitoring processes. These will be improved.
Already there are complaints procedures. These will become more effective.
Already there are international courts to try some types of crimes. These
can be and will be extended.

We should be impatient,
however. People should not have to wait centuries for the development
of an effective international system to protect human rights and ensure
justice. Human rights law is now in good shape. The next challenge is
to develop effective mechanisms for its implementation and enforcement.

Last
updated 1 December 2001

See Also