The History Place - Points of View

Why Human Rights Matter
by Irene Khan
Secretary General
, Amnesty International

On 19 August 2003 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was killed in a bomb attack on the UN building in Baghdad, almost 10 years after the Office of the High Commissioner was established to uphold and promote human rights.

As one of the most prominent international human rights defenders lay dying in the rubble, the world had good cause to ponder how the legitimacy and credibility of the UN could have been eroded to such a fatal degree. Bypassed in the Iraq war and marginalized in its aftermath, discredited by its perceived vulnerability to pressure from powerful states, the UN seemed virtually paralysed in its efforts to hold states to account for their adherence to international law and their performance on human rights.

It was easy at that moment to wonder whether the events of 2003 had also dealt a mortal blow to the vision of global justice and universal human rights that first inspired the creation of global institutions such as the UN. If human rights are used as a cloak by governments to put on or cast away according to political expediency, can the international community of states be trusted to bring about that vision? And what can the international community of citizens do to rescue human rights from the rubble?

The answer came the same week that the UN office was bombed, when a group of women in Mexico won the first step towards achieving justice for their murdered daughters. Marginalized and poor, they had fought for 10 years to get that far but, finally, they compelled Mexican President Vicente Fox and the federal authorities to intervene. I was with the mothers of Ciudad Juárez when the news of this breakthrough came through. I will never forget the joy on the faces of the women and their gratitude to the thousands of people around the world whose efforts had helped bring about change. A worldwide web of international solidarity had globalized their struggle. Looking at them, I saw how much can be achieved for human rights through the dynamic virtual space of global civil society.

The challenges facing the global movement for human rights today are stark. As activists, we must confront the threat posed by callous, cruel and criminal acts of armed groups and individuals. We must resist the backlash against human rights created by the single-minded pursuit of a global security doctrine that has deeply divided the world. We must campaign to redress the failure of governments and the international community to deliver on social and economic justice.

The Baghdad tragedy was a clear reminder (though by no means the only one) of the global threat posed by those who are ready to use any means to further their political objectives. We condemn their acts unequivocally. They are guilty of abuse of human rights and violation of international humanitarian law, sometimes amounting to crimes against humanity and war crimes. They must be brought to trial but – and here we part company with some governments – in accordance with standards of international law. Human rights are for the best of us and the worst of us, for the guilty as well as the innocent. Denial of fair trial is an abuse of rights and risks converting perpetrators into martyrs. This is why we call for Saddam Hussein to be tried in accordance with international standards. This is why we oppose military commissions for the detainees at the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, that fail to meet international standards.

There is no path to sustainable security except through respect for human rights. The global security agenda promulgated by the US Administration is bankrupt of vision and bereft of principle. Sacrificing human rights in the name of security at home, turning a blind eye to abuses abroad, and using pre-emptive military force where and when it chooses have neither increased security nor ensured liberty.

Look at the growing insurgency in Iraq, the increasing anarchy in Afghanistan, the unending spiral of violence in the Middle East, the spate of suicide bombings in crowded cities around the world. Think of the continued repression of the Uighurs in China and the Islamists in Egypt. Imagine the scale and scope of the impunity that has marked gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law in the "forgotten" conflicts in Chechnya, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nepal – forgotten, that is, by all except those who daily suffer their worst effects.

Double speak brings disrepute to human rights but, sadly, it is a common phenomenon. The USA and its allies purported to fight the war in Iraq to protect human rights – but openly eroded human rights to win the "war on terror." The war in Iraq was launched ostensibly to reduce the threat of weapons of mass destruction, yet the world is awash with small arms and conventional weapons that kill more than half a million people a year. To make matters worse, in the name of combating the so-called "war on terror," many countries have relaxed controls on exports to governments that are known to have appalling human rights records, among them Colombia, Indonesia, Israel and Pakistan. The uncontrolled trade in arms puts us all at greater risk in peace and war.

Iraq and the "war on terror" have obscured the greatest human rights challenge of our times. According to some sources, developing countries spend about US $22 billion a year on weapons and, for $10 billion dollars a year, they would achieve universal primary education. These statistics hide a huge scandal: the failed promise to attack extreme poverty and address gross economic and social injustice.

According to some analysts, there is a real risk that the targets of UN Millennium Development Goals – such as the reduction of child and maternal mortality, getting all children to primary school, halving the number of people with no access to clean water – will not be achieved because international attention and resources have been diverted to the "war on terror."

The poor and the marginalized are most commonly denied justice and would benefit most from the fair application of the rule of law and human rights. Yet despite the increasing discourse on the indivisibility of human rights, in reality economic, social and cultural rights are neglected, reducing human rights to a theoretical construct for the vast majority of the world's population. It is no mere coincidence that, in the Iraq war, the protection of oil wells appears to have been given greater priority than the protection of hospitals.

Nor is it surprising that big business can do what it wants and get away with it, or choose not to do what it ought to do by claiming that it has no clear legal responsibility or accountability for human rights. The UN Human Rights Norms for Business, approved in 2003, are an important step towards corporate accountability but, sadly, have come under concerted attack by companies and governments.

Against this backdrop of abuse and impunity, hypocrisy and double standards, what can we do to make human rights matter?

We can show that human rights offer a powerful and compelling vision of a better and fairer world, and form the basis of a concrete plan of how to get there. They bring hope to women like Amina Lawal in Nigeria whose death sentence was set aside as a result of the massive support her case generated. They provide a tool to human rights defenders like Valdenia Paulino to fight her battles against police brutality in the favelas of São Paulo in Brazil. They give voice to the powerless: the prisoner of conscience, the prisoner of violence, the prisoner of poverty.

In times of uncertainty the world needs not only to fight against global threats, but to fight for global justice. Human rights are a banner to mobilize people globally in the cause of justice and truth. Thanks to the work of thousands of activists in Latin America, the tide is turning against impunity in that region. Despite the crusade by the USA to undermine international justice and ensure global immunity from prosecution for its citizens, the International Criminal Court appointed its prosecutor and began its work in earnest. Slowly, the courts in the USA and the United Kingdom have begun to scrutinize government attempts to restrict human rights in their "war on terror."

Human rights promise the certainty of equality and equity to millions of women around the world. Recent legislative changes in the status of women in Morocco will open a new chapter in gender equity in the region. Recognizing the power of human rights to universalize the struggle of women, members of Amnesty International are joining hands with women's rights activists and many others to campaign globally to stop violence against women. We call on leaders, organizations and individuals to make a public pledge to change themselves and to abolish laws, systems and attitudes that allow violence against women to flourish.

Human rights are about changing the world for the better. Using the powerful message of human rights, Amnesty International has launched a joint campaign with Oxfam and the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) to achieve global control of small arms. To those who say this will not work, we point to the coalitions that led to the banning of landmines and the creation of the International Criminal Court. Combining public pressure and government support, we are determined to bring about change.

We celebrate these and other gains in this report, but we have not allowed them to obscure the very real challenges that persist. We live in a dangerous and divided world where the relevance of human rights is daily put to the test, the legitimacy of activists is questioned, and the "accountability gap" of governments, international institutions, armed groups and corporate actors is growing. It is precisely in such a world that we need a bigger humanity that will say, "This has to stop. Things must change."

There is no stronger international community than global civil society. Through its members and allies in the human rights movement, Amnesty International is committed to reviving and revitalizing the vision of human rights as a powerful tool for concrete change. Through the voices and visions of millions of men and women, we will carry the message of human rights forward.

Copyright © 2004 Amnesty International Publications
1 Easton Street, London WC1X 0DW United Kingdom
AI Index no POL 10/004/2004

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