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
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
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
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
1 Easton Street, London WC1X 0DW United Kingdom
AI Index no POL 10/004/2004