Human rights: a general approach

Was the signing of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the growing importance of human rights in political discourse, an indication that the promotion of human welfare is gaining importance over the “Raison d’Etat” in international politics? The extent to which the denouncing and repression of human rights violations is an instrument of power politics? [:] Human rights today – what have we achieved? In 50 years, human rights have become an essential part of political life on a national and international level. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has become the most universal document in the world. It has been translated into more than 300 languages and dialects. With the adoption of this declaration in 1948, and numerous binding human rights treaties and conventions , a large majority of States have committed themselves to protect the human rights of their own citizens and all persons living within their territory. During the cold war, the Western world emphasised civil liberties, whereas the Socialist block preferred to focus on economic and social rights. Along with decolonialisation, individual rights were widened to collective rights, as the right for national self-determination was acknowledged. In 1970s, conditionality became an essential part of international development co-operation agreements. Since the 1980s, the so-called third generation human rights have gained further prominence. The right to development and the right to a clean environment, for example, were also considered as basic rights of the citizen. A wider catalogue of fundamental rights was anchored into many national constitutions. In the 1990s, the emergence of new nation-states started to strain the concept of national self-determination – in a world with more than 10,000 ethnic groups. In the course of the new millennium, global federalism could become a new solution.

Meanwhile, ensuring respect for human rights and rights of people belonging to minorities is a core idea behind every effective conflict prevention and early warning system. After seeing massive human rights violations and genocide in Rwanda, Kosovo and East Timor, we may ask whether and how human rights can be secured for all? Governments accused of human rights abuses may still try to hide behind the veil of national sovereignty, but this is becoming increasingly difficult through global pressure by the media and NGOs. As we see in Chechnya, no government can afford to be seen as acting against human rights, at least not rhetorically. For the moment, the real challenge is to implement the impressive human rights legislation in practise – economic, social and cultural as well as civil and political. In the new millennium, it is finally time to define human rights broadly, and to include the right to good health care, sufficient food and adequate shelter in addition to the right to be free from oppression. Human rights as an instrument of power politics Many Western countries consider themselves as the world’s moral “pathfinders”, but their moral credibility is diminished by clearly incoherent policies.

Cynics would speak about double standards or hypocrisy, as regards Kosovo or Chechnya, for example. First, Western countries are strongly critical of human rights abuses in the civil and political field, but they are much less vocal about economic, social and cultural rights. Second, they may condemn human rights abuses in some countries, while ignoring abuses committed by their political or economical allies. The countries that are facing the strongest criticism are often either small or otherwise insignificant, or they are perceived as unfriendly or hostile. As soon as commercial opportunities or strategic concerns make themselves felt, the Governments look for the soft option, or fail to take action that would run counter to their interests. Third, while they use human rights standards as a yardstick in international relations, they do not consistently apply the same standards at home. There are human rights failures in Europe, in the treatment of asylum seekers, in discrimination against minorities, indigenous people and migrant workers and in the fight against racism and xenophobia. The human rights situation in the United States, in particular as regards US prisons and jails, is even more catastrophic. All this means that human rights come into play only when there is little else at stake. With a few exceptions, governments act on the basis of their perceived economic, political and security interests, often at the expense of their human rights treaty obligations.

Yet governments undertake these obligations freely and governments must be held accountable for their actions in their own country and on an international level. We should critically monitor the policies of our own governments, for example their weapons exports and the international arms trade in general. By providing weapons, security equipment and training to countries such as Turkey or Indonesia, in which human rights violations occur, our governments and thereby we ourselves are co-responsible for the abuses. A more “ethical foreign policy” should also include a more coherent policy in the fields of trade, human rights, development co-operation or international environment policies. Whereas a certain level of conditionality may be good for fostering democracy and good governance, human rights should not be used as an excuse to cut developing aid to the poorest countries in Africa and Asia. Developing aid could be used for purposes aimed at improving human rights by giving support to local human rights organisations and incorporating human rights precepts into social institutions, such as the educational system, the judiciary, law enforcement and the media.

As consumers and members of civil society, we should also monitor multinational companies and other businesses operating in countries in which human rights abuses occur. There are already positive examples of business leaders who are genuinely accepting their responsibility and taking practical steps to meet it. The companies should consider whether they will do business in countries regarded as having poor human rights records and how far companies could use their indirect influence to persuade governments to change their behaviour. Our governments should also more actively try to engage the business community in ensuring respect for human rights and improve business practises. During the recent presidential campaign in Finland, I proposed that the new President would develop ethical criteria for companies wishing to join the President for export promoting tours abroad. As the case of East Timor shows, NGOs and citizens’ activists play a central role by keeping up the pressure and mobilising public opinion. International media can also play a prominent role in increasing awareness on the protection and the promotion of human rights. The future of human rights lies, in fact, in a conscious public opinion. We need to foster active citizenship and empower people to recognise their own needs based on their knowledge and the use of rights.

The establishment of the UN and its sub-organisations has surely been one of the main factors to tightly anchor human rights as part of the international system. States have delivered part of their sovereign rights to international, and in some cases supranational organisations. These can have a significant influence on situations in specific countries through sending rapporteurs and conducting investigations on national human rights situations, or on thematic issues, such as torture, religious intolerance or violence against women. Most international organisations and their decisions reflect, however, the will of their Member States. The United Nations, for example, can only function effectively if the Member States give it political support and financial resources. The 1998 session of the UN Commission on Human Rights is perhaps one of the most classical examples on how human rights principles are sacrificed in the interests of compromise and how resolutions can be watered down in behind-the-scenes “horse-trading” sessions. Member States of the Commission were more preoccupied with reaching consensus, rather than addressing the human rights situation in the country concerned. The denouncing and repression of human rights should not take place arbitrarily. It should happen according to a firm set of universal standards, and be accountable and controllable under the UN framework. In principle, international human rights standards should provide the benchmarks against which states’ actions at the national and international level can be measured.

But common understanding is likely not to be reached as long as a number of countries perceive human rights as a Western plot and an excuse to mess with their internal affairs. Mutual co-operation and dialogue is still needed in order to build “a universal culture of human rights”. A major development in reinforcing accountability for gross human rights violations was the setting up of ad hoc tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the adoption of the statute for the International Criminal Tribunal. Next, the International Community must continue the process by looking for criteria and conditions which could justify a humanitarian intervention as means to end massive human rights violations. Drafting new standards will not be an easy task, since we will be likely to face the choice of accepting the smallest common denominator, or abandoning the drafting exercise completely. In the absence of common understanding, there is a danger that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights will be abandoned in favour of a looser code under which individual governments could set their own human rights standards in accordance with their own needs.

Conference organised by the Conferences’ Committee of the Interns of the European Commission Brussels, 2 February 2000