Human rights day: Fighting torture, protecting civilians
A message from Human Rights Watch's Executive Director, Kenneth Roth.
As we commemorate International Human Rights Day, we highlight two challenges to the human rights movement that have taken on renewed urgency in 2005.
On the negative side is continuing pressure to make exceptions to the global ban on torture and inhumane treatment, a development led by governments engaged in the fight against terrorism.
On the positive side is the new opportunity created by the decision of world leaders at the United Nations summit in September to endorse the concept of a global "responsibility to protect" people facing mass slaughter. The challenge ahead will be to give substance to this new commitment.
Ending terrorism is central to the human rights cause. Any deliberate attack on civilians is an affront to fundamental values of the human rights movement. And acts of terrorism have taken an appalling toll in 2005. In Iraq attacks on civilians have occurred nearly every day, killing thousands, while other terror attacks claimed the lives of civilians in Afghanistan, Britain, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Israel, Jordan, Nepal, Pakistan and Thailand.
But the willingness to flout human rights to fight terrorism is not only illegal and wrong; it is counterproductive. These human rights violations generate indignation and outrage that spur terrorist recruitment, undermine the public cooperation with law enforcement officials that is essential to exposing secret terrorist cells, and cede the moral high ground for those combating the terrorist scourge.
International human rights law contains no more basic prohibition than the absolute, unconditional ban on torture and what is known as “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” Even the right to life admits exceptions, such as the killing of combatants allowed in wartime. But torture and inhumane treatment are forbidden unconditionally, whether in time of peace or war, whether at the local police station or in the face of a major security threat.
Yet in 2005, evidence emerged showing that the United States and several other leading powers now consider torture, in various guises, a serious policy option. The human rights movement needs to redouble its efforts to reverse this ominous trend.
The commitment made by heads of state at the U.N. summit in September to the global “responsibility to protect” victims of atrocities is important, but has yet to be demonstrated in practice. In the case of the massive government war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, which have displaced more than two million and led to the deaths of many tens of thousands, the international community and especially the U.N. Security Council have failed to provide the leadership necessary to provide effective protection or ensure accountability for the crimes committed.
The creation of a new Human Rights Council, a permanent and credible U.N. human rights body, could be one of the most momentous developments in the human rights movement since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights almost 60 years ago. The United States and the European Union recognized the creation of the Human Rights Council as a key priority, but with less than a month left in the timetable proposed by the president of the General Assembly, European leaders seem surprisingly uninterested in pushing ahead for action on this crucial reform.
Over the next 12 months we look to world leaders to reaffirm their obligations to uphold all human rights standards (including protection from torture), commit to aiding populations in need of protection and create a strong Human Rights Council to hold states accountable.
Source: Human Rights Watch.