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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 225
February 4, 2006

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Law Vision

Human rights and non-state actors

Sheikh Hafizur Rahman Karzon

After the Second World War human rights emerged as a major category in the field of human activism. It has become a principal tool in attaining individual freedom of the citizen of all countries. A dignified human life has been the main objective of human rights paradigm. The concepts of equal sovereignty of states and free trade took birth in the womb of post second world era. Both of them are tools of huge human exploitation. In course of time states have emerged as the largest and the worst violators of human rights, which they are supposed to ensure and protect. Human rights are no safer in the hands of the state incumbents. At the same time reliance and confidence are shifting from state to non-state actors globally because of the activities of multi-national forces. Role of non-state actors has come to the fore in ensuring human rights and thereby upholding overall human dignity.

"Human Rights and Non-State Actors" is the theme of the Sixth Human Rights Summer School. Empowerment through Law of the Common People (ELCOP) has organised this school, Dr Mizanur Rahman, a professor, Department of Law, University of Dhaka, being the protagonist of the whole activity. Scholars from home and abroad trained up law students for their expected transformation into human rights militants. Speakers put their emphasis on the activities of non-state actors, both national and international.

Non-state actors
The expression 'non-state actors' generally includes NGOs, multinational enterprises, armed groups, educational institutions, religious organisations, private individuals, civil society, media and multi-lateral financial organisations like World Bank and IMF. They have distinct "unofficial" nature as compared to state actors and they enjoy autonomy within the sphere of state. From these stem their treatment as non-state actors. The traditional international relation is based on the idea of equal sovereignty of states. But the concept that state is the sole actor espoused by the treaties of Westphalia in 1648 is no longer acceptable. The growing role of non-state actors, therefore, in international affairs in general and in the field of human rights in particular is now uncontested. The norms of international human rights and democratic governance are now shaping domestic behaviour of states. Many existing states have accepted international human rights conventions and pledged to ensure and protect human rights and individual dignity. This widespread acceptance made them more vulnerable to transnational pressures for political change from local activists linked to international NGOs, and international organisations. The role of non-state actors in protecting and promoting human rights is increasingly gaining importance. The context being the state actors failure to safeguard human rights sufficiently, the on-going globalisation process, non-state actors as vehicle of such process, and the increased pressure to cope with the international human rights standard.

NGOs and human rights
The role of NGOs in the implementation and promotion of human rights is expanding. Their importance is recognised by states and inter-governmental organisations. The human rights NGOs has evolved in two phases: The first phase is the emergence and development of NGOs having international network and focus like Amnesty International. The second phase involves the creation and proliferation of human rights monitoring and advocacy groups within the domestic sphere in all the regions of the world.

Under all the domestic and international law state is primarily responsible for protection and promotion of human rights. Nonetheless some international documents have made non-state actors responsible for the same task as Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads -- "Every individual and every organ of state shall strive to secure the universal and effective recognition and observance of all human rights." This normative statement includes the role of non-state actors like NGOs, multi-national enterprises, civil society and private actors in the promotion and protection of human rights. Besides this, the Convention of the Rights to Child, the ILO Conventions, the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights and the African Convention on the Rights and welfare of the child impose obligations directly on non-state actors like individuals, NGOs, parents and communities. The Declaration on United Nations Human Rights Defenders, adopted in 1998 by the General Assembly of UN, gave legal basis of NGO activities as under this instrument national and international NGOs can gather information and lobby "to participate in peaceful activities against violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms."

The history of NGOs can be traced from 200 years back when associations were established at the end of eighteenth century in the United States and Europe to bring an end to the slate trade. In modern times activities of NGOs range from environment protection to women rights, indigenous peoples' rights, child's rights, development issues and human rights protection. After the Second World War a number of international, regional and national human rights instruments were adopted. With this human rights NGOs started to act and made profound contribution in the protection and promotion of human rights. By drafting many international instruments, procedures and mechanisms for the implementation of human rights NGOs set norms in the field of human rights. Provisions of human rights were incorporated into the UN Charter because of the active role of NGOs. Their role was instrumental in drafting the Universal declaration of human rights. Many human rights instruments and conventions were adopted due to their advocacy. They are playing important role in UN working groups on human rights. Because of their activities the position of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was created. NGOs were key actors in establishing the International Criminal Court which has the power to investigate and prosecute individuals accused of crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes.

In formulating policy and legislation on human rights NGOs offer and utilise their expertise. They exert their influence on government to implement human rights standard. NGOs contribute to the promotion of human rights through various methods. Those are information gathering, advocacy research, campaigning, advocating for changes in the institutional and legal framework, lobbying and convincing policy-makers. Activities of NGOs subsume standard setting, mobilising public, publicity, peace building, network building, information gathering, and documentation, human rights education, diplomatic intervention and fact finding mission.

Multinational corporations and human rights
In last few decades large multinational corporations have become powerful, in terms of economic power and the influence they exert in the domestic spheres of different countries. Some multinational corporations make more sales than GDPS (gross domestic product) of many countries. A comparison was made on the corporate sales and GDP of different countries. The study revealed that, of the 100 largest economies of the world, 51 are corporations while 49 are countries. In negotiations with governments of most developing countries this gives to the multinational corporations stronger bargaining power over the terms of foreign investment. The causes being economic globalisation, increased mobility of capital and the resulting competition between potential host countries for lower regulating barriers to foreign direct investments. All these weakens the leverage of governments over multinational corporations.

Multinational corporations have tremendous influence on the economic and social development of those countries to which they are investing. Their activities have prejudicial impact on the human rights protection of the host countries. Their abuses include complicity in the brutality of those states' police and military, interference with internal politics of the host country, the use of forced and child labour, suppression of rights to freedom of association and speech, violations of right to cultural and religious practice, infringement of right to property (including intellectual property), and gross infringement of environmental rights.

Protection of human rights is the prime responsibility of states, not the responsibility of multinational corporations. As business organisations they go to countries to maximise their profit. Many countries have miserably failed to put sufficient human rights obligations on corporations. Though multinational companies are very powerful in global economy, but they are not subjects of international law, so it is unlikely that it will impose direct duties on the corporations. Accordingly multinational corporations have no responsibility and accountability under international law. Multina-tional corporations, at least in theory, are needed to comply with the laws of the host countries. But it is very difficult for least developed countries to make the multinational corporations to carry out their human rights obligations. The cause being power differentials. Moreover, in the wake of its breach the governments of countries of origin of each multinational corporation try to protect the interest of that particular multinational corporation. Any human rights system has yet to be established which could make the multinational corporations accountable and committed to human rights. Unless and until the developed countries, in which most of the multinational corporations originate, put forward their full cooperation, the prospect of making the multinational corporations liable for breaches of human rights remain bleak.

Media and human rights
Mass media is inextricably related to human rights. Mass media pictures the situation of human rights in national, regional and international level while printing and broadcasting different news items. The main task of mass media is to inform the people about what is happening round the world. By the process of disseminating different news materials mass media inform the people about current situation of human rights all over the world.

State, as has been mentioned earlier, is the main actor in the protection and promotion of human rights. State does so by making laws and providing fundamental constitutional rights to the citizens, by signing, ratifying and giving effect to various human rights treaties. Thereby states take up primary responsibility of safeguarding and promoting human rights within their respective domestic jurisdiction. But state agencies very often violate human rights of citizens, which the media bring into the notice of the people. Media thereby mobilise public opinion and activate various non-state actors to protect human rights by revealing the stories of human rights violation. It's working as an effective "Fourth State" guarantee rights of various vulnerable groups.

Civil society and human rights
The concept of civil society is interlinked with the concept of social capital, which is generated by the efforts of civil society. Many theorists, like economic development, see social capital equally important for development of a country. Values and norms are implicit in the social capital, which influence the rules that regulate the behaviour of the members of the society. The establishment of an open regime where fundamental human rights can be protected is possible through the consistent pressure of civil society. Globally and nationally the role of civil society has been well recognised in protecting and promoting human rights.

Concluding remark
We have not yet found any better alternative than state, which could ensure, at least in theory, full welfare of the people. State with its huge infrastructure and network is compared to none. If it is sincere it can bring about spectacular welfare of the people, particularly it can contribute tremendously in protecting and promoting human rights. The concept of non-state actors come to the scene because of the failure of the states in safeguarding individual freedom. Now non-state actors are recognised all over the world. By minimising the atrocities of the states and protecting and promoting human rights their role keeps a balance and mitigate the cause of justice.

The author is an Assistant Professor, Department of Law, University of Dhaka.


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