HUMAN RIGHTS - A CHARADE OF THE VIRTUOUS
by Someshwar Singh
Geneva, 21 Mar 2000 -- The six-week annual human rights assembly began here Monday, with target countries bracing to defend themselves against a possible resolution on charges of human rights abuses. It has become a veritable diplomatic showdown, with some countries trying to put other nations to greater shame.
The United Nations' principal human rights organ - the Commission on Human Rights - provides a 'popular get-together', drawing more than 3,000 delegates - governmental, and observers and NGOs -- on a range of issues and subjects.
But much of the heat and passion it raises centres around civil and political rights in comparison to economic, social and cultural rights.
Moreover, like in most other areas where international organizations have refined their objectives - like indebted to most heavily indebted, and poverty to extreme poverty - the Commission on Human Rights is increasingly pre-occupied with "gross" violations of human rights.
But the Commission itself is coming under increasing criticism for being 'selective'. Asked to respond to this charge, Mary Robinson, the Human Rights Commissioner, said here Monday at a press conference that she fully shared the view on this of the outgoing chairperson of the Commission, Anne Anderson (also from Ireland).
Allegations of "selectivity" could not be ignored, said Anne Anderson in her remarks to the Commission on the opening day. Recalling her remark on the issue at the end of the previous session, she said that she still felt there was no convincing answer to charges of selectivity on the part of the Commission.
"The Commission needs to challenge itself to ensure that the moral outrage rightly provoked by the Kosovo crisis does not become blunt when conflict situations in other parts of the world are confronted," said Ms Anderson. "If discomfort about criticising the powerful nations of the world is sufficient to blunt the Commission's conscience, then that is bound to be corrosive of the authority of the Commission."
Ms Anderson referred to another type of selectivity - the one so easily induced by the arbitrariness of media coverage of situations of human-rights abuses. "If suffering seems to matter less when it is far away, when it is borne by the poorest and those with least access to power and publicity, then how can the international community claim it cherishes human life equally," she said.
In fact, many of the questions posed by journalists to Ms Robinson concerned China and the Falun Gong, Russia and Chechnya - about whether she was ready to meet with Falun Gong members and whether she should actually be travelling to the Caucasus (March 31 to 4 April) when the Commission is still in session in Geneva.
In reply, Ms Robinson said that she was open to meeting with any group but that a request had to be made first. On Chechnya, she described the plight of over 200,000 people as catastrophic and said she would have liked to have made the trip earlier if it was possible.
There was not even one question posed to Ms Robinson about the rights of the silent majority of suffering human beings (close to half of the world's population for whom life is a daily battle of survival and for whom these concepts of human rights may seem rather remote) - referred to also by Ms Anderson but also in Robinson's own opening address to the Commission.
"Eradicating extreme poverty is the greatest human rights challenge we face, and this Commission has the responsibility to develop the human rights framework within which it must be achieved."
But the tone and tenor of what should be the Commission's response to the different challenges before it, appears to be varied.
For example, said Ms. Robinson in her speech:
"The appropriate response to all allegations of gross violations - wherever in the world they are reported - is that they be rigorously and independently investigated. Where proven to be well founded, those responsible have to be pursued and brought to justice. There must be no selectivity, no sanctuary, no impunity for those guilty of gross human rights violations."
In contrast to her sense of urgency for justice in the case of gross violations of human (civil) rights, when it comes to injustices in the economic arena, Ms Robinson said: "we need to mainstream human rights in the development process, and we need to keep human rights at the forefront of strategies for governance."
"As the Commission charts a course for dealing with the right to development and with the realisation of economic, social and cultural rights, it will need to go beyond mere exhortations and identify the specificity of its contribution in this area," the Human Rights Commissioner said.
Outlining some salient concepts in this regard, Ms Robinson noted that "the reasoning of the international human rights movement, and the explicit affirmation of the international human rights movement, is that it is primarily the responsibility of governments to act for the realisation of the right to development and of economic, social and cultural right."
"This remains valid in a rapidly globalising society," she added. "Even if other actors, such as corporations, have an increasing role to play - and they do - we must retain the starting point that the primary responsibility is with national governments."
Responding to a question about whether she favoured commercial sanctions against companies and organizations involved in child and human trafficking, Mrs. Robinson said "a new rigorous approach" was being undertaken with regard to the TNCs and their responsibility in the domain of human rights. She said that they, the TNCs, would be increasingly made accountable to civil society and human rights groups.
When pressed a second time on the same question of commercial sanctions against companies, Ms Robinson said "they must be seen in the particular context and in terms of particular jurisdictions."
Asked about the rather secretive process by which countries were selected for scrutiny for human rights abuses, Ms Robinson said it was an intergovernmental process through which this was done. According to resolution 1503 of the Economic and Social Council, a select group of the 53 member countries of the Commission (the membership drawn on a rotation basis) that normally decides the countries that deserve a closer scrutiny.
As in the previous years, the Commission will be focusing on human rights violations in the following countries: Afghanistan, Burundi, the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq, Myanmar, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, Sudan, southern Lebanon and west Bekaa, East Timor and Cyprus, and Palestine.
The charges of selectivity can also be read in the above list of countries. For one, they are all developing nations, some of whom are in pretty bad shape economically. Like them, there are so many other nations today, in fact their numbers are in the majority, where the economic underpinnings of society are so weak that to talk of all sorts of human rights beyond the one and single - the right to decent physical existence - seems like calming someone else's troubled conscience.
In his opening remarks, the chairman if this year's Commission, Ambassador Shambhu Ram Simkhada of Nepal, stressed the importance of tackling widespread poverty, social exclusion, and the lack of basic health and education around the world. To further the promotion of human rights, he called for transparency, tolerance, respect, cooperation and consensus. (SUNS4631)
The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) .
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