Special Reports
 
 


 

THE ABUSE OF HUMAN RIGHTS
AND THE
ORGANISATIONS THAT FIGHT IT

by

PETER CRISELL

________________
  

   
“The essence of government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse”. James Madison, 4th President of the United States in a speech in the Virginia constitutional convention, Richmond, Virginia, December 2, 1829.

Human Rights under Attack
In its preamble the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. Adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948, the Declaration was the result of the experience of the Second World War. Not surprisingly, it refers to the “disregard and contempt for human rights” during that war which “resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”. It heralded “the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people”. It adds that if rebellion against tyranny and oppression is to be avoided, human rights should be protected by the rule of law.

Since the Declaration, human rights and freedoms have been under continuous attack by powerful political and economic elites around the world, as they have been throughout history. Whatever forms the abuses take - assaults on freedom of the media, violation of women’s rights, corruption, torture - they always thrive in circumstances where the perpetrators cannot be held to account. Fortunately there are organisations in countries around the world whose vigilance highlights the excesses of dictatorial and authoritarian regimes - and democratic governments too. In this article we examine the work of some of these organisations and the activities in which they are engaged. 

Freedom House  www.freedomhouse.org
Perhaps the first such organisation was Freedom House which was established in 1941 in New York City. Its original purpose was to encourage popular support for American involvement in World War II at a time when there were strong isolationist sentiments in the United States. Wendell Willkie, the Republican presidential nominee in 1940 and Eleanor Roosevelt served as the organisation’s first honorary co-chairs. After its wartime opposition to Nazism, Freedom House took up the struggle against Communism in the belief that democracy was the best weapon against all totalitarian ideologies. It was hostile to McCarthyism in the 1950s and a strong supporter of racial equality. Its mission was the strengthening of human rights at home and the expansion of freedom around the world.

During the 1970s, Freedom House was concerned with the threats to freedom in many parts of the developing world, whether they were Marxist regimes, juntas, or military strongmen. In 1973, Freedom House launched the publication, Freedom in the World, an annual survey of global political rights and civil liberties. Employing social science methodologies, the survey analyses and rates every country in the world on a series of fundamental freedom indicators. Its results provide policymakers, journalists, and the public a comprehensive view of the global state of freedom.

During that same period, Freedom House was involved in the defence of Andrei Sakharov and other Soviet dissidents. It was also among the earliest supporters of Poland's Solidarity trade union. Freedom House has sent study missions to Zimbabwe and South Africa, and missions to assess conditions in Central America during the 1980s, as part of its support of centrist democratic forces, struggling against the Marxist left and the death squad right.

Freedom House became more active on the issue of religious freedom since the end of the cold war and has conducted projects in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union. It has assisted these post-communist societies in the establishment of independent media, non-governmental think tanks, and the core institutions of electoral politics.

Since 2001, Freedom House has been involved in a number of programmes and initiatives. It has established an increasingly global presence through its offices in some of the most difficult regions in the world. According to its website, it employs more than 120 experts and activists, with offices in a dozen countries. From South Africa to Jordan, Kyrgyzstan to Indonesia, Freedom House has partnered with regional activists in bolstering civil society; worked to support women’s rights; sought justice for victims of torture; defended journalists and free expression advocates; and assisted those struggling to promote human rights in challenging political environments.

Among its many campaigns, Freedom House is currently calling for prison reform in Kyrgyzstan in protest at poor conditions and human rights abuses. It is also expressing its opposition to the sale of arms to Bahrain by the Obama administration. The Bahrain government has been repressing peaceful demonstrations for political reform. Further examples of Freedom House’s work are a special report on internet censorship by authoritarian states and, as part of its Freedom in the World 2012, the global repercussions of the recent Arab uprisings. 

Human Rights Watch  www.hrw.org
Human Rights Watch was established in 1978 at the height of the cold war. It shone the international spotlight on human rights violations in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Since that time it has widened and extended its work to a whole range of issues where human rights are involved: the rights of women, children, refugees, and migrant workers. It has reported on domestic violence, trafficking, rape as a war crime, and child soldiers. It has helped to spotlight previously ignored topics such as the rights of gays and lesbians. It has examined the international arms trade and the role of business in human rights, producing ground-breaking studies, for instance, on rights abuses in the oil, gold, and meatpacking industries. In 1997, Human Rights Watch shared in the Nobel Peace Prize as a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. It subsequently played a leading role in the 2008 treaty banning cluster munitions.

Human Rights Watch is a non-profit, nongovernmental organization with more than 280 staff members around the globe. Its staff consists of human rights professionals including country experts, lawyers, journalists, and academics of diverse backgrounds and nationalities, often in partnership with local human rights groups. Each year, Human Rights Watch publishes more than 100 reports and briefings on human rights conditions in some 90 countries, generating extensive coverage in local and international media. Its reputation enables it to meet governments, the United Nations, regional groups like the African Union and the European Union, financial institutions, and corporations to press for changes in policy and practice that promote human rights and justice around the world. 

Amnesty International  www.amnesty.org.uk
In 1961 two Portuguese students raised a toast to freedom and were promptly imprisoned by the fascist Salazar regime. British lawyer, Peter Berenson, was outraged and wrote an article in the London Observer newspaper “The Forgotten Prisoners”, which was reprinted in newspapers around the world. It provoked a remarkable response and this marked the beginning of Amnesty, a movement to defend freedom of opinion and religion. Amnesty International has offices in more than 80 countries and is now a global movement of more than 3 million supporters, members and activists in more than 150 countries and territories who campaign to end grave abuses of human rights, as laid out in the Universal Declaration.

Amnesty is independent of any government, political ideology, economic interest or religion and is funded mainly by its membership and public donations. Amnesty International does more than express outrage at human rights abuse. It seeks to inspire hope for a better world through public action and international solidarity. It helps to stop human rights abuses by mobilizing its members and supporters to put pressure on governments, armed groups, companies and intergovernmental bodies. Its campaigning and research is fact-based. It sends experts to talk with victims, observes trials, interviews local officials, liaises with human rights activists, publishes detailed reports, informs the news media and publicises its concerns in documents, leaflets, posters, advertisements, newsletters and websites.

Amnesty International's 2011 report reveals a world in which people continue to challenge oppression despite the powerful array of repressive measures used against them. It shows that the communities most affected by human rights abuses are the real driving force behind the human rights struggle. It states:

“ ..2011 has seen some victories for international justice, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia’s sentencing of three former generals for crimes committed during the Balkans war". Another step was made on the path towards ending the death penalty, as Illinois became the USA's 16th abolitionist state.

Yet entrenched human rights abuses and insecurity continued unabated in many countries. In Mexico, 11,000 migrants were abducted during a six-month period alone, and in Colombia, more human rights activists were killed. Amid increased Taleban attacks in Afghanistan, questions about security are also mounting following the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.

Worldwide, the struggle for free expression, security and human rights is in sharper focus than ever.   

Reporters Without Borders  http://en.rsf.org
Journalists who witness and keep us informed about human rights abuses are often killed or imprisoned for a single offending word or photo. Already, four journalists have been killed this year and 46 were killed worldwide in 2011. The current estimate of journalists who are imprisoned is 179. (the figures are those of the Committee to Protect Journalists www.cpj.org).

Reporters without Borders, formed in 1985, is a non-profit organization which aims to defend journalists and media assistants imprisoned or persecuted for doing their job, and exposes their mistreatment and torture in many countries. It also fights against censorship and laws that undermine press freedom, and gives financial aid each year to 300 or so journalists or media outlets in difficulty, as well to the families of imprisoned journalists. It also works to improve the safety of journalists, especially those reporting in war zones.

Before taking action, Reporters without Borders researchers compile reports of press freedom violations. After checking the information, the researchers and the organisations’ correspondents send protest letters to the authorities to put pressure on governments which do not respect the right to inform and to be informed, and send releases to the media to enlist support for the journalists under attack. It can also send fact-finding missions to investigate on the spot the working conditions of journalists, as well as cases of imprisoned or murdered journalists, and also to meet the authorities in the country concerned.

Publicity campaigns aim to inform people and try to give countries which do not respect this basic right a bad name in the eyes of international institutions, the media and governments that have ties with them. Reporters without Borders depends mainly for its funding on donations, membership dues, public grants and partnerships with private firms. It is present in all five continents through its national branches and local offices. The organisation also works closely with local and regional press freedom groups that are members of the Reporters without Borders Network, in countries such as Afghanistan , Belarus, Burma, Democratic Congo, Kazakhstan, Iraq, Mexico, Pakistan, Peru, Russia, the United States and Zimbabwe. 

Transparency International  www.transparency.org
Corruption – the abuse of entrusted power for private gain – harms everyone, especially the poor. Transparency International (TI) describes itself as "the global civil society organisation leading the fight against corruption”. Its aim is that it “brings people together in a powerful worldwide coalition to end the devastating impact of corruption on men, women and children around the world”. Its attitude to corruption is unequivocal, describing it as having dire global consequences, trapping millions in poverty and misery, and breeding social, economic and political unrest. Corruption is both a cause of poverty, and a barrier to overcoming it. It is one of the most serious obstacles to reducing poverty and denies poor people the basic means of survival, forcing them to spend more of their income on bribes. It undermines democracy and the rule of law, distorts national and international trade, it jeopardises sound governance and ethics in the private sector, it threatens domestic and international security and the sustainability of natural resources. Those with less power are particularly disadvantaged in corrupt systems, which typically reinforce gender discrimination. Corruption compounds political exclusion: if votes can be bought, there is little incentive to change the system that sustains poverty.

In short, corruption hurts everyone. TI has defined its global priorities in the fight against corruption as corruption in politics, in public contracting, in the private sector, in international anti-corruption conventions and in poverty and development. Its attention is focused on particular themes such as access to information, advocacy and legal advice centres, climate governance, corruption in the water sector, defence and security and the protection of whistleblowers. 

International Commission of Jurists   www.icj.org
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) is dedicated to the primacy, coherence and implementation of international law and principles that advance human rights.

The seeds were sown in divided post-war Berlin. The ICJ was established in memory of a West German lawyer, Dr. Walter Linse, Acting President of the Association of Free German Jurists. Active in exposing human rights violations committed in the Soviet zone, he denounced arbitrary arrests, secret trials, and detention in labour camps. In July 1952, East German intelligence agents abducted and delivered Linse to the KGB. Despite the protests of 20,000 Berlin citizens against his abduction and public pleas by Chancellor Adenauer for his release, Dr Linse was executed in Moscow one year later for "espionage". This event led to the decision by a group of lawyers to found an organisation dedicated to the defence of human rights through the rule of law. Its inaugural conference in 1952, was attended by thirty one ministers and statesmen, thirty five judges, counsel and presidents of high courts from Eastern and Western Europe and North America. In 1953 the ICJ was legally registered as an international non-governmental organisation. It comprised eleven commissioners including senior cabinet ministers and serving judges. The ICJ later expanded its focus to the grave injustices in apartheid South Africa, Franco's Spain and Peronist Argentina.

What distinguishes the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) is its impartial, objective and authoritative legal approach to the protection and promotion of human rights through the rule of law. It provides legal expertise at both the international and national levels to ensure that developments in international law adhere to human rights principles and that international standards are implemented at the national level. It has through the ensuing decades and numerous subsequent conferences defined the Rule of Law and made important contributions to the elaboration of principles and norms of international human rights law, especially in respect of the administration of justice.

In promoting the rule of law the ICJ is currently engaged in initiatives and projects that have a common theme. For example, The Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR) Project promotes the rights of victims whose economic, social and cultural rights have been violated to have access to complaint mechanisms and to obtain remedies. The Global Security and Rule of Law Initiative aims to promote the rule of law and international human rights in the fight against terrorism. Through legal advocacy and legal interventions, the project seeks to prevent, minimise or reverse the negative impact on the rule of law and human rights of arbitrary national security laws, policies and practices. The Global Security and Rule of Law Initiative aims to promote the rule of law and international human rights in the fight against terrorism. Through legal advocacy and legal interventions, the project seeks to prevent, minimise or reverse the negative impact on the rule of law and human rights of arbitrary national security laws, policies and practices. The Women’s Human Rights Project works to combat impunity, increase legal accountability and improve access to justice for violations of women’s human rights. The Project began in 2009.

The ICJ is also engaged in regional projects around the world on strengthening the legal protection of human rights, enhancing respect for the rule of law and promoting the independence and accountability of legal systems.