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Essay on Protection of Human Rights

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Sample Essay on Protection of Human Rights

The totalitarian systems of our century have demonstrated, in their concentration camps and in the daily lives of the people they rule, the ultimate consequence of abandoning the concept of human dignity as a normative political and legal value. This is why people have sought ways to make human dignity more visible and more secure in the contemporary world. The first important post-war achievement of this effort was to identify and define human rights as the modern means of expressing the requirements of human dignity in a social context. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, explicitly recognizes the link between rights and dignity. Human rights, then, are titles, rooted in the intrinsic value – the dignity – of every human being, to live and to have or to do things that are essential to lead a life in keeping with this dignity.

The international community of states has conferred specific authority on designated UN human rights institutions to hold states accountable for their conduct regarding internationally accepted human rights standards and has authorized these institutions to act on the community’s behalf as agents to implement these standards. The General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council have legislative authority to establish implementation mechanisms for purposes that come within their purview, including human rights.
UN human rights mechanisms based on the UN Charter are more effective than treaty-based institutions, mainly because the former act as agents of a political body of the community of states. The treaty-based mechanisms set up under the Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and other conventions are useful additions to the United Nations’ set of tools to promote human rights, but they have less impact on state practice than Charter-based institutions.

Charter-based mechanisms constitute an element in the external policy environment of factors that a state takes into account in its domestic and foreign policy making. Their impact is further strengthened if states of importance to a target state take bilateral policy initiatives for human rights purposes, as well as actively support action by UN human rights agencies. Their effectiveness is also enhanced by the sustained commitment of the community of states to a particular mechanism, as expressed in periodic reaffirmation of its mandate (Ramcharan 1999, iv).

Among Charter-based institutions, thematic and country-specific mechanisms have different structural and procedural advantages and disadvantages, but they are, in general, equally effective. Which of the two will have greater impact in a case depends on the specific circumstances and issues to be addressed. A state’s readiness to cooperate with a UN human rights institution is greater when the state faces pressure from both a thematic and a country-specific mechanism.

Charter-based approaches depend on the notion that states are members of an international community to which they are politically, ethically, and, in some sense, also legally accountable for their conduct toward their own citizens, and they are designed to enhance a climate in which this sense of accountability is more acceptable to states. The aim is to bring to bear a structured international presence and influence on a government to cease violations and to restore respect for human rights.

Most of the time, the international community relies on psychological means, principally persuasion in its many positive and negative, public and private forms. To say that these have been the methods of choice does not mean, of course, that they are always or even almost always successful. What it suggests is that discussion of a human rights system can focus on different ways the community has sought to structure these psychological tools and procedures in order to maximize their influence on state behavior.

Member states of the United Nations came but slowly to the view that it is legitimate to employ multilateral persuasion on behalf of the community vis-à-vis sovereign states in human rights matters. At first it could not be exercised at all, then only in secret and at specified times (in the Resolution 1503 procedures), then, slowly, gradually, in public, and finally on a broad, year-round basis through the thematic and country-specific mechanisms and now also through the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. These institutions have gradually strengthened the concept and practice of state accountability to the international community for human rights practices.

The intensified activity of UN human rights institutions since the mid-1970s has introduced a distinct political-cost element into the scales of national policy making. Governments recognize the potential effect of their own position on attitudes of governments and parliaments, and they weigh whether more is to be gained or lost by, for example, accepting a proposed visit by a UN rapporteur. Some specialists, however, see the glass half-empty, or perhaps even emptier; Jack Donnelly, for instance, after reviewing some of the initiatives taken by the United Nations in the human rights field since 1990 and acknowledging that “lives are being saved in ways that just a few years ago would not have seemed possible to most observers,” sees “no evidence to suggest that the international community is willing to undertake major new initiatives to deal with direct violations of internationally recognized human rights by governments in control of their states” (Donnelly 1993, 145). In fairness to Donnelly, it should be noted that he was writing before the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights (summer 1993) and its surprising consensus recommendation to establish the post of High Commissioner for Human Rights and the even more surprising consensus decision by the General Assembly in December to establish the post.

Agreeing to cooperate with a UN human rights agent did not mean that Pinochet or the mullahs or the Argentine junta acknowledged that what they had been doing was objectively wrong in terms of universal standards. That sort of admission is typically made only by a successor government, if at all. But they did come to realize that the good name of their state, not only of their government, was at stake and that this was a genuine political cost. Appeals to a government to halt human rights abuses can originate from other governments, from international nongovernmental organizations, and from authorized agents of the community of states. There are qualitative differences in the nature and impact of these appeals, however, and these are worth noting.

A government can appeal to its fellow sovereign on the basis of interest: “If you want to do business as usual with my government, you will need to forswear this abuse.” Or it can appeal on the basis of traditional friendship and cultural links. A state seeking to persuade another state through bilateral channels to halt human rights abuses can combine ethical appeals with elements of material interest (trade, aid, credit, arms sales, military training, alliances, and the like). But it is very difficult to frame a bilateral appeal on ethical grounds without appearing to be engaging in a form of cultural imperialism, unless that appeal is itself based on commonly accepted standards (Ramcharan 1999, 12). Even such an appeal, however, is seen as more legitimate if it is initiated by an agent who has a specific international mandate to apply these standards; it is almost always more effective to be able to say that one is supporting a community initiative rather than one’s own.

Appeals from an international nongovernmental organization to a government are usually based on ethical grounds, but their impact is limited by the fact that these organizations represent the views of only their members. If their membership is large, and if they have access to the media and to means of rapid, worldwide communication, they may nevertheless influence state conduct. The record of Amnesty International provides the best example of this. Nongovernmental organizations also sometimes exercise significant influence on intergovernmental bodies to take initiatives by providing well-substantiated evidence.
An appeal by an international agent, such as a special rapporteur, has no direct relationship with positive or negative material incentives but has sufficient moral authority that a government may weigh whether or not refusal to cooperate with the agent might lead indirectly to material repercussions in the policies of states of importance to it. A target state is aware that the agent will report at intervals to the body of states, that his or her reports will provide material for criticism or praise by that body, and that such praise or criticism can have further impact on national attitudes and policies of states important to it.

Negative economic incentives, in the form of denial of loans by multilateral banks and trade and financial restrictions, have not yet been fully utilized by the United Nations explicitly for human rights purposes except in the cases of South Africa, Rhodesia, and, most recently, Haiti. The same is true of arms embargoes. On the positive side, the United Nations is still in the early stages of developing programs of positive material incentives to states to improve human rights performance. These small, but growing, programs – totaling about $14 million a year in 1996 – are managed by the Human Rights Center under the direction of the High Commissioner. They are becoming increasingly well integrated with the thematic and country-specific mechanisms, thereby reinforcing the impact of ethical and political persuasion (Advisory Services and Technical Cooperation 1996, 50-2).

A Charter-based UN human rights institution’s authority as a designated agent of the whole community of states gives it a form of effectiveness that enables it sometimes to provide practical help to real human beings, particularly when action is taken promptly, vigorously, and prudently. The methods of persuasion have not helped all victims, nor have they produced by themselves dramatic changes in a state’s behavior. In combination with bilateral pressure, domestic political forces, and internal and external economic factors, however, they have become important factors influencing state conduct.

The techniques employed have been developed to a high degree of sophistication through decades of experimentation. Thematic and country-specific mechanisms are the community’s agents for carrying out the Charter obligations to “promote and encourage universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.” As an integral part of the growing constellation of international institutions in the political universe within which states function and interact, these mechanisms constitute an increasingly influential deterrent to human rights abuse by states. To this constellation has now been added the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who is building on the experience of thematic and country-specific mechanisms to further improve the United Nations’ ability to carry out the Charter mandate to make human rights more secure in the world.

Works Cited
Advisory Services and Technical Cooperation in the Field of Human Rights. 1996. Geneva: United Nations Center for Human Rights.
Donnelly, J. 1993. International Human Rights. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Ramcharan, B. G. 1999. The Concept and Present Status of the International Protection of Human Rights. Netherlands: Nijhoff.

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