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BROADENING THE DEFINITION OF HUMAN RIGHTS

The international human rights community should follow the lead of community human rights groups everywhere that are working to ensure that all rights are promoted, guaranteed and protected, and that all parties are held accountable for all actions that directly or indirectly violate rights, says the following article.

By Grahame Russell


December 1999

Since World War Two, the international human rights community has played an important role in popularising the concept that all people have rights.

Yet, if the international human rights community does not broaden its analysis and advocacy work to employ an 'all rights guaranteed - all actors accountable' framework, it may contribute to the perpetration of poverty and injustice on a global scale. The impunity with which many 'inter-state', 'non-state' and 'other state' actors violate the rights of individuals and peoples worldwide may continue unabated.

Since the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and subsequent human rights treaties and covenants, and the formation of tens of thousands of community human rights and solidarity organisations worldwide, the concept of human rights has made an important contribution to efforts to address and remedy profound injustices, both within and between nations.

Both as a concept which helps us to understand human beings and communities, and as a set of legal norms rooted in the rule of law, human rights can and should be an important tool for analysing and remedying abuses of power, regardless of whether these abuses are committed at a local, national or international level, or whether they arecommitted by governments, inter-governmental bodies (such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organisation), or private actors (such as corporations, banks or investment funds).

The human rights gap!

Yet, there is a tremendous gap between the way that tens of thousands of community human rights groups around the world interpret human rights, and its interpretation by the international human rights community.

For the most part, inter-governmental institutions such as the United Nations and the Organisation of American States, as well as better-known non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have focused on certain political and civil rights. And they have maintained that the government of a particular country is the only actor that can be held accountable for rights violations that take place in that country.

The problem lies not so much in the actual work that the traditional human rights community has undertaken, indeed they have established important investigative and reporting standards and their efforts have been important in many different struggles.

Rather, the problem lies in which rights violations they have chosen to investigate and which actors they have chosen to identify as responsible for violations.

'Poverty' is a violation of numerous rights

Assassinations by death squads, illegal detentions or detentions in abusive conditions are matters of human rights concern, possible legal remedy and worthy of attention from the 'international community'.

Death by malnutrition or preventable diseases, or subsisting in conditions of poverty that offend human dignity, are deemed not to be matters of human rights concern, possible legal remedy and therefore do not receive sustained attention from the 'international community'.

This is wrong and unacceptable. Annually, more people worldwide are killed because of systemic and systematic violations of overlapping political, social and economic rights - poverty - than by civil and political rights violations brought by wars, repressive governments and armed movements, that is, those violations that have traditionally received most attention.

'Other actors' violate rights

In the 1980s, certain human rights groups identified the Nicaraguan government as the only actor responsible for civil and political rights violations during the war with the 'Contras'. These groups only belatedly named the Contras (and never named the United States) as an actor that was violating civil and political rights in Nicaragua.

While the Nicaraguan government was guilty of rights violations, those committed by the United States government, both on its own and via the US-funded, -trained and -armed Contras, were greater in number and more brutal in nature.

By focusing attention on the Nicaraguan government, the international human rights community (US State Department Human Rights Reports were particularly manipulative in this regard) contributed directly to the impunity of another major actor, the United States.

Impunity of international economic actors

Structural adjustment programmes, forced on many countries by the IMF, the World Bank, commercial banks and Northern government 'aid' programmes since the early 1980s, have delegitemised and reduced the role of governments with respect to guaranteeing and protecting the rights to health, education, housing, a healthy environment, basic work standards, etc.

While maintaining or increasing the numbers of people living in poverty in many countries, IMF and World Bank-led policies and programmes have promoted and strengthened a corporate-dominated economic model that, in many cases, has concentrated more wealth in the hands of minority sectors.

The WTO wields a huge amount of real power, impacting directly and indirectly on the rights of individuals and peoples worldwide. Today, international companies, banks and investment funds are working with certain governments to use the WTO to guarantee and protect a corporation's 'right' to engage in any type of economic activity, anywhere.

At the same time, these governments and economic actors are working to ensure that they not be held accountable - nationally or internationally - for failing to meet established environmental and human rights standards.

In effect, these state, inter-state and non-state actors act with a great deal of impunity, unaccountable for their actions that violate numerous rights and the basic dignity of individuals and peoples throughout the world.

Human Rights Watch and the World Trade Organisation

In a press release, dated 15 November 1999, Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that 'We welcome the deal between the US and China on WTO entry. This agreement is good for...human rights and the rule of law.' This position exposes problems inherent to a narrow notion of which rights are to be guaranteed, and which actors are to be held accountable.

HRW's statement ignores the oftentimes direct relationship between policies and programmes implemented by powerful economic actors, such as the WTO, and the perpetration or worsening of systemic violations of overlapping political, economic, social and civil rights.

This position also ignores the oftentimes organic relation between poverty (systemic violations of overlapping political, economic, social and civil rights) and repression (violations of certain political and civil rights).

Daily, people and communities worldwide face the reality that if they live in poverty, quietly accepting exploitation and misery, their living conditins will never be seen as a human rights issue.

But if they organise and advocate for the wide range of their rights, and demand accountability from the national and international actors that are violating their rights, it has often been the case that governments and private actors use repression (political and civil rights violations) against them and their organisations.

It is this repression that may then be investigated and reported on by the international human rights community, such as HRW.

'All rights guaranteed - All actors accountable'

It is long overdue for solidarity and community human rights organisations worldwide to take back and appropriate the concept of 'human rights'.

The international human rights community should follow the lead of urban and rural community human rights groups in the North and South that are working to ensure that all rights are promoted, guaranteed and protected, and that all actors - private or governmental; local, national or international - are held accountable for all actions that directly or indirectly violate rights. - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Grahame Russell is an international human rights lawyer and development expert, and director of Rights Action based in Washington, DC, USA and Toronto, Canada. Tel: 202-783-1123. Email: info@rightsaction.org. Thanks to Aaron Pollack (Rosaron@iol.it) for his contributions to this article.

1987/99

 


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