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Wednesday, 28 November, 2001, 15:59 GMT
Q&A: Protecting human rights

Most countries have signed international conventions or treaties guaranteeing the protection of human rights. But what are human rights, how are they enforced, and are they the same for everyone?

What are human rights?

Human rights usually refer to those rights that society has agreed are fundamental to people everywhere, such as the right to life, the right to live without oppression, and the right to equal freedom of opportunity.

Until World War II it was up to each country to decide what rights to grant its citizens but in 1948 the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Its 30 articles are the foundation upon which all later human rights instruments are built.

What is the UN Human Rights Commission?

The UN Human Rights Commission was created in 1946 as the main vehicle for promoting acceptance of the principles laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its first 20 years were spent drawing up the two International covenants that gave legal force to the Universal Declaration.

It was not until 1970 that it was authorised to investigate persistent human rights abuses. Since then its profile has increased and its annual meetings in Geneva each March are attended by hundreds of diplomats and campaigners. Countries will go to great lengths to avoid being criticised.

Who is Sergio Vieira de Mello?

Sergio Vieira de Mello is a Brazilian diplomat whose 33 year career with the UN has involved him in some of the organisation's most sensitive operations.

His most recent post was as head of the UN mission to East Timor, during which he had to oversee the tense transition to independence.

He has also worked as the UN Secretary General's special representative for Kosovo and as the UN humanitarian coordinator in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.

Mr Vieira de Mello has gained a reputation for pragmatism and steadiness.

He has already signalled his particular concern for human rights issues such as the rights of civilians in combat areas, combating racism and protecting the rights of women.

He took over in September 2002 from Mary Robinson, a former Irish president.

She was outspoken and controversial and turned the post of head of the UN Human Rights Commission into one of the most high profile within the organisation.

Like Mary Robinson, he will be assisted by "special rapporteurs", experts who operate independently of their governments and with the authority of the UN behind them to monitor human rights.

Do all countries respect human rights?

Many countries are criticised by the UN Human Rights Commission and non-governmental organisations for human rights abuses.

Two permanent members of the UN Security Council - Russia and China - have come under attack in the last year.

Russia has been accused of ignoring international law in its war in Chechnya, where civilian casualties have been high.

China has been criticised for the severe sentences it hands out to political dissidents, and for repressing freedom of expression and freedom of religion.

Western democracies do not escape condemnation. Human Rights Watch, for example, has raised concern about the UK's anti-terrorism legislation, and the death penalty and police abuse in the US.

How are human rights enforced?

A raft of legislation exists to protect human rights, but it much more difficult to ensure states respect the treaties they have signed.

Two covenants - on civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights - were adopted in 1966 to guarantee the rights enshrined in the UDHR.

Other treaties - on children's rights, women's rights, racial discrimination and torture - have followed.

Nearly every government has signed up to at least one of these international treaties, with some notable exceptions. The US and Somalia are the only two countries not to have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Organisation of African Unity, the Council of Europe and the Organisation of American States have all adopted charters or conventions to further human rights in their regions. They impose additional binding obligations on signatory countries.

On 1 July 2002, the International Criminal Court was inaugurated in the Hague, Netherlands, following ratification of the treaty establishing it by 70 countries.

It has jurisdiction only in cases on the territory of a state which has ratified the treaty, by a citizen of such a state and when the Security Council refers a case to it.

Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, said that the court "holds the promise of a world in which the perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes are prosecuted when individual states are unable or unwilling to bring them to justice".

The US China, Russia and a number of other states have failed to ratify the treaty because of unhappiness with its powers.

The establishment of the court follows limited tribunals for Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Sierra Leone and Iraq.

Does everyone agree on what constitutes a human right?

There has been disagreement about what constitutes a human right since the signing of the Universal Declaration in 1948.

The West stressed the importance of civil and political rights like the right to choose a government, freedom of expression, conscience and belief.

But the Communist bloc gave priority to economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to work, housing and access to health care.

As a result two covenants were adopted in 1966 to give legal force to the UDHR:

  • The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

So are human rights really universal?

The Vienna Declaration of 1993 stated: "All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated... While the significance of national and regional peculiarities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms."

However, some countries have argued that human rights are culturally relative, and that the Universal Convention on Human Rights amounts to an imposition of Western values on other societies.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, for example, argues that the UDHR's emphasis on an individual's rights rather than responsibilities to the community makes it unsuited to Asia.


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