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 Human right a victim of global politics


IN the world today the issue of human rights is a factor of increasing importance in the conduct of international relations. Nation states cannot afford to neglect the significance of this aspect anymore, particularly when undertaking diplomatic initiatives to accomplish foreign policy objectives. But before we proceed further, what exactly do we mean when we talk of human rights? What are human rights?

There is no single definition that would probably satisfy everyone. However, it is generally accepted that all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights. These are moral claims that are inalienable and inherent in every human being. It is these claims that when translated and articulated in various international documents that form the core of our rights. It is possible that such a definition, when it assumes legal sanction, also becomes universally acceptable, but it should always be remembered that there is still a long distance between legal documentation and actual practice.

Human rights are not a recent invention. In the past, almost every religious tradition, culture and civilisation have stressed the basic values of human dignity and equality of the human race. In spite of such injunctions, however, human life and human dignity have been flouted with impunity throughout history. Even today the situation in many countries is not much better, where human life is of little value and flagrant violations continue to be the norm rather than the exception.

Nevertheless efforts have been made to rectify the situation at the International level. The Magna Carta (1215), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), the American Bill of Rights (1791) and more recently the adoption by the UN of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) were important milestones in the long road leading to the evolution of the rights of man.

As is usual with international declarations, there are serious shortcomings between precept and practice. So too is the case with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Firstly, the document when signed in 1948 reflected the consensus that existed then and was primarily an effort to ensure that the horrors and horrendous sufferings inflicted on humanity as a result of the two World Wars did not re-occur.

Secondly, the membership of the UN at that time was only 48, whereas today it has reached nearly 192, with a vast majority of new member states coming from recently de-colonized countries. But the biggest drawback was that this Declaration was not legally binding. It was only subsequently with the passing of the two Covenants-the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that these became legally binding and states that were signatories to them, became duty bound to implement their contents. But do they do so?

Nation states have found ways to circumvent the obligations and commitments made by them in international declarations. Quite often recourse is taken to Article 2 (7) of the UN Charter. Under this article there is the stipulation that the UN or its bodies, should not intervene ‘in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.’ Thus the obligations to ensure basic human rights in any nation state are evaded by recourse to this article.

Although in 1993 the Vienna Declaration of Action was adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights and which stressed that the’ protection of all human rights is a legitimate concern of the international community’, yet international action is still very tardy. This is because any such action by the international community would still seen by many countries as an ‘interference’ in matters that are essentially within their domestic jurisdiction and a hangover of past colonial practices.

There are several mechanisms available to ensure that nation states do not violate basic human rights within their own territories. International adjudication is one such mechanism. But nation states are loathe in punishing their own culprits. Little action is contemplated against the brutalities witnessed during the US occupation of Iraq. Even though several internationally renowned Human Rights Organisations have unequivocally condemned the goings on at Guantanamo Bay, action is unlikely. Even the International Court of Justice (ICC) is still at its infancy and has not made dramatic progress.

Most nation states often cite foreign policy compulsions to avoid taking cognizance of gross human rights violations. Very few countries are immune from this disease! What can the international community do to get over such obvious difficulties? It is obvious that power politics still holds sway and that the more powerful nations are likely to get away lightly. More often than not guilty actions are likely to be swept under the carpet under the guise of national security ‘considerations’ or that the ‘morale’ of the soldiers would be affected.

However the full picture is not all that bleak. The advent of satellite television and courageous reporting by enterprising journalists has had a major positive effect. Who can forget the ghastly TV coverage of what went on at Abu Ghraib? The world’s sole super power, in spite of inventing the concept of ‘embedded’ journalists, found it self at the receiving end when satellite TV reports were beamed into every living room throughout the world. Its image took a nosedive. Nothing impaired its reputation more than those pictures that showed such gross violations of human rights. Overnight from being a ‘liberator’ it became the tormentor!

Thus the role of the visual and print media in the safeguarding of human rights becomes crucial. The fact that the ownership of satellite TV stations is now more widely dispersed on a geographical scale, is a welcome development and needs due encouragement. If human rights activists were to use this tool even more effectively, there is no doubt that even the most powerful of Nation States would be doubly careful not to indulge in human rights violations, even if foreign policy objectives so dictated. Foreign policy objectives would then have to be suitably circumscribed. The visual impact has a potency the value of which still remains to be fully exploited!