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Human rights: a further blow

By Meg Wallace - posted Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group (EPG) was set up in 1995 to address persistent or serious human rights violations in Commonwealth states. The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) on October 25 and 29, 2011, informs us that the EPG has issued a recent Report on the Commonwealth, noting a 'seeming failure of the Commonwealth to speak out when its values are violated'. For example, of the 20 member states of the Commonwealth, early and forced marriage is most prevalent in 12 of them, even though it is 'one of the greatest barriers to girls' education, maternal health and economic empowerment'. Over half the Commonwealth countries still criminalise private adult consensual same-sex activity.

The EPG points to what it sees as inertia on the part of the Commonwealth Secretariat in addressing these and other human rights issues (the Secretary-General refused its request to release the report before the recent CHOGM meeting in Perth). Their report recommends the appointment of an independent human rights commissioner to monitor human rights violations and recommend appropriate action. This has been resisted by some countries (led by Sri Lanka and South Africa), that argue that the proposed commission would be 'too intrusive'.

As a result, a watered-down compromise has been developed, which the EPG has stated is 'completely inadequate'. Yet another charter of rights will be considered, (a group of Commonwealth foreign ministers will examine the proposal further and report back to the leaders) but this will take time. Indeed, the SMH journalist tells us, '[s]ources familiar with the backroom negotiations preceding the official opening said the recommendation to establish a human rights watchdog was dead even before the leaders discussed it.' So concerned were individual members of the EPG at the compromise, they have publicly expressed their fears for the relevance of CHOGM.


What is it with human rights? Does anyone really want them? Almost every nation in the world has ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a condition of membership of the United Nations. All have thus purportedly committed themselves to democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Since then it has been deemed necessary to repeat these rights in treaties, conventions and charters again and again.

We have the universal international statements in treaties like the International Convention on Human Rights (ICCPR) − ratified by over 170 nations. It is clarified by a more detailed Comment which has been adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.

Other international human rights documents exist, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and conventions or declarations expanding on the rights of women, children, racial and ethnic groups, immigrants, refugees, etc.

Many nations have signed these, in addition to numerous regional international treaties such as the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms, the American Convention on Human Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

Then there are the many Bills and Charters of Rights adopted at the national level (Australia is conspicuous among democratic nations in not having one).

These documents establish procedures for addressing human rights breaches. Very few states, international bodies, national institutions or religions will deny embracing and fostering fundamental human rights.


The UN began a revolution in establishing universal, individual human rights that was met with acclaim. Yet every nation in the world breaches human rights in some way or another. Since its inception the UN has been documenting and fighting human rights violations. This documentation is voluminous. However, political pressure weakens its response to these violations, as well as the response by other international human rights bodies. So we have, for example, the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam adopted by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in 1990. This Declaration of rights, based on shari'ah law, directly contradicts the UDHR to which OIC members have subscribed as UN members. Most OIC members are also party to the ICCPR. The Declaration has nevertheless been accepted by the UN as one of its core human rights documents. The revolution has a long way to go.

At base, there is a diversity of understandings of what constitutes human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or other belief. Most religions and other beliefs across the world, from East to West, subscribe to the idea of human rights, but, as world expert on human rights Johan van der Vyver states, 'on their own terms'. While governments and religions are eager to be associated with the idea of human rights, the widespread claim to follow them, based as it is on various religious and cultural backgrounds, 'signifies no more than rhetorical consensus'. This is demonstrated in the long list of reservations to the ICCPR by States Parties signing and ratifying it.

Eastern religions, van der Vyver points out, are increasingly questioning Western perceptions of human rights, and there is a 'struggle for supremacy', (i.e. power) in the UN, particularly between the perceptions of human rights considered 'Western', and those considered 'non-Western'. The drive for power − political, social, religious or cultural − supplants the drive for a genuine recognition of human rights.

So a need for yet another statement of human rights and the creation of additional procedures for addressing breaches is perceived necessary for the Commonwealth of Nations by the EPG. However, there is resistance by those who do not want to be accountable, rendering any response to its concerns largely meaningless. When pressed in relation to their breaches of human rights, those responsible often obfuscate, deny, justify with all sorts of excuses, and in some cases, reject outright what has already been agreed, as seen by the Cairo Declaration. They hide behind the language of human rights, while avoiding the actual practice.

So once again we arrive at no more than 'rhetorical consensus'.

Where human rights are concerned, there is a global lack of honesty and accountability. Nations either accept that there are universal human rights, and what these involve (as set out, e.g. by the UN) or they don't. If they don't, they should declare this, and be transparent and accountable for their stance. If they do, they should show their commitment by genuine attempts to enforce these rights: not resort to 'backroom deals' to shore up vested interests. As a result, we have a bewildering set of international and regional documents, mostly repeating each other and often ignored, with ineffective mechanisms to review their commitment to the treaties to which they have subscribed. The flesh is demonstrably weak.....but how willing is the spirit?

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About the Author

Meg Wallace is the President of the Rationalist Society of NSW. She is a lawyer and former academic.

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