Q: What are first, second and third generation rights ?
A: First generation human rights were the first to be conceived by the United Nations, and were fundamentally political. The second generation of human rights is fundamentally social and economic. It gives people the right to be employed. The third generation of human rights is the rights of groups. This gives the individual the right to be part of a collective group.
Q: What is meant by non-state actors as perpetrators of human rights abuses?
A: Often it means corporations. Sweatshops, polluting industries, mass evictions to make room for hydroelectric projects, and even murder and rape occur in commercial enterprises in countries where the government either turns its back or is actively complicit. Often the corporation involved is far richer than the country where it operates, which makes enforcement unfeasible and officials cheap to buy. Or the actor can be an individual or a community, as is the case with domestic violence, a human rights abuse on a very local scale. Non-state actors act autonomously from recognized governments. They may include armed paramilitary groups, insurgents, guerrillas, liberation movements, NGOs, corporations, educational institutions, private donors, religious organizations, the scientific community, private individuals, the media, etc. Their few shared characteristics result from their distinctly unofficial nature (compared with state actors), their greater flexibility and, often, their unaccountability under national and international laws. Non-state actors vary greatly in ideology, objectives, strategies, form and level of organization, support-base, legitimacy and degree of international recognition. There is growing recognition of the need to ensure that non-state actors also comply with international human rights laws
Q: Who enforces human rights, and how?
A: A bevy of legislation exists to protect human rights, but it is much more difficult to ensure that states respect the treaties they have signed. Two covenants, on civil and political rights and on economic, social and cultural rights, were adopted in 1966. Other treaties, on children’s rights, women’s rights, racial discrimination and torture, have followed. Nearly every government has signed at least one of these international treaties. The International Criminal Court was set up in 2002 to try individuals accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. To enforce the protections found in human rights covenants and treaties, people push governments to bring their actions into line with international standards by using in-country justice systems or human rights bodies, regional human rights commissions or courts, the United Nations human rights system, and by applying political pressure from within or outside the country. Non-state actors act autonomously from recognized governments. They may include armed paramilitary groups, insurgents, guerrillas, liberation movements, NGOs, corporations, educational institutions, private donors, religious organizations, the scientific community, private individuals, the media, etc. Their few shared characteristics result from their distinctly unofficial nature (compared with state actors), their greater flexibility and, often, their unaccountability under national and international laws. Non-state actors vary greatly in ideology, objectives, strategies, form and level of organization, support-base, legitimacy and degree of international recognition. There is growing recognition of the need to ensure that non-state actors also comply with international human rights laws.
Q: How have human rights influenced international developments in the last 50 years?
A: For the first time in history, there exists a universal code of human rights, one to which all nations can subscribe and to which all people can aspire. Since 1945, non-governmental organizations have contributed immensely to the work of the United Nations and human rights. Growing international awareness, fostered by mass communications, has heightened the sense of urgency for respect of human rights. In 2002, an international criminal court was established to prosecute and punish persons responsible for crimes against humanity The general framework within which human rights activities are pursued worldwide and human rights law is developed is based on an overlapping network of international treaties and agreements. These include the UN Charter and the 1948 UN International Bill of Human Rights containing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976). Also included are the Hague (1900) and Geneva Conventions (1949) that form the basis for international humanitarian law under which many of the more recent abuses against non-combatants in conflicts have been prosecuted Since l949, and particularly in the past twenty-five years, cases involving the abrogation of rights set forth in this framework have been pursued in national and multilateral justice systems and now constitute a considerable body of law. Regional systems with jurisdiction in Europe (the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms , the European Commission of Human Rights , and the European Court of Human Rights ); Latin America (the American Convention on Human Rights , the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights , and the InterAmerican Court ); and Africa (the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights ) offer special opportunities for adjudicating human rights cases on behalf of individuals in those regions whose national systems may be unreliable. The recent establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in July, 2002, will further institutionalize the international human rights system – both by providing a venue for prosecution of individual perpetrators of the most heinous crimes and by transforming the global legal landscape as state parties to the ICC make improvements to their own human rights law to meet their treaty obligations The emergence of a transnational human rights movement – organizations that work internationally to monitor and report on human rights abuses and those with a national focus that hold their governments accountable — have given life to these legal institutions and structures and transformed the focus of “security” from one on the state to one that considers the individual. While states will, no doubt, continue to pursue policies with national interests paramount, the concept of human security as it is evolving is playing an increasing role in how national interest is defined, and promises to have significant implications for the future of international relations.
Q: Why are Economic, Social and Cultural rights (ESCR) often separated from Civil and Political rights (CPR)?
A: The Cold War, which did damage on many fronts, resulted in the rights which were treated as equal in the Universal Declaration being separated into two Covenants, one on Civil and Political Rights (seen as the strong suit of the West) and one on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (seen as the strong suit of the East). This division was greatly reinforced by Amnesty International’s — the best known human rights organization — decision to focus its work, for pragmatic reasons, exclusively on (a few) civil and political rights. The identification of human rights with only civil and political rights helped governments and organizations avoid challenging the inequality of economic and social arrangements in powerful nations as well as between those nations and the rest of the world This Great Divide is to some degree a Cold War hand-me-down. In the market-driven, individualistic West, where all rights are individual, governments were seen as required to allow for free speech, free assembly, etc.—none of which cost any money—but not to provide for anyone economically. How you fared economically, socially or culturally was your own problem, or between you and the market. Attempts to require the government to protect economic rights were socialist and suspect. In the Soviet Bloc, on the other hand, the state was expected to provide the basics for economic survival, and any attempt to say otherwise was capitalist and suspect. Individual rights of expression, etc., were not important in the collective state. Each side portrayed the other’s approach as tyranny, and both sides were right. Neither side did very well with cultural rights. The separation is rooted in cold war rivalries. When the two covenants, on civil and political rights and on economic, social and cultural rights, were adopted in 1966, they were kept separate because of a disagreement between the western and eastern states over which rights were more essential. The U.S. strongly promoted civil and political rights, where as the Soviet Union felt all rights must be equal. A core human rights principle is the indivisibility of civil, political, economic, cultural, and social rights. Yet human rights discourse and practice for the past fifty years have been dominated by civil and political rights. Both history—the gross violations of civil and political rights in World War II—and politics—Cold War dynamics, the perception that achieving economic and social rights was a longer-term, progressive and more expensive undertaking—help explain how this emphasis developed. Even though economic, social and cultural rights are covered under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international attention toward human rights originated in countries [the United States, European countries] interested in furthering civil and political rights and with a vested interest in not challenging the economic basis of their societies.
Q: Human rights is a great idea, but how realistic is it?
A: Human rights is not an abstract idea but the expression, codified into law, of what all human beings clearly must have to live fully human lives. It is because human rights are so deeply rooted in what all people need, want, and will fight for that they have been the basis for social movements and actions around the world that have freed countless political prisoners, stopped acts of torture and execution, overthrown tyrannies, established justice, torn down walls, ended the system of racial apartheid, improved working conditions and obtained education, shelter, health care, and food for those denied them. The idea of human rights is only as realistic as the idea of, and our willingness to work for, human freedom and dignity. There are societies now where governments neither infringe on rights nor permit other actors to do so—different rights for different societies and maybe nobody gets all of them. The peoples of all countries are ready, it’s only the governments and special interests that lag behind Advancing human rights, teaching about human rights, encouraging peoples all over the developing and the developed world to learn and assert their human rights is essential to most long-term social change.
Q: Are legal remedies the primary tools for protecting and promoting human rights?
A: They’re very powerful tools, but not the only ones. Another approach is to add human rights to the discourse, so that not only legislators but the public sees the issue that way, which makes the desired change easier. A court decision may not be necessary—perhaps a policy change will do the job, or a change in practice by an industry, or an informed public who will call attention to abuses or refuse to submit to them There are many tools that are necessary for the protection and promotion of human rights. These include advocacy and outreach strategies, community organizing, learning to build coalitions, creating a grassroots constituency, informing people of their rights and how these rights can be exercised, research and documentation, and legal remedies. Legal remedies are an important, but not exclusive, tool for promoting and protecting human rights. Education about the nature of human rights, and information about violations are equally important. Social and cultural human rights particularly, such as the right to food, clean water and health care are not easily addressed with legal remedies. Promotion of social and political understanding that human rights are inalienable to basic dignity is still the most powerful tool for advancing human rights.
Q: What is the relationship between human rights and what are known as civil rights in the U.S.?
A: There actually is a far greater relationship between human rights and civil rights than most of us appreciate. Many of the early civil rights leaders in this country drew their inspiration from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or linked their struggle to the international rights movements. Much of that early inspiration was lost in the post World War II period as the civil rights movement looked increasingly inward and began to have success at home Civil rights—the right to life, freedom of expression, the right to vote, personal safety and integrity—are included in agreements in which nations pledge themselves to the general protection of Human Rights. The United States has recently ratified the most notable international agreement on civil rights: The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Q: Aren’t human rights confrontational, controversial and political?
A: Human rights are standards which governments themselves have approved and pledged to uphold. Human rights are only as confrontational, controversial or political as the refusal of governments to uphold their own standards. In a growing number of situations the role of human rights is not to confront but to guide governments in setting priorities and adopting policies that will improve the lives of their citizens. It can be, but so can most other issues. The values inherent in human rights are deeply imbedded in the American Constitution, laws and legal structure, and therefore very much reflect the ideals of this nation. Confrontation and controversy are inevitably part of the clash between ideals and reality – but can lead to a more affirmative vision of the world and our place in it. Controversy is always part of social change and we should embrace it and harness it in that spirit. For certain governments human rights are a highly sensitive and controversial issue, but consistent standards must be applied—as enshrined in the international instruments—to all countries where human rights violations occur.
Q: I understand rights are important, but what about duties? Doesn’t human rights reduce responsibility on the part of the individual?
A: To the degree that forces beyond an individual’s control create a situation from which she cannot escape, that situation can become a human rights one. In fact, some human rights work promotes the performance of duties or contributions to society, be it caring for one’s family, participating in civic activities such as juries or community office, or helping one’s cultural community to function. Human rights law provides the international standards to make judgments about individual responsibility. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the statutes of ad-hoc tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia focus on individual legal responsibility for crimes against collectivities Everyone is endowed with human rights and as a result we all have the duty and responsibility to respect and make sure that everyone can exercise their rights. Instead of limiting our individual responsibility, promoting and protecting human rights requires us to fulfill our duties as fellow humans and ensure that no one is denied their basic rights Any solid teaching about human rights also teaches about responsibilities and duties to be a good citizen, to do the work necessary to secure one’s rights, to protect others’ access to those same rights. It is difficult to imagine how individuals can fulfill their responsibilities—to family, community, society—when their rights are not respected. What is expected of victims of violence or discrimination, people wrongly denied work or health care, or those driven out of their shelter and off their land? A human rights approach requires the state to provide the framework in which rights are respected and responsibilities can be met. Only in this context will individuals have the capacity and motivation to exercise their responsibilities as members of society.