Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Preventing Human Rights Abuses

Torture cell

As I write this, someone somewhere in a dingy, blood-spattered cell is screaming hoarsely as a Government official pulls off her fingernail.

That is not a good way to start a blog post, I know, and many potential readers will have left this page already, but  for those of us that remain, there is some serious thinking to be done.

Human rights abuses are practiced worldwide, not just in the 48 or so dictatorships that currently exist, but covertly in the self-styled democracies, most notoriously in Guantanamo Bay, but in many other hidden locations where “democratic” regimes out-source their human rights abuses.

Inhuman practices provoke opposition. Relatives and friends of people who have disappeared into the clutches of the secret police, or who have been released, physically and mentally scarred, or whose damaged bodies are found on waste land, or whose body is delivered to the family home together with a bill for the bullet that killed, these relatives and friends speak out with the supreme courage of the human spirit who knows that evil must be opposed.

They will find allies in the many Non Governmental Organisations who fight human rights abuses – well-known organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and the vast number of smaller NGOs who rightly struggle against oppression wherever and whenever it happens.

This is good work, but it has a central weakness. It is reactive, not pro-active. It is remedial, not preventive. It is necessary, but not sufficient.

Human rights campaigners are like the police officer who was so busy pulling bodies out of the rive that he had no time to go upstream to see who was pushing them in. We must not stop reacting, but we must also start to take the fight to the abusers.

So how can the world change to a proactive, preventive stance on Human Rights?

We have to bring pressure on governments that abuse. Any human can abuse human rights: a husband can abuse his wife, terrorists can take hostages, and these problems have to be dealt with on a case by case basis. But governments are arguably the biggest institutional human rights abusers on the planet, and these governments can be influenced to some extent by the United Nations. 

The UN’s first act, in the weeks following the end of the Second World War, was to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an important document that retains its freshness and relevance six decades later.

The UN reviews the human rights record of a small sample of its member states each year. Although these Universal Periodic Reviews reviews are necessarily qualitative, it is possible to assign a quantity to qualitative assessments. Therefore it is possible to give each state a numerical ranking that sums up its position on the whole possible range of human rights performance. There will be best performers, worst performers, and everyone else ranged up in between best and worst.

At least two academic institutions are able to issue such indices. The Political Terror Scale is maintained by Mark Gibney, and the World Bank published a governance scale.  In 2006, the Global Congress of Green Parties adopted the idea of an Index of Human Rights. The UK Gren Party published a report on the Global Human Rights Index in 2008.

So it is possible for the United Nations to publish each year a global human rights index. Anyone, from a tourist to a business man, can look up any country and assess its position on the UN Index. Its position might influence the decision of whether to visit or do business in that country.

Every human being likes to excel, dictators more than most. Some will complain that their position on the ranking is unfair and too low. In response, the UN can send in special rapporteurs to make a re-appraisal. We can be pretty sure that prior to the visit, many political prisoners will be released, and jail conditions will improve, so the existence of the UN index will have a direct effect on some cases.

More importantly, there will be a general lifting of human rights performance world wide. Those countries nearest the bottom can be offered advice on how to improve their position in the range. It can be explained that the existence of political opposition parties is not a bad thing, not the end of civilisation. It can be explained that torture does not lead to the production of valuable legal evidence.

The UN Global Index of human Rights is not going to put an end to human rights abuses in and of itself, but it will bring about a steady, continuous, world wide reduction in the number of political arrests, disappearances and torn out finger nails, and as such, we can all look forward to its eventual introduction.

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