Emerging Human Rights Issues
February 16-17, 2006
February 17, 2006
The link culture and religion can have with human rights poses a more philosophical question, but it is one of enduring importance as it touches upon the fundamental values that define individuals’ relationships to each other and their communities. It is an enduring issue, but also one that lays out new dimensions, given some of the conflicts and controversies in the world. One such example was the reaction prompted by the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, as well as the riots in the suburbs of Paris.
The question of culture and religion should be approached from within a larger context that includes issues of individual and collective memory, identity politics, economic development and the new relationships in a globalized world. Some of the tensions that are currently felt between different cultural and religious groups can be explained, in part, by other factors such as poverty, skewed markets and historical injustices (slavery, colonization, etc.).
Also, for human rights defenders, there is an important backdrop to the question of culture and religion, in particular the principles of the universality of human rights and of global solidarity. However, the facts of poverty, the striking examples of inconsistent application of human rights principles by powerful nations and the enduring democratic deficits in many countries, have undermined the faith of many. 18 Emerging Human Rights Issues
This is exacerbated by the policies and practices of multilateral institutions that support a status quo and which rob the citizens of developing nations of hope for change. Another exacerbating factor is the “criminalization” of migration and immigration, which erects barriers between cultures and religious groups and prevents genuine dialogue, interaction, and mutual understanding.
This raises many profound questions: Who is the “other”? Who judges the “other”? And from what vantage point? Who speaks for the “other”? And on what basis?
Do we see others simply as human beings who possess rights (e.g. the right to food, the right to education, the right to meaningful work and the right to religious freedom) or do we define each other in terms of prejudicial cultural and religious categories?
In this regard, we must be very careful to understand that culture and religion can be manipulated for political purposes. Religious values and sacred texts are subject to limitless interpretations. This interpretation and manipulation occurs by fundamentalists of all stripes: Christian, Islamic, Jewish (and even the ultra-liberal fundamentalists that push for a free market). If we are not careful and critical of these fundamentalist positions, we may help the “clash of civilizations” theory play out or be contributing to the spread of “cultural relativism”, which not only opposes religions (i.e. Christians vs. Muslims), but also opposes cultures (i.e. the West vs. Islam). This issue is further confounded by the risk of public perception associating Islam with terrorism.
We must not confuse the issue and oppose ourselves to the legitimate spirituality of others, but rather we should oppose the manipulation of that spirituality. A distinction can be made between spirituality and religion: spirituality is linked to human capital, which offers the individual a degree of resilience in face of the human condition; whereas religion is linked to social capital and serves to reinforce group cohesion. Secularists, positivists and humanists may be particularly apt to fall into this sort of generalization about religious groups. We often ignore the richness of inter-faith and ecumenical dialogue and the actions that regularly bring Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and others together. We also often ignore the fact that human rights defenders come from all faiths and cultures.
February 17, 2006 19 We also may have difficulty understanding that our rigid separation of the religious and the political is not the norm in other places. In many parts of the world, religious and spiritual values play key roles in public life and decision-making. This is not about to go away; we must increase our sensitivity to other religions and not turn them into abstractions. This also shows us, once again, the importance of education.
That said, we must recall that the doctrine of human rights is a recent human creation. While we may search for cultural and religious analogies in our promotion of human rights, it is important not to define human rights as sacred, as this may paralyze the ability of future generations to interpret human rights progressively for the purposes of justice. The genius of human rights is that they are not linked to one religion or another, but rather they are linked to the inherent dignity of the human being regardless of his or her religion, culture and conviction. We must also remember that members of different religious groups share a common commitment to a great number of human rights (e.g. the right to life and right not to be tortured, etc.). In this regard, at least, there is a core of human rights that can be viewed as universal. There is greater divergence and controversy, however, when we address the issue of social and cultural rights.
Similarly, there may be a universal aspiration towards democracy, in the sense that all citizens want to participate in the decisions that affect their lives and that they believe that those who govern them should be subject to some form of transparency and accountability. Conversely, there may be huge divergences in terms of specific practices and values that must be understood when discussing or promoting democracy. For example, Canadians may have something to share in terms of their country’s constitutional laws and federal structure, but should not pretend to have the final solution for everyone else. The matter must be approached with some humility, in terms of conducting a common search and respectful dialogue about the form of government that best suits those who will be governed.
Furthermore, as is revealed by the recent incident relating to the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, we need to understand that some rights—such as the right to free expression—must be constrained by a sense of responsibility and sensitivity. There are nuances in the application of each human right and a careful balancing between different areas of human rights.
20 Emerging Human Rights Issues When we approach sensitive issues relating to cultural practices (e.g. female genital mutilation), we must be careful not to demean or infantilize those with whom we are in dialogue. We must first seek to understandother cultures and then find, within them, the tools for empowerment and change. In this regard, the practices of some specialized UN agencies, such as UNIFEM, are instructive. One emerging issue that will require particular attention is that of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons. The movement towards the recognition of their rights flies in the face of the radical discrimination by certain religious and cultural groups, and also prompts enormous resistance at the international level. Here, it is important to distinguish between what may be perceived as a “sin” and what should be considered a “crime.”
We must decide what culture we are seeking to promote. Are we defenders of local cultures in all their diversity? Or are we defenders of a monolithic, global, “supermarket” culture? In between the global and local, questioning the state’s appropriate role in culture is something that must be done. A progressive answer may be that cultural diversity, at the local level, is an integral part of the universal cultural of human rights that we are seeking to promote at the global level. This opens up a host of convergent interpretations of the human condition but also offers various entry points to construct shared norms. In this regard, we must remember the positive aspects of culture as an expression of a common search for identity, meaning and values. Also, in the present day, we should reflect on how different cultures are integrating with one another and creating new values that may lead, eventually, to a stronger global ethic.
Thus, even within individual nations, there is a need to develop fluid structures and policies to manage diversity among different groups. Immigration and the question of linguistic, cultural and religious minorities oblige the state to adapt itself. In this context, the doctrine of human rights plays a central role in articulating the way forward. It is worth noting the number of truth and reconciliation commissions that currently exist and which are helping nations come to terms with their history and diversity. Also, the action of civil society is critical in defining and developing local and democratic forms of cultural expression.
Returning to the question of universality, we must also remember the importance of implementing human rights. Beyond the construction of February 17, 2006 21 norms, real progress in the global fight against poverty and concrete steps towards realizing all human rights—economic, social, cultural, civil and political—are the ultimate measure of universality. In this regard, it is worth recalling the positive steps made by certain groups to put their issues on the international political agenda: these include the progress towards recognizing the rights of indigenous people, as well as actions taken by developing countries to transform the negotiations in the World Trade Organization.
Potential Follow-up Actions Potential actions that have emerged from this discussion are as follows:
• To convene another roundtable on this particular issue of culture/ religion and human rights, drawing more extensively on participants from the diverse religious communities in Canada with practical experience on inter-faith dialogue and the promotion of human rights from within a religious perspective. • The need for further education and cross-cultural dialogue on issues relating to human rights and democracy. In this context, the Rights & Democracy Network proposes to redouble its efforts to twin its “delegations” in Canadian universities with those in developing countries, in order to promote common understanding between the next generation of activists and leaders.
• The need for further efforts to effectively implement all human rights, including economic and social rights, in all countries. This is the most effective manner to promote the principles of universality and solidarity and to provide an alternative to a potential clash of civilizations. In this regard, further support to the Action Plan of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, with its focus on implementation of human rights, is an important starting point. 22 Emerging Human Rights Issues
Thematic Cluster 3 — Fragile States and Human Rights
Although failed and fragile states are a perennial problem, the issue is emerging in the sense that the problem is now dominating the global agenda, given the sheer number of states that can be classified as failed or fragile. According to some indicators, there are currently as many as 60 failed and fragile states.1 As many as two billion people live in failed and fragile states; this is nearly a third of the world’s population. The magnitude of the issue will place it at the centre of Canada’s international efforts in areas such as defence, development and diplomacy, for at least the next two decades.
Moreover, this is an emerging issue in terms of human rights: with the evolution of international human rights law, including developing norms such as the “responsibility to protect,” human rights are a key consideration when failed and fragile states are put under analysis and plans of action. It is also in this failed-state context that we see some of the worst human rights abuses and the most dramatic illustrations of the vulnerability of certain groups.
The definition of a failed and fragile state is controversial and incomplete. Also, the label can be problematic since it has such a negative connotation for those living in a “failed” state and will not motivate them to contribute to the improvement of that state. Even in a failed state, there may be vibrant groups and NGOs and some institutions, such as humanrights commissions or ombudspeople, that are making efforts to improve the situation. Therefore, there needs to be greater precision and nuance in our language, such as identifying the “failure” of specific government institutions or particular leaders.
It is also important to distinguish between failed states and “rogue states,” which may be functioning in many aspects, but present a threat to the international community or which massively violate human rights. 1 For information and analysis on failed and fragile states, see: www.foreignpolicy.com. February 17, 2006 23 Without clarity on the issue, there is suspicion that the discourse about failed states could be used to justify preventative military interventions. To help analyze this issue, it may be useful to consider what constitutes the opposite of a failed state. If a strong democracy and the rule of law are at the other end of the spectrum, it is possible to think in terms of a >continuum upon which all states have a degree of imperfection, failure or fragility. These concepts also may be associated with clearer indicators and legal norms for analyzing and intervening in a particular situation. It is important to include voices from the South in our discussions of failed and fragile states. These discussions tend to be academic and dominated by northern countries. Scholars and leaders from countries such as Rwanda, Somalia and Afghanistan should be systematically included in the international community’s reflections on these issues. Given the increasing number of South-South peacekeeping contributions, these experiences should also be studied. Some of the key elements of this failure and fragility were discussed nonetheless:
• the state or government has lost control over its territory and no longer has a monopoly on the use of force
• the inability for the government to ensure the security of citizens; an inability to collect taxes and offer services
• a rise in criminal activity and organized crime
• a deterioration of the political situation, including widespread corruption and the weakening of governance structures; a breakdown in the formal and informal networks that foster dialogue and collaboration between government and different groups
• a deterioration of the economic situation; rising inequality
• a deterioration of social conditions; the inability of the government to ensure basic services such as water, food, health and hygiene
• a lack of the government’s international capacity, including deterioration of its diplomatic relations with other countries
• patterns of human rights violation. When considering these indicators, it is also possible to analyze situationsof failure or fragility at the sub-state level, either in terms of regions or cities. For example, the recent crisis in New Orleans after Hurricane
Katrina, the violence in the Parisien banlieue or in the barrios of Rio, or the poverty on aboriginal reserves in Canada could be evidence of failures in governance. It is important to consider that the responsibility for delivery of services to citizens is increasingly being delegated to local governments, making them key actors to be included in any attempts to analyze and assist failed and fragile states. Moreover, some of the causes of the deterioration or failure of the statewere discussed. These include the following:
For each failed or fragile state, these factors are woven together into a unique history that must be understood by those who may wish to intervene. To respect these unique histories, it is impossible to have a onesize- fits-all approach to failing states.
Furthermore, it is necessary reflect more deeply upon the role of donor
countries (particularly if there is a former colonial power), multilateral agencies and other non-state actors, such as banks, transnational corporations or arms producers, in exacerbating or halting the slide towards state failure. It is important to recall that, in some countries, international aid or foreign investment represents the majority of the state’s budget—often granted with significant conditions. That puts into question who is actually responsible. Also given the significant macroeconomic constraints on many developing countries—in terms of fair February 17, 2006 25 trade, debt relief and foreign investment rules—it is difficult for them to have the resources to halt the slide towards greater fragility. In this regard, it is important to reflect on the current focus on the promotion of “good governance,” which in some respects, can be viewed as the opposite of “state failure”. Has the promotion of good governance been successful? Can we say that we truly understand its essential components, when a recent World Bank report’s “essential” components numbered 116?
The problem of failed and fragile states remains a concern for a numberof reasons. There are certain negative conditions that lead to the deteriorationof a state, and will spiral out of control if and when that collapse happens: terrorists, criminal organizations and warlords will becomemore powerful; the degradation of the environment and destruction ofinfrastructure will accelerate; the violation of human rights will becomeincreasingly severe.
In terms of lessons learned from previous experiences with failed or fragilestates (e.g. Bosnia, Croatia, Somalia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, East Timor and Cambodia), it is important to have a long-term and multidisciplinary approach to the problem. Short-term fixes are unrealistic. Standard peacekeeping efforts are insufficient. Although the intervention of armed forces may be necessary, the real solution is at the political, economic and social level. Military interventions must be accompanied by a host of other actions, including humanitarian efforts, electoral processes, institutional reforms, movements to counter impunity and support for human rights defenders. Also, there needs to be systematic efforts tocontrol the circulation of arms, money and other resources, one example being diamonds, that serve to nourish instability.
One area in which there has been some progress in relation to this sort of multidisciplinary approach is the protection of civilian populations during UN peacekeeping operations. Presently, the mandates that are given to UN peacekeepers are more extensive than simply separating belligerents, and include the responsibility to assist and protect civilians.
Moreover, in reconstruction efforts, it is important not to simply focus on institutions. This is necessary, but should not be the sole target of our efforts: we also need to work on strengthening civil society, participatory processes and the networks that play a mediating role between government and different groups in a country. Another approach that has proved to be promising is the work on developing leadership capacities, 26 Emerging Human Rights Issues including human rights training, legal education and youth engagement. In these sectors, small investments of money can yield significant results. Within donor countries such as Canada, there needs to be public education that will help foster the political will for sustaining long-term efforts — the kinds of efforts needed to deal with failed and fragile states. As recent incidents in Iraq, Haiti and Afghanistan demonstrate, the public also needs to understand the real risk of bloodshed—not just for military personnel, but also for members of NGOs, humanitarian organizations and diplomatic staff—if Canadians are to engage in the challenge of failed and fragile states. An essential component of public engagement is the necessity of political debates.
In terms of a long-term approach to failed and fragile states, it is necessaryto insist on prevention. Reconstruction and rebuilding is infinitelymore costly than prevention. There is a strong consensus that we shouldconcentrate more resources and efforts on prevention, yet we tend towithdraw our investments and personnel from those situations (Côted’Ivoire being a good example) that are teetering on the brink of collapse. Perhaps it is that time when we receive those worrisome signals that weshould invest massively, instead of pulling back. We need to be morevigilant and analytical when there are urgent needs for preventative actions.This offers an additional reason to invest in international development. In this regard, international development assistance should not be seenas charity, but rather as an obligation and the necessary price for living ina civilized world. If rich nations are not willing to pay this price, theymust realize that they will end up facing exponential rises in the cost ofsecurity.
In some cases, it may also be necessary to consider redefining the state inorder to create a viable long-term situation. For example, where there areendemic ethnic conflicts, perhaps a federal model should be considered or, in extreme cases, the creation of new states. These redefinitions of thestate have occurred in the past and may be required in the future. However, for such radical solutions to be acceptable, they must be determinedby the will of the people and not imposed by outsiders. February 17, 2006 27
Potential Follow-up Actions • At the conceptual level, there is a need for further work on clarifyingthe definition, indicators and contributing factors for failed and fragilestates. An important contribution could be to engage southernscholars, leaders and peacekeepers on a practical analysis of the wayforward in dealing with this issue.
• At the normative level, there is a need for further development of thedoctrine of the “responsibility to protect.” Although the principlewas accepted at the UN Summit of September 2005, there is more work to be done to clarify the criteria and institutional processes forapplying the doctrine in relation to failed states. As the doctrine isdeveloped, there should be more specific references to the situation ofmassive human rights violations. There is also the need to carefullyconstrain and define the criteria for the use of force, as well as to concentrateon the preventative aspects of the doctrine. Politically, it is important that the doctrine develop in a manner that it is understood and serves as a legitimate expression of international solidarity and not as a form of neo-colonialism.
• The circulation of small arms is a significant factor in the escalationand perpetuation of state fragility and human rights violations. Additionalefforts for the creation of effective international mechanismsto constrain the circulation of small arms should be part of a longtermstrategy on this issue.
• It is important not to just talk about prevention, but to take action. A further discussion could be organized on this specific topic, where the various participants could discuss how their institutions and networks could collaborate. For example, Rights & Democracy is working with the newly created Rapid Response Unit at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in an effort to better coordinate our responses to urgent human rights situations. 28 Emerging Human Rights Issues
Thematic Cluster 4 — Sustainable Development, the Environment and Human Rights Chair: Stephen Toope, President & CEO, Trudeau Foundation (Now, the President of the University of British Columbia) Lead Discussant: Jorge Daniel Taillant, Executive Director, Centre for Human Rights and Environment Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words: the discussion began with a reflection on a photograph of a family that lives in a garbage dump, a graphic illustration that brings together the problems of poverty, environmental degradation and violations of human rights.
The connection between the environment and human rights is an important issue since it breaks new ground about the legal protection of individuals, communities and the environment in which they live. For instance, there are now examples of successful legal action to promote and protect access to water, as a matter of human rights, whereas this would have in the past been dealt with more as a political or administrative matter. Nonetheless, there is still a need to further entrench the right to water, and other human rights that are linked to the environment, in our national and international laws and regulations. There are many other linkages between the environment and human rights:
The link between poverty and environmental degradation has an important dimension: the worst cases of contamination and environmental damage normally take place where the local population does not have a strong voice and cannot make the polluter behave more responsibly, or for that matter, leave. Furthermore, some of the most serious consequences of climate change and environmental disasters tend to be visited on the poorest communities and nations. With respect to poverty and the environment, work remains to be done in further developing the tools to protect economic, social and cultural rights.
Often, in developing countries, environmental protection is juxtaposed with the need for development. However, this raises the key question of sustainability: if development serves to destroy the environment, and those individuals who live and work in that environment, there can be no further development.
That said, parts of the developing world desperately need development and investment less there be no hope for the thousands and millions of young people—often with university degrees—who are unemployed and dream only of leaving their country. Here, the creation of practical tools, like environmental and human rights impactassessments, can help promote responsible investment.
In relation to sustainability, there is also a need for work on strategies for energy conservation, as well as for the treatment of toxic and nuclearwaste. This relates to the need for preventative actions, to create safeguardsagainst environmental disasters.
Turning to the future, we will need to think about creating sustainable cities, as the global population becomes increasingly based in urban centers. Therefore, further discussions about the link between human rights and the urban environment should be undertaken.
Also with respect to sustainability, is there a value-added component to a rights-based approach to development? Arguably, a process for designing and implementing development programs which put human well-being as the ultimate objective, rather than the economy, should have more sustainable results. However, the development community 30 Emerging Human Rights Issues needs to be further engaged in this reflection; and the human rights community needs to more clearly demonstrate the results of a rightsbased approach over an approach based on fundamental human needs. This includes the creation of clearer benchmarks and indicators concerning the implementation and impact of human rights.
A simple answer for a value-added articulation of the environment or sustainable development, in terms of human rights, is the added pressure that can be brought to bear on a situation by the threat of litigation. In a more long-term perspective, human rights can be empowering, as victims become familiar with legal and political processes and are slowly transformed into community leaders.
There is a need for greater education about the linkages between human rights and development, as well as between human rights and the environment. In this regard, it is important to be more precise when talking about human rights: rather than talking about human rights as a slogan, it is possible to engage other groups and sectors of society when we talk about specific rights—like health, education, food, housing, etc. In the details, the linkages may become clearer.
One entry point is the topic of corporate social responsibility, where educational efforts need to be undertaken by the business community and the public, and with students. Current and future business leaders need to be made aware that there are some behaviour, with respect to the environment and human rights, that are not justifiable as part of a profit calculation. There are also social and ethical considerations that should guide their decision-making, particularly when they are operating in developing countries where local legal systems and populations are not strong enough to regulate their behaviour. These are part of the collective responsibilities of all individuals and organs of society with respect to human rights.
Also, members of the judicial system (prosecutors, judges and lawyers) do not have sufficient general knowledge about the environment to adequately protect it. They need to be educated about international law and issues, such as the “precautionary principle” with respect to the environment, as well as about the economic, social and cultural rights’ justiciability. In terms of education, it is important to work with the media, which allow messages to percolate throughout society and influence the work of decision-makers, as well as informing those whose rights are violated February 17, 2006 31 that they may have recourse.
The Internet also creates tremendous opportunities for sharing information and expertise, and can be used creatively in new contexts, to protect human rights and the environment. It is important not to forget to engage the state, as it has the fundamental responsibility to respect, protect and promote human rights. Therefore, as the human rights relating to the environment are articulated and entrenched, these will become obligations of the state.
A word of caution, however, was presented about linking human rights and the environment. Although these linkages may be effective strategies, there is a risk of anthropocentricism, in that the environment will be protected solely as a human good and not as a good in its own right. Ecosystems, animals and the biosphere all deserve protection, without bringing into the argument their benefit to humans. The participants were reminded of a powerful symbol of the link between the environment and human rights, in the person of Ken Saro Wiwa, the Nigerian environmental activist who was tried and executed by his government. Since his death, he has become a common symbol for the environmental and the human rights communities who are finding themselves confronting many of the same issues and same opponents.
Potential Follow-up Actions Some of the potential follow-up actions from this discussion include:,
• Further conceptual work on the linkages between the environment, sustainable development and human rights. Further discussions should also include a greater number of environmental activists and southern partners, to broaden the dialogue and come up with practical strategies and recommendations.
This final session provided the participants an open opportunity to identify other emerging issues and make suggestions for future discussion and action. These included the following: