Emerging Human Rights Issues page – 4

Emerging Human Rights Issues

February 16-17, 2006


Vitit Muntarbhorn, Board Member, Rights & Democracy


International and human rights law have generally dealt with the state or its representatives committing wrongful acts. Today there is a myriad of non-state actors, such as transnational corporations, warring clans and bands of terrorists who also commit human rights violations. These actors should be held responsible through the application of national and international laws. While non-state actors cannot generally become parties to international treaties, some have committed themselves to such treaties by means of unilateral declaration. Various Codes of Conduct of Ethics have also been adopted as a form of self-regulation. In promoting democracy, development, peace and human rights, non-governmental organizations and civil society members, often acting as volunteers, are broadly recognized as having a key role to play.

At the heart of universality is the axiom that international/universal human rights standards are guaranteed internationally as the minimum benchmark for all to follow. These standards are particularly embodied in various international treaties and declarations. A number of countries still have not become party to universal human rights treaties; some countries emphasize civil and political rights rather than economic, social and cultural rights, while it is the reverse for other countries. Many states still favour assimilationist or integrationalist policies, which marginalize minorities that are at the heart of cultural diversity. It is time to explore another term — cultural pluralism — a less centrifugal and more centripetal force for inclusion and participation between different cultures.

While there are aspects of some cultures that contradict universal human rights — particularly gender discrimination, violence against women and children, and antipathy towards sexual orientations — every culture is 36 Emerging Human Rights Issues based on values that have universal appeal (eg. charity, giving, compassion, etc.). Cultures may also elevate human rights standards with the spiritual elements that are not adequately underlined in international human rights instruments.

A fragile or failed state implies a situation where the government of a state cannot or will not deliver core functions to the majority of its people, including the poor. In response, there is now a global democracy fund, which may improve conditions for nurturing democracy, and help to reduce tensions. There is also the UN Human Rights Council to be created in place of the current UN Human Rights Commission — the latter being critiqued due to the presence of several of the world’s humanrights violators wielding power in the Commission.

This will provide more room for addressing emergencies at the field level,  in a manner that is quick and sustained. Linked to the idea of a failed  state is the notion of the “responsibility to protect.” This implies that state sovereignty is not absolute and that the state has responsibility to address conditions that may give rise to human rights violations, such as genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. While the responsibility to protect opens the door to action by the UN through the Security Council, it could also call for preventive  actions, such as emergency and humanitarian measures. There are various issues involved with the idea of responsibility, for example the ongoing issue of aid provision with or without conditions.

There are trans-frontier as well as national dimensions in the nexus between human development, human rights and the environment. Environmental destruction and its impacts are felt regardless of borders, as is the case with global warming and climate change. Disquietingly, the most serious carbon emissions are from developed countries, with negative impacts on developing countries. Thoughtful forms of humanity can contribute significantly and preventively to reduce risks that give rise to such disasters. For example, the precautionary principle advocates that, regardless of clear scientific evidence, action must be taken to protect the environment in the face of irreversible damage. As well, the human rights-based approach to development has been advocated by various quarters, with a current focus on increasing accessibility and participation to all, including marginalized groups. In its efforts, the UN Secretary- General and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights call for the strengthening of national protection systems, such as national human Conclusion rights commissions, courts systems and civil society.  Millennium Development Goals suggest important targets to reach in the next 10 years, such as reducing the number of those living in absolute poverty by half, providing primary education for all, and offering debt relief to certain countries to avoid the perpetual cycle of debt servicing. Towards a more sustainable development taking into account the environment and human rights, strategies must highlight the need for local groundwork as well as early warning, effective response and recovery measures.