February Issue 2018
Rights and Wrongs
I.A. Rehman is the Secretary General of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
The increase in respect for human rights across the globe over the past five decades or so is due in a large measure to the campaigns and struggles conducted by international human rights groups. This will become evident if we look at the performance record of some of these groups.
Anti-Slavery International, the oldest international human rights organisation, has pioneered worldwide movements for the abolition of slavery and slavery-like practices. It is also credited with successfully promoting awareness of and protection for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the two covenants of 1966,namely, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), both in force since 1976. These two covenants have laid the basis for the implementation of core human rights. They have helped people get their political rights, and helped labour’s rights be recognised even in developing and underdeveloped countries.
Over the past few decades, the organisation has concentrated on elimination of forced labour throughout the world. In many countries, including India and Pakistan, the movements for the abolition of bonded labour and legislation on the subject have been inspired by its work. It contributed significantly to the adoption in 1999 of the ILO Convention 182, on the abolition of the worst forms of child labour, and this was ratified by a large number of countries, including Pakistan , soon after its adoption.
The Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) is an organisation that commands respect across the globe. Established in 1922, FIDH has 184 national human rights organisations in 100 countries in the world as its members. It has been campaigning mainly for the protection of human rights defenders and for the elimination of torture that it monitors, along with the world organisation, against torture (OMCT) through an observatory. It has secured the release of thousands of people from detention and torture – 576 of them during 2009-2016 – and has been campaigning for punishment for the authorities responsible for torture. The organisation has also been fighting the scourge of extra-judicial killings and has been running a strong campaign for the abolition of the death penalty.
Perhaps the biggest contribution of permanent value made to the international human rights movement by FIDH is its role in the creation of the post of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and in the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Amnesty International, or simply Amnesty, is perhaps the most widely recognised international human rights organisation with over seven million members and supporters across the globe. Established in 1961 to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end abuses of human rights, it began by seeking the release of illegally detained persons and campaigning for the rights of ‘Prisoners of Conscience’ in all corners of the world. Amnesty has been adding other human rjghts issues to its mandate, and these include peace, for which it won the Nobel Prize in 1977.
Amnesty has realised its objectives to a considerable extent through thousands of its offices in more than 100 countries and even a greater number of national volunteer groups. How effective these groups can be became evident in Nepal when it started on the road to democracy. The Amnesty groups simply went to the prime minister and persuaded him to ratify the core international human rights treaties.
The International Commission of Jurists is another highly rated organisation that has been promoting human rights, especially rule of law, independence of judiciary and the legal profession, fighting illegal detention and extra-judicial killings and defending human rights activists.
Both FIDH and Amnesty have strengthened their credibility and acceptability worldwide by democratically constructing their executive bodies and choosing their representatives out of outstanding human rights activists from all parts of the world and giving preference to persons belonging to the Third World.
Human Rights Watch is a purely US organisation, but by virtue of its global outreach it functions as an international human rights campaigner for the promotion of democratic governance, the rights of minorities, refugees, children, migrants and prisoners, rule of law and protection of human rights defenders. Its ability to take the US administration to task for human rights abuses lends it considerable credibility.
It is difficult to mention in a brief review all the accomplishments of the international human rights groups, but a reference to the campaign for the abolition of capital punishment, waged by almost all such groups, will suffice. This is no easy campaign, as in countries accounting for a large part of the world’s population – China, India, USA, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – the death penalty is vigorously defended on the basis of belief, ideology or public interest. Yet, thanks to the concerted efforts of international human rights bodies, the number of retentionist countries has shrunk to 53, while 103 countries have formally abolished the death penalty. Thirty countries have become abolitionist in practice, while six countries have reduced the application of capital punishment to the rarest of rare cases.
The dilemma international human rights groups face, like all civil organisations in the world, is that while they arouse expectations among all victims of human rights abuse they do not have the power to take remedial action. Quite often they are boycotted by arrogant regimes. When Amnesty assailed the Indian government for its atrocities in Kashmir and the North East it was banished from the country. The problem is that international human rights groups can be effective only to the extent national governments or regional/ international associations of states – the UN, EU, ASEAN or Organization of African States et al – are amenable to reason. Thus, they have been largely unable to make worthwhile interventions in Rwanda,Sierra Leone, Palestine,Syria, Kashmir and Iraq . However, when their efforts to intervene in Rwanda were thwarted, they found a way to get genocide punished by first getting the International Criminal Court set up and then getting the offending states arraigned before it. They could secure Pinochet’s conviction by a London court, but couldn’t force the British government to enforce that decision. The fact remains that Nightingales can only take care of the sick and wounded soldiers, they cannot stop wars or prevent them.
And so, when it is asked as to why international human rights groups have had more success while operating in support of international initiatives than in the form of direct impact on individual states, there are reasons for this. The main one being that no state wants non-government organisations to hold a mirror to it. The situation has deteriorated to a large extent since 9/11 as many states, led unfortunately by the United States that once upon a time constituted the vanguard of the human rights movement, have reduced the human rights safeguards for people in their jurisdictions, as well as on the international level, and their initiatives have been followed with unusual alacrity by less stable states.
There are many more international human rights groups whose work also merits notice, among them Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders. Additionally, there are a number of regional organisations that enjoy international status, such as the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Democracy (Forum Asia) that unites a large number of human rights organisations from Pakistan to many countries to its south and to its extreme east, up to Indonesia, and has a large human rights portfolio. The South Asian Forum for Human Rights (SAFHAR) has done pioneering work in promoting peace studies, the rights of refugees and stateless people and conflict resolution. South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) has tackled the issues of minorities and democratic dispensation in the region.
International human rights groups have not only taken up cases of human rights abuse in less developed countries, they have also helped the latter by training their activists and raising their concerns at international forums. Quite a few Pakistani groups have also raised their concerns about obstacles to democracy, discrimination against women and minorities and bonded labour at UN forums. And, as a result, even the most conservative governments had to do something.
And what difference have the international human rights groups made to the enjoyment of basic rights by ordinary citizens, or to the quality of life, in developing countries? The answer should not be sought in terms of the number of illegal detentions being reduced or a decline in the incidence of torture or extra-judicial killings, because the findings will be utterly frustrating. The answer should be seen in the rise in the consciousness of people even in the most backward societies, in the generation of debate about the ideals of a civilised entity and in the regularly rising hope that some day even the most wretched people on earth will have their human rights.
But if the big powers tend to dismiss international human rights groups with contempt, even when they protest against derogation of human rights by law or against a monstrosity like Guantanamo Bay, less developed countries have been too scared to entertain them. There were occasions when governments in the Third World denied international groups entry into their lands and deemed it necessary to vehemently deny and denounce their findings.
It was therefore a surprise, and a pleasant one, when, a few months ago, the Pakistan Foreign Office urged the government to narrow down the scope for the death penalty, because the international community – ie UN human rjghts mechanisms, European Union member-states and NGOs – was extremely unhappy with a regime that provided for capital punishment for 27 offences. How much weight was given by the Foreign Office to the NGOs opinion is not clear, but the very fact they were mentioned was significant and unexpected in view of Islamabad’s policy of keeping even the UN rapporteurs away from its shores.
What Pakistan thinks of international human rights groups was evident from its recent orders to 21 of them to quit the country within 60 days (they have now been allowed to stay on till their appeals are decided). Apparently Pakistan has joined other authoritarian, secretive and unstable countries who are trying to find new ways to arbitrarily curtail their people’s rights to freedom of expression and association.
Mr. I.A. Rehman is a writer and activist living in Pakistan. He is the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Secretariat.