International Human Rights: Dispelling The Myths
By Radhika Coomaraswamy
Asian Values And The Asian Way?
Human rights, rooted in the United Nations Charter, to which all the countries on earth are signatories, is the only universal language we really have to protect individuals and to fight for justice. Every Asian country in the United Nations voted for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights when it was adopted by the General Assembly.
Yet, some have argued that human rights are western concepts and not eastern and therefore not in keeping with our culture. If one studies human rights in detail as scholars such as Chandra Muzaffer in Malaysia and Abdullah An’aim in Sudan have done, one can immediately see that they are basically rooted in the concept of human dignity which is present in all the world’s religious and ethical traditions. In the past they were expressed in religious or ethical terms within religious texts, traditional laws and practices.
When we adopted modern legal systems and moved away from our religious laws, it was natural and inevitable that these humanistic ideas would become part of that process. We have adopted many modern western ideas – including the concept of the nation state that we are ready to die and kill for. We have embraced the concept of social equality about which we are so passionate and which is also an integral part of human rights. We are propelling ourselves forward into an era of unbridled capitalism-that too is modern and western in origin. Why are we then only suspicious of human rights?
It is also argued that Asians are more community oriented than individual rights oriented and therefore human rights fundamentally disrupts our way of life because it privileges the individual over community interest.
As great Indian human rights theorists like Upendra Baxi have pointed out, empowering communities is also very much within the human rights tradition- the work on the rights of indigenous peoples being an example. But where communities oppress individuals such as women, castes, or minorities then the human rights tradition stands with the individual – a position we all surely must take at the turn of the 21st century where equality is enshrined in our Constitution.
Even in the Sri Lankan context, whenever I hear the words ‘human shield’ or ‘grey area between combatants and civilians’, or ‘old women forced into building bunkers’ are really combatants, my antennas go up. It only means that someone is saying that someone else’s life is not worth saving – usually a member of another ethnic or religious group. Luckily the ICRC so far has not given into the pressure from the so-called counter terrorism lobby to change the substance of international humanitarian law.
Nevertheless there is an area where new international action is necessary with regard to international humanitarian law and that is in the area of drones and other similar technological innovations used for armed attack. What are the procedures that must be taken prior to a drone attack to avoid civilian casualties? How do we measure the humanitarian doctrines of collateral damage and military necessity in the eventuality of drone attacks? Can drones cross national boundaries using the ‘hot pursuit’ legal argument?
In drone attacks the claim is that collateral damage is far less and the strikes more precise than with the usual type of aerial bombardment but this is deeply contested even by the ICRC who say drones create unreachable military expectations of precision. There is still collateral damage and the surveillance and intimidation of the population is constant and total. According to reports children are terribly traumatised by the persistent droning sound above their head throughout the day and night.
There is now a growing international movement for developing an international convention on drones and similar technology. It is time that based on the evidence available we move the international system to start putting the brakes.
I often read morally self righteous articles in the Sri Lankan papers stating that no-one places a spotlight on crimes by the West – well if you want to read an excellent report on the effect of drones on the targeted population, go to the report jointly prepared by the Human Rights Clinics of the Stanford University Law School and New York University Law School Human Rights Clinics. At great risk to their lives these young students went to North West Pakistan, lived with the population and then wrote what I believe is an excellent report – a basis for future international action.
The actions of terrorists around the world, the ghastly bombings of civilian places, beheadings of dissenters, journalists and westerners and the absolutely outlandish use of child soldiers are also horrific. I think we were all sick to our stomachs viewing the beheading of James Foley. Perhaps even more sick when we see children training to be suicide bombers. Nothing can condone this kind of behavior.
When I was young I was a complete pacifist but in my work with women and children I have seen the true face of evil – such as for example the actions of Joseph Kony and the Lords Resistance Army in Uganda. I realize that military force may have to be used even in the Sri Lankan context when faced with a ruthless, deadly genius like Prabhakaran who did not know how or when to make peace.
However the deathly nature of modern weapons and warfare compels us to ensure the strict, effective, and proper implementation of the rule of law, especially the laws of war, or we are asking for widespread destruction and impunity. We cannot expect civilized behaviour from the terrorists but we can definitely expect it from the member states of the United Nations.
As a global community we have inherited this edifice of human rights that has been created over decades. We cannot escape it and our best diplomats have understood that and have engaged it successfully at different stages of our history. Nevertheless the one question on everyone’s mind is of course the question of double standards. I hear this constantly. If the US is not in the dock for Iraq, why anyone else?
Before I speak about the important issue of double standards let me point out two things:
First – are we asking the correct question when we scream, “Why the double standards”? Should our response to international criticism by a defensive, “we may be wrong but you are worse”. Is it not better for us to just focus on doing the right thing regardless of what others say or do? After all no one will be able to criticize us if we do not give them the room to do so.
Second – while it is true that it is difficult to punish the permanent five members of the Security Council and hold them accountable for violations because of their veto, Sri Lanka is not the only country that is criticized internationally. As you saw with the recent incidents in Gaza, the High Commissioner for Human Rights was as critical if not more critical of Israeli actions and the Human Rights Council has passed two resolutions against Israel including one asking the OHCHR to conduct an inquiry along the lines of the resolution on Sri Lanka. In this case one must also point out that the United States was isolated. Israel may not be punished by the UN system because of the US veto in the Security Council. But, she will be monitored and evidence will be gathered, perhaps for action at some future date.
Nevertheless, there is no question that international power and politics insulates some countries over the others. And yet, the truth is that double standards do exist even in national legal systems. Let us turn the searchlight inward-let us take our own national system. A minister ties someone to a tree- he is not arrested. A religious figure incites violence, he is not arrested, a politician murders another politician in cold blood in front of a crowd with plenty of witnesses but now wanders free – yes we too have impunity for the rich and the powerful. National and international legal systems are not that different.
So we must ask ourselves – is the answer to these double standards at the national and international level to do nothing, dismantle the entire criminal justice system, let everyone go free and allow for widespread impunity. Surely not- the answer is to keep putting the pressure so that impunity will eventually disappear and everyone will finally be held accountable.
The humanitarian approach to all this has always been very patient- one step at a time. Justice for one person is better than justice for none. There may be double standards but with one conviction there will also be a measure of deterrence. Convictions always send a very strong signal. After the case against Thomas Lubanga was filed by the ICC with regard to child soldiers whenever I met rebel groups in the Sudan or even the Philippines the first question was – “what about the ICC?” That to me is the beginning of deterrence.