Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Panel speaks on human rights, sustaining democracy

The distinguished panel who spoke at the Woodrow Wilson Center discussed what is necessary for human rights to thrive in a country and how outside nations can help create that. Accountability and credibility were two of the buzzwords, with the former applying to states violating human rights, and the latter applying to those nations who push for them. With the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975, countries offering aid to other nations promised to do so only after reviewing human rights records; governments not living up to the UN’s declaration of universal human rights should not receive aid as a way to encourage compliance. This way, Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim of the Ibn Khaldun Center in Cairo explained, democratic ideals including personal rights are encouraged with “no war, no bloodshed.”
When nations like the U.S. push for greater respect of human rights, they find the four proverbial fingers pointing back at them. Such nations, insisted Dr. Ibrahim, must improve their own credibility in the human rights arena before they force others to do so. Until the nations demanding basic rights and writing aid checks can prove their own strong human rights record, other countries will not follow suit because of the hypocrisy of the demands.
A strong, independent judiciary is important part of any viable democracy. Dr. Ibrahim spoke of the long-standing tradition of independence in Egypt’s courts and how President Mubarak was so threatened by them that he created his own courts to wield power over. In Colombia, Gustavo Gallón of the Colombian Commission of Jurists said, courts have overruled laws that allow paramilitary forces to knowingly lie when questioned. The government is attempting to change this decision, thus taking power away from the independent courts. Similarly, the judiciary in Belarus is powerless without the support of the executive leadership, many of whom are holdovers from hardline regimes, Dzmitry Markusheuski of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee explained.
Hina Jilani, a Pakistani woman who acts as Special Representative to the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders, points to two major issues facing a universal adoption of basic human rights. The continued impunity of government agents from prosecution is the first concern. For many countries, the United States included, the military and other governmental bodies are immune from prosecution for their crimes against human rights either through specific legislation or by a simple lack of prosecution. In Afghanistan, Sima Samar of the United Nations reported, a “culture of impunity” has developed where war criminals were never tried due to a lack of laws or a robust judiciary, and they will never be tried because they are now in positions of power.
Secondly, the increased militarization of the world creates states in which civil liberties and values are increasingly ignored, Ms. Jilani explained. As militaries are used to settle disputes and threats of force take the place of diplomacy, the discipline of martial law takes precedent over legal systems created to ensure each individual’s basic human rights.
Human rights activists inside countries, called defenders, face many obstacles from their governments, and regimes are becoming more creative in their oppression of human rights voices. Mr. Markusheuski spoke of creative tax auditing done by the Belarus government in an on-going attempt to shut down his organization. Advocating for basic rights is considered a political action in the country, and the advocator must be part of a government recognized organization. With the closing of a human rights group like Mr. Markusheuski’s, activists may be arrested for their lack of association with a registered group and jailed for up to three years. Colombia’s president has gone so far as to call human rights defenders “terrorists,” according to Mr. Gallón, thus opening up a wide range of possibilities for prosecuting them.
All five speakers emphasized the importance of creating and supporting stable, lasting governments if human rights are to be remembered. Facades of democracy are not strong enough to give citizens lasting rights if there is no consistency or accountability within the government.
View this panel discussion here.


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