World Social Forum - Porto Alegre, Brazil, 25-30 January, 2001


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BRING HUMAN RIGHTS LAW INTO THE NEW MILLENIUM

By Fernando de Salas

IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE, MAY 2000

Editor's note:

Human rights, together with peace, democracy, and development, constitute the guiding principles of the 21st century. In their development and protection we must all recognise that we are not only spectators but protagonists, writes Fernando de Salas, rector of the Society for International Studies in Madrid.

Human rights involve universal problems and so require universal solutions, the author asserts in this article for IPS. He argues that the legal framework of human rights needs to be updated to reflect the tremendous changes in the world since 1948.

Salas calls for a world human rights summit with a wide participation by governments, institutions, NGOs and academics that would incorporate new developments in human rights, revise certain absolute rights of religions and cultures that are incompatible with heterogeneity, and create an ethical code of rights and duties that goes beyond political and cultural borders.

When girls and boys learn about human rights in school, practice them as adults, and as parents teach their children about them, without domestic violence, humanity will have taken a great step forward, Salas writes.

BRING HUMAN RIGHTS LAW INTO THE NEW MILLENIUM

By Fernando de Salas (*)

MADRID, May (IPS) - Human rights, together with peace, democracy, and development, constitute the guiding principles of the 21st century. In their development and protection we must all recognise that we are not only spectators but protagonists. As such, we can and must work to improve them. Human rights involve universal problems and so require universal solutions.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified by the United Nations in 1948, proclaimed, in thirty articles, equality before the law, the right to life, liberty, health, a fair trial, freedom of religion, of movement, of opinion, assembly and association, and the economic and social rights to work, education, an adequate standard of living, and to private and collective property.

There were, however three very significant abstentions to the 1948 declaration: Saudi Arabia, for religious reasons, would not accept either the equality of men and women or the right to change religion. South Africa rejected the prohibition against racial discrimination. And the Warsaw Pact countries found the declaration gave too much importance to individual liberties, too little to economic and social rights, and failed to note the obligations of individuals to the society and state.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, based in Geneva, has devoted sustained attention to women, generating specific resolutions and organising a World Conference in Beijing (1995), in response to the continuing persistence of domestic inequality, illiteracy, and prostitution.

The World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, 1973) defined human rights as the ''quintessence of the values in virtue of which we together affirm that we are a single human community.'' Respect for human rights is seen today as a barometer of a country's politics.

The human rights instruments of the United Nations are the International Bill of Human Rights (constituted by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948) the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, and the corresponding First Optional Protocol. The latter three instruments are from 1966.

In 55 years, more than 80 international treaties have been negotiated. The International Criminal Tribunals judge war crimes and crimes against humanity, in recognition of the fact that there can be no peace as long as there is impunity for those who violate these rights.

In response to the outbreak of racism and xenophobia, the UN is preparing a World Conference in South Africa in 2001. The UN has created a legislative package with relevant reiterations and supplemental conventions, but it is non-binding. An exception is the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Liberties (1950) and its eleven protocols, which are binding on the 41 states that ratified it.

Human rights are universal, yet there are countries that do not respect them and persecute those who promote and defend them. There are various reason for this:

Time: the legal framework of human rights needs to be updated to reflect the tremendous changes in the world since 1948. Governments should then undertake to accept it or not.

Culture: there are peoples that practice and justify human rights violations as part of their customs and traditions, such as reduced rights and liberties of women, clitorectomy, etc.

Religion: there are those who justify not recognising human rights with the argument that they were insufficiently represented by the 48 members of the UN in 1948.

The work of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, should be stepped up in the new millennium.

A suitable way to increase attention to human rights would be a world summit with a wide participation by governments, institutions, NGOs and academics that would provide a forum for universal dialogue and consensus building, incorporate new developments in human rights, revise certain absolute rights of religions and cultures that are incompatible with heterogeneity, supersede the male hegemony of old legal structures, incorporate the jurisprudence created in the Pinochet case -- non-immunity of heads of states and governments or others who in following orders commit crimes against humanity, which might be invoked in any part of the world, including far from the places the crimes were committed -- create an ethical code of rights and duties that goes beyond political and cultural borders, create a more informed and consensual public opinion, and generate a general commitment to respect human rights.

When girls and boys learn about human rights in school, practice them as adults, and as parents teach their children about them, without domestic violence, humanity will have taken a great step forward.

(*) Fernando de Salas is rector of the Society for International Studies in Madrid.



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