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The United Nations and human rights: the danger of irrelevance

About the author
Robert Walgate is a former communications officer for Tropical Disease Research at the World Health Organisation, and former news editor of the WHO Bulletin.
Irene Khan, Amnesty InternationalIrene Khan

openDemocracy: Just after the attacks in Madrid on 11 March, the Brigade of Abu Hafs was reported in a London-based Arabic paper to have asked: "…it is allowed for them to kill our children, women, old men and youth in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Kashmir and not for us to kill them?". How do you counter that logic of 'an eye for an eye'?

Irene Khan: The answer is to move from the law of the jungle to the rule of international law, where international human rights and humanitarian law establishes clear principles about protecting children, women, old people, young people. Neither the concerns of security nor the aspirations of liberty can be used to undermine those principles.

openDemocracy: Jack Straw, the UK foreign secretary, said that Madrid would make people more willing to accept the "war on terror" and its impact on civil liberties. What do you think will be the effect on human rights?

Irene Khan is secretary-general of the human rights organisation Amnesty International. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s she worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and led the UNHCHR team in Macedonia during the Kosovo crisis of 1999.

Irene Khan: What I find strange in Jack Straw's logic is the assumption that to address terrorism one has to restrict liberty. There is a link there that hasn't yet been empirically proven. If it were true then the most repressive regimes would be the ones where people felt safest. And that isn't the case.

There is a risk of panic and a backlash on human rights in Europe, as there was in the US after the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. I think it's very important to resist that. Yes, governments have to protect people, but there are sufficient provisions within human rights law to allow governments to do that without undermining their rights.

Unless governments work within that framework they are playing into the hands of the people who'd like to see a closed rather than an open society. And they risk sacrificing the rights of the innocent, as we've just seen with the release of the five Britons from Guantanamo Bay, released after two years with no charges!

The nuisance of politics

openDemocracy: This week, the UN High Commission on Human Rights (UNHCHR) begins its 60th annual session in Geneva. The meeting will last six weeks. You have been quite vitriolic about the Commission. What are its key failings, in your view?

Irene Khan: Its key failing is that it is highly politicised. It puts forward the national interest of states…

openDemocracy: But don’t all UN bodies do that?

Irene Khan: Government bodies are political, and obviously they have political interests, but in pursuing their interests they have to uphold their mandate. The UN Security Council members are of course pushing certain national interests, but if they do not deliver on international security they are a failure.

The same goes for the Human Rights Commission. It must deliver on the mandate for which it was created. And what we've found at Amnesty International is that there is such a huge polarisation in the Commission among members and groups of members that they work in a highly self-interested and politically expedient manner, allowing the worst abuses of human rights to continue by turning a blind eye. It makes a mockery of their very existence!

openDemocracy: Is that a failing of the Commission itself, or the governments that form a part of it?

Irene Khan: The governments are the Commission. So whether it is collectively or individually, they have to be held responsible.

openDemocracy: So what can be done? Where are the levers of power?

Irene Khan: The levers of power lie within the Commission itself. Take the situation in Haiti, which has exploded. When I met the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin in Paris on 9 March he said that his government would appreciate a mechanism that would make objective human rights assessments available on which governments could act in good time.

That kind of mechanism is precisely what is lacking in Haiti. They were before the Human Rights Commission last year, but of course very little happened, and now they are back again this year, in a much worse situation. I think governments have a political interest in preventing situations from turning into crises, because then they have to pay a very heavy price.

United Nations in the pressure cooker

openDemocracy: What does Amnesty International hope to achieve at the meeting of the Commission over the next six weeks, and how?

Irene Khan: We would like the Commission to take the issue of its own reform seriously. We recognise it's not something we will achieve in this 60th session. We may have to look forward to the 61st, when there is also a High Commissioner for Human Rights to provide leadership [in place of Sergio Vieira de Mello who was killed in Iraq].

openDemocracy: But how do you apply pressure for reform?

Irene Khan: Many governments are attending this week at a very high level - prime ministers and presidents included. They will lose their credibility by talking of human rights at the Commission and then walking away without doing anything.

Amnesty's role will be to expose this, to shame them into action, to get governments to realise that the Commission can be a powerful to tool to help them in their work. Right now the Commission is irrelevant, but it could be bringing benefits to the governments, not only to Amnesty International! A Commission that works well can actually examine human rights situations and come up with constructive solutions, and address situations in a preventive mode before they become a crisis. That would be a Commission that governments need!

openDemocracy: Amnesty recently began a campaign on violence against women - an issue that is to be a theme at this year's Commission. You say that one in three women worldwide suffer abuse. Some Muslim states are blocking the ratification of the Convention on Discrimination Against Women. As a Muslim woman, what is your view on that?

Irene Khan: Those states need to recognise the universality of human rights, and the political and social benefits of respecting the rights of women. Ratification is a problem, but so are reservations - many of these countries have ratified but reserved their position on certain articles.

An Afghan rights activist said to me that a country is like a bird with two wings - if one is broken it cannot fly. And what we see in many of these countries is that denying full enjoyment of human rights to women is affecting their own economic and social development. So they have a political interest in it.

openDemocracy: Is there an argument within Islam about accepting these rights?

Irene Khan: Islam can be interpreted in different ways. You see a whole range of practices regarding women in Muslim states. In many cases religion is used as a cover, and the issue is really one of power and politics.

openDemocracy: Again, we are talking about challenging highly resistant power structures, and I still don’t really have an understanding of what you believe are the real tools of change.

Irene Khan: Well, I think one of the most powerful tools of change that Amnesty has proven over its forty years is the tool of public opinion and people's power. Amnesty is a membership organisation of 1 million people in over 100 countries around the world; we use our campaigning power to document and expose violations, to name and shame governments, and influence them in many different ways to change their behaviour.

openDemocracy: Mary Robinson, who was the UN high commissioner for human rights from 1997 to 2002, said in an interview with openDemocracy that accountability should not only be upwards to UN committees with few or no sanctions, it should also be downwards to civil society and public opinion.

Irene Khan: I absolutely agree with that. I think the power of the human rights movement has come from civil society. And one of the reasons I believe that governments cannot deny human rights today - although they might violate them - is because of the growth of local human rights groups throughout the world. These rights have become something the people have made their own.

Measuring achievements

openDemocracy: How will Amnesty measure its achievement at this 60th meeting of the Commission?

Irene Khan: We hope to draw attention to a number of situations that have either slipped off the agenda of the Commission or are ignored by them. We would like to see them focus on Nepal for example, because we see there is a real opportunity for the Commission to do some preventive work there before the situation becomes even worse.

We would like to see the Commission focus on violence against women. It's been ten years since they appointed a special rapporteur on the issue, and it should take stock of situations and see how it can make a real improvement.

And we would like to see the Commission focus on Iraq. It's appalling that a year ago there were countries that claimed they were taking military action in Iraq to improve the human rights situation, and now they don't want to talk about human rights in an international forum.

openDemocracy: How will you go about those objectives in Geneva? What will you actually do there?

Irene Khan: Before the meeting started we campaigned through our national chapters in the different countries, with the members of the Commission. Our members have been talking to them in various capitals, pushing our concerns. We will continue to do that in the Commission itself, we will network with other NGOs that are there and build common positions; and we will put pressure through the media.

openDemocracy: And what will be the measure of achievement of this Commission?

Irene Khan: It will be whether they are willing to touch the tough subjects: Zimbabwe, Nepal, China, Indonesia, Chechnya. If they are not willing to touch them it should not be called a Commission on Human Rights, just a commission on technical assistance.

We must not lose sight of the potential importance of the Commission. It has the potential to affect the lives of millions of people. It matters because the UN can make a difference in the area of human rights. It has a unique responsibility that no one else shares or can deliver on.


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