Human rights are universal, indivisible, interrelated, and interdependent. While they are mutually reinforcing, the violation of one right could lead to the violation of other rights. This interdependency creates nests of interrelated issues that affect the realization of all human rights. Under the following subheadings, we will examine some of the major areas that have presented challenges to the advancement of human rights and efforts to overcome these challenges:
Section 1 Racism and Ethnic Cleansing One of the most significant challenges to the advancement of human rights or an important catalyst to their violation has been racism. Racism, embedded in socio-cultural structures, exists in all societies in various degrees in overt or subtle forms. Racism is a contravention of human rights: while the universalism of human rights calls for nondiscrimination, racism uses mainly biological differences as markers to collapse individuals and people into categories of superiors and inferiors. Although modern genetic sciences have not been able to sort people into racial groups, physical features of people such as skin color or hair texture are continuously employed to construct racial identities, and to discriminate against people.
As race is mainly a culturally constructed notion, racism and racial discrimination can be extended to groups that are biologically similar but demonstrate cultural differences (e.g., language or religion). Then, ethnic differences come to the forefront and are used as grounds for discrimination or even genocide, as in the case of the ethnic conflicts observed in the 1990s in what was then Yugoslavia. Racism can take the form of organized, hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan in the United States, discrimination in housing and employment in Great Britain, social and ethnic exclusion in France, xenophobic skinheads and neo-Nazis in Germany, and outright genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s and in the Darfur region of Sudan in 2003.
When racism becomes extreme, it can take the form of ethnic cleansing. the population cleansing can be defined as the planned, deliberate removal from a certain territory of an undesirable population distinguished by one or more characteristics such as ethnicity, religion, race, class, or sexual preference. These characteristics must serve as the basis for removal for the violence to be termed ethnic cleansing . Cleansing can involve forced migration, deportation, and extermination, which may he used in different stages of the conflict or simultaneously. Usually, racial pressures increase when there is political instability. Looking to blame some other force, a government losing popularity may incite racism and intolerance that then leads to ethnic violence.
In 1997, the UN General Assembly agreed to hold a World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. The main objectives included reviewing the factors that lead to racism, racial discrimination, and xenophobia; assessing the progress made in fighting against racism as well as the obstacles to preventing racism; increasing the level of awareness about racism and related intolerance; and formulating recommendations. the developing country highly critical of Israel’s policies in the occupied territories, condemning Zionism as racism. Developing countries’ demands did not compel the powerful industrial countries to elevate the message of the conference, and the conference ended with a widely shared sense of disappointment.
Human rights apply to all human beings; even those who are in custody or imprisoned for committing crimes are entitled to the protection of their rights. Unfortunately, prison conditions worldwide do not meet minimum standards, and security forces in many countries commit abuses and engage in torture. Perhaps the biggest challenge to improving prison conditions is changing the pervasive view that prisoners deserve what they get and that a prison should be a place where offenders are thoroughly punished for their crimes.
The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners is the most widely known and accepted document regulating prison conditions. Although these standards are known to prison administrators all over the world, they are seldom Fully enforced. Human Rights Watch, one of the largest international human rights organizations, reports that millions of prisoners are confined in filth without adequate food or medical care, with little or nothing to do, and in constant threat of violence either from other inmates or from their guards . In addition to the overall low quality of care, many conditions represent more extreme and unusually cruel treatment. Human Rights Watch has documented excessive use of solitary confinement and overemphasis on rules in Japan, often fatal assaults on inmates by guards in South Africa, and sexual abuse of women prisoners in the United States. Children are often abused and shackled in U.S. detention facilities, and super- maximum security prisons, where prisoners face extreme social isolation, enforced idleness, and extraordinarily limited recreational and educational opportunities, are appearing all over the country.
In addition to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, created to protect the physical integrity of people, the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was adopted in 1984 and entered into force on June 26, 1987. As of May 2005, 146 countries were party to this convention. Yet torture continues to be common and documented in many nations around the world. Officials in some countries favor methods that leave little evidence of torture, whereas others are unconcerned about whether the procedure leaves marks. Torture is often part of a larger plan of terror designed to keep people oppressed. Generally torturers view their victims as less than human. When people are dehumanized, they are easier to maltreat. More recently, the ill-treatment and torture of prisoners by U.S. Army personnel in Afghanistan, the photographed and widely publicized abuse of Iraqis held at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and the various allegations about the conditions and treatment of individuals accused of terrorism by the United States and detained in Guantan Bay in Cuba have led to protests invoking various human rights and humanitarian laws (e.g., the Geneva Conventions).
The UN Human Rights Commission investigates human rights abuses, including claims of torture. Several human rights organizations, national or international, also work to pressure governments to make changes. Amnesty International is perhaps the most outspoken against cruel punishments, prison conditions, and torture. An organization in Minnesota, the Center for Victims of Torture, helps victims recover from the physical and emotional wounds they have sustained through torture.
The end of the Second World War marked not only the birth of a human rights regime under the auspices of the United Nations but also the beginning of a major conflict. The period, roughly between 1945 and 1990, is referred to as the Cold War. The term refers to the state of conflict between the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, and their military allies, respectively organized in NATO and the Warsaw Pact, which had military forces that were armed and mobilized but did not actually fight.
Wars and other forms of armed conflicts create conditions that are definitely unsuitable for the protection of human rights. They cause numerous deaths, disabilities, displacement of people, and economic hardship. Spending money on arms always means channeling resources away from important services that would help meet people’s basic needs and human rights, especially in developing countries. However, the arms trade is a big business, in which the industrial countries are the main suppliers. Between 1993 and 2000, arms transfer agreements with developing nations comprised 67.7 percent of all arms purchases worldwide and reached 69 percent in 2000, with a value of over $25.4 billion; the United States, Russia, and France have dominated the arms market, and as the top ranking country.
A problem that has become more apparent in the recent military conflicts is the dependence of rival armies and militias on child soldiers. Arguably, some wars and armed conflicts are sustained by recruiting the young. Although the majority of the child soldiers around the world might have been recruited by private militia or opposition groups, several states, including the United States, routinely recruit children in their late teens. Younger ones, sometimes no more than seven or eight years of age, are recruited in times of civil war. After studying recruitment in 180 countries, Human Rights Watch reports that “more than 300,000 children are fighting with governments and armed groups in more than 40 countries. The report also notes that child soldiers “receive little or no training before being thrust into the front lines,” are subject to brutal treatment and punishment “for their mistakes or desertion,” and girls in particular are at risk of rape and sexual slavery.
In its effort to stop the recruitment and participation of children younger than eighteen in armed conflicts, the UN adopted an optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child in May 2000.
The destruction caused by wars and armed conflicts and their threat to human rights continue even after the actual fighting is over. Land mines have been particularly notorious for having such an impact. Land mines kill or maim over 26,000 people annually. Ninety percent of the casualties are civilians going about normal activities—gathering water, working in fields, and traveling on rural roads. In the 1990s, experts estimated that more than 100 million land mines were dispersed across seventy countries.
Maps of mine fields are seldom made and detection and demining are extremely dangerous and expensive and it costs as much as $1,000 to remove each mine, and many workers have been killed in the mine-clearing attempts Mines are concentrated in Central America, Africa, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq in the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. Most of those affected by them live in rural areas without the medical infrastructure to handle the types of injuries sustained from land-mine explosions. The destructive impact of land mines is often felt in a country’s economy as well, as these devices limit access to otherwise productive land. Already scarce farmland or traditional grazing lands become inaccessible because of land mines and there is a negative effect on food production, income, and the economic rights of people. Moreover, humanitarian efforts in heavily mined areas are often curtailed because of the danger.
The United Nations has worked hard to get a universal ban on land mines. The United States declared a moratorium on the sale of land mines in 1992. The most effective effort, however, has come from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that banded together to form the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines. This unique effort started with six organizations and eventually included over 1,000 NGOs from all over the world. The campaign lobbied governments to sign a treaty banning land mines. For their efforts, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and its director, Jody Williams, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.
Another issue of violence that concerns human rights is terrorism, domestic or international. International terrorism is not a new issue but began receiving increased attention following the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. Dictionary definitions of terrorism relate it to political violence and define it as violence or the threat of violence carried out for political purposes. This is a rather narrow definition that ignores the violence and state of terror inflicted upon people, especially women and children, in their immediate surroundings. Terrorist acts, taking place in the private or public domain, involve a number of human rights violations, ranging from the individual’s freedom of movement to the right to life. In the public domain, political terrorism (or terrorism for political purposes) is employed by both states and non- state actors. Terrorism constitutes a human rights issue as it direclyinvolves human rights violations; further, measures taken to prevent political terrorism may infringe on people’s rights. In designing antiterrorism measures, the challenge is to strike a balance between security concerns and the protection of human rights.
There has been a serious concern within the human rights agencies and organizations, that the counterterrorism measures taken after the September 11 attacks fail the human rights tests. With the aim of assisting “policy makers and other concerned parties in developing a vision of counter-terrorism strategies that are fully respectful of human rights,” the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a “compilation of findings of judicial and quasi-judicial bodies of the United Nations and regional organizations on the issue of the protection of human rights in the struggle against terrorism” (OHCHR, 2003). The UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, the UN Secretary-General, and NGOs have repeatedly warned that the fight against terrorism has been used by states to restrict freedoms of citizens and repress political opponents.
even as many are rightly praising the unity and the resolve of the international community in this crucial struggle, important and urgent questions are being asked about what might be called the ‘collateral damage’ of the war on terrorism— damage to the presumption of innocence, to precious human rights, to the rule of law, and to the very fabric of democratic governance.