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Human Rights
Questions & Answers

These questions were sent in by schools participating in this project. The answers are from Professor Philip Alston, Chairman of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Q. Do countries take children's rights seriously?
      Manuela Perez, Colegio Internacional SEK - Chile

A. They are starting to do so, but there is still a long way to go. Twenty years ago the idea of children's rights was much less well known and most governments probably thought that while children should be taken good care of and should never be abused, this did not mean that they had human rights in the same way as adults. The assumption tended to be that their parents or guardians were the ones who could and should exercise rights in the name of the child. This was understandable in the case of a two year old but as children get older they are quite capable of expressing their own views, feeling a sense of injustice when they are mistreated and having different ideas from adults as to what might be best for them. A lot of adults and governments are only slowly coming to terms with the revolution in thinking and acting that is required by acknowledging that children do indeed have their own human rights. This is the great achievement of the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child which every country in the world (except for two - Somalia and the U.S.A.) has officially promised to respect and implement.
      But I must also add that there are still many millions of children whose basic rights are not respected at all, whether because they are not given enough food to eat, they are not educated (often just because they are girls), they must work very long hours in hazardous conditions, they are beaten or sexually abused, they are forced to be soldiers, and so on. I would like to think that slowly but surely we are changing the way people think about these issues. They no longer see them as a misfortune which cannot be helped but rather as a violation of human rights which must be stopped.

Q. Why are there so many wars in the world if there is one United Nations?
      Fabian Melys, Colegio Internacional SEK- Chile

A. This is a good question and a difficult one to answer. It is in fact because there are so many conflicts that the United Nations is so important. It is often the easiest, and sometimes the only setting in which countries that are on bad terms with one another come together, not only to discuss their conflicts but to work together on issues of joint concern, despite their disagreements on other matters.
      There are many examples of the UN playing a central role in resolving disputes within and between countries. In relation to Namibia and South Africa, the UN's role was vital. In Cambodia, Angola, Mozambique and many other places it has provided the main setting in which peace could be sought. But much of what the UN does is designed to prevent conflicts, rather than just to resolve them. Thus its work for economic and social development, to protect human rights, to promote democracy and to monitor elections, and so on, is designed to avoid future conflicts. But the UN's resources are small and governments often put self-interest ahead of the broader community interest.

Q. How important are human rights to people in the U.S.?
      Ross Lairson, Lanier Middle School, Houston

A. People in the U.S. (I will call them Americans, although I know this has a much broader meaning as well) have always insisted that human rights, particularly what the UN calls civil and political rights, are especially important to them. Building on the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Congress has adopted many vitally important human rights laws such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The courts, especially the Supreme Court, have built upon these foundations and further developed the understanding of human rights within the US. Every US President since FD Roosevelt has insisted that the UN's commitment to human rights is essential to efforts to build a peaceful and just world.
      There is one respect, however, in which the approach of the American people and their government tend to lag behind that which is accepted by most other countries. That concerns economic and social human rights. These include the right to reasonable working conditions, to social security, to food and clothing, to shelter, to basic health care and to education. Many Americans agree that these rights are of fundamental importance. The constitutions of most of the States within the US specifically recognise, for example, the right to education. But although the original champion of these rights was President Roosevelt, U.S. administrations since 1981 have been rather less happy about acknowledging the importance of these rights. For example, in Geneva last week the UN Commission on Human Rights agreed to establish a Special Rapporteur to encourage governments to give effect to the right to education. There are 53 countries represented and 52 voted in favour of the initiative, while the U.S. voted against. The reasons for the U.S. position are not entirely clear but seem to relate to the misconception that such rights encourage socialist ideas and are not compatible with individual freedom or the free market.
      Overall, human rights are important to people in all countries, including the U.S. All governments are capable of violating the rights of their citizens and we all need some external group which is able to draw attention to such events, even though that group has only moral and political pressure at its disposal.

Q. Whose idea was it to create a Declaration of Human Rights?
      Mary Griffard and the West Middle School 7th graders

A. There was no dramatic moment, or pre-eminent personality, involved in the decision. Before World War II the League of Nations had done much work to protect minority groups, especially within Europe, as well as people living in colonies (or "trust territories" as they were called). A lot of attention had also been paid to refugees, to the rights of aliens (non-citizens), and to the rights of workers (especially by the International Labour Organization which was set up in 1919). Because of the dreadful atrocities that were committed in the lead-up to, and especially during, World War II, there was a general sense among the Allies that the post-War order had to include the recognition of human rights. When the UN Charter was being drafted, a number of countries were very keen to see some human rights provisions included and some even wanted to attach a UN Bill of Rights to the 1945 Charter. But there was not enough time to prepare such a draft and so, in San Francisco, President Truman confirmed the agreement that work would begin as soon as possible to draft such a Bill of Rights. When the UN Commission on Human Rights met in 1946 it was agreed to begin with a general "umbrella" declaration and then add more detailed and binding commitments later. Many individuals played a vital role in the drafting process. The best known of them was Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt.

Q. Has the creation of this document affected the human rights records of countries of the world?
      Mary Griffard and the West Middle School 7th graders

A. At one level, the Universal Declaration brought an enormous change. Before it was adopted, there was no international agreement of any type which said, for example, that a government must not torture its own citizens, detain them in prison without charges or a trial, starve them, etc. Since 1948, there has been a set of standards which, over time, almost every government has come to accept in principle. Where this is not the case, that government's behavior is still judged against the standards set in the Universal Declaration, whether it likes it or not.
      But, at a more practical level, the situation is much less happy. The task of persuading governments, and sometimes trying to push or compel them, to respect human rights is a much more difficult one. There are certainly very many cases where countries have stopped doing things which are prohibited by the Universal Declaration (many forms of torture have been eliminated, police are subject to more control, the death penalty is used in fewer countries, a fair trial is respected more often, women are no longer subject to as much discrimination in many countries, racism is recognized to be completely unacceptable, and so on). But of course these practices have certainly not been eliminated and new forms of abuse have developed. In the end, all we can say is that building a human rights-friendly world is a long and slow process which requires all of us to contribute so that one day the world will be a much better place than it was in 1948.

Q. How can we effectively enforce the Declaration for all members of the human race?
      Mary Griffard and the West Middle School 7th graders

A. It is true that some kind of "enforcement" would be desirable in some situations where there are terrible violations occurring and they show no sign of stopping. Situations of genocide in some countries are the easiest examples. But in most cases it is less a question of enforcement by the UN or forces acting under its authority, than one of trying to persuade governments and people in general to respect human rights. Voluntary groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and national or local groups like the American Council for Civil Liberties will often be among the most effective forces to compel governments to respect human rights. The best means of enforcement is through popular pressure at the local level rather than trying to see what sort of military-type options might be used. The latter are not likely to be of much use in most situations and other governments don't have the determination to use them consistently and in a non-political way.

Q. Can new rights be added to the document?
      Mary Griffard and the West Middle School 7th graders

A. This is a very good question because our ideas of human rights are not static. This is partly because circumstances change and partly because our shared values evolve over time. An example of the first is the concern with environmental well-being which has led many countries to accept that there is a right to a clean environment. An example of the second is the belief that we should not discriminate against children born "out of wedlock", or in other words to parents who are not married to one another. In theory, new rights could be added to the Universal Declaration if all governments agreed to adopt a revised version. In practice, this is very unlikely ever to happen because that would re-open the whole issue and give the chance to a few governments with bad motivations to undermine the existing agreements. What happens therefore is that new standards are adopted either in the form of "declarations" by governments or new treaties. Sometimes these just spell out in more detail what is meant by existing provisions of the Universal Declaration. Other times, they tend to go further than that although there is usually always a link back to the basic set of rights in the Universal Declaration.

Q. Do people that violate rights have rights?
      the students of Goos Lier, Hondsrug College, The Netherlands

A. From a technical legal point of view governments violate human rights and people commit crimes. Thus your question is whether criminals have rights. The answer is yes, although there may be some restrictions placed upon them provided that those restrictions are imposed by the law and really are necessary in order to protect the rights of other people. In other words, we are obviously justified in restricting their freedom of movement (e.g. jail) and in imposing certain types of punishment (e.g. fines, community service orders etc.) that relate directly to the crime and the need to defend the interests of the community.
      But it is important to remember that no excuse should be used to violate the rights of individuals outside of that framework. Thus, beating up a criminal is not permitted. Even someone who is accused of a terrible crime must be given "due process" which means respecting his or her right to defend himself or herself, to have legal advice, not to be kept in prison without charges and so on. We also need to remember that in many countries, political opponents of the government are accused of crimes (either falsely or they are set up) and are then punished very severely.

Q. Article 2 says that everybody has the right to be free. But does this article also apply to people who violate the law, who for example kill people? This article should be changed, we think! Everybody has the rights to live, to freedom and to inviolability of person, except for people who violate human rights.
      the students of Goos Lier, Hondsrug College, The Netherlands

A. I agree that the right to freedom cannot apply to murderers and others who threaten society, as I indicated in my earlier answer. This is quite consistent with Article 2 when read in conjunction with Article 29 which provides for appropriate limitations on the enjoyment of rights. But I do not agree that the right to life or the right to physical integrity should be denied to such people. We need to keep in mind what human rights are all about. They are based on an insistence that basic human dignity should be upheld under all circumstances, that violence should not be used to resolve problems and that we should seek to uphold values such as justice and fairness as far as possible. We can hardly demand that all citizens respect these principles if we threaten to suspend them in response to serious criminal behaviour. We have to lead by example and insist on respect for fundamental standards at all times. This is entirely consistent with appropriate forms of punishment for offenders but such punishment does not need to violate physical integrity (beatings, torture etc).

Q. Why are there still so many countries that have political prisoners, and what can we do to make this problem disappear?
      the students of Goos Lier, Hondsrug College, The Netherlands

A. Virtually all governments feel ambivalent about political opposition. They all believe that they know what is best for the country and they generally assume that others who oppose their vision are misguided. In democratic countries, these tendencies are kept well in check by popular pressures within civil society and by the functioning of other institutions such as the parliament and the courts. But in other countries, and sometimes even in democracies, the temptation to use improper means to silence opponents is often hard to resist. It is not a very big step to deciding to imprison those opponents, sometimes without any charges at all but more often on the basis of phoney or trumped up charges. The best thing we can do is to expose these practices and make it politically costly for governments to imprison people for their political views. We can do that by supporting our own government's efforts to expose abuses, by supporting the work of non-governmental groups like Amnesty International, and by working for the strengthening of international and regional human rights agencies, like the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the regional human rights commissions and courts in Africa, Europe and Latin America.

Q. Most of the time things are viable only in theoretical terms; practically, they are generally not implemented. But nonetheless people voice their needs to the government. Only those who have power are able to voice their opinion.
      Rajat Army Public School, India

A. At one level, the central idea underlying the concept of human rights is to make space for all the people to voice their opinions and not to be penalised in any way for doing so. By insisting upon free speech, freedom of the press, the right to vote, the right to protest (freedom of assembly), the right to form trade unions and other associations, the right not to be arbitrarily arrested and so on, the aim is to enable everyone, whether powerful or not, rich or poor, to influence the decisions taken within each society. But you are right that there is a gap between theory and practice and that gap always takes time to close. The struggle against slavery and the fight against torture by the police have not yet been won definitively, but we have made a lot of progress. Human rights is an agenda for the future, and one which will only be achieved if we all start working on it today.

Q. Everyone has the right to his own life but not the life of others. But at times, circumstances force him to rob or injure the life of others. For example, the hangman's duty is to take other people's life and this earns him his bread.
      Robin, Diwan Army Public School, India

A. I think we agree that the only time when it is alright to kill or injure another is when it is in self-defence and there is no other possible alternative. Where we might disagree is that the hangman has many other opportunities to earn his bread and he has no duty as such to perform such a job.

Q. I was wondering what you think the most important human right is?
      Ryan Mansfield

A. This is a very difficult question, as I am sure you know. The easy way out is to say the right to life, but that avoids the main debate which is whether the right to freedom in general is more vital than the right to food and water without which we die. Because there is no reasonable solution to this dilemma, the world has agreed, through its governments and civil society, that both of these rights are equally important. The same applies to various other human rights and the United Nations insists that they are interdependent and indivisible. As soon as you agree to divide them, the way is left open for a corrupt or abusive government to give priority to one right over the other, thus leaving the individual in an unsustainable position.

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