These questions were sent in by schools participating in this project.
The answers are from Cynthia Brown, Program Director for Human Rights Watch.
Q. Regarding article 16 of the Universal Declaration, what is marriageable age? And does this vary by race, nationality or religion?
Hondsrug College Netherlands
A. Regarding Art 16 of the UDHR and marriageable age: There is no marriageable age specified in the Universal Declaration. But the fact that Article 16 refers to "full age" has been interpreted by some as contemplating both legal majority and physical and psychological maturity. This is so because "free and full consent" of the intending spouses is a prerequisite for marriage. The determinations as to age have been left to the individual states. However, it is also understood that states should establish a minimum age in their national legislations. Thus, marriageable age varies from country to country, depending on the different national laws. Sometimes, this variation reflects different religious beliefs. I am not aware of cases in which race is a relevant reason to establish a particular marriageable age.
Q. Regarding Article 26 and the right to education: In many countries, the government takes care of the education. But it is getting more and more difficult when you live far from school, and suddenly the government can't look after the travel-allowance. Then it is very difficult to get to school. (For university you should pay by yourself.) In Holland there is enough money for this but in some other countries there is not enough money. In addition, there is in some cases a shortage of trained people and there are far too few teachers... How does this affect the article?
Hondsrug College Netherlands
A. The right is certainly affected where there are circumstantial restrictions like children being unable to travel to the place where their school is located or if there are few teachers. Article 26 of the Universal Declaration says that education "shall be free" (at least in the first stages) and that elementary education shall be "compulsory". This means that States should devote enough resources and make education a real priority in their plans and budgets.
Q. Regarding article 5 on punishment and torture: Is it not necessary to control evil and hooliganism by giving punishment accordingly? Once he is punished he will realise his mistake and will not repeat it again.
Surbhi Army Public School India
A. The spirit of the Universal Declaration resides in the belief that every human being has an inherent worth and dignity; some forms of treatment are inhumane and violate the human person's most basic dignity, so they should never be legitimated. Thus, even someone who commits torture should not be tortured as punishment. The questioner refers to the need to control "evil and hooliganism", and certainly international human rights law presumes that States need the authority to impose order, to prevent crimes that endanger citizens, but it also presumes that some forms of imposing and maintaining social control are unacceptable on moral grounds; humane forms of punishment can accomplish the same ends. It is also important to note that, in practice, unpopular/dictatorial regimes often use the argument that extreme, inhumane methods are necessary to punish "bad people" as an excuse for their torture of dissenters and others whose only "crime" is criticizing the regime.
Q. Hi! My name is Katie Howard and I'm attending Lanier Middle School and am in the eighth grade. When our teacher mentioned this project, I thought that this would be a good opportunity to find out more about human rights and their violation. Well, my question is: In how many countries, that you know of, are human rights being legally violated and how are they being violated? Thank you for your time.
A. There are violations of human rights in virtually all countries, so a complete answer to your question would be very long. A few kinds of violations would be: jailing or killing people who speak out for their political beliefs or to protect their lives or livelihoods, denying people their right to meet and organize for their rights (like the right to form political groups or labor unions or student groups), killing civilians during an armed conflict, closing down newspapers because the government doesn't like what they report (say, on government corruption or repression), forcing children to become soldiers and to kill people, imprisoning people in concentration camps, torturing and beating people in custody of police or the military, imprisoning people in crowded and filthy and unsafe prisons where they have no protections against violence from guards or from fellow prisoners. These are some of the extreme forms of abuse that the human rights movement has worked on for a long time. Other types of violations take place even in societies that are not under repressive governments or at war, but are also very serious. Some of these would be racial and gender discrimination, restrictions on the right to practice one's religion freely, a government's refusal to act to protect women from violence like domestic abuse (on grounds that someone beating his wife is a "private" matter), or police abuse that targets socially disrespected people like street children or homosexuals. And there are a range of economic, social and cultural rights that include the right to health, the right to education, and others, which even the most democratic governments can be faulted on in some respects.
Q. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that everyone has a right to a culture. What happens when this culture is different from the ideals expressed in the Declaration? Does the UN have a right to seek to undermine cultures which have differing concepts of human rights?
John D. Giorgis
A. The Universal Declaration does not take a position as to the type of culture; it is intended to protect all cultures because cultural identity is very important to people's identity. The question suggests, however, that in some cultures, the requirements of the Declaration may be regarded as "foreign" in some way. There have been those who argue that in their cultures, certain forms in inhumane treatment are justified, or that the rights to political participation are not relevant, or that some group (like women) should not be considered mistreated if the culture's norms for them are not the same as the Declaration's premises of equality. Our experience with these arguments is that they are made by governments that do not wish their practices to be questioned, while human rights activists in those countries point out that the values of the Universal Declaration do, in fact, fit with the culture's highest values. I will give two examples: in Asia, some governments have argued that political rights (like the right not to be imprisoned just for your ideas, or for your disagreement with the government) should not be given priority because the country needs, more than democratic rights and free speech, to push ahead with economic development that will guarantee a better standard of living for everyone. The current Asian economic crisis has shown that in countries where the government is least democratic, like Indonesia, there is now no way people can get rid of a government that has mismanaged the economy and whose policies are causing enormous hardship; when people try to be heard, in demonstrations, in student protests, they are being repressedclearly THOSE people don't think that their political rights should have been set aside because of an argument about economics! Another example is in central Africa, where a group of new governments (Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi) argue that having many political parties is a bad idea and that, in their culture, a strong one-party state is the best way to make economic and social progress. They are enforcing their control repressively against anyone who disagrees with them. But clearly the people who disagree with the government and want to organize different parties believe that they have a right to do so. And they are from the same culture. So it is a tricky thing to speak of a culture as monolithic. There is debate within Islam about the role of political rights, appropriate punishments for criminals, the role of womennone of these questions is simply a matter of a single cultural idea. If fundamentalists in an Islamic country like Algeria kill women for appearing in public without the veil, should the rights of women be set aside? Women's groups in Algeria and other Arab countries, who protest this and other forms of repression against women, don't think so. The Universal Declaration's protections are, I think, valid across cultural lines, because they recognize every person's rights and every person's value as a human being.
Q. I was wondering what is the worst case of human rights abuse you have heard of?
A. I am sorry not be able to give an answer to this, but the question is too difficult. In sixteen years of working on human rights, I have heard a lot of terrible (true) stories, and it is impossible to compare.
Q. Estamos escribiendo del Instituto Bilingúe Stanford para hacer las siguientes preguntas: ¿Qué motivó a los representantes de los distintos paises a realizar la Convención de los Derechos Humanos? (What incentive do states and their representatives have to keep to the terms of the Universal Declaration?)
¿De qué manera podemos ayudar a los jóvenes y niños a defender sus derechos? (In what way can we help children and youth defend their rights?)
Instituto Bilingúe Stanford
A. Al final de la Segunda Guerra Mundial, la Organizacion de las Naciones Unidas fue establecida como un mecanismo para evitar la guerra y como un foro donde los gobiernos trabajarian en cojunto para la resolucion pacifica de los conflictos. Las memorias sobre las atrocidades cometidas durante la Seguna Guerra estaban frescas, asi como la conviccion de que las politicas que dieron lugar a la guerra, reposaron en la violacion masiva y sistematica de los derechos humanos. La construccion de un nuevo orden mundial en el cual la paz y el respeto por los derechos fundamentales prevalecerian sobre la agresion y la barbaria estaba presente en las intenciones y las esperanzas de los fundadores de las Naciones Unidas. Desde el principio la ONU busco formulas para proteger los derechos humanos, y a la puesta en marcha de los medios que previnieran su avasallamiento en el futuro. Esta busqueda dio lugar a lo largo de los anos, a la elaboracion de tratados internacionales, declaraciones solemnes de la Asamblea Generalque denotan un alto grado de consenso politico alcanzado por los Estadosque reconocen en buena medida el abanico general de derechos (civiles, culturales, economicos, politicos y sociales), que conforman lo que hoy damos a llamar "derechos humanos" y cuyo disfrute corresponde a todos, sin discriminacion alguna. Pero la importancia de la Declaracion Universal de los Derechos Humanos es que la misma marco el primer gran paso en el reconocimiento de los derechos humanos, consagro la igualdad de todos ante la ley y la idea de que las personas deben contar con mecanismos para su proteccion si sus derechos se ven vulnerados o amenazados.
Q. We have read The Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN but cannot find particular declarations from each nation. What countries have made such declarations, if any?
Class of Freshies Colegio San Antonio Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
A. Few countries have made declarations similar to the UDHR. In that sense the Universal Declaration is a unique instrument. But many countries include in their constitutions a Bill of Rights, or a specific chapter on human rights, where they spell out the rights of citizens and other persons living in that particular country.
Q. Article 26(3) of the Universal declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms states that "parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children".
The Canadian Constitution (articles 23 and 59) restricts access to minority language schooling.
The Quebec 'French Language Charter' (Chapter viii) allows for minority language children to be declared "ineligible" for education in their own language.
Given that school attendance years are limited in number and legal actions are costly, time-consuming, and of uncertain outcome - what recourse does a parent whose "right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to his children" has been violated in Quebec, Canada have?
A. It may be difficult to find recourse aside from legal actions, but if the cost of a legal action is the problem, there should be institutions of the State or private institutions (like non-governmental organizations) that should be willing to bring the case to the courts. Bringing to court a case where the right to education (or to choose the kind of education parents want for their children) has been violated,is a human right in itself. Article 8 of the UDHR states: "Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law." Another possibility is to look for institutions like the Human Rights Commission or the ombudsman (Protector of Rights), if they are available in Quebec and bring a complaint before them. This procedure should be easier and cheaper than bringing the case before a tribunal.
I hope this is helpful.
Best wishes, Cynthia Brown