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Human Rights
Questions & Answers

These questions were sent in by schools participating in this project. The answers are from Elsa Stamatopoulou, Acting Director of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, New York Office.

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. Art. 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that men and women "of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion" have the right to marry. It should be mentioned that many of the provisions of the Universal Declaration have been further elaborated and detailed in so-called international human rights instruments in order to help Governments understand what exactly is meant in the different articles.
      In connection with your question related to marriage, the concept of "of full age" has been further developed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (an international human rights instruments in which States are legally obliged to comply with its provisions) which defines a child to be every human being below the age of 18 years unless national law in any given country considers that a person has reached majority before 18 years.
      This means that the UN recommends that the age of marriage is set at 18 years (when the child has reached majority) but that Governments have the freedom to decided in their own national context at which age a child has reached majority and consequently is allowed to marry. The age of marriage will therefore vary from country to country. It is important that no discrimination on the basis of religion, race or nationality exists at national level.

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.With regard to the right to education, all Governments have undertaken the responsibility upon themselves to provide primary education to children for free but at the same time, you correctly state that some Governments do not have the resources to pay for education. In this case, Governments can request the United Nations (for example, the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP or the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF) who have offices in the countries to assist them with providing education for children. The United Nations also helps Government to train teachers. Many non-governmental organisations also help Governments and local schools directly to build up an education system for children through exchanges of teachers or by sending teachers free of charge to these countries.

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.Physical punishment (corporal punishment) and torture is strictly prohibited under international human rights law. At the same time, if someone commits a wrongful act or violates the rights of another person or community, this person should be punished but only in accordance with the law which should respect international human rights standards and after he or she has been judged fairly and granted due process of law. The United Nations advocates that it is better to reason with someone and to explain why something that was done is wrong rather than physically hurting someone. When you hurt someone, there is the strong possibility that this person will want to seek revenge, be angry or want to hurt someone in turn and a cycle of violation is created. If a repeated pattern of wrongful behaviour persists, the person should be given the necessary treatment (medical and psychological) to understand why he or she behaves in this way and peaceful solutions must be found to the problem.

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.We can safely say there is not one single country in this world where human rights violations do not occur. It is a sad fact that everyday in every country of this world, be it developed or developing, be it in the North or in the South , the East or the West, human rights violations against human beings take place. The type of violations that are committed may differ, depending whether the country is at war or in peace time, for example, but they are human rights violations nevertheless. This is why the United Nations, especially through the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, holds all Governments accountable or responsible for protecting human rights of all their citizens, and especially vulnerable groups such as children and minorities.
      Unfortunately, human rights are often used in political negotiations between Governments so that it may seem that human rights violations occur only in some countries but not others but not one country has an entirely perfect human rights record.

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.There is a common and long-lasting understanding between all Members States of the United Nations that the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are universal which apply to all cultures across the world, without exception. Similarly, Governments have undertaken to respect each others cultures so that all human beings can have their human rights in a context of tolerance and pluralism. At the same time, however, it is essential that no Government attempt to justify human rights violations on the basis of "different cultures" or "regional differences" or "cultural relativism". The United Nations, nor anyone else, has the right to undermine different cultures or traditions but it has an obligation to monitor that cultures are not used to hide and justify human rights violations, which have been agreed upon by all nations of the world.
      For example, in the case of female genital mutilation, a traditional practice which still persists in many countries of the world, the United Nations is advocating the eradication of this age-old practice because it violates the human rights of girls and women - their right to health is violated and they are exposed to the risk of very serious health consequences. The United Nations is not trying to undermine the traditions that promote female genital mutilation but to protect the human rights of girls and women.

Q. I was wondering what is the worst case of human rights abuse you have heard of?
      Ryan Mansfield

A.See reply no. 4. In addition, it should be said that human rights violations cannot be classified since all human rights are of equal importance. If, however, there is a regular pattern of human rights violations going on against a large number of people, the United Nations frequently refers to "gross and systematic" violations of human rights - please note that this term refers to the extent of the problem and not as much to its nature.

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?)
      Instituto Bilingúe Stanford

A. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights represents a commonly acknowledged and accepted code of conduct which, for the past fifty years, has governed relations between States and relations between States and their citizens. Therefore, any democratic Government that is accountable to its people and that needs the support of its people will attempt to adhere to the provisions of the Universal Declaration. It is also true, however, that if a Government does not want to comply with these agreed principles or code of conduct, the United Nations can only hope that political pressure and the public shaming of the violators will result in an improved situation. One other method that the United Nations has available to use against Governments who do not seem to comply with international law and respect human rights and peace, are sanctions which are imposed by the Security Council (this is a very strong political weapon and is generally used only in very severe cases where negotiations have not helped at all).
      In addition, the provisions of the Universal Declaration are reflected and further elaborated in international human rights instruments (w which are legally binding upon Governments) so that Governments have a legal obligation to adhere to these standards.

Q. ¿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. One of the best ways to promote help children and youth defend their rights is to make them aware that they have rights in the first place. Awareness-raising and human rights education, whether through schools or more informal settings, is the key to a better protection of human rights. Knowing one's rights will also increase mutual respect and tolerance for each other which is a pre-condition for the protection and promotion of human rights.
      On the Internet website of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (www.unhchr.ch), under the heading "50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights", there are a number of practical suggestions and proposals how schools, universities, institutes, etc., can engage in promoting human rights.

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.The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a Declaration adopted by all Member States (individual Governments) of the United Nations and is, therefore, applicable to all Governments. In addition, many countries (Governments) have ratified (adopted in a legal sense) a number of internationally accepted human rights instruments which are based on the Universal Declaration (Convention on the Rights of the Child, Convention against Torture, Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, etc). In doing so, Governments have undertaken a commitment to ensure that the international human rights standards which are in these instruments (legal documents) are incorporated in their national laws. Therefore, it is not necessary that each country adopts their own declaration of human rights since they all agree on the Universal Declaration and as long as they make sure that all human rights are guaranteed in their national laws.

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?
      Steve Potter

A.The issue of the right of minorities to education in their own languages in a number of countries has been brought up in numerous legal settings, such as the European Court of Human Rights and the united Nations Human Rights Committee and the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
      There are a number of legal procedures available at the level of the United Nations to file complaints for alleged human rights violations, if the country concerned has ratified the relevant international human rights instrument. In the case of Canada, mechanisms that are available is the so-called "1503" confidential procedure of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights which addresses gross and systematic violations of human rights. Another procedure is the optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. More details about the functioning of these mechanisms can be found on the Internet website of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at www.unhchr.ch.
      Please note, however, that one of the main prerequisites for the admissibility of a claim is the "exhaustion of domestic remedies", which obliges the claimant to prove that he or she has tried to take up this matter at national level, if there are legal channels available, prior to bringing the case to the United Nations. It should also be mentioned that the communications procedures for individual human rights violations at the United Nations have to undergo a very cumbersome bureaucratic process and often take a very long time.

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