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State sovereignty vs. individual human rights

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The promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Prior to the World War II, there was a "gentleman's agreement" among nations. Each federal government was free to grant human rights to, or withhold human rights from, their own citizens with impunity. Other nations simply looked the other way. Individuals only received those freedoms that their own governments decided to grant them.

By the late 1940's, the world had recently recoiled in horror at some of the horrendous human rights abuses of World War II, including:
bullet Extermination of 6 million Jews, 400,000 Roma, and millions of others during the Nazi Holocaust.
bullet Indiscriminate bombing of civilians by both sides.
bullet Grossly inhumane treatment of prisoners of war and women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Army.

On December 10, 1948, in an atmosphere of hope for the future, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). 1,2

The preamble to the UDHR contains many noble sounding phrases:
bullet "...the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family..."
bullet "...human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear..."
bullet "...the dignity and worth of the human person and...the equal rights of men and women..."

The 30 articles of the UDHR continue with such impressive statements as:
bullet "Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."
bullet "Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person."
bullet "Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
bullet "Article 9: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile."
bullet "Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression..."
bullet "Article 21: Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives."

Unfortunately, there was little support from the world's main economic powers for the world-wide implementation of the UDHR, and other international human rights documents. Civil liberties in eastern Europe vaporized as puppet governments took over after the war. The USSR continued its abuses against its own citizens, exterminating tens of millions of people. In its dealings with its allies, the United States often seemed to prefer dictatorships over democracies as a better insurance against communism.

There was no mechanism by which member states could be forced to follow the UDHR. Democracies have tended to have a better human rights record than dictatorships. However. it is safe to say that no state has ever consistently granted all of these rights to all of its citizens.

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The gradual realization of the goals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

The 50th anniversary of the UDHR has passed. "Beyond the pious speeches and manufactured celebrations, something quite marvelous is happening: the birth of a global human-rights culture." 3 As of mid-2000, there have been two major developments:
bullet The detention of Agusto Pinochet, the aging former dictator of Chile for gross human rights abuses. He has been accused of responsibility for mass torture and genocide, starting in the late 1970's. 
bullet The arrest and transfer of Slobodan Milosevic, ex-dictator of the former Yugoslavia, by the United Nations war crimes tribunal. He was indicted on 1999-MAY-24 for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Yugoslav and Serbian Kosovo in early 1999. According to Human Rights Watch, "The crimes include the slaughter of hundreds of ethnic Albanians, forcible deportations of hundreds of thousands of people, and persecution based on racial, religious, and political identification." More recently there have been "discoveries of mass graves of Kosovo Albanians, near Belgrade and in other parts of Serbia..." 16

Human Rights Watch noted that "the surrender of Milosevic makes clear that no leader accused of crimes against humanity is beyond the reach of international justice." 16

Various hearings established two very important principles:
bullet One country can lay charges involving torture, even if the acts were committed in another country.
bullet Even heads of states have no immunity from prosecution.

 This revolution can be seen in many ways:
bullet Various groups are now attempting to bring to trial those leaders who have allegedly violated human rights on a massive scale. In early 2000, this included:
bullet Augusto Pinochet, former dictator of Chile. 
bullet Military officers, primarily members of the Serbian Orthodox Church, who led or authorized genocidal massacres in Bosnia in the mid 1990s. 
bullet Jean-Claud "Baby Doc" Duvalier for extensive atrocities in Haiti which started in the 1960's.
bullet Hissein Habre, former dictator of Chad for "97 political killings, 142 instances of torture, 100 disappearances, 736 arbitrary arrests" by the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS). He has been charged in Senegal, where he has been living since his ouster in 1990. 14

"These cases are a shot across the bow of tyrants everywhere. No longer can they expect impunity for their crimes and a cozy retirement in the south of France." 3 Heads of state and of armies will realize that they no longer have immunity against prosecution for their crimes against humanity.

bullet Independent human rights monitoring groups are now active in most countries of the world. These are non-government organizations (NGO) which document an publish abuses to the world media.
bullet Many NGOs, international rights organizations, and academic journals have discovered the Internet and are using it as a main vehicle of communication. Individuals worldwide now have immediate access to human rights information. 7
bullet Special International War Crimes Tribunals are slowly bringing to justice those responsible for genocide in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. 
bullet Human rights is a priority item on the agendas of most visits by leaders of democratic countries to dictatorships. The world's largest dictatorship, China, even hosted a human rights conference recently.
bullet There are now 6 human rights bodies in Geneva Switzerland which monitor and attempt to protect social, cultural, political, and civil rights as well as the use of torture, racial discrimination, genocide, children's rights and women's rights. In theory, any person whose government has ratified the accords that created these international bodies can charge their own government with wrongdoing. In practice, there are many roadblocks that prevent individuals from taking advantage of this right. A review sponsored by the Ford Foundation and led by Anne Bayefsky of York University in Toronto, Canada and Christof Heyns of the University of Pretoria in South Africa may result in change in this area.4
bullet Kofi A. Annan, United Nations Secretary-General has repeatedly stated that state sovereignty must not shield states in the face of crimes against humanity. This has come to be known as the "Annan Doctrine,"  According to Human Rights Watch: "During the wave of post-referendum violence in East Timor in the fall of 1999, he warned that senior Indonesian officials risked prosecution for crimes against humanity if they did not consent to the deployment of an available multinational force. They quickly relented." 15

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International Criminal Court:

There have been tremendous loss of life during the 20th century due to wars, civil disturbances, pogroms, etc. One estimate lists:

bullet World war I: 10 million
bullet World war II: 55 million 
bullet Nazi holocaust: about 12 million (mainly Jews)
bullet USSR executions & starvation programs: 30 million
bullet China: 30 million
bullet Cambodia: 2 million
bullet Rwanda: 800,000
bullet Bosnia: 250,000
bullet Chechnya: unknown 12

To which one might add:

bullet Ottoman Empire: 1.5 million (Armenians) 13

There is an obvious way to prevent future mass crimes against humanity. That is to create an international court with the power to try war criminals when national courts are unable or unwilling to act. If a political or military leader is aware that he/she will probably be held responsible for their actions, they will be far less likely to commit major violations of human rights.

Special victors' courts were set up in 1945 to try Nazi and Japanese war criminals. More recently, special United Nations tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda have been established. They are slowly bringing to justice those responsible for genocide in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. 

Representatives from 121 nations met in Rome during 1998 to lay the foundation for a permanent International Criminal Court. It will have jurisdiction over acts of "genocide, crimes against humanity (which can include rape and sexual violence), war crimes (including recruiting of under-aged combatants), grave breaches of responsibility by military commanders and civilian supervisors, and, once a definition is agreed on, the crime of aggression." Over objections from China, France, Russia, and the United States, 120 nations signed an treaty in 1998-JUL. Once 60 countries have ratified the treaty, the court will be established. The Canadian federal government introduced the "Crimes Against Humanity Act" on 1999-DEC-10. Its purpose is to facilitate co-operation between Canada and this international court.

"This court will help deter political killers, provide added protection for civilians, and heal broken societies by punishing wrongdoers before victims seek retribution. It will be a brake on mass murder." 12

On 1999-DEC-29, the International Criminal Court was discussed on "Family News in Focus.". This is a news program of Focus on the Family, a Fundamentalist Christian  organization in Colorado Springs, CO. They are concerned that U.N. bureaucrats will interpret the treaty's crimes- against- humanity clauses very generally to include pastors preaching against equal rights for gays and lesbians, or against women's access to abortion. 

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Related essays at this website:

bullet The 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
bullet Genocide menu

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Related set of books:

One of the major deficiencies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that is was written from a secular viewpoint and is thus at variance from some views within the world's major religions. William H. Brackney has made a valuable contribution to the understanding of human rights across religions. He has edited a five volume set of books titled "Human Rights and the World's Major Religions." 17


"The set includes volumes on Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Each volume touches on issues such as the right to life, the rights of women, punishment for crimes, war and peace, slavery, violence, and other topics related to human rights. They provide primary sources to document the history of thought on the subject within each religion. Biographical sketches and annotated bibliographies offer excellent resources for further study. Together these volumes provide a comprehensive and unique approach to major religious views on human rights."

Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

Unfortunately, although this set appears to be a phenomenal achievement, it does suffer from three deficiencies:

bullet At a cost of US $400, it is generally not obtainable for individual use.
bullet It is missing a volume on Taoist or Confucian understandings of human rights.
bullet Although it covers women's rights thoroughly, reviewer Eric Severnson comments that they: "are written and edited by men and sometimes fall into familiar patterns of patriarchal discourse." 18

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. The English text of the Universal Declaration is at:
  2. The text is available in other languages is at:
  3. Marcus Gee, "The rights revolution," The Globe and Mail, Toronto, ON, 1998-DEC-9
  4. Paul Knox, "Facing up to international judgments," The Globe and Mail, Toronto ON, 1998-DEC-7
  5. Human Rights Net "provides a platform for human rights organizations and networks. Here you will find homepages of NGOs, their activities and publications." See:
  6. Drechos Human Rights works "for the promotion and respect of human rights all over the world, for the right to privacy and against impunity for human rights violators." See:
  7. Drechos has a "Concise Guide to Human Rights on the Internet" at:
  8. The University of Minnesota Human Rights Library publishes treaties, declarations, resolutions, opinions and decisions from international tribunals and treaty bodies. Included is material that is not found elsewhere on the Internet. See:
  9. The Human Rights Library has an incredible list of links to other human rights sites at:
  10. Human Rights USA "educates people in the United States about their human rights and encourages community-based action." See:
  11. The U.S. State Department has created annual reports on the state of civil rights in each country (except for the U.S.) since 1978. The 1997 report covers 194 countries. See:
  12. "A brutal century ends with hope" Editorial, Toronto Star, 1999-DEC-30, Page A30
  13. "The Armenian Genocide," at:
  14. "Ex-Chad dictator indicted in Senegal: Hissein Habre, 'The African Pinochet,' to face trial," Human Rights Watch bulletin, 2000-FEB-3
  15. "U.N.: Kofi Annan Reappointment Welcomed," Human Rights Watch press release, 2001-JUN-28.
  16. "Milosevic Arrest Breaks Ground on International Justice; Victory for War's Victims Hailed," Human Rights Watch news release, 2001-JUN-28.
  17. William Brackney, Ed., "Human Rights and the World’s Major Religions," Praeger Publishers (2005). Read reviews or order this book
  18. Eric Severson, "The rights stuff: Landmark series on human rights explores the divergent views of the world’s major religions," Science & Theology News, 2006-JUL-28, at:

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Copyright © 1998 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2006-JUL-25
Author: B.A. Robinson

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