HUMAN RIGHTS DEFINED,
DENIED, AND RESTORED
State sovereignty vs. individual human rights
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:
||Extermination of 6 million Jews, 400,000 Roma, and millions of others during the Nazi Holocaust.
||Indiscriminate bombing of civilians by both sides.
||Grossly inhumane treatment of prisoners of war and women forced into sexual slavery by the
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:
||"...the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members
of the human family..."
||"...human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from
||"...the dignity and worth of the human person and...the equal rights of men and
The 30 articles of the UDHR continue with such impressive statements as:
||"Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in
dignity and rights."
||"Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and
security of person."
||"Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel,
inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
||"Article 9: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest,
detention or exile."
||"Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and
||"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
There was no mechanism by which member states could be forced to follow the
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.
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:
||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
||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 troops...in 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
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:
||One country can lay charges involving torture, even if the acts were
committed in another country.
||Even heads of states have no immunity from prosecution.
This revolution can be seen
in many ways:
||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:
||Augusto Pinochet, former dictator of Chile.
||Military officers, primarily members of the Serbian Orthodox Church, who led or authorized
genocidal massacres in Bosnia in the mid
||Jean-Claud "Baby Doc" Duvalier for extensive atrocities in Haiti which started in the
||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.
||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.
||Many NGOs, international rights organizations, and academic journals have
Internet and are using it as a main vehicle of communication. Individuals worldwide now
have immediate access to human rights information. 7
||Special International War Crimes Tribunals are slowly bringing to justice those responsible for
genocide in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
||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.
||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
||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
International Criminal Court:
There have been tremendous loss of life during the 20th century due to wars,
civil disturbances, pogroms, etc. One estimate lists:
||World war I: 10 million
||World war II: 55 million
||Nazi holocaust: about 12 million (mainly Jews)
||USSR executions & starvation programs: 30 million
||China: 30 million
||Cambodia: 2 million
||Chechnya: unknown 12
To which one might add:
||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
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.
Related essays at this website:
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."
"The set includes volumes on Judaism,
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."
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
Unfortunately, although this set appears to be a phenomenal achievement, it
does suffer from three deficiencies:
||At a cost of US $400, it is generally not obtainable for individual use.
||It is missing a volume on Taoist or
Confucian understandings of human rights.
||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
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
The English text of the Universal Declaration is at: http://www.un.org/.
The text is available in other languages is at: http://www.unhchr.ch/
Marcus Gee, "The rights revolution," The Globe and Mail, Toronto, ON,
- Paul Knox, "Facing up to international judgments," The Globe and Mail, Toronto
Human Rights Net "provides a platform for human rights
organizations and networks. Here you will find homepages of NGOs, their activities and
publications." See: http://www.human-rights.net/
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: http://www.derechos.org/
Drechos has a "Concise Guide to Human Rights on the Internet"
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: http://www1.umn.edu/
The Human Rights Library has an incredible list of links to other human
rights sites at: http://www1.umn.edu/
Human Rights USA "educates people in the United States about
their human rights and encourages community-based action." See: http://www.hrusa.org
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: http://www.state.gov/www/global/human_rights/
"A brutal century ends with hope" Editorial, Toronto
Star, 1999-DEC-30, Page A30
"The Armenian Genocide," at: http://www-scf.usc.edu/
"Ex-Chad dictator indicted in Senegal: Hissein Habre, 'The
African Pinochet,' to face trial," Human Rights Watch bulletin,
"U.N.: Kofi Annan Reappointment Welcomed," Human Rights Watch
press release, 2001-JUN-28.
"Milosevic Arrest Breaks Ground on International Justice; Victory for
War's Victims Hailed," Human Rights Watch news release, 2001-JUN-28.
William Brackney, Ed., "Human Rights and the World’s Major Religions,"
Praeger Publishers (2005).
Read reviews or order this book
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:
Copyright © 1998 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants
on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2006-JUL-25
Author: B.A. Robinson