Politics Still Reign Over Principles at UN

UNITED NATIONS - The United Nations Wednesday commemorated the 60th anniversary of the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) against the backdrop of widespread political repression -- most notably in Zimbabwe, Sudan, Burma (Myanmar), Iraq, Afghanistan and in the Israeli-occupied territories of West Bank and Gaza.

But a sharply divided Security Council has remained politically impotent against continued atrocities worldwide, in violation of humanitarian law and international conventions, including the UDHR.

Andrew Hudson, a senior associate with the Human Rights Defenders Programme at Human Rights First, singled out U.N. member states, primarily Security Council members, "who have frequently failed to prevent or address gross violations of the UDHR."

The United Nations, he said, should redouble its efforts to demonstrate that the human rights contained in the UDHR are universal and allow for translation into specific local contexts.

"The new Universal Periodic Review mechanism at the Human Rights Council demonstrates that the UDHR applies universally to all states," he stressed.

The U.N. human rights system should engage in objective, impartial and universal evaluation of the human rights records of all states, Hudson told IPS.

More recently, at a political level, the Security Council has remained deadlocked because of the partisan role of the five veto-wielding permanent members.

The United States, France and Britain have continued to protect Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan while Russia and China continue to shield Zimbabwe, Sudan and Burma (Myanmar) against any strictures or sanctions for human rights violations.

Article 1 of the UDHR, which was adopted by the General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948, states that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."

But in reality human rights abuses are increasingly becoming the norm in most developing nations. And in developed countries, including the United States and Britain, violations are being justified in the name of fighting terrorism.

Speaking at a ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the UDHR on Wednesday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: "We see human trafficking, the exploitation of children, and a host of other ills plaguing millions of people," he added.

The "host of other ills", according to human rights organisations, includes torture, disappearances, extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detention, surveillance, defamation and administrative and judicial harassment. The victims also include journalists and human rights defenders.

Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters that tens of millions of people around the world are still unaware that they have rights that they can demand, and that their governments are accountable to them, to a wide-ranging body of rights-based national and international law.

"Despite all our efforts over the past 60 years, this anniversary will pass many people by, and it is essential that we keep up the momentum, thereby enabling more and more people to stand up and claim their rights," she added.

Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the San Francisco-based Oakland Institute, pointed out the failure of nation states and governments in fulfilling their obligation to ensure human rights for all.

For instance, she said, in the United States, where homelessness, hunger and poverty -- particularly among children and seniors -- abound, it is the failure of the government to fulfill its obligation to its people.

"The United Nations could have done more in terms of emphasising the relevance of human rights treaties, insisting on these treaties taking precedence over, say, trade agreements or other social economic policies that might conflict with human rights of people," Mittal told IPS.

Asked where the United Nations has succeeded or failed in helping implement the UDHR, Julie Gromellon of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) told IPS the objective of the founders of the U.N. to add a human dimension to international law through the UDHR has become a reality.

She said international law, and especially the UDHR, has become an important tool to promote respect for and observance of human rights.

The Universal Declaration has also served as a starting point for further standard-setting activities through eight core human rights conventions, whose implementation is monitored by so-called treaty bodies, a more advanced system of supervision.

In this framework, the United Nations has contributed to the recognition of the accountability of all states for compliance with their human rights obligations as laid down in the UDHR, she added.

But important lacunae need to be filled to implement the UDHR. States should be continuously urged by the U.N. to ratify all relevant international human rights treaties and to accept and implement the supervisory procedures.

In particular, they should be urged to ratify the relevant individual complaint procedures, Gromellon added.

She also said the crucial role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) should be recognised by the U.N. "They have contributed in a most significant way to the development and enforcement of the international human rights system," she noted.

And such organisations should also be given a consultative status with other organisations, including the international financial institutions and the World Trade Organisation.

Rob Wheeler of the World Alliance for Transforming the U.N. said the United Nations, in failing to ensure that all people's rights are met, is actually violating several articles of its own founding Charter.

"We thus urge the United Nations to organise and hold a U.N. Charter Review Conference, under Article 109 of the Charter, in order to determine what can and must be done to ensure that the charter is upheld and that all people's most basic human rights are indeed provided and met," he said.

Unfortunately, he said, most of the provisions included in the Universal Declaration have still not been met even after 60 years -- 830 million people still do not have enough food to eat, 1.1 billion lack access to clean water, 2.6 billion to basic sanitation, and 2.0 billion to essential drugs.

Hudson of Human Rights First said that the United Nations, especially the High Commissioner for Human Rights, has played a critical role in education, outreach and awareness-raising about the universality of the UDHR.

"However, U.N. member states fail to implement aspects of the UDHR by suggesting that human rights do not acknowledge cultural difference -- a specious argument used to avoid human rights scrutiny," Hudson told IPS.

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