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Human rights: the global approach

A Note by the Director (Ditchley 2009/12)

3-5 December 2009 

At this, our last Ditchley conference of the year, we discussed the state of global human rights today, the efficacy of international systems in a challenging political climate and the strategies most likely to ensure the application of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  While this note will try to give the flavour of a wide-ranging and passionate debate, it will also bring out the two core ideas which shone through: the application of human rights is all about accountability; and the essential responsibility has to be taken at the national level.

 There were notes of both optimism and caution when we looked at the record.  A lot had been achieved over the past sixty years in enshrining fundamental human rights across the globe.  Many rights – civil, political, social, economic and cultural - that had not existed in international or national law prior to 1948 were now operationalised worldwide.  The Universal Declaration had marked a turning point in handing rights to people and in giving them a mechanism for holding sovereign states to account.  The principle of universal human rights now existed and its language could not be escaped, although even the optimists acknowledged that much remained to be done in terms of implementation.  While the United States was seen as having damaged the concept of universal human rights in the years following 9/11, that concept was now being reasserted by President Obama’s administration.

On the debit side, participants pointed to widespread double-standards in both the rhetoric and application of human rights, with a huge amount of work remaining to be done in ensuring rights for all.  Four billion people still lacked access to justice and the rule of law.  We underlined the detrimental effect of sheer poverty and the lack of effective political leadership on human rights. Could we really say we were making progress?

On double-standards, many felt that the West undercut its own moral standing when it fell short of fulfilling its obligations to universal human rights while holding other countries to account.  We worried that human rights had been and would be downgraded as Western governments dealt with the economic crisis, terrorism, Afghanistan and other national security issues.  Double-standards and hypocrisy downgraded the very language of human rights. Through this prism, human rights were not seen as universal.  Consistency was crucial. 

Perceptions of double-standards could go wider, as when commitments under other international obligations, for instance linked to World Bank or World Trade Organisation rules, turned out to be inimical to the aims of the Universal Declaration.  We heard how South Africa, in complying with international trade deals, had lost thousands of textile jobs, which directly impacted on the right to work and to just and favourable conditions of work.  There was a plea to consider how the pressure to adopt pro-market policies could undermine the social and development aspects of the Universal Declaration.  Even information technology, so often perceived as the symbol of an open and enlightened world, was regularly used to constrain freedom.

The negative impact of measures taken by the West in response to 9/11 continued to reverberate in the debate.  The challenge was to reject any notion that security, for all its primacy, demanded a reassessment of human rights principles.  Arguments about security would be more successful if they stressed the security dimension of human rights rather than accepting a tension between security and rights.  Universal human rights, when successfully applied, by their very nature guaranteed people’s safety and security.

Language was seen as crucial, because it had established itself.  There was wide agreement that the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration should not be revisited or rewritten, nor should states commit to a narrower set of core rights.  Rather, states should be encouraged to restate their strong commitment to the Universal Declaration, while demonstrating locally that global human rights approaches actually supported specific local needs and aspirations and did not contradict principles such as equality or justice.  We also acknowledged the important legacy of the Universal Declaration: it would be extremely difficult to agree today the set of rights that had been enshrined sixty years ago.

Nevertheless, the purported challenge of cultural relativism was widely dismissed.  Politicians too easily used societal norms and traditions to avoid promoting human rights standards which might threaten their hold on power.  In truth, cultural differences did not justify the denial of rights.  The most fundamental human rights – freedom from want and fear – drew on all major religions.  The concept of cultural relativism often led to the loss of women’s rights first and foremost and it was crucial not to use it to excuse human rights abuses.  While the Cairo declaration and the 2007 Tehran meeting were pulling in the opposite direction, we noted that countries traditionally more supportive of group than individual rights, such as China, were not impervious to international public opinion. Leaders valued international respectability and did not like being pilloried.  Differences of national approach were not a basis for re-examining the fundamentals.

Yet we were clear that rights would not be implemented in practice if each government, in its own jurisdiction, was not made accountable to its own people.  The rule of law was vital, so long as it did not just provide the pretext for repression.  Participants preferred to underline that access to justice, locality by locality, was the priority globally.  There was some discussion about establishing a regional human rights body in Asia, the only region not to have created one so far.  Participants agreed that developing sub-regional systems in parts of Asia would be more effective than an Asia-wide court.  But we thought that creating new international institutions to promote the rule of law was less necessary than supporting local initiatives.  A global fund should be created to build national capacity in implementing international standards. Language should be used that resonated locally.  In addition, it was crucial to recognise the primary role that national human rights institutions played in upholding and protecting human rights.  There should be stronger engagement and interaction between international and national human rights structures. Strengthening these vertical connections between international, regional, national and local systems would undoubtedly improve implementation of human rights standards.

At the same time, horizontal coordination, within and between countries, should be more firmly established, particularly in national capitals between respective departments and desks on human rights issues.  We should make better use of existing networks, between national human rights institutions, constitutional courts, NGOs and regional human rights systems.  Crucially, the human rights community needed to connect with the development, humanitarian aid and environmental communities (climate change itself being a threat to human rights).

There was a lively discussion on how to connect human rights with the development aid community.  If poverty across the globe negated fundamental human rights, perhaps human rights should be integrated into the delivery of development aid.  This met resistance from those who believed that human rights should in no way be secondary to development aims.  But the human rights world could learn both from the success of the development aid community in garnering huge amounts of funds for its cause and also from its failure to produce convincing results from the huge sums spent.  There were lessons to be taken, for instance, on strategy, impact-assessment and fundraising.

International human rights institutions were seen as chronically underfunded. An injection of finance was needed for the development of more effective monitoring mechanisms and for measures to integrate human rights as a cross-cutting issue at the United Nations.  The office of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on business and human rights was held up as an example of where a large enough budget had lead to a high level of advocacy for, and good results from, corporate responsibility and the office’s other responsibilities.

When the UN Human Rights Council was mentioned, it was mainly in disparaging tones. It was described as a “dispiriting environment”.  The Universal Periodic Review process was important in addressing issues such as double-standards, but the complete politicisation of the process in Geneva was seen as detrimental to the overall human rights project. Council procedure was not advertised back in the individual member countries.  Generally, participants felt that there was a huge disconnect between decisions taken in Geneva and New York and what happened on the ground.  Many disadvantaged people simply did not see human rights as relevant to themselves.  The work done at the international level needed to be firmly anchored in localities to generate universal support.  We needed both grassroots support and better leadership from the top to improve adherence to human rights standards; and the Geneva process needed to contribute much more strongly to the latter.

We gave careful thought to the indirect route to implementing human rights in practice.  Plenty of areas existed where governments should not identify activism as a threat but which advanced human rights in a concrete way.  For instance, countries might be open to assistance on health, HIV/AIDS, the treatment of prisoners or judicial training without these being framed as human rights issues.  We were likely to build local constituencies for human rights if we emphasised in a concrete way that they would improve the quality of people’s lives.  Some countries might resist abstract arguments about women’s rights, but be more receptive to a demonstration that agricultural productivity would be improved if women were empowered.  We did not need to dress proposals up in human rights language in order to make progress in practical terms.

As for the geopolitical context, we saw the relevance of the gradual redistribution of power away from Western nations and a shift of influence away from governments towards non-state groups, the corporate sector and individuals.  Rights could no longer be regarded as the state’s responsibility to uphold.  The development of the principle of the responsibility to protect attempted to maintain that sovereignty was not paramount when individual and community rights were abused, yet governments were becoming increasingly defensive about their own sovereign prerogatives.  There was strong support for reinforcing the norms of the UN Charter and the Security Council. Others called for developing better criteria for when military intervention might be necessary.  Again, the danger here was that political expediency and double-standards would undermine the principles being defended.  There was agreement that force should be used as a last resort.  We should engage where we could and confront where we must.

Finally, we wondered where the great political advocates of human rights had gone.  The visibility of human rights had suffered from a lack of charismatic leadership at the international level.  We missed a dedicated group of foreign ministers who took these issues seriously.  Human rights needed to be seen not as an add-on, but as integral to foreign and domestic policies across the board.  Yet we could not sit around and wait.  Political obstacles should if necessary be circumvented and a lack of effective leadership should not be used as an excuse at the institutional or grassroots level not to continue upholding human rights standards.

This was an extremely rich and at times sharp debate which recognised the centrality of human rights to policies affecting all spheres of life.  It is worth listing here some of the concrete suggestions that were made for new strategies and policies:

o   Prioritising local ownership of human rights;

o   Improving the advocacy for human rights so that their relevance for each community transcends political and cultural resistance;

o   Generating funding to enable integration of human rights standards into other international policy areas;

o   Creating a global fund for national human rights protection systems;

o   Producing an annual index of leaders as both a carrot and stick to encourage better promotion and implementation of human rights standards and legislation and improved compliance with international treaty obligations (further work would be needed to ensure that different abuses can be weighted and categorised to make the index a fair reflection of standards);

o   Supporting the establishment of a global Rule of Law commission, currently being developed in the context of the World Economic Forum, to attain a better integration of national and international justice systems;

o   Improving communication between national departments on human rights;

o   Creating a section within the United Nations Secretariat where countries could come for advice on how to tackle deficiencies in national judicial systems;

o   Improving cross-regional co-cooperation by making good use of existing networks;

o   Connecting the human rights community with the development, humanitarian aid and environmental communities, without subordinating any of them to any other.

These strategies and policies should, above all, be used to reinvigorate Article 1 of the Universal Declaration by making the concept of dignity central to the defence of the international human rights approach.

For most participants this was a rare opportunity to consider the promotion of human rights on the ground in the context of constantly evolving, and often very challenging, political circumstances.  The commitment and expertise of the company assembled were significant assets; and their great variety of experience was inspiring.  Everyone felt it was important to have identified some concrete policies into which this energy could be channelled going forward.  We are immensely grateful to our Chairman for guiding us through this complex set of issues with such insight and wisdom.  We all realised what a huge task still faces us.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

 

PARTICIPANTS
Chair  : HRH Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Al Hussein
Ambassador of Jordan to the USA, Washington DC (2007-).  Formerly:  Permanent Representative to the UN, New York (2000-07);  Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN (1996 2000).

CANADA
Ms Jennifer Lynch QC

Chief Commissioner, Canadian Human Rights Commission, Ottawa (2007-);  Chair, International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions (2007-).

CANADA/UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Professor James Ron

Associate Professor of International Studies, Normal Paterson School of International Affairs;  Member, Canada Council, Human Rights Watch.

COUNCIL OF EUROPE/NETHERLANDS
Dr Jeroen Schokkenbroek

Head, Human Rights Development Department, Council of Europe;  Lecturer in European Human Rights Law in Practice, University of Maastricht.

FRANCE
Dr Patrick Lozès

Founder and President, Representative Council of Black Associations of France (CRAN), Paris.

GERMANY
Mr Hans Günter Nooke

Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid, German Federal Foreign Office, Berlin (2006-).  Formerly:  Member of the German Federal Parliament (1998-2005).

INDIA
Ms Maja Daruwala

Director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi.

KENYA
Reverend Timothy Njoya

Executive Director, Men for the Equality of Men and Women, Karen, Kenya.  Author.

RUSSIA
Ms Maria Lipman

Editor-in-Chief, Pro et Contra Journal, Carnegie Moscow Center;  Commentator on Russian Affairs.  Formerly:  Deputy Editor, two Russian weekly news magazines;  Member, Advisory Council, Committee for the Protection of Journalists.  Author.

SOUTH AFRICA
Dr Pregaluxmi Govender

Deputy Chair, South African Human Rights Commission;  Member, Panel of Eminent Persons, Swiss Initiative to Commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

SWITZERLAND
Ambassador Rudolf Knoblauch

Special Envoy for Human Rights Policy, Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Berne (2007-).  Formerly:  Ambassador of Switzerland to Bulgaria (2004-06), to Nigeria (2001-04).

SWITZERLAND/GUYANA
Professor Dr Bertrand Ramcharan
President, Guyana Institute of Public Policy;  Member, Panel of Eminent Persons, Swiss Initiative to Commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;  Visiting Professor of International Human Rights Law, Lund University, Sweden.
 
SWITZERLAND/UNITED KINGDOM
Professor Andrew Clapham

Professor of International Law, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva;  Director, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights (2007 ).

UNITED KINGDOM
The Rt Hon Baroness D’Souza

Life Peer (Crossbench) and Convenor of the Independent Crossbench Peers, House of Lords.  Formerly:  Redress Trust:  Director (2003-04), Consultant (20004-06);  Executive Director, Article 19 (1989-98).
Ambassador Peter Gooderham
HM Diplomatic Service (1983-);  Ambassador and Permanent Representative, UK Mission to the United Nations and other International Organisations, Geneva (2008-).
Mr Martin Hemming CB
Deputy Legal Adviser, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (2009-).
Ms Susan Hyland
Head, Human Rights and Democracy Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).
Lord Judd
Life Peer, Labour (1991-).  Formerly:  Member, Joint Committee on Human Rights;  Parliamentary Delegate to the Council of Europe and the Western European Union (1997-2005);  Director, Oxfam (1985-91).
Ms Elizabeth Padmore
International Advisor, Board Member and Independent Consultant (2006-);  Trustee, Women for Women International.  A Governor and Member of the Council of Management and the Finance and General Purposes Committee, The Ditchley Foundation.
Mr William Sieghart
Co-Founder and Chairman, Forward Thinking;  Founder, National Poetry Day, the Forward Poetry Prize, The Big Arts Week and Bedtime Reading Week;  Founder, StreetSmart:  Action for the Homeless;  Governor, British Institute of Human Rights;  Chairman, Arts Foundation.
Mr Mark Tran
International news reporter, The Guardian, London.  Formerly:  New York (1990-99);  Washington (1984-90).

UNITED KINGDOM/BULGARIA
Mr Borislav Petranov

Programme Director, Civil and Political Rights, and Deputy Director, The Sigrid Rausing Trust, London.

UNITED KINGDOM/FRANCE
Professor Philippe Sands QC

Professor of Law and Director, Centre on International Courts and Tribunals, University College London (2002-).

UNITED KINGDOM/SOUTH AFRICA
Ms Jess Auerbach

Rhodes Scholar, South at Large and St Antony’s College, Oxford, reading for MSc in Forced Migration (2009).

UNITED KINGDOM/UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Ms Widney Brown

Senior Director, International Law and Policy, International Secretariat of Amnesty International, London.  Formerly:  Deputy Programme Director, Human Rights Watch (2003-06).
Mr Anthony Dworkin
Senior Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations (2008-);  Executive Director, Crimes of War Project (2005-);  Member, Terrorism/Counter-Terrorism Advisory Committee, Human Rights Watch.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Ms Peggy Hicks

Global Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch.  Formerly:  Director, Office of Returns and Communities, UN Mission in Kosovo (2002-04);  Director of Programs, International Human Rights Law Group (1999-2002).
Mr Steven Isenberg
Executive Director, PEN American Center, New York (2009-).  Formerly:  Visiting Professor of Humanities, University of Texas, Austin (2002-09);  Chairman of the Board and President ad interim, Adelphi University (1997-2002).
Mr Tomasz Malinowski
Washington Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch.  Formerly:  Special Assistant to President Bill Clinton;  Senior Director for Foreign Policy Speechwriting, National Security Council.
Ms Elisa Massimino
President and CEO, Human Rights First.  Formerly:  Washington Director (1996-2008), Legal Director (1991-96), Human Rights First;  Adjunct Professor of Law, Georgetown University.
Dr Sarah Mendelson
Director, Human Rights and Security Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) (2007-);  Senior Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program, CSIS (2001-);  Member, Europe/Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch Advisory Committee (2002-).  Author.
Judge Theodor Meron
Appeals Judge (2001-), formerly President (2003-05), International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, The Hague;  Professor of International Law (1977-);  Member, Institute of International Law;  Member, Panel of Eminent Persons, Swiss Initiative on the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Mr Michael Posner
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, US Department of State.  Formerly:  President, Human Rights First.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA/GREECE
Ms Stella Thomas

Executive Director, Global Water Fund;  Consultant to governments, United Nations agencies, international organisation and business and civic groups;  Lecturer.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA/IRAQ
Ms Zainab Salbi
Co-Founder (1993) and CEO, Women for Women International, Washington DC;  Young Global Leader, World Economic Forum;  Member, International Women’s Forum;  Member, Council on Foreign Relations.  Author.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA/IRELAND
Dr Mary Robinson

President, Realizing Rights;  The Ethical Globalization Initiative (2002-).  Formerly:  United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002);  President of Ireland (1990-1997);  Senator, The Irish Senate (1969-1989).

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA/JORDAN 
Mrs Manal Omar

Chief of Party – Iraq, United States Institute of Peace (2008-);  Regional Program Manager for the Middle East, Oxfam (2006-).  Formerly:  Regional Coordinator, Women for Women International (2003 05).

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA/UNITED KINGDOM
Ms Clare Lockhart
Co-Founder and Director, Institute for State Effectiveness, Washington DC (2006-);  Media Commentator, Barrister.  Author.