Open letter to the global human rights community: Let us rise to article 2 of the ICCPR

Editorial board, article 2

The inauguration of article 2 is an occasion to address the global human rights community on a matter of primary importance: the need to deal with problems of human rights implementation, rather than confining our work merely to the propagating of ideals.

Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the human rights movement has worked hard to spread its gospel. The development of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was a major milestone. Numerous other conventions and declarations have further improved and enhanced the body of human rights principles, and articulated them to the global community. United Nations mechanisms have provided a base for monitoring the observance of rights, not least of all through the establishment of the High Commissioner on Human Rights.

All over the world extensive programmes are now taking place to educate people on human rights. States engage in this work to varying degrees, United Nations agencies facilitate them, and academic institutions participate. The most important education work is done by human rights organisations, predominantly voluntary bodies. As a result, today there exists a vast network of persons and organisations firmly committed to human rights: more than at any other time in the history of humankind.

Yet the actual situation is that human rights continue to be monstrously violated all over the world. The most visible abuses take place where the majority of the world’s population lives: the so-called ‘Third World’, or ‘Underdeveloped World’.

It is time for the global human rights movement to examine why it may not yet be achieving real improvement in the global human rights situation. One factor hindering honest examination is the belief that improvement of knowledge about human rights will by itself end human rights violations. This is a myth based on the corresponding belief that education is itself capable of improving things. In reality human rights can only be implemented through a system of justice. If this system is fundamentally flawed, no amount of knowledge – no amount of repetition of human rights concepts – will by itself correct the defects. Rather, they need to be studied and corrected by practical actions. Hence research and intimate knowledge of micro-level issues must become an integral part of human rights education and related work. This is the key issue in promoting and protecting human rights.

The work of human rights monitoring mechanisms is mainly focused on the correction of individual violations. This approach is inadequate when dealing with systemic breaches. For example, a country may be condemned for acts of torture, mass murder, crimes against humanity and other violations, and a monitoring body may make some recommendations to correct these. However, monitoring bodies have neither the mandate nor capacity to engage in studies on the actual functioning of components within the justice system – the police, prosecutors and judiciary – through which such recommendations have to be achieved. Thus, even if one person or another is punished, the actual system allowing violations remains, and may even get worse.

Another wrongly held belief is that enacting legislation on human rights will by itself result in improvements of rights. Legislation can work only through the mechanisms for administration of justice in each country. If those mechanisms are fundamentally flawed then legislation will remain simply in the books and will be used merely to confuse monitoring bodies into believing that actions have been taken to improve conditions. For example, a constitution may provide for fair trial, however the criminal investigation, prosecution and judicial systems may not have reached a credible standard. Such legislation then only mocks the victims and cynically manipulates monitoring bodies and the international community.

article 2 is being inaugurated to draw global attention to article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and make it a key concern of all partners in the global human rights community. This integral article deals with provision of adequate remedies for human rights violations by legislative, administrative and judicial means. Sadly, article 2 has become the forgotten component of the ICCPR. There is a dearth of relevant international jurisprudence, and hardly any mention of it in the enormous volumes of annual literature on human rights.

There is a reason for this neglect of article 2. In the ‘Developed World’, the existence of basically functioning judicial systems is taken for granted. This does not mean that these systems are perfect; in some instances there may be important challenges to them. However, to assume that these systems exist even minimally in other parts of the world is to ignore reality. A person coming from a ‘developed’ country may have many problems understanding this. We human beings are often prisoners of our own histories: conditions outside our upbringing and experience may be incomprehensible. Even an open-minded person may not have the means to abandon her or his framework for understanding society.

Other difficulties also arise. One is the fear to meddle in the ‘internal affairs’ of other countries. State parties especially can create many obstacles for those trying to go deep down to the roots of problems. Thus, inadequate knowledge of actual situations may be guaranteed by the nature of interactions in the monitoring system itself. A further and quite recent disturbing factor is the portrayal of national human rights institutions and their equivalents as surrogate agencies for dealing with issues related to article 2. Some state parties may agree to new national human rights institutions taking on this role because they know that by doing so they may avoid criticisms of a more fundamental nature.

To overcome these difficulties, human rights movements in different parts of the world should cooperate closely in analysing and solving their respective problems. Cooperation can bring much needed in-depth knowledge of systemic obstacles to human rights implementation. Without cooperation it will not be possible to address some of the key questions facing the global human rights movement today.

After many years of study and work on these issues, the Asian Legal Resource Centre has decided that it is time to ring the alarm bells. We hope that the global human rights community will respond positively to this publication by looking into its own limitations and by trying to improve the human rights situation in different parts of the world. In the meantime, article 2 will lead the call to arms.

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