By Grahame Russell
World War Two, the international human rights community has played an important
role to popularize the notion that all people have rights. Yet,
if this "international human rights community" does not broaden its
analysis and advocacy work to employ an 'all rights guaranteed – all actors
accountable' framework, it may actually contribute to the perpetuation of
poverty and social injustice on a global scale (poverty and social injustice
understood as systemic and systematic violations of over-lapping political,
social, civil, cultural and economic rights) and to the impunity with which a
host of "state," "inter-state" and "non-state"
actors act, violating the rights of individuals and peoples worldwide,
particularly, but not exclusively, in the South.
the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and
subsequent Covenants in 1968,(2) and particularly since the 1970s -- and the
formation of tens of thousands of solidarity and community human rights
organizations worldwide --, the notion of "human rights" has made
important contributions to struggles to address and remedy profound injustices,
both within and between nations.
victims of poverty and repression -- imposed by the actions and policies of
governments, inter-governmental institutions, private military forces and a
range of economic actors -- refuse to accept the suffering caused by these
entities. Basing themselves in
their own sense of dignity, and making allies with those who believe that all
humans have inherent rights that should never be violated, they educate,
organize and empower themselves to fight back.
rights -- both as concepts which help us to understand human beings and
communities, and as a set of legal norms rooted in the rule of law -- can and
should be an important tool for analyzing and remedying abuses of power,
regardless of whether these abuses are committed at the local, national or
international levels; regardless of whether the abuses are committed by
governments, inter-governmental bodies (World Bank, International Monetary Fund,
World Trade Organization, etc), or private actors (corporations, banks,
investment funds, etc).
with respect to the interpretation of human rights, there is a large gap between
the work of tens of thousands of grassroots, rural and urban human rights
groups, on the one hand, and the "international human rights
community", on the other. The
latter is guided by a narrower notion of which rights are to be promoted,
guaranteed and protected, and which actors are to be held accountable for their
actions that violate the rights of individuals and communities, both in the home
country of the actor and, more often, in other (primarily Southern) countries.
the most part, inter-governmental institutions (such as the United Nations -UN-
and the Organization of American States -OAS-) along with well-known NGOs (such
as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch) have focused attention on
certain political and civil rights ("PC rights"), and have argued that
the only actor that can be held accountable for rights violations is the
government of the particular countries in which the selected PC rights were
The problems with this narrow interpretation lie not so much in the actual work that traditional human rights institutions have done. Indeed they have established important investigative and reporting standards and their work has been extremely important in many different struggles. Rather, the problems lie in which rights violations they have chosen to investigate and report on and in which actors they have chosen to identify as responsible for violations.
assassinated by a death squad, or living illegally detained in abusive
conditions, are matters of human rights concern, possible legal remedy and
attention from the "international community".
Being killed by malnutrition or preventable diseases, or living in
conditions beneath human dignity (i.e., numerous, overlapping rights
violations), are not matters of human rights concern, possible legal remedy or
sustained attention from the "international community".
is wrong and unacceptable. Annually,
more people are killed due to systemic and systematic violations of overlapping
political, social and economic rights than by violations brought by wars,
repressive governments and armed movements, i.e., those PC rights violations
which have received most traditional attention.
human rights work has also narrowly defined which actors can or should be held
accountable for rights violations. Problems
with this narrow interpretation were manifested during the 1980s, when certain
human rights groups identified the Nicaraguan government as the only actor
responsible for PC rights violations during the war with the
"Contras." These groups
did not name the Contras and, more importantly, the United States as violators
of PC rights in Nicaragua. While
the Nicaraguan government did violate certain PC rights, violations committed by
the United States government, both on its own and via the Contras, were greater
in number and more brutal in nature.
focusing attention on the Nicaraguan government, the international human rights
community [US State Department Human Rights Reports were particularly
manipulative in this regard] contributed directly to the impunity of another
major actor, the US.
impunity of other actors is also manifest when analyzing the
Adjustment Programs -SAPs-, forced on many Southern countries by the
International Monetary Fund and World Bank since the early 1980s, have reduced
the role of governments with respect to guaranteeing and protecting rights to
health, education, housing, a healthy environment, basic work standards, etc.
At the same time, the SAPs have promoted and strengthened an economic
model that has increased levels of poverty at the same time that wealth has been
increasingly concentrated in the hands of minority sectors.
attention has been focused on the WTO (World Trade Organization), an
inter-governmental actor that -- with the weight of northern wealthy nations
behind it -- wields huge amounts of real power, impacting direct and indirectly
on the rights of people worldwide. While international economic actors --
companies, banks, funds – work together with the powerful governments to use
the WTO to guarantee and protect "corporate rights" to engage in any
type of economic activity, relatively unfettered worldwide, these same
governments and economic actors are working hard to ensure that they not be held
accountable -- nationally or internationally -- to established environmental and
human rights standards.
effect, these other actors act with impunity, unaccountable for their actions
that threaten the basic dignity as well as survival of people throughout the
circle of poverty and repression Worldwide, people and communities face the
daily reality that if they quietly accept exploitation and misery, their living
conditions will not be a human rights issue, nor provoke any legal action in
their favor. But if they struggle for social justice, if they organize and
advocate for their rights, and if, as is often the case, governments and certain
private actors use repression against them and their organizations,
"human rights" work might kick in!
is long overdue for solidarity and community human rights
Feel free to reproduce, copy and distribute this article, citing and providing
contact information for the author.
Russell, an international human rights lawyer and
to Aaron Pollack (Rosaron@iol.it) for his
contributions to this article.
(2) International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.