Whether many of us around the globe realize it or not the international human rights system impacts our lives on a daily basis. This system lays the foundations for and promotes legal norms and rights that every human being should have regardless of where they come from in the world and within their own societies. Another way of looking at this is that these international laws and norms are designed to make states responsible and accountable for their actions and inactions within their country and internationally. However, since the implementation of the international human rights system as recent global events has shown us, states are not always held accountable for their actions regardless of what’s mandated by international norms or legal standards or some states are held more accountable than others. I would argue that this impacts the human rights system the most and in order to make the system more effective we must hold all states accountable for their actions and inactions when it comes to human rights violations. I know this discussion about accountability for human rights is a cliché topic that is continuously argued by human rights activist and experts around the world. But the harsh reality is that in 2016, despite all the information we now have access to through various streams of traditional and social media about what goes on around the globe, accountability for human rights is still extremely poor.
Moreover, it is important to note that I don’t believe we necessarily need any more conventions or treaties globally. The various conventions and treaties we have now lay the all foundations we need. We now need states to respect them and live up to their commitments as signatories of the various agreements. This notion seems so simple, doesn’t it? After all human rights is often touted and promoted by some of the most influential countries in the world like the United States and Great Britain. However, when the realities of politics and interest come into play often times the “respect for human rights” discourse that is usually pressed seemingly is abandoned. A great example of this is the U.S. led counterterrorism measures following the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. In the fight against terrorism many innocent people have died and thousands have been stripped of their human rights and denied access to justice. A prime example of this is the continued operation of the U.S.’s Guantanamo Bay Prison in Cuba, where prisoners have been held without charges for over 12 years, not to mention being the subject of human rights violations such as torture and forced disappearances.
Another example from the United States, but from within a domestic context is police brutality. Violence by the police and other law enforcement in the U.S. is at an alarming rate. The most critical part of this violence is that it continues to be seemingly racicalized. The incident that led to the killing of Freddie Gray, an unarmed black male in Baltimore, Maryland caused unrest and outrage internationally this past year. However, sadly and unfortunately Gray’s name is just one of hundreds over the last few years. These incidences have led to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to condemn the U.S’s record on dealing with police brutality and racial disparities in general and have urged that steps be taken for this to change during the U.S.’s Periodic Review. However, this condemnation has led to no major changes or legislation, except conversations about how to monitor police activity instead of conversations about how to retrain police across the country to respect the human and civil rights of all members of society. I know from what I have written thus far that I appear to be tough on the U.S., but as an American citizen I believe that’s my job.
Furthermore, I personally would argue that we have to start holding larger and wealthier states like the United States more accountable for not being more proactive in transforming human rights domestically and preventing them globally, in doing this as Americans, I believe we set a major precedent where our actions for once do in fact echo our core principles and values of freedom and democracy. The United States can’t continue to let lecture Myanmar about how it treats its Rhoinga Muslim population, while maintaining harmful law enforcement practices that operate to the detriment of minorities. It’s simply hypocritical and it’s a double standard. Even through the U.N. CRED gave the U.S. a not so stellar review, what’s the ultimate price or consequence? Myanmar and other states who committed gross human rights violations were and are subject to sanctions for years. Meanwhile, wealthier countries that commit human rights violations domestically and/or internationally never fear such reprisal from the international community. To conceive that the U.S., Britain, or even France be hit with sanctions for how it treats its minorities or for the horrible human rights violations committed in the name of counterterrorism would be considered laughable by many. And it should not be. We must remove this double standard within the international community, so that no state is above the law regardless of influence and wealth.
So now it comes down to the age old question of how to increase accountability for human rights? And my answer is education. Human Rights Education to be exact. Why? Because the more knowledgeable people are about their rights and the rights of others the more they are empowered to act. After all, Nelson Mandela said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. And within the context of human rights accountability, I would argue that this is the only way of making change. Human Rights Education also allows individuals to not only see themselves as a member of a particular society, but as a part of major a greater order and in that greater order him or her matters regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, creed, and sexuality. And not only this, but a Human Rights Education also allows one to see the rights of others as being just as important as protecting our own individual rights.
Above, I mention that human rights accountability empowers people to act, but what exactly does that look like? Acting, I believe encompasses a number of things. And of course this varies from society to society. In my own society, I believe it’s not just protesting or criticizing one’s government, but it also requires people to check their own notions and ideas about who is deserving of rights, voting responsibly, and being involved and active. I understand that in many parts of the world that everyone is not as free to be open and active as I’m in the United States or others in democratic states, however if people know their rights they know that the international community has established norms and laws that protect their voice and that their state as well as other states has a responsibility to allow and protect that voice also. One thing I’ve tried to do in my recent scholarship concerning race and justice in the U.S. has been to connect the struggle here to a much larger international framework, to point out that the struggles for black lives failing to matter isn’t only recognized by activists in the U.S., but also internationally and that there is a human rights system where minorities can and should be heard.
In essence, what I’m arguing is that that human rights accountability can’t solely be based on states checking other states. Citizens have to check their own states for human rights abuses committed both domestically and internationally. In her article in the UN Chronicle, “Establishing Effective Accountability Mechanisms for Human Rights Violations” the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay notes that even where gross violations are well documented, states often require technical advice to determine what combination of law, regulation and policy is best suited to address them. She further explains that while decision makers may benefit from such advice and from knowledge about comparative experiences and lessons learned elsewhere, experience shows that accountability efforts must be nationally owned by the people. People simply can’t take ownership of accountability if they’re not sure what their states are responsible for, supposed to do, and not supposed to do, or even simply what human rights accountability even means.
Lastly, I believe that the more we educate people, the more we are empowering them to not only be vigilant in the face of human rights abuses, but to be Global Citizens. Global Citizenship is a new and emerging idea which holds that instead of recognizing ourselves as being citizens of one particular country, we are citizens of a much larger global community and that what impacts someone on the other end of the globe impacts us as individuals too. Right now the West is in a fierce battle with Islamic Jihadist. Regardless of the Hawkish rhetoric and military campaigns, groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda still thrive. Why? Because the retaliatory violence has only become a recruiting tool for these groups. The only real way to defeat extremism is to show that there is a greater community outside the actions of our governments that does care about the welling being of others over our states’ interests. For instance, one amazing movement that emerged after September 11th was when women American women who had lost their husbands during the War in Afghanistan reached out to assist Afghani women who had also lost their husbands. Despite, the policies of the U.S. government and the realities of the war, these women connected on a human to human level and found hope in compassion through their shared grief. I believe this is what we can do with Human Rights Education too. By bringing educated masses together, who know their rights and stand together, states will have little or no choice but to live up to their responsibilities to protect, defend, and promote human rights.
Pillay, Navanethem. “Establishing Effective Accountability Mechanisms for Human Rights Violations | UN Chronicle.” UN Chronicle. Last modified December 2012. http://unchronicle.un.org/article/establishing-effective-accountability-mechanisms-human-rights-violations/.
Dr. Jared Bell holds a Master of Science Degree from the University of Baltimore’s School of Public and International Affairs in Negotiation and Conflict Management, and a PhD from Nova Southeastern University’s Conflict Analysis and Resolution program with a focus in international peace and conflict. During his doctoral studies, he focused his research on peace, transitional justice, and human rights. For his dissertation, he did a quantitative study on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s draft transitional Justice Strategy and its ability to foster reconciliation amongst the everyday populace. Jared has also studied at the Al Akhawayn University in Infrane, Morocco, the Universities of Groningen and Rijeka’s Summer School in Cres, Croatia on “Transitional Justice and the Politics of Memory”, the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation’s Venice Academy of Human Rights, and the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights studies. Jared has worked with various human rights, peace building, and development projects with a variety of organizations ranging from the United Nations Development Programme to the American Red Cross. He has also written and presented on a number of topics related to international affairs, transitional justice, and human rights. Jared is currently working with The Global Citizens’ initiative’s Country Global Citizen’s Report Card Project where he serves a country analyst for Indonesia, Cuba, and Poland. He is also the author of the forth coming book “Moving Forward: The ABCs of Race and Reconciliation in the United States”.
Cover image ‘UNMISS and Partners Conduct Human Rights Community Awareness Programmme’ by United Nations Photo