It’s Not Enough to Proclaim Human Rights: We Must Enforce Them and Compel Action

 NLG Attends IADL Conference on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Thomas Cincotta, Paris, 11-12 December 2008

On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, progressive lawyers from around the world met in Paris to reflect on the current state of human rights and the challenges that lay before us to achieving peace and development.

More than twenty-five nations were represented at the conference, with attorneys from Bolivia, Finland, Belgium, Vietnam, Yemen, Cuba, Russia, Cameroon, Syria, Mali, Lebanon, Philippines, Haiti, France, India, Italy, Iraq, and Tunisia among the presenters.

The speakers emphasized the tremendous obstacles to peace and human rights, as well as the practical ways in which lawyers are using international legal instruments to promote accountability and justice.

To be sure, attending a conference of the IADL is not for the faint hearted. Hearing first-hand accounts of deplorable human rights conditions not only informs in a way that academic learning cannot, but also agitates and generates a sense of responsibility to act, particularly when one is aware of the U.S. role in creating these conditions and purposely suppressing social movements that attempt to create a better existence. Human Rights Indivisible Several presentations centered on the indivisibility and inseparability of all human rights. Economic, social, and cultural rights are inextricably intertwined with civil and political rights. The civil and political rights stressed by Western states are meaningless without a corresponding dedication to upholding the rights to peace, development, and a healthy environment.

Because human rights are universal, the response and the struggle must be universal.

Participants at the conference reported on the practices and situations in their home countries that violate human rights. At times, the picture painted by these reports was extremely bleak and disturbing. For example, a representative from Cameroon stressed, “If we can’t eat at least twice a day, I believe human rights action does not make sense to us in Africa. If you haven’t eaten in two days, human rights don’t mean anything to you.”

Reports from Latin America were no more promising. Latin American economies have hit “rock bottom,” according to one speaker, since the collapse of the global financial systems instituted at Bretton Woods. And you have widespread suppression of social movements in places like Columbia and Haiti. Elsewhere, the judiciary and legal profession are under attack, as in the Philippines where more than thirty “ordinary” lawyers have been assassinated since 2001.

Despite the fact that many countries signed the Declaration and ratified the initial conventions for Civil & Political Rights, and Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, they have fallen short in implementing and abiding by their obligations. Covenants implementing the Declaration were signed by many states, but not enacted. Acts ratifying the conventions also included unacceptable “reservations.” Rulers ratified treaties thinking they did not have to follow them. In the ultimate understatement, a law student from Mali remarked, “Perhaps the rules are inconvenient for certain states.” Fabio Marcelli, Deputy Secretary General of the IADL stated, “There is a paradox. Millions of words are being spoken about the UDHR this week, but violations are worldwide and widespread. One hundred forty million people live hungry.” Now, it is up to us to enforce the treaties. Expand the Human Rights Framework In addition to challenging the impunity of state actors for human rights violations and strength institutions like the international court, the conference emphasized the need to expand international law to include protections for Migrants and the Rights of Peoples.

For instance, Hadiel from Belgium Progress Lawyers spoke on the rights to work and mobility provided in Articles 13 and 33 of the Declaration. The 1990 Migrant Convention that entered into force in 2003 provides very broad protections for migrants and their families, documented or not. Its scope is large, both temporally and personally, as it protects those who “are, have been, or will be engaged” in work thereby covering the preparation period, during work, and return to the country of origin. However, only thirty-nine states have ratified the Migrant Convention, in contrast to the 193 countries who ratified the convention on children. None of the western states have ratified this convention. Four arguments against ratification are easily rebutted. Opponents to ratification claim that the convention is superfluous. However, national laws do not cover all protections. Second, opponents claim compliance will cost too much. On the one hand, this contradicts the first argument, but further, lower-developed nations have signed the convention in spite of alleged costs. Next, opponents claim it leads to an open migration policy. However, nothing addresses immigration laws (see Article 79). Lastly, opponents argue that the convention would attract migrant workers, but Article 35 of the convention expressly states that none of its provisions can imply a regularization of migrant workers. Belgium Progress Lawyers urges members to build support for ratification of this convention around the world.

A proposal was made for a convention on the Rights of Peoples that would define peoples’ rights to self-determination. The Lebanese proposal for such a convention will be posted on the Guild’s International website. Education Key to Promote the Right to Peace Unfortunately, the world has separated rather than united since the UDHR was signed. Weapons of mass destruction have proliferated and war against peaceful civilians has become commonplace. We are on the eve of a new arms race that could put humanity again on the edge of extinction. And rather than face ecological, water, and other challenges, states build weaponry.

Several speakers emphasized the need to disseminate and publicize the protections guaranteed by the Declaration. The Right to Peace should be popularized like “Green” items are popularized by the environmental movement. Groups like Progress Lawyers of France have started schools dedicated to teaching nonviolence and studying the conditions for peace. Jun, from Japan, informed us that in Costa Rica, classrooms have posters imprinted with the provisions of the Declaration as well as the Inter-American Declaration signed in 1945. Moving Forward Many strategies for moving forward were proposed during the conference. Several of the papers presented can be found at the IADL’s website,

The Guild’s Jeanne Mirer (also Secretary General of the IADL) discussed the concrete litigation work of the ICLR in bringing labor cases before international bodies to gain publicity and leverage in local campaigns.

It would be impossible to summarize the presentations of all fifty speakers at this short, but meaningful, conference. Other strategies included: 1) promoting the right to peace like we promote the environment, 2) drawing on all available international law documents to make our cases (ie., the UN Programme for Development for 1994 which based security not on weapons but development; the 1986 Resolution on Human Development; and the rich language of the Preamble to the UN Charter), 3) putting legal observers on the ground all around the world to protect social movements by witnessing and deterring violations, 4) taking on the tremendous issue of foreign debt by developing new rules for the international economy, seeking international court consultative opinions on debt issues, and encouraging indebted countries to question the legitimacy of debt.

In all, the conference provided a global outlook on the UDHR that was timely and practical. It provided the urgent sense that action by ALL lawyers is essential. In the words of Romania’s former Minister of Justice, “We are all human rights lawyers. Whether you do, criminal defense, civil law, you are a human rights lawyer.” And we would all benefit from studying the instruments of international law to breathe greater life into documents like the UDHR in the hopes that their ideals will take root in our courts and institutions.

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