In 1950, the development and elaboration of a robust global human rights policy framework could not have been anticipated. States did quickly ratify the 1949 Geneva Conventions, but the Genocide Convention that was concluded the same year met resistance in the United States — where a movement was afoot to discourage all international treaties. The future of the two bedrock human rights Covenants was very much in doubt, and treaties on Torture, Disappearances, Women, and Disabilities were not even glimmers in the eye.
Over the next few decades, however, some fundamental dynamics shifted and by 1980 the international policy framework was developing rapidly. International human rights organizations are a central part of that story. As we have recounted, the human rights movement gathered strength in the 1970s, developing strong links with domestic organizations along the way. As human rights organizations grew in number and size, so did the legitimacy of the human rights idea and its legal and normative framework.
By the 1990s, the increasing legitimacy of human rights norms was transforming domestic politics as well as international organizations. International politics today are informed by an imperfect but robust human rights machinery which is particularly pronounced in Europe and Latin America yet global in scope. This global machinery includes several core human rights treaties and treaty bodies; the periodic review process overseen by the UN Human Rights Council, and the emergence and growing legitimacy of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
As conveyed by the content of this website, human rights organizations have been actively involved in promoting the adoption and implementation of human rights standards, and particularly in the early decades, they were often responsible for conceptualizing and identifying issues of emerging concern. The historical process of introducing norms and developing legal and other policy standards has not been linear or uncontested – and there is no reason to believe that future developments will be different. The list of individual issues competing for space on the international agenda is lengthy and subject to animated discussion! Which ideas gain traction and develop normative roots is contingent on a number of factors, including political events and context as well as advocacy efforts by civil society.
To illustrate the kind of issues currently discussed by practitioners and scholars — and perhaps spark interest in further research and advocacy — we have outlined below some human rights policy topics of current concern. Readers who want to follow these and other current discussions may find it useful to consult publications or visit the websites listed at the bottom of the page.
Topics on the Horizon
Below is a sampling of issues currently being discussed among human rights advocates and within the community of scholars who study human rights. The human rights specialists whose personal testimonies animate this cite have offered their own impromptu thoughts about issues on the horizon, and in addition to reviewing the short commentary below, users of this website may want to download their remarks.
Human Rights Violations based on Sexual Orientation and Gender
Sexual orientation and gender rights is an area that has caused great discomfort at the intergovernmental level but also within international human rights organizations. Amnesty International, for example, draws on a worldwide membership. At Amnesty’s 1991 International Council meeting, some of the delegations arrived with strict instructions to vote against the proposed resolution expanding AI’s work on the issue. After extensive discussion including a frank sharing of views among delegations and a lot of education, consensus on a new position was reached. Amnesty’s work on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights has continued to evolve since then.
Significant developments on LGBT rights have occurred in the last few past years at the United Nations. The UN has formally declared that LGBT rights are human rights. On human rights day, in December 2010, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon addressed member states calling on them to universally decriminalize homosexuality, arguing that when there is a tension between cultural attitudes and universal human rights that universal human rights must carry the day. Six months later in June 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council narrowly adopted resolution 17/19 (A/HRC/RES/17/19) – the first United Nations resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity. The resolution expressed “grave concern” at violence and discrimination against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender. In December 2011, Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued the first ever UN report on the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT) followed by a second report, Born Free and Equal: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Human Rights Law, a year later. Despite these advances at the United Nations, homosexuality remains a crime in more than 70 countries and punishable by death in some. For this reason, the UN Human Rights Office has launched a series of public service announcements, like The Riddle, to try to affect normative change.
Culturally Contested Human Rights
Given the rapid expansion of the normative human rights regime over the past few decades, it is not surprising there has been some pushback about the global and universal nature of human rights. In the early 1990s the critique of universal human rights was framed in terms of cultural relativism, sometimes centered on the notion of unique, and exceptional, Asian values. Arguments about cultural relativism were rebutted by advocates and scholars alike, who frequently pointed out that protests were disingenuous, arising from authoritarian leaders and others with vested interests in suppressing popular demands that rights be respected. In the contemporary moment, sensibilities remain but have taken a somewhat different form. From 2006-2011 the Organization of Islamic Cooperation tried to rally international support for a ban on speech denigrating religion, though in 2012 it scaled back to a less tendentious call for governments to prosecute hate crimes. At the same time, a coalition of governments and the Holy See were successful in efforts to remove reference to women’s reproductive rights from the outcome document of the 2012 Rio + 20 meeting. The US retreat from the legal prohibition against torture from 2004-2008 has arguably opened the door to exceptionalist rhetoric from other states and raised questions about the trajectory of normative development of human rights standards.
In one sense, contemporary concerns and arguments about the fit between universal standards and particular cultures are just the latest version of some longstanding tensions. The mid-twentieth century debate over economic and social rights that resulted in a split in the Covenants, for example, was directly related to differences in political culture. The current debates raise somewhat different questions, though, largely because they arise in the context of globalization and relate to cultural tensions within societies as well as between them. In our 2010 conference, Ken Roth challenged practitioners to address cultural concerns more directly, noting,“it might be interesting to look at how the movement has dealt with the rights that are most culturally contested. What I have in mind are women’s rights, sexual rights, and religious freedom. Those are three areas where at least at the cultural level you don’t get buy-in the way you do with many of the other rights that we have discussed. [Buy-in] requires innovation and strategies for promoting these rights in the areas where they are most contested.”
Security and Human Rights
Human rights advocates currently face a dilemma: how to treat in a balanced and measured way their traditional defense of individual liberties, physical integrity and due process, on one hand, and the legitimate responsibility of governments to meet the challenges of terrorism and prevent attacks against civilians by armed non-state actors, on the other.
Historically, human rights advocates and organizations have sought to protect individuals from the excesses of national security doctrines. In the name of national security, states have committed serious human rights violations including unlawful and secret detention, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killing, torture and extraordinary rendition, among others. Indeed, the human rights movement was shaped in large part in response to the national security doctrines that informed the dirty wars in the southern cone of Latin America in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Yet in the aftermath of large-scale terrorist attacks like the September 11 attack against the United States, it has become clear that individuals are no less concerned about security than their human rights. And indeed, security of person is one of the rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Terrorism and the deliberate targeting of civilians for attack in all its forms is a serious violation of international human rights and international humanitarian law and can amount to crimes against humanity. The challenge for human rights organizations, according to Jose Zalaquett, is to think seriously about how to protect security and human rights at the same time. He argues, “We need to focus on the issue of security. Security has been a bad word for the human rights movement because it is in the name of national security that so many atrocities have been committed. Yet decent people, who are our base of support value security, and if human rights isn’t about peace in the streets and security at home, they don’t know what it’s about. We need to be able to articulate these concerns. This issue of how to approach security concerns from a human rights standpoint has not been properly addressed.”
The broad concern about security and human rights relates to many contemporary issues, including, for example, surveillance, the use of drones, indefinite detention, and the accountability of private security companies and has clearly drawn the attention of both international human rights organizations and UN bodies. The UN Human Rights Council, for example, has appointed a Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism and has named a Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination. Human rights organizations have likewise taken up these issues, often in collaboration as in this recent joint letter to the President Obama on drone strikes and targeted killings.
International human rights groups have worked alongside American civil liberties organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights to wrestle with issues related to rights and due process, and Human Rights First has initiated a program to establish accountability and oversight for private security and other contractors in conflict zones, including a set of voluntary principles and proposals for an oversight mechanism. Following release of a report by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions regarding lethal autonomous robotics, a coalition of human rights organizations in April 2013 launched a campaign against what they are calling “killer robots,” and in conjunction with that effort Human Rights Watch has issued a critique of US policy.
Freedom of Internet Speech
Few rights are more central to the modern human rights framework than freedom of expression, yet the rise and spread of internet technology has raised new questions about the clarity and sufficiency of international standards. Several issues come together in contemporary discussions about freedom of expression in the digital age, which has opened new possibilities for expressions but also new possibilities for surveillance and repression. The right to privacy and free expression is one matter of pressing concern for human rights organizations. Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch, for example, support a multi-stakeholder initiative known as the Global Network Initiative, which is intended to help information and telecommunications companies resist governments’ pressure to enact policies that violate users’ freedom of expression and privacy. Recent revelations about a secret US surveillance program has only heightened awareness of this issue.
The right to unobstructed access to both internet content and internet infrastructure is a second broad area of concern. In two companion reports submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Protection and Promotion of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression reminded states that even in the absence of a recognized “right to internet access,” they have a positive obligation to create an enabling environment for all individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression. “Unlike any other medium,” he wrote, “the Internet enables individuals to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds instantaneously and inexpensively across national borders. By vastly expanding the capacity of individuals to enjoy their right to freedom of opinion and expression, which is an “enabler” of other human rights, the Internet boosts economic, social and political development, and contributes to the progress of humankind as a whole.” The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has recently released a set of principles on the right to information.
If the internet has opened up new possibilities for enjoying the right of expression, it has also created new possibilities for the proliferation of hate speech. The same technology that permits enhanced exchange of information to improve human experience can be used to stigmatize groups and feed hostility – with rapid speed and wide reach. Incitement to hatred and violence is not protected under the framework of international human rights law, but the challenge is to distinguish speech that is intended to harm from speech that which is merely critical. There is reason for concern that domestic laws purporting to combat hate speech are rather used to suppress the voice of political opponents, including on-line bloggers. As was discovered in a series of regional meetings organized by the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights in 2012, legal definitions and thresholds vary considerably around the world.
Social Media and Human Rights Reporting
In a few short years, social media has become a mainstay of social and political activity. Participatory, web 2.0 technology was quickly adapted to human rights campaigning, and activists today are regularly urged to email, tweet or paste their messages on Facebook to spread the word and capture attention of policy makers – who reportedly pay attention when the number of messages has crossed some threshold. If social media has become a commonplace means to mobilize support, though, the potential contribution of participatory technology at the front end of human rights advocacy work – research and reporting – is less obvious, less recognized, and surely under-utilized.
Data collection via participatory media holds great potential for human rights reporting, with the promise of compelling, real-time footage that can be rapidly disseminated. It can also be important for post hoc documentation and verification. Following a massacre that ended a political rally in Guinea’s Conakry Stadium in 2009, for example, Amnesty International was able to use video footage shot with the camera phones of witnesses and survivors to document the atrocities, ascertain the identity of some victims, and dispute the claims of government authorities. Ultimately, the quality of documentation assembled by domestic and international human rights organizations and a UN Commission of Inquiry has led to several indictments in 2013, including charges against the minister for presidential security.
Social media is a powerful tool in human rights research but it also carries some inherent limitations that pose significant challenges to organizations that have built their reputation on careful and credible reporting. Widely available editing software creates potential for tampering with evidence, while expectations from the public and from policy makers about real-time reporting create pressures that may reduce the space for careful corroboration and contextualized investigation. Impromptu video recordings may also put protesters and others who are being filmed at risk. With its mantra “See it, film it, change it,” the non-governmental organization Witness has been helping human rights defenders video-record abuse for some 25 years. In 2011 it inaugurated a “Cameras Everywhere Leadership Initiative” to help human rights advocates use participatory video technology in ways that are effective, safe and ethical. In conjunction with this project it has promoted the use of blurring software, for example, and techniques that enhance authentication. Its work in this area points up the delicate balance to be struck between exposing abusers and protecting victims from further harm.
Information about these developing issues and other contemporary international human rights concerns can be found on the webpages of the following organizations and policy centers, and in scholarly publications.
International Human Rights Advocacy Organizations
- Amnesty International
- Human Rights Watch
- Human Rights First
- International Commission of Jurists
- Fédération International des Droits de l’Homme
- Physicians for Human Rights
- Human Rights Education Associates
Policy Centers with Focus on Human Rights
- Archive of the International Council on Human Rights Policy, Geneva. (Note: The Council was closed in 2012, but its papers are archived on a permanent website.)
- Reports by UN Human Rights Thematic Rapporteurs (Note: UN Human Rights Rapporteurs are independent human rights experts mandated to report on a specific topic. While they do not in any formal sense comprise a “policy center,” their reports are often used to inform or interpret standards and policy.)
- The work of nine independent human rights Treaty Bodies, established to monitor and implement provisions of specific treaties such as the ICCPR, ICESCR, CAT, etc. Committee Comments are generally considered authoritative interpretations of treaty provisions.
See, for example, the 35 General Comments issued by the ICCPR’s Human Rights Committee on topics such as Freedom of Movement [Comment 27] and Non-Discrimination [Comment 18].)
- Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University.
- Center for Human Rights, American Bar Association
- Freedom House
Academic Journals on Human Rights
- Human Rights Quarterly
- Human Rights Review
- International Journal of Human Rights
- Journal of Human Rights
- Journal of Human Rights Practice
- Human Rights Law Review
Collections of Human Rights Instruments
- UN Treaty Collection. Human rights treaties are in Chapter IV of the full catalog of UN treaties; related treaties (such as those pertaining to refugees, trafficking, and the International Criminal Court) may be located in other chapters.
- United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights
- University of Minnesota Human Rights Library
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