restricted access A Human Rights Agenda for Global Security
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A Human Rights Agenda for Global Security Irene Khan “Where . . . do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.” —Eleanor Roosevelt ON 19 August 2003 the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was killed in a bomb attack on the United Nations (UN) building in Baghdad. As the world’s most prominent defender of human rights lay dead in the rubble, the world had good cause to ponder how the legitimacy and credibility of the UN could have been eroded to such a fatal degree that it could no longer protect those who served it. Discredited by its perceived vulnerability to pressure from powerful states, bypassed in the Iraq war and marginalized in its aftermath , the UN seemed powerless in the face of attack. It was easy at that moment to wonder whether the events of 2003 had also dealt a mortal blow to the vision of global justice and universal human rights that first inspired the creation of the UN. International human rights are grounded in international law, which in turn is embedded in international institutions. If the UN is undermined, the protection of human rights becomes an even more difficult task. Human rights are often used by governments as a cloak to put on or cast off according to political expediency, and the UN is often powerless cahill.qxp 10/1/2004 1:36 PM Page 15 to render states accountable for their adherence to international law and human rights performance. In the words of Michael Ignatieff: “Human rights treaties, agencies, and instruments multiply and yet the volume and scale of human rights abuses keep pace. In part, this is a problem of success—abuses are now more visible—but it is also a sign of failure . No era has ever been so conscious of the gap between what it practices and what it preaches.” That gap was accentuated in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks as governments geared up to fight “the war against terrorism.” It deepened with the military attacks on Iraq. The drive for global security appeared to be trumping human rights with impunity. Sergio Vieira de Mello was a victim of that security agenda. This chapter identifies the key challenges posed to human rights by the global security agenda. Recognizing that a narrowly focused security agenda has failed to make the world either safe or free, it argues for a paradigm shift in the concept of security. At the center are not the concerns of states but the human rights of people in the quest for a safer, more just world. By virtue of his position as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio was the preeminent advocate for human rights. This chapter concludes by looking at the role of human rights defenders and their role to press on with the struggle for human rights when the international community fails to deliver. SECURITY FOR WHOM? In September 2002 I led an Amnesty International delegation to Burundi, just days after a massacre in which some 174 civilians had been killed by the army in a remote village. There were only four survivors. My colleagues and I went to the local hospital to meet them. One of them was a girl of six, called Claudine. She could not remember her family name, but she recalled in vivid detail the way in which her grandfather, father, stepmother, and two sisters were killed and her baby brother bayoneted to death by soldiers. She had somehow managed to crawl between the legs of the soldiers and escape in the commotion without being noticed. A neighbor found her wounded, naked, and unconscious in the forest, 16 HUMAN SECURITY FOR ALL cahill.qxp 10/1/2004 1:36 PM Page 16 and had brought her to the hospital, but neither the neighbor nor the hospital had the means to buy her any clothes. That is why Claudine, the youngest of the four survivors of a bloody massacre, was still wrapped in a blanket ten days later when we saw her. The next morning in my meeting with President Buyoya, I asked him what action he would take to protect civilians in the conflict. He replied, “Madam...


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