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Two Contrasting Paths to Defending Human Rights from Above and Below...

May 22, 2006

Bruce Van Voorhis - Hong Kong

In recent months, two major events have occurred that have implications for the promotion and protection of human rights.

In March, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which activists have criticized for years over its inaction to effectively defend human rights, held its last session. Replacing it is the United Nations Human Rights Council, a result of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s reform initiative a year earlier, that places human rights at the same level as security and development in the U.N. structure. Meanwhile, in April, hundreds of thousands of people in Nepal ignored curfews and shoot-to-kill orders to take to the streets throughout the country to protest against the royal coup of King Gyanendra in February 2005—courageous actions that initially have been successful. In the first example, a new institution at the international level has been established to uphold human rights while in the second example people themselves have exercised their rights in spite of threats to their lives to rebuild a democratic system that they expect will respect their rights instead of repress them.

Both of these developments are cause for the human rights community to celebrate. However, rejoicing must be tempered with some measure of restraint, as these are, first of all, just the initial steps toward change. These reservations are especially appropriate with regards to the new U.N. Human Rights Council with a number of potential pitfalls facing the new body, including concern that the composition of the new council will replicate the membership of the old commission in which countries with poor rights records held seats. Indeed, almost 60 percent of the new council members sat on the recently disbanded commission. Because the new council will review its mechanisms and working methods one year after its first session is held, the composition of the first council is critical as it will affect the ability of the council to address human rights issues throughout the world long after their one- to three-year staggered terms have expired.

While most of the countries in Asia made voluntary pledges to uphold human rights as part of their candidacies for a seat on the council, one must treat these pledges with a degree of skepticism as countries routinely sign and ratify U.N. human rights covenants and conventions and then conveniently ignore them, and these human rights instruments are international treaties. Thus, can these pledges be taken seriously?

More optimism can be generated for what transpired in Nepal in April as people claimed their rights on the streets of the capital and other cities in defiance of the king during weeks of protests initially mobilized by the country’s Seven Party Alliance (SPA) with the support of the Maoists. Over time, the political movement generated by the SPA and Maoists transformed itself into a people’s movement with citizens from all walks of civil society joining the protests for the return of democracy. Their resolve forced the king to reinstate the Parliament he had dissolved in 2002 and to give up the absolute power he had grabbed in his February 2005 coup and hand it to a prime minister and his government. In addition to the immense courage of the Nepali people, what is deeply inspiring is the assertion and affirmation of the people for their rights and the reintroduction of a democratic system. This was largely an instantaneous human rights movement that sprung from the roots of society that would not be denied by the king, the military, the maneuvering of politicians or the threats of the Maoists. They offer a valuable example to others in Asia to follow.

In examining these two developments over the space of approximately six weeks, what separates them and perhaps indicates their success in the future is the self-interest of the participants. In the case of the U.N. Human Rights Council, the participants are governments whose self-interest is ensuring that their human rights record is not examined too closely and, if it is, to obstruct attempts to hold them accountable while preserving in the process their international reputation as much as possible. It is hoped that this tepid appraisal of the new U.N. Human Rights Council is incorrect, that the new members of the council will take their work seriously and do their utmost to ensure that people’s rights are vigorously defended. For the people of Nepal, however, their self-interest is the defense of their rights and the creation of a democratic system. They are thus highly motivated to promote and protect human rights, which, after all, are their rights.

These two examples succinctly illustrate the differences in approaching the preservation of human rights from above and below. Both approaches can be useful and should not be seen as mutually exclusive. However, a movement from below based on the frustration, discontent and anger of the people themselves, as well as their passion and impatience for change, offers a path to defending human rights that cannot easily be deterred. A task for human rights activists is to create and cultivate the space for this path for change to emerge among the people. When this day occurs, there is, indeed, a great cause for celebration!

Bruce Van Voorhis

Bruce Van Voorhis serves as missionary with the Asian Human Rights Commission located in Hong Kong. He serves as a writer and editor with the Commission.

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