Human Rights Day 2013

A critical reflection

65 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Every year on 10 December the International Human Rights Day is celebrated all around the world  to  commemorate the day the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaiming its principles as the “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” In 2013 the day was of special significance as it ended the year-long commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). An engaging day-long event was held at the Palais des Nations in Geneva under the title 20 years: working for your rights. In the middle of celebrations GICJ however also saw the need for a moment of critical reflection, not only on the achievements, but also on the failures of the past decades and find ways to transform the outcomes of this reflection into positive initiatives.

The events organised by the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights featured a series of conversations on a variety of human rights issues. GICJ attended these celebrations and actively engaged in the discussions. At the same time GICJ considered it its duty and responsibility to also raise the question of whether or not the global human rights situation has really improved. According to its motto not only to reflect on the achievements, but also on the failures of the past decades, GICJ issued a written statement in several languages at the occasion of the Human Rights Day, in which it addressed the major shortcomings of the UN over the past decades such as in Rwanda, Palestine, Iraq and Syria. The same concerns were additionally raised in a TV interview given by GICJ and also reflected in GICJ's intervention during the discussions held at the United Nations.

Multilingual Statement by GICJ

Too Little Progress,

Too Much Regress!

GENEVA, 10 December 2013

The International Human Rights Day is celebrated annually across the world to commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and mark the achievements in the realisation of the comprehensive international framework for the protection of human rights. In the middle of expectable courtesy speeches and congratulatory ceremonies, there is a need for a moment of critical reflection not only on the achievements but also on the failures of the past decades as well as finding ways to transform the outcomes of this reflection into positive initiatives.

Acknowledging the accomplishments of the UN, its agencies and mechanisms, Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) finds that the general human rights situation has deteriorated during the last decades. The world has already witnessed and we continue to observe the numerous warning signs of regress in respect for human rights. Some of the worst cases described below represent the deep wounds and the unforgettable scars of humanity.

The immense failure of the UN to prevent genocide in Rwanda is one of the demonstrative examples. Over the course of 100 days in 1994, an estimated 800,000 to 1 million Tutsis and some moderate Hutus were slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide. The report of the Association des Etudiants Réscapes du Génocide has estimated the number to be close to 2 million.  The UN ignored the early warnings of the Rwandan genocide, perceived it as ‘a civil war’ and failed to intervene on time. Moreover, the UN Security Council ordered the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda to leave Rwanda. Were the Rwandan lives not worth saving at the risk of the UN troops? Would the world expect such an omission from a system functioning for decades by then? Despite the UN admitting ‘the terrible mistakes and errors of judgement’ , it was an inexcusably high price paid for a lesson learned.

The situation in Palestine continuously deteriorates with an increase of serious systematic and widespread human rights violations. The Palestinians continue to experience the infringement of right to life, freedom of movement, return to the place of origin as well as the legalized discrimination by Israel government, the demolitions of Palestinian homes and internal displacement, Israeli abuse of water resources and the deplorable conditions of prisoners including the arbitrary arrests of minors. Moreover, the Israel's settlement policy infringes on the right of the Palestinian people to achieve self-determination — a right which has been guaranteed them by international law, the UN Charter and various other international agreements. The UN issued the uncountable reports on the Israeli war crimes and human rights violations. It is time for the UN to move from words to action and send a clear sign to Israel that it can no longer violate human rights with impunity.

The UN made horrific mistakes in its decisions and actions concerning sanctions. The economic sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council on Iraq in 1990 resulted in the death of 1,5 million Iraqi, out of which half million were children and “some would go as far as to marking charge of genocide.”  As Mr Hans Von Sponeck, the UN Assistant Secretary-General and UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq at that time stated that the sanctions imposed on civilian population of Iraq for eleven years ‘were faulty punitive measures and represented clear violations of international law.’  The UN failed to take necessary measures to elevate the impact on the population and allowed this catastrophic result to take place.

Moreover, the UN utterly discredited itself in relation to the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. The current structure of the UN system was handicapped to avert the illegal invasion on false grounds and to prevent mass atrocities despite the opposition of a number of its members. The war launched by the US and its allies against Iraq was a clear act of aggression that violated international law, including the breaching of the UN Charter and multiple violations of the Geneva and Hague Conventions.  Nevertheless, the United Nations did nothing to stop the invasion and the occupation. Moreover, the UN did not renew the post of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iraq, thus downplaying the attention paid to Iraq and undermining the need to address the human rights catastrophe. As Mr. Migul D’Escoto Brockmann, President of the UN General Assembly (2009) put it rightly “It is ironic that for almost 20 years before the U.S led invasion and occupation, there was a Special Rapporteur on Iraq. Yet precisely when the largest human catastrophe on earth began to unfold in Iraq in 2003, this post was eliminated.”  Until this day, the UN failed to ensure accountability for gross breaches of the international law by bringing the perpetrators to justice and enforcing the right of the victims to remedy, including reparation and compensation.

On a similar note, the UN failed to prevent the humanitarian crisis in Syria, which yet again results in grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols. It is not enough that the UN admitted the responsibility of the organisation for “collective failure to prevent atrocity crimes in Syria over the past two and a half years” and that “it will remain a heavy burden on the standing of the United Nations and its member states.”  Perhaps, it is time to undertake an effective action to correct yet another mistake and stop abuses?

The global impact and the consequences of the so-called “War on Terror” could not be omitted from the discussion on the regress of human rights situation in the world. The disregard for human rights safeguards including torture, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and illegal interrogations techniques, unfair trials, use of drones are unacceptable tools in fight against terrorism. The UN must take a firm action against these violations masked under the name of ‘war on terror’ and bring all those responsible to justice. The UN should ensure that counter-terrorism activities and measures undertaken by all states without any exception are conducted within the rule of law and human rights framework as well as in compliance with the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, Plan of Action and international conventions. Those states that did not ratify the relevant universal legal instruments should be encouraged to do so and should bring their domestic legislation into compliance with the international standards.

In addition to that, the deepening global financial and economic crisis contribute to the negative effect on human rights enforcement. Whilst the humanity is fighting against poverty, diseases and illiteracy around the world, some states spend billions on weapons and wars. Is it not ironic?

GICJ believes that the worsening of the human rights situation on the ground could possibly be explained by several reasons. Namely, the failure of tackling the root-cause of problems but rather focusing on short-term solutions, the applied double standards in ensuring accountability focus on the alleged perpetrators from the third world countries as in the cases brought before the International Criminal Court. This reminds that human rights agenda is often used as a tool for political interference rather than represents a genuine interest in the advancement of human rights. Some states speak very loudly about democracy, rule of law and human rights, and at the same time they commit massive atrocities and gross human rights violations. In some cases, the UN policies and actions fail to take into account the regional specifics and disregard the cooperation with the regional human rights organisations. The absence of realistic assessment and follow-up on the implementation of the UN Resolutions undermines the efficiency of the UN actions. Lastly, many countries fall short of productive cooperation with the UN and its specialised mechanisms.

In visioning the coming future, it is essential to undertake a genuine effort to explore all possible solutions to address the deterioration and advance the actual realisation of human rights. Namely, the root-causes of problems should be thoroughly examined, especially in the cases of widespread and systematic violations of the international humanitarian and human rights law. Particular attention should be paid to the impacts of illegal military interventions and occupations. Such issues as racism, discrimination and perceptions of marginalisation should not be disregarded. All states should be treated on equal footing in terms of prevention of massive human rights abuses and fighting impunity. A mechanism of transparent evaluation of the UN Resolutions and effective respective follow-up on the situation should be developed and should not exclude any state. All should improve the cooperation and coordination with the UN mechanisms. “We could and should reconvert the UN into the ‘house of dialogue’ and not maintain it as the ‘house of confrontation.”

In the spirit of solidarity, GICJ reaffirms its dedication to human rights promotion. GICJ will continue documenting human rights violations and seeking justice for all victims through all means available.

Read the statement in  Arabic, English, FrenchGerman Russian


TV interview with Russia Today

Julia Aufderklamm, human rights researcher at Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ), gave an interview with Salam Musafer from Russian television Russia Today (RT). In celebration of the Human Rights Day on 10th of December, she spoke about the importance of the international protection of human rights and how within the last two decades, failures and flaws in the human rights mechanisms have led to regress in the protection of these fundamental rights. In the interview she highlighted some of these issues published by GICJ in its statement aimed at educating the public and take a stand for its work in protecting and promoting human rights. Below some points raised in the interview.

The significance of the Human Rights Day for the international community

The importance of this date lies in the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10th of December, 1948. It was the first document setting out detailed human rights obligations for states and introduced these fundamental rights as an important component of the United Nations system. Besides acknowledging the significance of the work of the High Commissioner in the promotion and protection of human rights there is also the necessity to reflect on the past 2 decades and the actual implementation of the United Nation’s promises. The latest failures of the international community and individual states to protect human rights must be understood and it is important to admit these mistakes in order to improve and develop the current human rights system further.

The case of Rwanda

The genocide of Rwanda in 1994 serves as a textbook example on the grave failure of the UN to prevent horrendous atrocities. Over 800 000 people were slaughtered within only a 100 day period. The UN persistently ignored the early warnings of the Rwandan genocide, perceived it as ‘a civil war’ and failed to intervene on time. Moreover, the UN Security Council ordered the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda to leave Rwanda and ignore the cries for help.

The question of Palestine

Palestine is another further fiasco of non-implemented UN resolutions and of great concern to the work of GICJ. Until today, Israel persistently violates Palestinian human rights. They continue to suffer under occupation while the UN remains passive in implementing its resolutions effectively. Since 1947, the UN has adopted hundreds of resolutions on the occupation and the resulting human rights issues such as restriction of movement for Palestinian people, the illegal settlements and the constant political, legal and social discrimination of Arabs in Israel and the Occupied Territories. However no Chapter 7 Resolution was ever passed on by the UN Security Council as it was in the case of Iraq. The wide suffering still exists as a result of the UN’s lack to take appropriate action to protect human rights.

The conflict of Syria

The United Nations has failed to address the issue effectively and to pressure all parties to halt the fatal atrocities and human rights violations. Their lack of engagement in diplomatic negotiations, in finding a peaceful plan to solve the conflict and the lack of clear actions to prevent the supply of weapons to all parties of the conflict are a major of point of criticism. Force and military intervention can only be a last resort solution and the focus of the UN and nation states should be on negotiations and peaceful means to prevent further human rights violations. As the example of Libya shows, the use of force does not solve a conflict and harms the human rights situation rather than improve it. This can be also noticed in the war against Iraq, which destroyed the countries’ entire infrastructure. Until today the vast destruction of educational institutions, basic health services, roads and access to clean water is not sufficiently recognised by the international community.

What the international community can do to prevent human rights violations

The matter of impunity and whether or not the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is really taken seriously by superpowers, such as the US, needs to be critically evaluated. Since some few superpowers hold the veto right in the UN Security Council, it is difficult to pass on resolutions that go against their national interest. Additionally, the US is not a signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as well as the International Court of Justice and can therefore not be held accountable for most of its violations of international law. This leads to frustration of non-superpowers and their rejection of complying with human rights standards as the example of the US reveals continuing impunity for superpowers in cases of human rights and humanitarian law violations. No consequences were taken to punish the invading and occupying forces and no resolutions passed to prosecute them for war crimes. GICJ believes that the UN should pressure states more into complying with human rights standards and make superpowers responsible for their violations of human rights law.

The invasion of Iraq as a major failure of the UN

It is to stress that even before the invasion of Iraq, the UN sanctions in the 1990s already created severe humanitarian concerns. No clean water supply, extreme poverty and health issues were just some of the human rights violations as results of the UN’s resolutions. Since the invasion, which was in itself a breach of the UN Charter, these violations have terrifyingly increased, as she further points out, with arbitrary arrests, torture and executions as part of the everyday agenda of the Iraqi government in the name of combating terrorism. GICJ considers the invasion of Iraq as one of the major failure of the UN.

Military interventions are no appropriate measures to resolve conflicts

The use of force should always be a last resort. Military interventions remain a highly controversial issue, which however GICJ rejects by all means. GICJ assures its stance against illegal military intervention and the importance of respect for international humanitarian law and human rights law. In the case of Libya, it was demonstrated how military intervention can destroy more than it can help. On the other hand, the case of the Syrian conflict revealed how the lack of peaceful negotiations additionally results in grave breaches of human rights.

Iraq and the question of democracy after 2003

A democracy is more than just ballot boxes, democracy is more than just a multiparty system. Democracy is a whole package of a government which welcomes voices of the population, which protects its population and most importantly respects its population’s human rights. The claim of the Iraqi government to be a democracy is nothing more than a claim. The violations committed by the Iraqi government are contrary to any form of real democracy. In the Al-Hawija protests for example in April 2013, disproportionate violence was used against demonstrators, over 400 people were arrested, around 180 wounded during the military raids and around 50 people killed. Security forces fired on unarmed protesters and the Iraqi government equated protesters with terrorists. Furthermore, the official campaign Thàr al Shuhada gives the Iraqi government a legal excuse to arrest, prosecute within a highly flawed judicial system, torture and execute people that speak out against the regime’s politics. The right to freedom of assembly, freedom of opinion, freedom from arbitrary arrests and detention, freedom from torture and the right to a fair trial are cornerstones of a democratic society, which are continuously disrespected by the Iraqi government.

Anti-terrorism measures

The Anti-Terrorism Law No.13, which was adopted in 2005 under US rule, is used by the Iraqi government as a legal justification for breaching international human rights law. GICJ is highly concerned about this deterioration of human rights and the lack of the UN to take action. Innocent civilians are arbitrarily arrested and detained on grounds of terrorist activities and fail to receive appropriate legal defence as well as visits from their relatives. Additionally, torture is a commonplace method to retrieve confessions, which are then again used to pass on death sentences. The number of executions this year in Iraq has risen to a horrendous 170, despite all condemnations and outcries by the international community. These executions are all based on the anti-terrorism policies of the government however, it is important to ask the question whether these measures actually help reduce terrorist attacks. The answer is no, it did not help to prevent further terrorist attacks, on the other hand, it fuels more and more anger and anxiety within the population.

Compensation for victims of human rights violations

GICJ insists that the UN has to take action towards reparation and compensation for victims of attacks such as in Afghanistan and Iraq. The population not only suffers from terror within its own country, but also from terror caused by outside forces. It leaves civilians with a double burden and the innocent population pays a high price for the political power games. Civilians should be compensated for their loss and suffering and the international community holds the responsibility to ensure that victims of attacks are ensured reparation.

The usage of drones and human rights

The use of drones is a violation of human rights and also of international humanitarian law. Drones are non-discriminatory weapons as they don’t distinguish between civilians and combatants. Furthermore, the operator of these weapons is located in a different country, therefore outside of the battle zone, which diminishes his risk of being wounded or killed. It is not a fair fight and, as we see in Afghanistan and Pakistan at the moment, causes more suffering to the civilian population than supporting a legitimate military goal under international humanitarian law.

Effective implementation of Human Rights

GICJ urges the UN to genuinely tackle the root-cause of problems and not wait until a situation escalates. Additionally, all states should be treated on equal footing in relation to accountability and fighting impunity and the political tug war between superpowers should be brought to an end. The Human Rights Day celebration should remind the international community, nations and every individual of the importance of the respect for human rights as well as the promotion and protection as set out in the Universal Declaration. GICJ dedicates all its work to this protection and continues its efforts to support the UN human rights system through all possible means.

Interactive Discussion

GICJ intervention in the special event 20 Years working for your rights, organized by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

During the celebrations at the United Nations a discussion was held under the title Building a vision for an effective human rights system: the next two decades and beyond. The meeting was moderated by the TV journalist Ghida Fakhry Khane and included as panellists co-founder of Tunisia Live, Mr. Zied Mhirsi, the award-winning documentary filmmaker Ms. Deeyah Khan, as well as Mr. Christof Heyns, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. In this context GICJ, who attended the meeting, considered it its responsibility to also draw the attention of the international community to some of the most critical issues faced by the United Nations, which is the human rights violations in Iraq, notably the unlawful execution practises.

During the discussions with Christof Heyns Daniela Dönges from GICJ asked the Special Rapporteur, what in his opinion the international community can do in cases when countries persistently ignores binding international law and outcries and instead explicitly declare their intention to continue to violate human rights whatever the international community may say. Such is for example the case of Iraq, she said, with regard to its deplorable execution practises, that have been condemned even by the High Commissioner herself and still continue to rise. Nevertheless even the Iraqi Minister of Human Rights himself only few days before said that the time was not ripe to even speak about human rights in Iraq. What can the international community do in such cases?

Participation of GICJ at Human Rights Council Sessions

Human Rights Council - 35th regular session (6 June - 24 June 2017)

Human Rights Council - 34th regular session (27 February - 24 March 2017)

Human Rights Council - 33rd regular session (10 September - 30 September 2016)

Human Rights Council - 32nd regular session (13 June - 1 and 8 July 2016)

Human Rights Council - 31st regular session (29 February - 24 March 2016)

Human Rights Council - 30th regular session (14 September - 2 October 2015)

Human Rights Council - 29th regular session (15 June - 3 July 2015)

Human Rights Council - 22nd special session on the human rights situation in Iraq in light of abuses committed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and associated groups - 1 September 2014:

Human Rights Council - 21st special session on the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem - 23 July 2014:

Human Rights Council - 26th regular session (10 - 27 June 2014):

Human Rights Council - 25th regular session (3 - 28 March 2014):

Human Rights Council - 24th regular session (9 - 27 September 2013):

Human Rights Council - 23rd regular session (27 May - 14 June 2013):

Human Rights Council - 22nd regular session (25 February - 22 March 2013):

Human Rights Council - 21st regular session (10 - 28 September, 5 November 2012):

Human Rights Council - 19th regular session (27 February - 23 March 2012):

GICJ Newsletter

Register a violation with GICJ