The daily headlines tell stories of suffering and human rights abuse from Sudan and the Congo in Africa, to Nepal and Uzbekistan in Asia, to Iraq and Egypt in the Middle East. In the United States, we have been disappointed to learn of the abuses committed by American soldiers in U.S.-run prisons at Abu Ghraib and troubled by the government’s “extraordinary rendition” of suspected terrorists to countries where torture is known to be common. It is tempting to conclude that little has been done to advance human rights around the world.
But there is compelling evidence to the contrary. A powerful set of norms for the protection of human rights has evolved, the legal architecture in many countries is improving, new international institutions are taking root, and a robust network of NGOs is bringing cases to those institutions and to public view in record numbers.
Human rights has always been an area of major interest for the MacArthur Foundation. In fact, the Foundation’s very first grant in 1978 was to Amnesty International. Since then, we have made nearly 600 grants worth almost $120 million. Our annual expenditure is now about $17 million, with a third going to international organizations that provide infrastructure to the field, a third to local NGOs in Russia, Mexico, and Nigeria, and a third to advance norms and institutions that are building an international system of justice. This newsletter illustrates some of the work MacArthur is supporting.
A global portfolio
The Foundation’s early work helped build the infrastructure for the field of human rights with support for U.S.-based groups like Human Rights Watch, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now Human Rights First), and Physicians for Human Rights. That portfolio has broadened to include organizations beyond the United States, including the Federation Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l’Homme, the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa, and the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions. These institutions and others make up the backbone of the human rights movement: They undertake careful research and monitoring to expose problems and propose specific remedies rooted in law and reality. Thanks to their work over the past 25 years, the language of human rights is all around us — present every day in the news, a force to be reckoned with in diplomacy, international finance, the conduct of military campaigns, and domestic politics.
These international groups are important, but the work of local organizations deeply embedded in traditions of their own countries is equally vital. MacArthur is supporting about 100 local groups in three countries undergoing a transition to democracy: Nigeria, Russia, and Mexico.
Three central themes describe MacArthur’s work in these countries: 1) curbing police abuse; 2) strengthening the system of independent human rights ombudsmen; and 3) enabling citizens to seek remedies from regional human rights courts. Featured in these pages are the Center for Law Enforcement in Nigeria (CLEEN), the Nizhnii Novgorod Committee Against Torture in Russia, and Sin Fronteras in Mexico, each of them striving to bring laws and practices in their countries into accord with their own constitutions and international norms.
Those norms are expressed in the legal architecture for the worldwide protection of human rights put in place over the past half-century: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on Genocide, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture, and others. Together, these instruments create the basis for robust international, regional, and national action.
Creating a framework for accountability The challenge now is to close the gap between the promise of universal human rights this system of treaties and covenants has nurtured and the reality of the daily lives of millions that falls far short of our highest aspirations. Energetic nongovernmental organizations exposing abuse and working to reform bad practices is one way forward; creating an effective system of international criminal justice is another.
Early on, the human rights movement focused on political dissidents in the former Soviet Union and its satellite countries and on the abuses by military regimes in Latin America. However, the largest number of deaths and crimes against humanity emanate from civil wars, interstate conflicts, and the complete breakdown of order in failed states. A decade ago, the genocide in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia shocked the world. Special UN tribunals to deal with the perpetrators are still under way. But the creation of after-the-fact tribunals does not send a message certain that those who commit gross human rights abuses in the future will be held accountable. The new International Criminal Court does.
The ICC is the most important new international institution since the founding of the United Nations. The Court has jurisdiction over the worst human rights abuses committed after July 1, 2002 — genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity — if national justice systems fail to act. It is the first permanent, treatybased, criminal court with international jursidiction, established to promote the rule of law and to ensure that individuals who commit the gravest crimes against humanity are punished. Already, countries around the world are reforming their own laws and bringing them into compliance with international standards, strengthening national legal systems and complementing the work of human rights groups.
MacArthur has been involved with the Court since the 1998 Conference in Rome that forged the treaty establishing it.We helped the Coalition for the International Criminal Court and others organize civil society groups in support of the Court’s creation. Those efforts contributed to a speedy ratification of the treaty by the requisite 60 nations (to date, 99 countries have ratified).
The Court began operations in April 2002, but 2005 will be a critical year in its early history. The ICC is currently investigating its first two cases: the atrocities in Northern Uganda committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army and systematic acts of murder and mutilation by warring groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The UN Security Council’s referral of the conflict in Darfur brings a third important case to the Court’s chambers.
Essential to the successful prosecution of these early cases will be the effective functioning of the Court’s Unit on Victims and Witnesses, which encourages people to tell their stories and offers them protection. Through its support for groups such as Avocats sans Frontiérs, the International Center for Transitional Justice, REDRESS, and Physicians for Human Rights, MacArthur is helping to facilitate the participation of victims and witnesses in Court proceedings.
By holding the architects of massive crimes accountable, the Court will deter future Pol Pots and Pinochets. Although no indictments have been made in either Uganda or the DRC, the ICC’s investigations have already brought greater pressure to end these conflicts and focused international attention on the abuses.
We hope that the growing number of examples of individual accountability will have a deterrent effect on crimes against humanity over time. But there will always be instances where national governments are unable or unwilling to protect its citizens. In those circumstances, what is the international community’s responsibility to prevent future Rwandas and Darfurs?
MacArthur was privileged to support a distinguished commission organized by the Canadian government in 2000 to examine this question. Chaired by Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun, the International Commission on State Sovereignty and Humanitarian Intervention produced a report that establishes a new paradigm for international action, The Responsibility to Protect.
The report laid the intellectual foundation for changing assumptions about the world’s obligations. It articulated a primary duty for the international community: to prevent these crises, using evidence of egregious human rights abuses as an early warning signal. A patient set of nonmilitary steps was identified — fact-finding missions, international appeals, political and economic sanctions, arms embargoes, seizure of assets — giving the world community options it must explore before reacting with appropriate military means.
The core ideas of the commission are gaining traction. They have a prominent place in the advice of the Secretary General’s High Level Panel on UN Reform. The panel endorsed the commission’s central recommendation: that the UN Security Council has the responsibility to avert Rwanda-like tragedies and to protect civilian populations. In March of this year, Secretary General Kofi Annan embraced The Responsibility to Protect in his ambitious call for change at the United Nations, “In Larger Freedom.”
The UN’s role
The distance between theory and action can be hard to bridge. Much is expected of the United Nations, and many interests need to be weighed as the UN chooses its issues and its means of intervention. The Secretary General has articulated standards of transparency for the work of the UN and its agencies. To help it achieve those standards, MacArthur, Rockefeller, and Hewlett have joined with the governments of Canada and Norway to establish a new organization, Security Council Report (SCR). SCR will report on the work of the Council, including future agenda items. It will also offer research and analytical briefings to Council members thought to be of particular utility to those with elected seats.
Although serious human rights abuses persist in many places, the direction of history is clear: There is a worldwide movement to prevent those abuses and bring perpetrators to justice. The stories you are about to read are a source of optimism about the future, and give us confidence that MacArthur’s quarter century of support has been a good investment.
An International Criminal Court is poised to make its first indictments. Regional human rights courts in Europe, Latin America, and Africa are taking on cases that will change local behavior. A new paradigm articulating the international community’s responsibility to protect people from gross abuses is gaining traction. And a robust network of NGOs is working together to assure that major human rights abuses do not go unnoticed anywhere in the world.
The legal and institutional architecture is in place and growing; what is needed is the will to use them promptly and completely. The world showed compassion and determination this year in the wake of a natural disaster in Asia. Those same basic decent instincts should apply to humaninduced catastrophes as well.
Jonathan F. Fanton
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