• Monday, December 04, 2023
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Civil society and the fight against torture



Over the past century, tremendous progress has been made in the fight for human rights. In 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which sets out a vision of individual freedoms, social protection and economic opportunities.

And since then, significant advances have been made in incorporating human rights as a fundamental pillar in the manner in which we manage the affairs of man. Those rights proclaimed sixty years ago have been enshrined in a rich body of international human rights norms and institutions. The Human Rights Council strengthens the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and provides a forum where failures to live up to international obligations are made public. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights also plays a critical advocacy and monitoring role especially in the field to address urgent and often tragic situations.

The Special Tribunals and the International Criminal Court have taken concrete action to fight impunity. Some perpetrators of the worst international crimes, including those responsible for acts of torture have been brought to justice. With such architecture, there is no doubt that, in legal and institutional terms, we are better placed today to act collectively to protect human rights than we were just a few years ago. And yet, recent years have also shown that an increasing number of Governments are allowing torture to spread and that an apathetic public appears to tolerate the practice.

In an era of global interdependence, rights that were once conceived as inalienable are more and more subject to systematic violations under the excuse of expediency or to justify the protection of democratic principles or economic growth. This assault on the human rights accomplishments of the past sixty years cannot go unanswered. The Manifesto we are signing today demands individual and collective responsibility and action whenever the very values these rights protect are endangered.

And, it starts with governments. Either because of lack of political will or because of poorly equipped or corrupt political and judicial institutions, Rulers still disregard human rights or allow or encourage those under their command to do so. If yesterday’s accomplishment was to set the rules, today’s and tomorrow’s challenge is to effectively bind the Rulers – and the rest of us for that matter – to these laws. Governments must be helped to improve their human rights structures and record.

Best practices must be shared and officials must be trained in better systems and procedures. But for human rights to become a reality for all, society as a whole must both accept and recognize these rights as universal and inalienable. Human rights activists constitute a strong rampart not only against gross violations but also against shameful indifference. Amnesty International was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for its campaign against torture; Lawyers without Borders train jurists across the globe to better understand the legal rationale behind human rights.

The media has also a critical role to play. Napoleon used to say that “he feared three newspapers more than a hundred thousand bayonets”. There is a reason for that. News reports have the power to shape public opinion, influence our business, social and personal decisions and hold our elected officials accountable. But that power also comes with great responsibilities. And because torture and inhuman treatment often take place in remote or hidden locations, news reports not only constitute our very first source of information, but the first step towards effective accountability. For the media have a duty to report any abuse, no matter the author. And they have a public service obligation to educate the public at large. And yet, none of these commitments or campaigns or news reports will indeed matter if the public remains indifferent.

And perhaps here lies the greatest challenge of all. In a 24-hour news cycle where people are bombarded by a flow of unfiltered information, the propensity to assign equal value to any story is compelling. We must fight that tendency.

Through education and grass-root campaigns, advocacy and awareness actions, sport and culture events, we must ensure that respect for the human person and the unacceptability of torture under any circumstances is embedded in people’s conscience. www.kofiannanfoundation.org