human rights

Human Rights and Dangerous Rhetoric

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Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the current UN high commissioner for human rights, will step down later this month, citing a waning commitment among UN member nations to fight back against human rights abuses. In particular, Zeid has cited several problems he sees with the current US administration: rhetoric that vilifies minorities, and incitement of hostility against the press.

According to the departing commissioner, the worst events of the 20th century were those that tend to occur “when language is used in a way that focuses on groups… who have traditionally suffered a great deal from bigotry and prejudice and chauvinism”. Citing several concerns, including both the actions of the US and the aftermath of mass killings in Syria and Yemen-- which the UN proved unwilling or unable to halt-- the commissioner argues that human rights have become a reduced priority for the UN. These issues now account for less than 3% of overall spending.

Zeid was actually recently blocked from addressing the UN Security Council regarding human rights abuses in Syria, after being unable to secure the nine votes needed to move forward with the session.  “It tells me more about the weakening influence of the western powers that they could not secure nine votes for a briefing,” he said.

If the UN—and the human rights council—show a reduced interest in protecting human rights during times of heightened threat, then Zeid asks, why do they exist? His question represents a cause for serious concern, especially during an age in which a once-respected pillar of the west has now altered course and appears to be espousing authoritarian rhetoric. Please read more here, and join us as we witness this prominent departure and its implications. 

Our Official Recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council

Just Atonement has succeeded in publishing a series of recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council, and we’re proud of this small victory and incremental step toward reducing immunity for high ranking government officials who commit war crimes, engage in acts of aggression, or test the boundaries of nascent international law related to the sanctity of human rights. Read the text of our paper here, and skim the question and answer session below.

Why do government leaders rarely face legal penalties after committing acts that violate human rights?

We are often asked why government leaders are rarely held accountable for war crimes and acts of international aggression, and why  these leaders are protected by domestic laws that separate personal accountability from “official actions”, or actions they engaged in for the presumed good of the nation while holding public office.

The answer is that many times these officials are presumed to be acting at the behest and in the best interest of their electorate, judges and courts oftentimes hold that government leaders are entitled to immunity, even when they  for example, commit acts of torture, aggression, or violations of international treaties and charters.

When do human rights violations become subject to trial and punishment?

According to international law, immunities of government leaders are weakened or removed after the perpetrator leaves office. At that point, an act of aggression may become subject to penalty depending on the motivation behind the act. For example, a government leader may be accused of acting in a personal, or non-official, capacity if he or she exploited a government resource to enrich a family business while in office. Any act that cannot be connected to the benefit of the state may—after the governing period ends—be considered a personal action.

Are there some real-life cases in which the boundaries between the personal and professional have been tested?

Yes! These cases and precedents are the subject of our short paper. In these four pages, one of the cases we summarize is the case of Saleh v. Bush, in which the plaintiff and litigant intended to hold individual members of the Bush administration accountable for the actions of the Iraq War.  

Why did we submit this paper?

Our paper presents a list of recommendations to the UN Human Right Council based on the implications of the cases we describe (Saleh v. Bush, Congo v. Belgium, the Pinochet Case). Just Atonement believes that government leaders must be subject, as individuals, to the statutes of international law forbidding war crimes and acts of aggression. Immunity from such crimes must be lifted in order to protect the rule of law and give merit to treaties and international charters forbidding these actions.