Monday, April 6, 2009


Discrimination is the action of distinguishing one person over another as to benefit someone and to disadvantage the other. As a result of discrimination, a person’s human rights are compromised, leading to conflict and tension. Human rights are fundamental rights that are universally regarded as being possessed by all persons inherently. Such rights include a right to life, a right to fundamental freedoms and a right to be treated equally. It is necessary to protect human rights in order to ensure the dignity and worth of all people. The aim of human rights movements is ensure that the law protects these inherent rights and the legal protection is upheld.

The international community has recognised the need to protect human rights since the horrors of the Holocaust in Germany in World War II and as a result, several international agencies have been established in the cause to protect human rights. International rights are those that are recognised internationally as being fundamental rights of people, no matter what nation-state they belong to, or even if they are stateless. Unfortunately, international rights are not as enforceable as domestic rights unless if the international law has been incorporated into domestic law. Therefore, the actions of international agencies are non-legal until they are domestically recognised by a nation state. International agencies, which have been established in attempts to protect human rights, include the United Nations (UN), Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The United Nations (UN) is an international forum with its prime function is to promote respect for “human rights” and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion and act as a global security. Its main role is to alert participating governments and the world community to the daily reality that the standards of human rights are too often ignored or unfulfilled and to be a voice for the victims of human rights violations everywhere. Its role is also to press the international community to take the steps that can prevent violations, including support for the right to development. Since 1945, the protection and promotion of international human rights has been UN’s major preoccupation. Over the years, UN has developed a whole network of mechanisms to ensure the primacy of human rights and to confront human rights violations universally. These mechanisms have been non-legal mechanisms as they are not legally recognised until a nation state ratifies and incorporates the mechanism into its domestic law.

One of the United Nation’s main non-legal mechanisms is the collection of intergovernmental bodies dealing with human rights. The main policy-making body dealing with human rights issues within the UN is the Commission of Human Rights (CHR). It has the power to make studies, prepare recommendations and drafts international treaties and resolutions relating to human rights. It also investigates allegations of human rights violations by countries, individuals, groups or NGOs and handles communications relating to them. Another charter-based body that has been established within the United Nations to protect and promote universal human rights is the General Assembly.

The establishment of declarations was also another non-legal mechanism developed by the United Nations to protect international human rights. The United Nations Charter 1945 was a document established as a treaty to bind all members of the United Nations. It has, as one of its fundamental purposes, the promotion of respect for human rights contained in its articles. The provisions of the UN Charter were created to bind member states to observe and respect human rights domestically and internationally. The Universal Declaration of Human rights was slightly similar as it was a document created by the United Nations in 1948. The declaration is not a statement of law but rather a comprehensive list of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights of all human beings. It has been established to bring international recognition of human rights to be treated equally. Many countries have incorporated the provisions of these declarations into their laws and constitutions. International covenants and conventions only have the force of law for the States that ratify them. The United Nations has various non-legal mechanisms in order to carry out its functions such as the establishment of charter-based bodies and declarations. In the global context, its main area of success in the protection of human rights is by the resolution of tensions before they develop into conflict and the aid for humanitarians after a conflict. Unfortunately, its effectiveness has been very limited in fighting conflict.

Amnesty International (AI) is another example of international agencies which aim to promote and protect human rights. AI was founded in 1961 and is now a worldwide movement of international citizens who campaign for internationally recognised human rights. It works independently from governments, political ideology, economic interest or religion and its main function is to “undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of the rights to physical and mental integrity, freedom of conscience and expression, and freedom of discrimination, within the context of its work to protect all human rights.” It campaigns on issues of human rights such as the freedom of all prisoners of conscience, ensures fair trial for all political prisoners and recently, opposes human rights abuses committed by non governmental bodies and private individuals.

In order to achieve its key functions, AI operates with several non-legal mechanisms as it does not have the power of law to enforce its beliefs. AI’s main non-legal mechanism is researching human rights violation issues and publishing reports to inform the news media so that the concerns are publicised domestically and internationally. AI’s ability to inform the public of concerns allows it to mobilise the public to put pressure on governments and others with the influence to stop the abuses. Activities to pressure the governments include public demonstrations, letter writing, human rights education and fundraising concerts. AI’s other non-legal mechanism in promoting and protecting human rights is to support programs that help people learn about human rights and how to defend them. In educating and campaigning, Amnesty International presses governments to ratify and abide by international human rights treaties and to strengthen international human rights standards.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is the largest human rights organization based in the United States and was first started in 1978 as Helsinki Watch. It is composed of more than 150 professionals including lawyers, journalists, academics and country experts. Human Rights Watch’s main function is to promote public awareness of universal human right abuses in order to increase recognition of human rights in bother the international and domestic spheres. It does not have legal enforcement and therefore its non-legal mechanisms are to research and investigate human rights abuses in all regions of the world and publicise these issues into local and the international media. In using publicity, HRW aims to embarrass abusive governments in the eyes of their citizens and the world. If possible, it then meets with the government officials to urge changes in their policy and practice in order to protect human rights within that nation. Human Rights Watch also addresses issues in women’s rights, children’s rights and the flow of arms to abusive forces. By using publicity, HRW press governments and international financial institutions to incorporate human rights concerns into their economic development strategies. HRW functions similarly to Amnesty International, its main differences being that AI addresses a narrower set of abuses and has a larger number of memberships.

The United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been very effective in promoting and publicising the protection of human rights but there have been many limits that restrict these agencies from increasing their effectiveness in protecting human rights internationally. The main limit for all international agencies, especially the United Nation, is the lack of enforcement mechanisms. Most treaties created by international agencies are optional, rather than compulsory, therefore the laws and covenants associated with the treaty is not legally recognised and enforced until a nation state incorporates it into the domestic law. Individual nations do not feel the need to report complaints to international agencies due to lack of enforcement mechanisms resulting to slow resolution of conflict. Another reason for the failure for enforcement mechanisms is that there is no global army to enforce the international laws onto each nation state and therefore it is up to the nation’s will to comply with the treaties. The failure of the international agencies to enforce human rights is evident in bloodshed that followed the East Timorese vote for independence in 1999.

The second limit to the effectiveness of international agencies in promoting human rights is that not all countries are party to human rights treaties and therefore not all countries are obliged to protect human rights within its own territory. For example, Rwanda has not been a party to human rights treaties and therefore its government did not feel obliged to protect human rights in the civil battle between the tribal groups of the Tutsis and the Hutus. As a result, campaigns by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch made no effect on the resolution of conflict in Rwanda, leading to the breach of many unrecognised human rights. A significant factor in limiting the effectiveness of independent international agencies such as Amnesty International is the lack of funding. Many international agencies are independent of governments and therefore depend on public donation for funding. Unfortunately, many human rights organizations suffer from a chronic lack of funding, resulting to a lack of resources and a decrease in its effectiveness.

The final main factor which limits the effectiveness of international agencies is the selectivity of international agencies in promoting human rights. As there are usually various conflicts occurring at one point in time, international agencies only target some human rights violations, ignoring the “less important” human rights conflicts. The United Nations, especially, has been criticised for its selectivity as it investigates certain causes for political reasons while ignoring others. Political bias has been a major reason for the selectivity and therefore political bias has to be demolished so that international agencies have greater effectiveness in promoting and protecting international human rights. Most conflicts regarding human rights should be dealt with the same degree of importance so that “smaller” conflicts do not expand into larger conflicts.

Although it is recognised that international law is not as effective as domestic law, it is evident that the significance of international agencies are increasing. International agencies have the ability to pressure governments to stop conflicts or solve tensions but there are still several limits in its effectiveness such as the selectivity of issues and the lack of enforcement mechanisms. However, the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 has allowed an opening for the enforcement of human rights and universal recognition of the need to promote and protect human rights. If the international agencies are able to find a resolution to overcome its limits, global security and peace will someday be achieved.

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