Furthering Human Rights in Yemen [Archives:1998/13/Law & Diplomacy]
Ms. Louise Cainkar and Ms. Nancy Flowers came to Yemen to lecture on human rights. Visiting Sanaa, Taiz, and Aden, the two have lectured to school teachers, university professors, journalists, women NGO leaders, and other NGO workers. They were invited by the newly formed Supreme Human Rights Committee.
Following are excerpts from lectures given by the two ladies.
The Human Rights Movement is a movement by people and NGOs. It is independent of any government. It is not a western or eastern movement. It is a global movement of people. We recognize that human rights were codified long before these UN documents. We recognize that human rights are the foundation of the Quran.
We also recognize that the situation of a country affects its ability to implement human rights, especially economic and social rights. Human rights documents are goals for the full realization of human dignity and potential. These goals must be achieved in the context of your own culture. Human rights education and the fulfillment of human rights goals is a long process. It does not happen overnight, but it should start with people’s identification of priorities.
The human rights movement is a movement for people. Its interest is always people and holding governments accountable for the lives of their people. Dignity for all religions and cultures are recognized in the human rights movement. You must discuss how to adapt the goals of these documents to your culture. You must find the ways in which your society already conforms to these documents and have a dialogue among each other as to where to go next.
Despite appearances or public relations announcements, Western countries have not achieved the goals of the human rights movements. In every western country, there are active NGOs fighting for rights. Some governments use human rights slogans as justifications for their foreign policies. We must separate the foreign policy manipulations from the essence and movement of human rights. People from around the world who support human rights reject the abuse of these human rights for foreign policy considerations.
All countries are equally accountable to their people for achieving human rights. There are no allies or enemy countries. There are no preferred cultures or countries in the human rights movement. The achievement of human rights in these countries starts with dialogue and open discussion. It acknowledges and respects differences of opinion, because freedom of thought is a human right.
The human rights are about building your society to be the best it can be for your people. This movement belongs to you. It empowers you to create your country and your government. We see in this visit to Yemen the great desire of the Yemeni people to build a new society that includes respect for human rights. As human rights activists and educators, we share your excitement and are honored to be able to work with you to achieve our mutual interests. These are the realizations of the inherent dignity of all human beings no matter what their political views, cultural and religious views and state of social development. We are all equals in this movement.
Human rights could not begin in the 20th century, but lies at the roots of almost every culture. However, it has been in this century that attempts have been made to set the principles that all the populations and peoples of the world could share. However, one of the first acts of the UN after its founding in 1948 was to have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This is the foundation on which human rights were based. I want to point out that it is a declaration. It is an international law. If a country signs that declaration, it just means that they agree to the principle, but it is not legally binding. So, in 1948 it was so difficult to get a unanimous passing of this document. Immediately thereafter, countries came together to make a legally binding document. They wanted one treaty.
However, in the years following 1948, began the so-called Cold War in which countries of the so-called Eastern Bloc (that centered on the Soviet Union and its allies) opposed the countries of the so-called Western Bloc (the US and other western countries). There was a real idealogical split on human rights. As a result, we do not have one document, but 2 documents. One document is called Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. These were the rights most important to the West. In fact, they reflect very much the US Constitution – voting, assembly, free expression. They are very much about what rights the individual has in relationship to the government.
The other document is the Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights. These were the rights that the Eastern Bloc felt was the most important. These 3 documents together formed a so-called International Bill of Rights. Everything comes from them, they are just one thing together. However, these rights, although fundamental, are very general. The next phase was the development of more specific conventions to address specific human needs. All together there are more 30 conventions. Some of which address acts that all humanity can share. For example, there is a convention against slavery, a convention against torture, against genocide.
Other catagorical conventions are conventions that protect the specially vulnerable populations such as the rights of refugees, the rights of children, women, and migrant workers. Each of these conventions were made by a long process of negotiation such as the convention for the rights of children.
People recognize that there are special needs for children. In 1979, they made a declaration on the rights of children. There are just 10 general principles. For example, in times of war, children deserve the first protection. The right to education for children is also very important. However, it took 9 years of negotiations to make a convention. Nine years in which government and NGO representatives sat together for many, many hours to discuss every single point. Sometimes, even the simplest points required days of debate such as the right to inherit the property of the parent.
East or West, everyone agreed that children have the right to inherit the property of the parent. Everyone was happy that they found one thing to agree upon. Then, a representative from the UK raised a hand and said “I regret that we must reject this because we are a monarchy and only 1 person can inherit. Prince Charles is the only one who will inherit from Queen Elizabeth.
Another example, which has nothing to do with Islam, is at what age should a person be drafted or not choose to serve. A child is defined as a person from the day of birth up to their 18th birthday. Most people said no children at all, but many Islamic countries objected, saying that it would not be just to a young boy to forbid him the right to take part in war. The compromise was the age of 16. This just shows how it takes long debates, negotiations and compromise to make these conventions.
Two years ago, the UN General Assembly made a statement that we have enough conventions now. What we need to do now is implement them, make them real in people’s lives. However, there are some things that have not yet been addressed.
One important factor about human rights is that they are evolving. Before 1948, there was no universal declaration. In 1948, there were some concerns that we did not have. The Universal Declaration does not say one word about the environment, yet it is now a concern. There is a new generation of rights coming that are not finished. There is now before the United Nations a draft convention for environmental rights. There is also a draft convention for the rights of indiginous people.
This division between East and West idealology has made it seem as though a certain set of rights is more important than another. You can tell that human rights has a kind of schizophrenia. In an attempt to cure this schizophrenia, in a declaration in 1993 at the Vienna Human Rights Conference, the delegates declared that human rights were indivisible, equally important, and interdependent. For example, to have the right to vote may be meaningless if you don’t have enough food. So, whenever anyone tries to say that this right is first or this other right ranks second, that is not the UN’s opinion of it. The UN says that they are all equal. The Declaration is something that we all share, it is our common heritage. It is my work to try to bring this to as many people possible in the world. One of my dreams is that every child should learn about this in school.