Human Rights Watch
World Report 2007
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Audio Commentary

Press Conference

Photography - Year in Review

News Release




Democracies in the Global South

One potential source of human rights leadership might be some of the democracies, both new and established, in the global South. Because these governments are non-Western, their rights advocacy could help to reinforce the fact that human rights are universal values. Because they often live in the neighborhood of abusive governments, their proximity could give them added clout. And because many have emerged from periods of extreme repression, whether colonialism, apartheid, or dictatorship, they could have special moral authority on human rights. Some Southern governments have begun to live up to their leadership potential, but principled stands for human rights have been too sporadic to fill the leadership void.

Latin American countries have generally supported efforts to strengthen international human rights mechanisms. Nearly all countries in the region ratified the Rome statute and joined the International Criminal Court, and many have resisted intense US pressure, including the threatened loss of substantial US assistance, to sign bilateral agreements that exempt US citizens from the ICC’s jurisdiction. More recently several countries, most notably Argentina, Chile, and Mexico, actively supported the creation of the UN’s new Human Rights Council. Mexico was then chosen to serve as the council’s first president, largely because of the vocal role it has played in recent years in the international promotion of human rights. The Mexican government has been a forceful advocate for protecting human rights while fighting terrorism, drafting a resolution on the issue that the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted and pressing successfully for the creation of a post on human rights and terrorism within the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Argentina has also supported human rights protections within the UN system, using its seat on the Security Council to address human rights crises in Darfur and Burma.

However, there are important exceptions in Latin America. Cuba has categorically rejected all efforts to hold it accountable for its dismal human rights record. The Colombian government has campaigned aggressively to undercut the authority of the representative in Colombia of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Venezuela has championed the view that national sovereignty trumps international human rights obligations.

Positive developments in Africa include Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s call for the surrender for trial on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, to which Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo ultimately acquiesced; and Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade’s belated agreement, at the request of the African Union, to begin moving toward prosecution for systematic torture of former Chadian President Hissène Habré. The African Union—an institution built on a commitment to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law—has also played an important role in Darfur, although its protection force of 7,000 was inadequate to the task without UN help which Khartoum has blocked. In addition, in June the African Peer Review Mechanism of the New Economic Partnership for Africa completed a report that was surprisingly critical of several aspects of Rwanda’s poor human rights record—the beginning of what is supposed to be regular African commentary on African human rights problems. Ghana’s human rights record has also been reviewed.

In Asia, South Korea has emerged as a consistent supporter of human rights efforts, so long as they are not directed toward North Korea, where Seoul seems more interested in averting a governmental collapse than precluding crushing repression of the North Korean people. Even there, in a significant shift, Seoul voted in November in favor of a UN General Assembly resolution on human rights in North Korea.

However, these governmental efforts on behalf of human rights remain the exception rather than the rule. At the Human Rights Council, an outdated sense of regional loyalty led several African and Asian governments that are ostensibly committed to human rights—Ghana, Mali, Senegal, South Africa, as well as India and Indonesia—to allow their positions to be dictated by the likes of Algeria and Pakistan.

India, the world’s largest democracy and a potential leader, remains mired in a Cold War-era antipathy to the promotion of human rights abroad. It has not forcefully condemned Burma’s dismal human rights record. It went so far, during a summit with China in November, to order Tibetan refugees not to publicly protest on pain of deportation. However, on the positive side, India overcame its longstanding allergy to outside involvement in South Asia and supported the deployment of a successful UN human rights monitoring mission which helped halt Nepal’s slide toward disaster.

South Africa, having seemingly forgotten that it was the beneficiary of strong public campaigns against apartheid, continues to insist that only quiet diplomacy is appropriate for addressing Robert Mugabe’s devastation of Zimbabwe’s people. Mugabe himself was a strong opponent of apartheid, but South African President Thebo Mbeki seems to be putting respect for his former political ally ahead of respect for the human rights principles they fought for.

In sum, while democracies of the global South should be key partners in protecting human rights, they have yet to show themselves ready to fill the leadership void.