In its annual world report released today, Human Rights Watch praised major advancements in human rights over the last fifty years, but called for an international system of justice to anchor that progress in permanent institutions.
Many governments obviously still violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which will mark its fiftieth anniversary on December 10. But the possible extradition of Chilean ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet from Britain to Spain has underscored the growing willingness of many countries to end impunity for gross abusers of human rights.
"Pinochet's arrest makes a very nice fiftieth-anniversary present," said Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. "But we need an international system of justice to ensure that no despot gets away with his crimes."
The Human Rights Watch World Report 1999, a 506-page book, offers a synopsis of the human rights situation in 68 countries, as well as analyses of U.S., European, and United Nations responses to those abuses. Human Rights Watch is an international monitoring organization based in New York, with 150 staff members and offices in ten countries. It was founded in 1978 and is the largest U.S.-based human rights organization.
In his introduction to the report, Executive Director Kenneth Roth noted that governments can no longer ignore criticism of their human rights records, as they did fifty years ago. Now they feel compelled to answer such challenges and justify themselves publicly. Human rights have become "the legitimate concern of the international community," said Roth.
In addition, Roth noted, the notion of human rights now extends to many more groups than the victims of political repression who were the original focus of the Universal Declaration. He pointed out that human rights protection now extended to women, children, refugees, civilians in wartime, gays and lesbians, ethnic and religious minorities, and other groups who are victims of discrimination.
Roth also expressed pride in the vigorous movement of non-governmental organizations defending human rights. "The movement did not begin with the declaration in 1948," said Roth. "But particularly since the 1970's, there has been a veritable explosion in the number and breadth of organizations devoted to human rights." These organizations play a critical role in forcing governments to observe human rights standards, said Roth.
Roth called for the speedy ratification of the treaty establishing an international criminal court, which was passed by 120 countries at a United Nations-sponsored conference in Rome this summer. So far, 59 countries have signed the treaty. Sixty countries must sign and ratify the treaty for the court to come into being.
"Judicial enforcement is the next step in advancing the cause of human rights," said Roth. "As we celebrate this fiftieth anniversary, we need to focus on ways to end the impunity that most human rights abusers still enjoy."