National sovereignty is now a less important obstacle to curbing serious human rights crimes than it has been in previous years, Human Rights Watch said today in its annual global survey.
"We will remember 1999 as the year in which sovereignty gave way in places where crimes against humanity were being committed," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. He noted that sustained international pressure forced the Indonesian government to consent to the deployment of foreign troops in East Timor, after the Indonesian military failed to stop bloodshed there. The national sovereignty claims of the Indonesian generals, like those of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo this year, lost their legitimacy in the wake of gross human rights crimes.
"Ordinarily we depend on sovereign states to defend human rights," said Roth. "But sovereignty cannot be used as an excuse to avoid human rights commitments." While regretting the need for military force, Roth praised the decision to overrule the claims of tyrants and war criminals to be protected by the cloak of national sovereignty.
Human Rights Watch cautioned, however, that the use of military force to redress crimes against humanity, such as the NATO campaign in Kosovo this year, is also a sign of failure to respond to the early warning signs of gross human rights abuse. The group warned that serious abuses in countries such as Colombia, Burundi, and the Aceh region of Indonesia could lead to major crises if they are not promptly addressed through strong political and economic pressure.
Roth also noted that governments using military force in the name of human rights should be subjected to close scrutiny, both for the methods they use in warfare, and the objectives they pursue. "Human rights should not be used as a pretext for other ventures," said Roth.
Roth presented Human Rights Watch's "World Report 2000" at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. today. The 517-page report covers human rights developments in 68 countries, including the United States.
In another illustration of the breakdown of national sovereignty when crimes against humanity occur, Roth observed that many people accused of serious human rights crimes are being tried outside their native countries, a triumph of the principle of "universal jurisdiction." Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who faces extradition hearings in Great Britain, is the best-known example, but many other people accused of participating in the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides have also been indicted outside their home countries.
"Pinochet is being prosecuted abroad because local courts in Chile have failed to do so," said Roth. "This is a real victory for justice."
International war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia have a growing number of people in custody. The latter court took the significant step of indicting a sitting head of state, Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, for war crimes this year.
Despite the U.S. government's opposition, a growing number of countries are signing the treaty for an international criminal court, which will be a critically important tool for human rights protection. "No matter what Washington thinks, there's no question now that the court will be established," said Roth. "The only question is when."
Human Rights Watch supported Secretary-General Kofi Annan of the United Nations in his statements that national leaders risk prosecution if they do not either stop crimes against humanity or permit other countries to do so. However, the group criticized U.N. operations in many countries, such as Angola and Sierra Leone, for failing to respond vigorously enough when human rights crimes pushed those countries toward war.
Human Rights Watch is an international monitoring organization based in New York. It is funded entirely by contributions from private individuals and foundations, and receives no financial support from any government.