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Book Review – Human Rights Watch: World Report 2008

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I've got a question for you: what are human rights? You probably hear or read the phrase at least once a day in the media, but have you ever stopped to think what it should entail? Don't worry if you haven't because I'd lay odds you're not alone. The phrase is bandied about so much these days that if it ever had an agreed-upon meaning in the eyes of the general public it's been long forgotten.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights created by the United Nations in 1948 has 30 articles, most of which will probably sound familiar to any of us who live in countries which have a Bill of Rights or the equivalent. You know the usual stuff: everybody will be treated the same regardless of race, colour, sex, religion, creed; no one will be subjected to torture or cruel and inhuman punishment; everyone is entitled to protection under the law and nobody is above the law; everybody has the right to privacy, freedom of thought, and freedom of opinion.

Over the years its of course been updated and some specifics have been added like the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Of course that these addendum were needed goes to show just how well people were complying with the original declaration. If countries had been treating people equally regardless of sex there would have been no need for any convention dealing specifically with violence against women.
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That's the thing, isn't it? Everybody talks a good game — our governments in the West especially — but there's probably not a government in the world that's not guilty of a violation of somebody's human rights. Take a look at the partial listing of articles I've mentioned above, and you'll notice that the United States, who have one of the most comprehensive Bill Of Rights of any country, has contravened every single article listed.

Of course, they aren't the only ones; according to the organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) there's a distressingly huge number of countries all over the world making a mockery of the declaration according to Human Rights Watch World Report 2008, their annual report on how well countries around the world are abiding by the statutes put forward more then fifty years ago.

After my first glance through the volume I couldn't decide which was the more depressing thought – the fact that it exists at all, that it is over 560 pages in length, or that it doesn't list all the countries or all the categories where there were infringements of Human Rights around the world in the year 2007. I think it's the last one that bothers me the most, especially when the writers say that they really have no way of knowing how much they miss, because there aren't many countries that are going to give you access to documentation proving they've been violating the rights of their population.

Before you ask, who the heck are Human Rights Watch or assume they are just another plot to discredit the U.S., there's a couple things you should know about them. They describe themselves as being a Non Government Organization (NGO) that refuses funding from any politically affiliated body or government, and are dependant on the donations of private citizens and foundations for finances. They rely on first hand accounts from people on the ground in countries where abuses are taking place as their primary source of information, but they will never base a report on information that can not be verified by one of their own field people.

Initially founded in 1978, and called Helsinki Watch for the location of its head office, Human Rights Watch started off with only two divisions in Europe and Central Asia. Currently it has expanded to six geographic divisions so it now takes in Africa, the Americas, all of Asia, and the Middle East, and has added three thematic divisions, arms, children's rights, and women's rights. Other permanent divisions include a country's treatment of refugees and immigrants and how that stacks up against U.N. declarations on their treatment; HIV/AIDS and Human Rights; International Justice; Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered rights; Arms; and Business and Human Rights.

Let me tell you about the litmus test that I use for organizations like this: when it comes to the Middle East do they ignore transgressions on the part of the Palestinian authority and only criticize Israel, or do they apply the same standards to both sides? Far too many so called rights groups are all prepared to stomp one side in the dispute and allow the other to literally get away with murder. Well not these guys, they hold both sides accountable for any and all violations of a group's human rights. So while they criticize Israel for firing upon civilian populations in Gaza and Lebanon, they hold Hamas to account for firing rockets and mortars into civilian areas in Tel Aviv, for targeting civilians with suicide bombers, and for the unlawful detention of an Israeli soldier in clear contravention of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention.

After reading that, I felt a lot more comfortable about the fact that this is an organization without an agenda aside from doing their best to make countries accountable for their treatment of their citizens. They don't accept any excuses from anybody, be it George Bush and company or Putin and his cronies in Russia. From Albania to Zimbabwe, if you're government has abused the rights of its people HRW are going to let the world know about it whether you or the world want to know.

That's the rub, isn't it? HRW may be without an agenda, but the rest of the world is nowhere near as unbiased. Governments the world over will turn a blind eye to violations conducted by the countries that do them favours, while condemning the exact same activities in others. Human rights for some but not for others is a cynical and gross violation of the spirit of original declaration, and also happens to be the breech that most countries have in common. Running almost neck and neck for infamy are the number of countries who try to pass themselves off as democracies while denying their people the rights that ensure democratic governments.

While international human rights law says that each citizen is entitled to take part in the conduct of public affairs either directly or through a freely elected representative, and to vote in genuine and periodic election with full and equal suffrage, in a secret ballot guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electorate, it also guarantees the societal elements that are essential for a true democracy. These components include a press that is independent of the government, rights that defend the interests of minorities, and rights ensuring that government officials are subject to the rule of law as much as private citizens.

What kind of democratic election is it when only one party runs for power, or when the press only reports what the government allows, when people aren't allowed to attend political rallies unless approved by the government, when there is no free and open debate on the issues, and there is nothing in the constitution guaranteeing an arms length body monitoring elections? In his introduction to World Report 2008, "Despots Masquerading as Democrats", Executive Director of HRW Kenneth Roth, cites these examples to point out the importance and necessity for human rights monitoring.

Anybody can and does call themselves a democrat, and even worse there are always those in the international community who seem willing to endorse them for their own convenience. It's ironic, isn't it, that the supposed ideal form of government, the one so many wars are fought to protect, has never been internationally codified? You don't think it's because half the world's governments who currently claim to be democratic would be revealed as just the opposite, or that it's not in best interests of countries like the United States and Russia to have their various friends proven to be just as despotic as their enemies? No, it couldn't be that, nobody is that cynical or hypocritical are they?

So the only meter by which we have to measure a government's true democracy is their willingness to ensure the protection of human rights no matter what it costs them in terms of their ability to retain power. There used to be a rather common saying along the lines that a man was judged by the company he keeps. Perhaps a variation more appropriate for today's world would be more along the lines of: a government should be judged by how it keeps its people.

With disinformation raised to an art form, and government influence over media reaching a zenith in all parts of the world, a non-aligned body monitoring how people are treated based on the principals espoused by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the only hope we have of getting a true picture of the health of democracy in the world. Human Rights Watch makes a very good case for being that body through their willingness to judge each and every country — in their adherence to the Declaration — against the same measure.

Human Rights Watch: World Report 2008 is this year's status report on the health of democracy in the world, and conditions don't look good. While there have been some positive signs in a few countries, indications are that overall the patient is in danger of expiring due to extreme cynicism and complications caused by opportunistic despots. That's not a very good prognosis for the future.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.