15 MAY 2013
|HUMAN RIGHTS UNDER THREAT
by Hans Corell, International Law expert, former U.N. Legal Counsel
Sad turn of events. It is wrong to think that one can "make war" on terrorism. Torture
and terrorism are crimes that like other crimes must be fought through law
enforcement. But after 11 September 2001, the question of protection of human rights
has taken a sad turn.
On 24 September 2012, the General Assembly of the United Nations, with the participation of
attending Heads of State and Government, adopted a resolution on the rule of law at the
national and international levels. In the resolution, they affirm their solemn commitment to
the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, international law and justice,
and to an international order based on the rule of law -- "which are indispensable foundations
for a more peaceful, prosperous and just world."
They further declare that the rule of law applies to all states equally, and to international
organizations, including the United Nations and its principal organs, and that respect for and
promotion of the rule of law and justice should guide all of their activities and accord
predictability and legitimacy to their actions.
The resolution represents a powerful confirmation of what the members of the U.N. are already
obliged to observe in accordance with applicable international law. But what about in real
In February, we heard President Obama's fifth State of the Union address. For the fifth time
he avoided even mentioning the U.N. in the speech. Certainly not because he would not want
to. But he has no doubt been dissuaded because in the U.S. today the UN is so slandered that a
mention could have political consequences.
And, certainly, the U.N. could be criticized. But who bears the main responsibility: the
secretariat or the member states? The answer is obvious: the member states!
The situation in Syria is today the most frightening example of the UN's inability to act. If the
declaration just mentioned is put in practice, one realizes that the Security Council from the
start should have made a unanimous and clear indication that there will be consequences if
abuses against the civilian population do not stop immediately. In this case, the main
responsibility for this failure rests with China and Russia -- two states that are far from the rule
of law and its indispensable component democracy.
In applying the UN Charter, it is imperative that states use the same yardstick. In other
situations, such as in the case of Israel and Palestine, the responsibility for the UN's inability
to act rests with Western democracies, especially the United States.
In the United States there is presently an intense discussion about the use of so-called drones
and "targeted killings." It is not the use of drones that is the problem but how they are used.
According to the laws of war it is permitted in combat to attack and kill combatants on the
battlefield or in a combat zone. But to make an administrative decision that a particular or
certain suspected terrorists anywhere in the world be killed, and then perform the act with a
drone operated from the other side of the world makes one think of something completely
And Guantánamo is still in use -- the detention camp in Cuba, established by President Bush,
where the most fundamental rules of human rights are systematically violated.
It is sad that the advances made in the field of human rights after World War II are now under
serious threat. After the attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, the matter
has taken a different turn.
On 5 February this year, the Open Society Foundations published the report "Globalizing
Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition." The report is a frightening
account of how 54 countries, including Sweden, assisted the American CIA with
extraordinary renditions and secret detention of terrorist suspects. The common denominator
in the 136 cases described in the report (the total number is not known) is that those affected
were subjected to torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment.
Among other things there is reference to the fact that Sweden in May 2005 was criticized by
the U.N. Committee against Torture for having in December 2001 handed over Ahmed Agiza
to the CIA that brought him to Egypt where he was tortured. And in November 2006, the U.N.
Human Rights Committee concluded that Sweden's involvement when the CIA at the same
time sent Mohammed al-Zari to Egypt was a breach of the absolute ban on torture.
At its annual meeting in June 2008, the InterAction Council of Former Heads of State and
Government addressed the issue of "restoring international law." The Council is an
independent international organization of former heads of state and government. President
this year was Sweden's former Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson.
In the Final Communiqué of the meeting, the 30 participants from all parts of the world
underlined that the challenges mankind faces must be addressed through multilateral solutions
within a rule-based international system. It also called on all states to devote resources to
education on global ethics, the foundations of international law and the meaning of the rule of
law at the national and international level.
The Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Lund and the
Hague Institute for the Internationalisation of Law in the Netherlands took note of this appeal.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union also got involved.
The initiative resulted in that there is now a short guide to assist busy politicians to quickly
orient themselves in the field: "Rule of Law -- A guide for politicians." Its focus is on the
politicians' own role -- how they can help to promote the rule of law. Translations into Arabic,
Bahasa (Indonesia), Chinese, Farsi, Japanese, Portuguese and Spanish are underway. The
Romanian is complete. More translations will follow in the near future.
A Swedish translation was published in January this year: "Rättsstaten -- En handledning för
politiker." It has been sent to the Speaker and to the leaders of all parties in the Riksdag
(Parliament) in the hope that it will be read and studied by politicians at all levels in our
The idea is that the link to the Guide be disseminated via the Internet so that individual
politicians -- but also others, for example journalists -- around the world on their own can print
it out and read it in a language that he or she understands.
In fact, the link should be sent to every member of the political parties and published in the
media that the parties and other organizations use.
In this context it should be noted that one of the worst enemies of the rule of law is
corruption. There are many links here -- not just to the impacts of corruption on business but
also on the protection of human rights.
The importance of the principles of the rule of law permeating the states of the world cannot
be overemphasized. Sweden, like other Western democracies, especially the great powers,
must lead by example here.
A prerequisite for the principle of the rule of law, which is based on democracy and respect
for human rights, to be realized is that individual politicians at different levels around the
world have insight into what is required and are clear about the relationship between the rule
of law at the national and international levels. Politicians who serve in their country's
government or legislature have a very special responsibility here.
Another important insight -- a matter of course one would think -- is that one must not engage
in torture or believe that one can "make war" on terrorism. Torture and terrorism are crimes
that, like other crimes, must be fought through law enforcement.
(Initially appeared in Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter)