Tuesday, December 8, 2015
International Human Rights Day 2015
Thursday is Human Rights Day.
Sixty-seven years ago, the recently-established United Nations, after being birthed with the words “We, the Peoples …,” felt compelled to raise the international community’s awareness about persistent human rights violations around the post-WW2 world and accentuate the need for comprehensive respect for human rights by codifying a new registry of do’s and don’ts.
The United Nations ratified on December 10, 1948, a document called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that enshrined 20 principles, which its member-states pledged to uphold. The UN’s wasn’t the first attempt to simultaneously recognize mankind’s brutality against itself and the need to put an end to it. In the course of history, nations around the world tried to recognize, designate, adopt, ratify and declare their respect human rights with mixed results. Beyond the declarations’ memorable, quotable passages, adherence has not been universal even by the authors.
The preamble to the UN version states: “Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people…Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations.”
Article 5 further states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Article 15 points out: “Everyone has the right to a nationality.”
During the time of the Soviet Russian empire, Ukrainian political prisoners believed that recognizing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would benefit their cause and announced that they would commemorate December 10 as Human Rights Day in the concentration camps.
Without a doubt, the anniversary should be remembered and appropriately observed today. Supporting human rights is neither liberal or conservative, left or right. Human rights are universally applicable to all human beings, and they are relevant each day – every day, and if you doubt it, just read the newspapers. Recognizing the need for respecting human rights creates a framework for a better future for our descendants. It reemphasizes an age-old agenda of behavior that could ensure dignified lives for successive generations. It offers benefits for an entire spectrum of ideas, ideologies, philosophies and lifestyles. Human rights also include religious, cultural and national rights and the fulfillment of the latter usually guarantees the previous three.
Publicly raising awareness about human rights also imbues today’s impressionable youth with benevolent concepts and behavior that can mentor them as they mature into tomorrow’s leaders.
It is hardly surprising that governments violate human rights, but human rights treaties help to explain why these abuses are wrong and they are tools with which states, governments and rulers can be held accountable.
Critics of human rights accords have said they are ineffective because courts in some countries are too weak or corrupt to enforce them and their rulers are in the forefront of perpetuating violations. However, their codification gives the public a guiding star about how its government – as well as foreign ones – should behave.
As for the revolting associated topic of human rights lawbreakers, they must be driven out into the sunlight where hopefully they and their barbaric behavior will wither. Denying their existence, sweeping them and their crimes under the rug, will perpetuate their felonies and the pain and suffering they create.
Human rights defenders, their passive supporters and civilians continue to be the targets of abuse, physical and verbal attacks, and threats to their lives. In a number of countries they face harassment, unwarranted prosecution, criminalization and even imprisonment for their peaceful and legitimate activities. Many are in fact killed. Last year, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, observed: “It is time for all OSCE participating states to move from words to deeds and to provide more effective protection to those who strive to promote and safeguard human rights in our countries.”
A case in point about the comprehensive range of rights violations is Russia, whose rulers behave how they wish in their country, region and occupied territories like Crimea, completely ignoring the rights and liberties of nations while exporting terror to foreign countries. Freedom House has included Russia in its list of countries that have become less free in recent years witness Russia’s crackdown against the media, NGOs, LGBT, opponents of Putin and non-Russians like ethnic Ukrainians.
Whether tsarist, communist, soviet or federal, Russia has been a recidivist violator of every conceivable right without regard for international treaties. Global organizations such as the United Nations and countries like the United States have tended to cower behind an ill-fated hope that Moscow’s crimes would go unnoticed before they are forced to take action to stop Russia like the free world did with Hitler. They feel more comfortable treating Russia like the 800-pound gorilla in the room while making alliances with it against the latest enemy du jour.
Without delving into history’s yellowed pages, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 18 months ago, its violations have mounted. Beyond the mere fact of the invasion, which violates the UN Charter, the Russo-Ukraine War of 2014-15 has caused grief to countless Ukrainians and other x-captive nationalities, resulted in the death of some 8,000 Ukrainian civilians and soldiers most recently during times of a ceasefire, and given Moscow another opportunity to violate the liberties and human rights of prisoners of war, civilians in Ukraine and ethnic Ukrainians in Russia.
The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, located precariously in Kharkiv, near war-torn occupied eastern Ukraine, has detailed Russia’s gross violations of human rights against Ukrainians.
“Ukrainian human rights activists believe that more than 87% of Ukrainian soldiers and 50% of civilians taken prisoner by Kremlin-backed, pro-Russian militants in Donbas have been subjected to torture or ill-treatment. What is more, in over 40% of the so-called ‘interrogations’ and control over them, key roles were played by mercenaries from the Russian Federation or people who identified themselves as Russian military personnel.
“The coalition Justice for Peace in Donbas has released a report titled “Those Who Survived Hell.” The study is based mainly on a survey of 165 people held prisoner by the militants. In many cases even those who were not themselves tortured report witnessing or hearing about the torture of others. 33% of the soldiers and 16% of civilians had personally witnessed a death as the result of torture,” Halya Coynash wrote in a report on the group’s website. “Almost 75% of the civilians taken prisoner had been threatened with firearms or other weapons.”
The study showed that more than 87% of Ukrainian soldiers and volunteer fighters captured had faced especially brutal treatment, physical violence, humiliation, as well as deliberate maiming.
In another example of Russia’s human rights violations, this one against a civilian, a librarian, Coynash wrote: “A Moscow court has upheld the house arrest until December 27 imposed on Natalya Sharina, director of the Ukrainian Literature Library in Moscow. While the renowned Memorial Human Rights Centre has declared Sharina a political prisoner, the pro-Kremlin NTV channel has come out with a 15-minute program of unadulterated, if deranged, hate speech.
“Sharina’s lawyer Ivan Pavlov notes that the 15-minute program, presented by Savva Morozov, still fails to explain what exactly the library director is supposed to be guilty of. If of circulating extremist books, then the entire staff of the library should be jailed, as well as the whole Moscow Department of Culture as an organized criminal gang.”
As reported, on October 28, armed OMON (special mobile riot police units) officers carried out searches of the Ukrainian Literature Library in Moscow, Sharina’s home, as well as that of the Head of the Association of Ukrainians of Russia, Valery Semenenko. Sharina was taken into custody.
Then there is the ongoing case of Ukrainian pilot and parliamentarian Nadiya Savchenko, who was kidnapped to Russia, imprisoned and now is being subjected to a tedious, unjust trial that is expected to continue for some time.
Coynash wrote: “Vladimir Markin, official representative of Russia’s Investigative Committee, believes that the sentence passed on Ukrainian ex-pilot and MP will be ‘harsh.’ This something (or somebody) obviously allowed him to flagrantly ignore fundamental principles of a fair trial and pre-empt the court in declaring Savchenko guilty. Markin stated that he expected a harsh sentence because those crimes that Nadiya Savchenko committed are clearly regulated by Russian Federation legislation since the crime was committed against Russian citizens.”
Savchenko, who wears a t-shirt emblazoned with a large Ukrainian Tryzub or an embroidered shirt while in the defendant’s cage, is accused of complicity in the death of two Russian journalists who were killed in mortar fire on June 17, 2014. Coynash pointed out that there is no evidence that Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin were deliberately targeted. They had not been provided by the State-controlled Pyervy Kanal with bulletproof vests, etc., and were in an area where fierce fighting was taking place between Kremlin-backed militants and Ukrainian soldiers.
The prosecution claims that Savchenko climbed up a television tower and, at a distance of some 2.5 kilometers noticed the journalists and informed members of the Aider volunteer battalion of their location. Neither the binoculars nor the radio system that the prosecution alleges were used to do this have been produced, Coynash said. Savchenko had already been captured by Kremlin-backed militants in the Luhansk oblast when the two journalists were killed. The defense proved from mobile telephone records and witness reports that Savchenko was captured at around 10 a.m., about 90 minutes before the two journalists came under fire.
Savchenko has announced that she will resume her hunger strike after the verdict goes into effect but it will be a dry hunger strike - this time without water.
The verdict is expected around December 24, Coynash said, “While the Kremlin may indeed be hoping to time it around Christmas to minimize attention, it cannot seriously be expecting a heavy sentence on a PACE delegate whose release has been demanded by all democratic countries and European structures to go unnoticed.”
Russia’s cynical disregard for its violations of human rights is most evident in its ludicrous attempt to declare itself immune from international prosecution for the crime of denying human rights. According to Coynash, this effort was afforded fast-track treatment and adopted on December 4. In other words, this bill gives the Russian Constitutional Court the right to declare it “impossible” to implement international rulings on Russian territory.
Wrote Coynash: “Russia’s parliament has moved closer to allowing the Constitutional Court to decide that international court rulings can be flouted if they are deemed to contradict Russia’s Constitution. Since the very law is in breach of this same Constitution, there seems every reason to suspect that the law will be invoked whenever Moscow does not wish to comply with international law.
“Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea demonstrated the Kremlin’s attitude to international norms, and this law would doubtless be used to try to avoid the legal suits and massive settlements likely to be awarded over that act of aggression.
“Most disturbingly, the bill purports to be implementing a judgment passed by the Constitutional Court on July 14 which stated that ‘Russia, as an exception, may derogate from execution of its obligations if such a derogation is the only possible means of avoiding infringement of fundamental constitutional principles.’”
Citing Anne Brasseur, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Russia has not yet fully implemented some 1,500 judgments, many of which concern particularly serious human rights violations and/or complex structural problems, Coynash wrote. Brasseur emphasized that implementation of ECHR judgments is a legal obligation binding on all parties to the Convention and that there cannot be any “selective implementation.”
This bill will undoubtedly serve as another grave blow to justice, democracy and liberty in Russia, occupied Crimea and other territories invaded and annexed by Moscow. And the list of Moscow’s atrocities goes on and on.
However, the situation may not be as hopeless as it seems. Commemorations of Human Rights Day at all levels should celebrate human rights won, mourn those lost, and include strong condemnation of Russia’s violations but without Russian participation. With human rights being attacked around the world, the global campaign to reform Russia and make it worthy of inclusion in the international fraternity of democratic, humanitarian nations must be spearheaded by civil society, non-governmental organizations, and grassroots groups upon which democratic countries are built. Political leaders are useless because they tend to criticize Moscow and then turn around and shake hands with the likes of Vladimir Putin.
Simone Veil, former minister of state of France, pointed out in a speech at the 61st Annual UN DPI/NGO Conference in 2008 that “NGOs have a vocation to focus attention upon those whose rights are insufficiently protected. Because of their diversity, because of their independence, it is easier for them to defend different points of view, different interests even when those points of view are contradictory.”
NGOs must not only urge their local and national political leaders, global organizations like the United Nations, and news media to pay attention to human rights and their offenders, but they must fight the good fight with their wallets. Many corporations, consultants, academics and government officials believe that it is normal to conduct daily business with companies in outlaw countries such as Russia.
Recently, speakers at a UN preview of a human rights movie called “Rosewater,” sponsored by the US Permanent Mission to the UN, urged the need for civil society to force corporations to stop doing business with violators. This strategy could be more important than signing petitions to governments, they said.
Civil society should make life difficult for businesses that do not insist on human rights adherence in countries where they do business like Russia. Consequently, it is incumbent on civil society to ensure that sales of companies that fail to support human rights precipitously tumble in those nefarious countries, in the United States and elsewhere.
It’s the least free peoples around the world can do to honor the legacy of Human Rights Day and the memory of its defenders and martyrs.
For more information about Human Rights Day visit http://www.un.org/en/events/humanrightsday/.