Saturday, December 10, 2011

International law as a tool to promote human rights

(On Human Rights Day 2011, we present Part 2 of a 2-part series on human rights advocacy by guest blogger Lisa Reinsberg; Part 1 is here)

Despite the significance of international law for human rights – discussed in my post yesterday – international law remains at a distance from many who work in and struggle for human rights. (credit for Human Rights Day 2011 logo)
Few victims, social justice advocates, and attorneys around the world are aware of the relevance of international law to the issues they confront. Even fewer are equipped with the knowledge and support necessary to use international law and mechanisms to protect human rights effectively, on either an individual or a societal level.
Determined persons can access a variety of academic resources. Yet such resources generally are known only by, and useful only to, the small group of attorneys routinely engaged in international advocacy. For most other persons, international law remains opaque and difficult to utilize.
Further, the ability of existing nongovernmental organizations to meet the needs of inexperienced international human rights advocates is limited in one or more important aspects -- for example, by geography or theme, or by scarce resources. The lack of transparency generally surrounding the work of human rights mechanisms’ is also a consequence of the limited resources of those bodies for press, public education, and outreach.
The outcomes of utilizing international human rights mechanisms vary, not only as a function of the differing mandates of the individual bodies, but also as a product both of the broader political and social context and of the expertise and strategies employed by victims and victims' representatives.
Indeed, in supranational human rights tribunals like those mentioned in yesterday's post, rejection rates remain high.
Lacking the resources to investigate each claim, human rights tribunals must rely on the facts and arguments provided by the parties. Often that is not ideal. A petitioner may complain of the thing that most affronted his sense of dignity or hurt his pocketbook, while neglecting to mention the injustices that seem to him routine or unlikely to interest an international body.
For example, while serving as legal fellow at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, I once came across a petition in which a group of individuals complained of the temporary confiscation of their personal items by police. It was only through additional research and correspondence that I learned the confiscation occurred in the context of a large-scale eviction, displacement, and harassment of the indigenous community to which the individuals belonged.
In the absence of broader awareness or interest, immediate and full compliance with human rights mechanisms’ recommendations or judgments still proves largely illusory. States are thought to be more likely to comply with monetary reparations than with more fundamentally protective or transformative reparations, such as legislative change. Similarly, international bodies are chronically underfunded, in spite of being responsible for ever-growing caseloads. This problem has led to repeated calls for funding reform, including this call for funding, posted a few weeks ago by James A. Goldston, Executive Director of the Open Society Justice Initiative.
Notwithstanding these challenges, international human rights bodies can have enormous impact at both the individual and societal levels. Examples include:
► An instance in which human rights intervention allowed an immigrant to stay with his family;
► An issue on which IntLawGrrls frequently have posted, the enabling of the prosecution of high-level officials through the repeal of amnesty laws that had immunized past international crimes (as in Peru and Uruguay); and
► Supranational bodies’ significant, broadly-accepted and progressive expansion of what we now consider human rights protected by law.
Even partial successes must be judged against the alternative; after all, it is only once domestic remedies prove unfruitful that victims may turn to supranational venues for individual redress. For a victim of a human rights violation, the opportunity to have her story recorded, a past injustice acknowledged, and the state’s accountability finally determined is meaningful, and more than she would otherwise have. That is even more the case with respect to a public apology from the state, such as those extended just in the last month: two by Mexico (here and here), one by Britain, and one by Guatemala.
A woman I once interviewed, who has not seen her husband since he was abducted by government agents over a decade ago, explained the difference between her hearing before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and her previous dealings with the state. Referring to government officials as "they," she said of the judicial forum:
'There they listen.…now it is they who have to give answers.'
Helping victims obtain not only answers, but also justice, by democratizing access to international norms and mechanisms, is the aim of the International Justice Resource Center, founded earlier this year.

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