< Viewpoints < 2006


"It is high time to make human rights a reality"


[03/10/06] The credibility of international human rights standards will ultimately depend on whether they are made into reality. More energy has to be directed towards their implementation. Governments need to work out a more systematic and comprehensive strategy to ensure the full realisation of human rights treaties – not least the European Convention on Human Rights and the revised European Social Charter.

Let me suggest a checklist of 10 points on what a well-intentioned government could do to secure the realisation of human rights:

1. Ratify European and international standards

It is a great achievement that all European governments have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights – this also allows for cases to be brought by citizens of these countries to the European Court of Human Rights. However, there are substantial gaps. For instance, some countries have still not ratified Protocol No. 12 on the prohibition of discrimination or, indeed, the revised European Social Charter.

2. Protect the independence of the judiciary

There are today clear tendencies of political pressure on the judiciary in some countries, while corruption of judges through bribery also continues to be a real problem. A self-critical analysis needs to be conducted on the dangers that this entails, and concrete measures need to be adopted to protect the independence of the judiciary.

3. Appoint Ombudsmen and respect their independence

The idea of an independent, quasi-judicial institution that can act upon complaints from individuals has turned out to be very valuable. Most European countries now have such institutions and/or human rights institutions focusing on structural human rights problems. It is crucial that the independence of such institutions is protected by law. The idea of similar institutions on a provincial and local level should be explored.

4. Open the door to non-governmental groups

Civil society groups are central to ensure respect for human rights. Structures should be created for regular dialogue between authorities and non-governmental human rights organisations. Laws should promote and protect these groups, but in a way that they do not strangle them through unnecessary bureaucracy or worse.

5. Respect media freedom

The media can monitor human rights problems effectively, if they have the freedom to operate without interference. Each government wanting to be serious about human rights needs a clear media policy that protects journalists and guarantees that different voices are heard.

6. Encourage human rights learning and awareness

Everyone is entitled to know their rights. Such knowledge is indeed one of the main conditions for the realisation of human rights. However, school education about human rights is still inadequate in most countries, at all levels. Also, there is a need to ensure that professional groups like the police, judges, teachers, social workers and journalists get a solid education in human rights, and that those already in service have a chance to update their knowledge. Moreover, programmes are needed to reach society at large about how people can claim their rights.

7. Clarify provincial and local responsibility

Local authorities have an important role in the implementation of human rights, as they are often in charge of areas such as policing, schools and social security. One weakness in the national implementation efforts has been the lack of vertical co-ordination between authorities. Sometimes local and provincial authorities fail to understand that European and international norms are legally binding for them. Action plans at the municipal level for children’s rights, gender equity, the rights of persons with disabilities and multicultural understanding have given positive results, where tried.

8. Take part in the international defence of human rights

The bodies set up within the Council of Europe and the UN to monitor human rights implementation should be taken seriously: competent independent experts should be nominated to them and governmental reporting should be regular and committed. The principle that no one is above scrutiny should be accepted by all. Also, we have an obligation to respond to grave violations outside our own borders. Today, European governments should react more forcefully to the genocide in Darfur and the torture of foreigners by the CIA. Passivity in the face of such transgressions undermines the credibility of international standards.

9. Introduce human rights concerns into the political process

Human rights concerns must remain at the forefront of the political agenda. Parliaments and local assemblies should raise human rights issues with those responsible, and the executives should report to them on how they have dealt with human rights problems. When budgets are discussed, there should be an evaluation on how proposals affect the rights of, for instance, children and persons with disabilities.

10. Work out a national action plan for human rights

The World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna 1993 recommended that governments draw up a National Action Plan for the protection and promotion of human rights. The idea was for governments to bring together all major stakeholders in a process which would lead to a comprehensive plan covering all substantial human rights issues. Objectives and a coherent framework of benchmarks should be defined. Where this has been tried, the Action Plan has been found useful, for instance, to improve the protection of the most vulnerable groups who otherwise often tend to be forgotten or marginalised.

Such steps can bring us closer to genuine implementation. The noble principles have to be turned into reality for all.

Thomas Hammarberg


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