|Smart Library on Globalization|
Smart Library on Globalization > Smart Library on Law and Globalization > The Global Spread of Law > Overview: Aspects of Diffusing Law Globally
Human Rights Fail During the Cold War
The United Nations Human Rights Commission was formed to foster international human rights. Author Geoffrey Robertson says that the Commission has failed its mandate.
The United Nations (UN) was established with an eye to a new world order. A centerpiece of this new world order was to be the protection of human rights. Following the atrocities of World War II, this emphasis on human rights was pressing.
However, author Geoffrey Robertson says that the UN's record on this count has been dismal. He details the failure of the UN Human Rights Commission over the past fifty years.
The UN Human Rights Commission
The UN Human Rights Commission was established in 1947 as part of a triptych of human rights statements. UN human rights efforts were captured in three major statements:
The Human Rights Commission was charged with drafting a treaty that would oblige states to guarantee the human rights spelled out in the Universal Declaration as part of their domestic law. The Human Rights Commission was also to monitor state compliance. However, Robertson claims that, at the time the Universal Declaration was ratified, states did not take seriously the notion that the ideals of the declaration would actually be enforced.
Any hope of making these ideals a reality were shattered with the Cold War—beginning in earnest in 1948 with the blockade of Berlin and in 1949 when the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear bombs.
Cold War Failure East and West
The Human Rights Commission was a failure, and it would be another thirty years before the treaty the Commission was charged to create would come into effect. During the Cold War, human rights were paid little more than lip service in the international arena. The UN effectively turned a blind eye to human rights violations in both the East and the West.
Civil rights meant nothing in the Soviet bloc.
The Soviet bloc did not hold a monopoly on violations of the Universal Declaration during the Cold War. U.S. violations of human rights during this period were egregious.
On all counts, The Human Rights Commission did nothing.
Concerted Action against South Africa
For almost twenty years the Commission's work had been limited to paper. Nothing had actually been done to enforce the standards of human rights contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the Convention against Genocide.
In the 1960's, South Africa's policy of apartheid provided the opportunity to actually take action. In 1963, other African nations appealed to the Security Council for a trade boycott against South Africa. In 1967, the General Assembly formally condemned apartheid and called for economic sanctions.
But why South Africa, and why then?
Two things worked in favor of UN action against South Africa.
Taking advantage of this opening, the UN convened a conference in Tehran in 1968. Significantly, the Proclamation of Tehran stated the principle that member states of the international community had an obligation to support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Back to Business As Usual
The hope for additional action by the UN to support human rights did not last long, however. In fact, only three months after the Tehran conference, Soviet tanks were rolling through Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring. The UN General Assembly did nothing. In fact, the UN appeared to change positions entirely in 1970.
The UN's Friendly Declaration (1970) undermined whatever progress had been made against South Africa and at the Tehran conference. In effect, this declaration returned to an official position in which states were prohibited from interfering in the domestic affairs of others. This declaration was called the “tyrant's charter” and stated:
“...armed intervention and all other forms of interference or attempted threats against the personality of the State or against its political, economic and cultural elements, are in violation of international law.”
Not only is it difficult to make sense of the UN's actions toward South Africa in light of the above statement, but the statement essentially gave dictators permission to carry out atrocities—an opportunity that tyrants like General Augusto Pinochet were not slow to take advantage of.
Twin Conventions of 1976 and the Human Rights Committee
The Commission presented two draft conventions to the UN General Assembly in 1966—eighteen years after its inception. This was about all that the Commission's work amounted to during this period. However, it was another ten years before the conventions were to enter into force.
In 1976, the two conventions finally came into force with thirty-five states ratifying them. The two conventions were the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Why two covenants? The Cold War was still firmly in place, and the focus of the two political blocs (U.S. and the USSR) had very different emphases on what counted as human rights. The U.S. bloc focused on civil and political rights, while the Soviet bloc focused more on economic and social rights. The Commission wisely drafted two separate conventions to reflect this difference in focus.
However, only the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was provided with an enforcement mechanism: the Human Rights Committee. The purpose of the Committee was two-fold:
Forming the Human Rights Committee was much less a watershed than it might seem, however. The Committee suffered from severe limitations and flaws and so has been largely ineffective. In fact, Robertson observes that the Committee made itself a laughing stock when Libya was elected as the chair to the Committee in 2003.
The hope for a new world order envisioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was almost immediately crushed with the start of the Cold War. The Human Rights Commission, established to make the principles of the Universal Declaration a reality, failed miserably. The Commission did little more than paperwork during the Cold War, and turned a blind eye to the atrocities around them. The treaties that the Commission was charged to draft did not come into effect until almost thirty years after the Commission was formed.
Data and Methods:
Information was drawn from the author's experience conducting missions for Amnesty International and analysis of historical and legal research.
Robertson, Geoffrey. 2006. Crimes Against Humanity. New York: The New Press. Ch. 1, pp. 1-40.
Other Keytexts from this source