Human rights as an international concern began in the modern era with the formation of anti-slavery organizations in the early 1800s. These groups pressured the British government to outlaw slavery in Britain in 1833 and to suppress the slave trade overseas.
However, at the Treaty of Versailles and in the League of Nations after WWI, the rights of nations within states and colonies under the European empires were ignored. The European powers kept their colonies, the Kurds did not get a country and the British and French divided the Middle East between them, regardless of the wishes of the people living there. In the 1920s, Native Canadian Haudenosaunee Chief Deskaheh’s demands for rights at the League of Nations were blocked by the Canadian government.
After WWII, reflecting the worldwide shock at the discovery of the Nazi genocide against the Jews, the United Nations passed the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, numerous UN treaties and declarations have expanded and further specified a host of human rights. We should also acknowledge our debt to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other NGOs, who have sometimes persuaded governments and the UN to make human rights a priority. For instance, during the Carter administration (1976-80), they persuaded the U.S. government to start issuing regular reports on human rights in other countries.
However, the UN did not stop the government’s mass killings and rapes in East Pakistan in 1971 (the Indian Army intervened and quickly defeated the Pakistan Army, allowing Bangla Desh to become independent) or the killing of two million people in Cambodia in the late 1970s (Vietnam intervened and ousted the Khmer Rouge government). The UN only sent observers to the recent killings in Sudan and South Sudan, has done nothing about the 500,000 dead in the Syrian civil war, and has been ineffective in stopping the killing in Congo and Somalia. Meanwhile, the repression of political protest in Russia, Iran, China, Tibet, Venezuela and many other countries and the mistreatment of women, children and minorities in many countries continues unpunished.
In 1995, NATO did intervene to stop ethnic cleansing, genocide and mass rapes in Yugoslavia, but only after five years of delay. However, nothing was done during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda because none of the big powers had any economic or security interests there. In 2005, the UN passed the R2P (Responsibility to Protect) policy, but it has not been used in the Syria war because of Russian and Chinese vetoes on the Security Council.
Trials, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. Human Trafficking.
After WWII, German and Japanese leaders were tried in war crimes trials. Since the 1990s, tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the new International Criminal Court have given long sentences to national leaders convicted of war crimes. No more retiring to the French Riviera to enjoy stolen millions. The ICC even issued a warrant for the arrest of the then-sitting President of Sudan, Omar Bashir. Since then, Bashir has been ousted and the current regime says they will extradite him.
Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are an innovation that started in South Africa after the white regime was removed and which was also used in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide in which Hutus killed 800,000 Tutsis. The Commissions do not pass sentences or punish people if they tell the truth about what they did and apologize. This may reflect less emphasis on revenge in African culture.
Even without war, human trafficking violates the human rights of a million people a year by delivering desperate migrants into jobs with low or no wages and forcing women into prostitution.
The UN Declaration includes Civic and Political Rights- The right to vote in free and fair elections, run for office, openly express political views, freedom of speech, press and religion, etc. It also has expanded rights in other areas:
Women’s Rights- Reproductive rights, marriage rights, job rights, educational and economic equality, freedom from violence.
Minority Rights- Equal rights in politics, education and economics.
Children’s Rights- Right to education, a healthy upbringing, freedom from exploitation.
Indigenous Rights- The right to control one’s own land, livelihood, culture and government.
Economic Rights- The right to food, a job and a decent living, the right to unionize.
Education Rights- Equal access to education.
There have been several rounds of controversies over human rights. For instance, repressive countries such as China and Saudi Arabia have gained membership on the UN’s Human Rights Commission, claimed that human rights only represent a Western perspective, and said that stability, economic development and group welfare take precedence over individual rights. This conveniently gives them justification to suppress any opposition. In addition, some Muslim countries have objected to women’s rights as violating traditional culture, conveniently allowing them to continue oppressing women.
Meanwhile, numerous human right violations occur without action from the international community.
-In North Korea, Kim Jong Un holds over 100,000 political prisoners in starvation work camps, including beatings with iron bars and sexual attacks. Many of the prisoners’ only crime is to be related to someone out of favor. Kim has executed over 300 senior government officials, including his own uncle, and had his half-bother assassinated.
-Starting in 2015, thousands of Rohinga, long-settled Muslim refugees from Bangla Desh, were killed and raped in Buddhist-majority Myanmar by the Army and 750,000 had their villages burned and were forced out of the country.
-In the Philippines, since his becoming president in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte’s thugs have killed over 20,000 ‘drug dealers’ without arrests or trials. He has imprisoned opposition leaders and there have been mysterious killings of government officials.
-Starting in 2016 in Xinjiang, China has imprisoned one million Muslim Uighurs in ‘reeducation camps,’ where they are interrogated and forced to recite and sing communist texts and songs. Lately, Uighurs have been sent to work in factories in other parts of China. In the cities, there are cameras and checkpoints everywhere and households are forced to host ‘guests’ from the government who report on their every move. In other parts of the country, China has increased censorship and jailed critics and their lawyers.
-The U.S. also violated human rights in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Suspected terrorists were kidnapped, sent to Guantanamo Bay and secret prisons overseas, and subjected to harsh interrogation methods. Similar methods were employed in Iraq. Experienced interrogators could have told them that torture does not produce accurate information - the prisoners just tell you want you want to hear. In addition to these violations, many civilians have been killed in U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.