In recent times, whenever massacres of civilians are reported such as those in Côte d’Ivoire and Libya, the UN Security Council hands over the matter to the International Criminal Court. What principles justify these interventions by the international community?
Until the 20th Century, there was universal belief that unfair treatment of a country’s citizens was outside the concerns of international law.
However, after World War I, the community of nations decided to come up with guidelines to safeguard minimum rights of an individual.
The establishment of international tribunals after the Rwanda and Bosnia conflicts and the Pinochet case in London suggests a growing consensus that extreme human rights violations are a matter for the international community.
These conventions protect all persons equally irrespective of race, nationality, or membership of any social group.
The first generation of civil and political rights restricts what a state or other person may do to an individual such as taking life, liberty, torture, or dispossession of property.
In countries governed by the rule of law, domestic courts are expected to uphold an individual’s immunity and there is, therefore, no need for international protection.
However, persons living in countries contemptuous of the rule of law, universal human rights are the first line of defence.
This approach is not without critics. First, heated controversy has raged on the universality of human rights, citing certain aspects of it as merely ideological- and culture-specific.
Critics reject the notion that some nations should have a mission to apply their moral principles to the rest of the world, accusing Western countries of attempting to impose respect for human rights, or in particular, punishing other nations for disrespecting these rights.
Some cynics challenge Westerners to export these principles to the rest of the world only through example, and not by fire and sword.
On the other hand, supporters of universality of human rights dispute the cultural argument as a way to evade respect for human rights.
The emergence of non-governmental organisations like Amnesty International dedicated to the enforcement of global treaties and declarations concerning human rights have strengthened the resolve that individuals possess rights simply by virtue of being human.
The US, its allies, and some inter-governmental bodies like the IMF and the Commonwealth have increasingly, sometimes controversially, made it their obligation to promote human rights.
In the 1990s, promotion of human rights and democracy assumed a prominent position in the foreign policies of European states and the criteria used by Western controlled international institutions to issue loans and grants.
European and American efforts to achieve these goals met with limited success, the greatest resistance coming from Asian countries, due, primarily, to increasing economic wealth and confidence.
More often than not, clauses in some countries’ Constitutions (including Kenya’s) stipulating the guarantee of human rights look fine on paper, but trouble begins at implementation.
It is believed that once democracy spreads to all corners of the world, better respect for human rights will follow.
Mr Osoro works with the Centre for Policy Analysis. ([email protected])