Curt Goering: Amnesty International
Curt Goering of Amnesty International answers some of NOW’s questions on issues related to human rights, such as his views on the new U.N. Human Rights Council, the decision by the U.S. to not take part in the International Criminal Court and how the U.S. itself is faring in the area of human rights.
Q: Who do you believe are currently the worst human rights offenders?
A: Amnesty doesn't rank or compare the human rights records of countries. The types of violations vary from country to country and there isn't yet a sufficient mechanism developed to rank or measure abuses. In addition, there is the question of how one quantifies pain. Is it worse to hold a thousand people in untried detention for years or for a small number to be "disappeared" or executed extra-judicially? How does one measure whether torture involving severe physical brutality (ripping out of the fingernails, beatings, electric shocks, breaking of bones, etc.) is worse than sophisticated psychological techniques (mock executions, threats) or techniques which leave few physical scars but which may be just as destructive to the person (sleep deprivation, forced to stand, sit in painful positions for long periods, being subject to temperature extremes, being blasted with loud music, withholding of food, etc.)
Instead of attempting comparisons, AI concentrates on trying to end the specific violations of human rights in each case. That said, there are some dire situations at present which should be mentioned: the ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Sudan and in Darfur; the massive scale of violations in the Demcratic Republic of the Congo (in terms of numbers of deaths, this is probably the worst); the continuing abuses in Myanmar (Burma), North Korea, China (including Tibet and Xinjiang), Nepal, Zimbabwe, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, and highly repressive states throughout the Middle Eastern region.
Q: Are things improving or are they getting worse in the world with respect to human rights?
A: The record is mixed. On the positive side, we see a worldwide trend towards abolition of the death penalty, with over 120 countries now having abolished the death penalty in law or in practice. In fact, only four states in 2005 carried out 94% of all known executions: China (by far the largest executing state), Iran, Saudi Arabia and the U.S.
We see a growing demand for accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations. Examples include the establishment of the International Criminal Court, the Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, Sierra Leone, the recent developments with Hissene Habre of Chad or Charles Taylor of Liberia.
There is also a growing movement to hold non-state actors accountable for human rights protection, including corporations, families/tribes/clans (honor killings/violence against women) and landowners or drug barons.
Positives also include the availability of good human rights information about what is happening, a growing international human rights movement and expanding civil society organizations in most countries around the world; a growing partnership and work in coalition among NGOs; the use of technology to mobilize and share information.
And there is a growing recognition of economic, social and cultural rights as rights: that the right to food, to housing, health care, employment, education, etc. are rights every bit as important as the right to freedom of speech or the right not to be tortured or arbitrarily detained. There is a growing understanding of the interrelationship and indivisibility of rights: civil, political, economic, social and cultural.
On the other hand we see a disturbing worldwide rollback in the primacy of the rule of law; the willingness to disregard established human rights standards and agreements--to justify abuses, even including torture, in the name of "fighting terror." Unfortunately this effort is being led by the U.S., and many other countries see this and say, "If the U.S. can do this, then so can we." The damage being done by the negative example the U.S. is setting can hardly be overstated. Worldwide, governments are now justifying their violations with assertions of "fighting terror."
Human rights violations carried out by armed groups are also on the rise. The deliberate targeting of civilians has become a feature of everyday life, and attacks have occurred of course in the U.S. and Western Europe as well as in other countries around the world. These amount, at times, to war crimes or crimes against humanity.
Q: What are the main challenges to enforcing human rights by the international community?
A: One of the main challenges is to get governments to match their rhetoric on human rights with action. Many governments commit to respect human rights in their constitutions, penal codes and human rights treaties that they sign and ratify. But they don't follow through on their commitments. Public indifference and apathy in the face of violations is also a huge problem. There is an urgent need for a vastly increased and mobilized civil society at the local, national, regional and international levels which can hold governments and non-state actors accountable. There needs to be a far larger and more active human rights constituency worldwide which can pressure their own and other governments and international institutions.
The human rights movement needs to be able to better show how ordinary people taking action to protect the human rights of individuals can actually make a difference in the lives of other ordinary people around the world who desperately need their help.
As noted above, the bad example the U.S. government has set on human rights in pursuit of the "war on terror" is also a major challenge. This includes not only the Bush Administration's use of torture and its attempts to legitimize the practice but also the failure of the U.S. Congress to establish an independent commission to investigate these abuses and hold all those accountable--up as well as down the chain of command--accountable. Instead, the government has sought to redefine what constitutes torture, to justify coercive interrogation techniques, and has established numerous "black sites" in parts of the world for the purpose of holding suspects outside the reach of the law.
The rise of abuses carried out by armed or terrorist groups presents another major challenge. While campaigning methodologies and strategies have been developed to pressure governments, how civil society can pressure armed groups to cease deliberate attacks on civilians is an area needing much more thought and development by the broader human rights community.
Q: A new U.N. Human Rights Council was set up last month to replace the discredited U.N. Human Rights Commission, which has been heavily criticized for having countries with poor human rights records as members. Do you think the new Council will be more effective?
A: While the new Council is not everything AI hoped it would be, we believe it is a major improvement over the Human Rights Commission, and believe it can be strong and effective. First, the Council will meet at least three times a year for 10 weeks. This is much better than the Commission’s annual meeting which lasted for six weeks (with the possibility for additional sessions in special circumstances). Members of the Council will be elected by an absolute majority of the General Assembly (96 votes), and it is agreed that governments voting for Council members should consider the candidates' human rights records. If governments follow through on this, abusive governments should not sit on the Council as happened with the Commission.
The system of independent "special rapporteurs" on countries and themes, which was one of the strengths of the previous system, will be continued. NGO access to the Council will also be continued. The Council has the right to address specific country situations and there is a new procedure to examine the human rights records of the more powerful countries. The absence of this with the HRC resulted in frequent charges the Commission applied double standards.
The first indicator of where this is headed will come in May when the 191 member states elect the first membership of the Council.
Q: The U.S. has refused to be involved in the International Criminal Court arguing that U.S. soldiers might be the subject of politically motivated or frivolous prosecutions. Is that a valid justification in your opinion?
A: The 139 countries who decided to endorse the ICC’s statute after an extensive examination of the safeguards included in it do not share the Administration's fears. I'd like to point out a few facts about the Rome Statute that are often overlooked in the press and sometimes deliberately distorted by those who oppose the Court:
First and foremost, it is important to understand that the Court is intended to serve as a safety net, essentially a court of last resort, to investigate and prosecute the most grave human rights crimes committed pursuant to an official plan or policy, only when the governments who are responsible are unwilling or unable to do so themselves, such as in circumstances where judicial systems have collapsed, are overwhelmed or under siege on account of conflict, or are compromised by corruption. The Court’s first cases, which involve the mass crimes committed in Darfur, the DRC, and Uganda, attest to this point, as does the ICC Prosecutor's decision not to investigate allegations of war crimes committed in Iraq, noting that the crimes failed to meet the threshold of gravity required by the Court's Statute, and suggesting that "effectively functioning national legal systems" are in a better position to address these allegations.
The "price of admission" of joining the ICC and its governing Assembly of States Parties is to accept the Court’s jurisdiction over crimes committed within one's own territory. Accordingly, none of the world’s so-called "rogue" governments have ratified and few are likely to do so. The countries who are joining the Court are overwhelmingly the world’s democracies, allies of the U.S. not likely to seek or support politically motivated investigations.
The ICC Prosecutor is accountable to the above-mentioned Assembly of States Parties (the "ASP", comprised of the countries which have ratified the ICC treaty). The ASP establishes an independent oversight mechanism for inspection, evaluation, and investigation of the Court; elects judges, prosecutors, and other Court officials; determines and pays for the budget of the Court, and is able to vote to dismiss judges, prosecutors, and other Court officials. The ICC’s judges are subject to sanction or removal by the Assembly if found to have committed serious misconduct or a serious breach of his or her duties.
Moreover, the Court will have internal checks and balances. Although they are all within the overall framework of the Court, the Registrar (administrator), prosecutor, judges, and the appeals process are distinct from each other. Their separate staff and responsibilities enable them to check and balance each other to ensure that all departments and personnel are accountable. For example, if the prosecutor wishes to pursue a case that is not referred by the Security Council, he or she must present the case to a three-judge panel. Long before an indictment can be handed down, the prosecutor must overcome several hurdles, with the entire process overseen by a three-judge Pre-Trial Chamber whose decisions, in turn, are subject to appeal to the five-judge Appeals Chamber.
Finally, the Security Council may vote to suspend a case for a period of twelve months, after which it has the power to renew the suspension each year indefinitely.
It is worth noting that the ICC’s statute contains every due process protection in the U.S. Constitution, with the exception of a jury trial. This is in part due to the contribution of U.S. negotiators, who because the Clinton Administration chose to stay engaged, were able to ensure that these safeguards were incorporated into the Statute. In fact, U.S. military officials served in the U.S. delegations to the Rome Conference that established the ICC’s statute, the preceding Preparatory Committee, and the subsequent Preparatory Commissions. Department of Defense lawyers played a leading role in establishing the Elements of Crimes and Rules and Procedures of the Court. U.S. citizens accused of crimes and subject to trial in foreign justice systems would be guaranteed far fewer due process protections than in the Rome Statute.
Q: How would you evaluate America's current record on human rights?
A: Historically, of course, the U.S. has played an important role in the development of many international human rights standards such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the U.S. has often been seen as a strong human rights advocate, albeit an inconsistent one. At the same time there have long been concerns about a range of serious human rights violations in the U.S., ranging from use of the death penalty (including
until recently the execution of juvenile offenders), treatment of prisoners and conditions of imprisonment (especially but only relating to isolation in super-maximum security confinement) which has at times amounted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment; police brutality and the use of excessive force by law enforcement officials, including abuse of electro-shock weapons (stun guns, stun belts, Tasers, etc.), which are increasingly being used by law enforcement officers, and other restraint devices; custodial sexual misconduct in prison including by males guarding female inmates; shackling of pregnant women inmates even during childbirth; discrimination on grounds of race, ethnicity or gender or other identity including ill-treatment of members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans-gendered populations; abuses relating to gender inequality; domestic violence and the holding of children with adults. In addition there are concerns that the doors are being closed to many asylum-seekers and refugees, especially in the post 9/11 era with broad laws such as the REAL ID Act and the Patriot Act.
Some of the most serious and widespread abuses have taken place within the context of the "war on terror." These include: torture and ill-treatment and cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions of detention at facilities outside the U.S., including but not limited to Guantanamo Bay, Iraq and Afghanistan (interrogation techniques and the inadequacy of the government's response); treatment of enemy combatants in the U.S.; arbitrary detentions and the lack of judicial review for detainees, curtailment of the right to habeas corpus; military commissions; secret detention and renditions.