Are Human Rights Outdated?


The 13th Edition of the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights has opened in Geneva. “A Film, A Subject, A Debate” is the heading of a most ambitious program that includes 40 documentaries, 11 feature films, 37 public debates, 160 international speakers, 8 workshops and 76 partners. Quite an achievement for the new director, Isabelle Gattiker, who is following in the large footsteps of the dynamic, innovative creator of the festival, Leo Kaneman.

With young women being kidnapped and sold into slavery, hostages beheaded on videos, captives burned alive, and unique, precious art and artifacts destroyed in the name of erasing all memories of a distinct civilization, perhaps one should ask: Are human rights outdated?

The festival covers a gamut of subjects from the environment, the right to free speech, unlawful surveillance, genocide, migration, and on and on. The films and debates are not for the weak of heart; they accurately represent the outstanding grave violations of human rights today.
The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights was an outgrowth of World War II. Following the horrors revealed after the war, two covenants were developed that set the normative standards for state and individual behavior. Various mechanisms were also put in place, such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, to deal with grave violations and serious breaches of the norms. 
Several challenges were immediately evident within the human rights system. Among them: How could states or individuals be punished? What was the relationship between civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights? How could the right of self-determination be consistent with the right of state sovereignty and domaine réservé? And, were human rights universal, or were they merely a reflection of an international legal order imposed by the victorious powers after World War II? The last, in particular, has become more and more pertinent with the recent shootings in Paris and Copenhagen where the right of free speech has clashed with religious values.
The opening night feature of the Geneva festival, “Caricaturistes: Fantassins de la Démocratie,” was an outstanding presentation of several courageous cartoonists around the world who draw political cartoons in the face of constant threats. The film was made before the assassinations in Paris and Copenhagen. But if any reminders were needed of the delicacy of the subject of cartooning, the Geneva police were out in force around the building.
The presence of the police was a reminder that whereas human rights norms have been established, the implementation of those norms has become more and more problematic. Most of the major human rights covenants and treaties have been signed and ratified by a large majority of states. There is a general consensus on a minimum level of what is or isn’t acceptable. The Universal Peer Review process has been initiated to try to encourage states to abide by their accepted obligations.
But, evidently, most of the major violations mentioned above are not being done by states. While there are certain states which continue to violate international norms – whether it is the state or the people in charge of the state is another question – evidence shows that most of the major, egregious violations today are being done by non-state actors who are completely out of the traditional international system.
Whereas arguments have raged about the universality of human rights and their civilization bias, the recent actions of the Islamic State (IS) and Boko Haram are completely outside that conversation, or any conversation we are familiar with. Their actions defy human rights categories. The Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has called for an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council to condemn the destruction of priceless artifacts in Mosul by IS. What will the Council do? Condemn the actions? And if so, what else? For an intergovernmental organization to condemn a non-state actor is commendable but inefficient since no major sanctions are possible. At least they have not been up to now.
If I question whether human rights are outdated, it is not with joy or conviction. Just seeing those policemen standing guard outside the movie theatre reminded me of the fragility of the human rights regime in the face of the current assaults on the international system. All previous debates were serious debates in a common language. The shocking actions we are witnessing make all of that seem outdated, like writing on a typewriter or with a quill pen.
Are human rights outdated? I hope the answer does not come from Mosul, but the message coming from there, Paris and Copenhagen is clear; the traditional human rights regime is being seriously challenged.

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