Letter: Human rights must be respected

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Sir: It is deeply depressing that the first World Conference on Human Rights for 25 years is bogged down in stalemate and likely to end without new or more effective sanctions against the most extreme abuses.

Of course, the Southern countries quite properly insist that economic rights too are vital: to deny that is to abandon nations to grinding poverty, economic bondage, or even starvation. But equally the Northern countries cannot forego their demand that fundamental human rights in the political and civil sphere must be respected. Torturing, mutilating and killing innocent civilians cannot be justified in any circumstances. To deny that is to provide a cover for vicious domestic repression.

The real issue is not the sterile one of whether North or South are right (both are), but of enforcement. Even Amnesty International's favoured proposal of a UN Special Commissioner on Human Rights seems unduly modest. It might enable more rapid action to be taken on reports of human rights abuses and allow better co-ordination both within the UN system and with non-governmental organisations. But it still doesn't offer real teeth for dealing with grossly offending countries.

The Vienna Conference ought to be considering three new proposals. One is a UN tribunal to try crimes against humanity. Where the Special Commissioner judges that the reported evidence has made a prima facie case of flagrant and extreme abuse of human rights on a sufficient scale, the offending country would be asked to defend itself before the UN tribunal. If it refused, the case would be tried in absentia.

Second, a list of torturers should be compiled and published. A warrant would be issued for their arrest and trial before a special human rights court.

Third, apart from identifying and exposing offending countries and individuals, a rising scale of sanctions could be brought to bear to exert international disapproval.

This could include withdrawal of aid, removal of commercial benefits, ending of any debt relief facility, diplomatic isolation, sealing of borders, trade sanctions, and as a last resort, and only in the most extreme cases involving genocide or a complete breakdown of law and order, military intervention.

Yours sincerely,


MP for Oldham West (Lab)

House of Commons

London SW1

22 June

The writer is shadow minister for Aid and Development.