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Die Zukunft der Menschenrechte

The Future of Human Rights. By Gunnar Köhne (ed.)

Gunnar Köhne (ed.): Die Zukunft der Menschenrechte (The Future of Human Rights), Rowohlt, Reinbeck bei Hamburg 1998.

04.04.1999 · Reviewed by Heidi Kübel

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Half a century after the universal declaration of human rights in 1948 , there is little reason for celebration, as Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated at the 50th anniversary of the declaration. In 117 countries, that is two thirds of all the states worldwide, people are subject to torture and maltreatment, according to Amnesty International. Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia stand for the blackest depths of failure to protect human rights.

Do human rights after those recent developments have any future? Which new challenges are to be confronted? How can human rights policy be implemented against this background? These are the questions that scholars, journalists and human rights activists from Europe, Asia and America try to answer in this publication. The variety of their professional and geographical backgrounds gives this book a special attraction.

The title "Die Zukunft der Menschenrechte - The future of human rights" seems misleading at first glance, as the authors do not speculate on scenarios of human rights in a vague future. Instead they analyze the chances and problems with which the nineties confront us and which demonstrate what challenges in the 21st century will be like: The end of the cold war offers new opportunities for a common human rights policy in East and West., but at the same time civil wars, the disintegration of states and other disasters lead to conflicts in which human rights are in danger.

A common conclusion can be drawn from several essays: repression by the state will shift in emphasis. Victims of repression will not only be individual members of the political opposition, but increasingly ethnic, religious and social minorities. Ethnic minorities were the victims of the mass murder in Rwanda as well as of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. Without playing down the human rights crimes in other parts of the world, Western authors also draw the attention to outrages in their own countries, where it is also fringe groups and minorities who are the most likely subject to discrimination and maltreatment. This comprehensive approach gives this book greater credibility.

The Chinese dissident Wei Jinsheng confronts those who claim human rights are a Western concept which is incompatible with "Asian values." Asian values, according to Jinsheng, are made up as an instrument of some Asian governments to oppress the people. This idea tries to divide human beings in groups with more rights and dignity, and groups with less, although a Chinese or an Indonesian, whatever the difference in cultural traditions, has as little desire to be tortured or killed as a European or an American. Jinsheng also condemns the assertion that economic development precedes human rights in time and importance. The boom in the Asian economy has served several regimes in Asian tiger states as justification for their political systems and as evidence that economic development flourishes best in dictatorships. The collapse of several Asian economies has put a damper on those claims. Jinsheng presumes that the Asian peoples including the Chinese will, step by step, move towards democracy. It would have been good to read more Asian opinions on this thesis, as well as other voices from the Middle East or from Africa.

Human rights work in the future will be confronted with the problem of addressing the perpetrators of human rights violations. In the case of civil war or disintegration of a state there is no official representative to be held responsible for the crimes against citizens. In other cases, governments do exist, but in response to growing pressure on them to respect human rights, they injure those rights in less provable ways. This is why there is an increasing number of victims of disappearance and out of court executions carried out by gangs signed up by governments or military such as Latin America's notorious death squads. They leave victims and their relatives without any chance to prove the responsibility of the state and without any legal protection.

The possibilities of human rights work in practice in several NGOs and the success stories that are rarely talked about are excellently described by another essay. But human rights are not only an interest of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch & Co.; they have an essential importance for international security. Nearly all of the conflicts in the nineties and potential conflicts in the future, states one of the essays, begin as internal conflicts and result from human rights offenses. The protection of human rights is therefore indispensable for the prevention of conflict as well as the consolidation of peace after the end of a conflict. At the end of the 20th century, when the process of setting norms is about to be finished, a thesis says, the 21st century must be the one to properly implement human rights. The International Criminal Court will play an important role as an instrument that can provide responsibility to people living in a state not under the rule of law.

The last essay, which is supposed to show preconditions in response to future threats for human rights, is unfortunately very vague, more an appeal to people not to forget about human rights than a description of concrete instruments. But in its totality the collection of essays provides a sweeping overview, giving the reader an impression of the variety of human rights problems worldwide and drawing attention to the complexity of human rights policy on the level of governments, international organizations and NGOs: a patchwork of challenges and chances to get the unfinished revolution of human rights closer to its goal.
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