Developments in recent decades are advancing the cause of human rights around the world. The 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, for example, helped refocus international attention on human rights in the post-Cold War world.
The war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, established by the U.N. Security Council in 1993 and 1994, have developed the law of armed conflict and international humanitarian law, seeking to protect civilians and noncombatants in those civil war conflicts.
Special tribunals were established for Sierra Leone in 2002 and Cambodia in 2003 to prosecute military and political leaders responsible for atrocities during times of war and genocide. In addition, although the United States has not joined as a treaty party, and has expressed certain reservations about its scope, the International Criminal Court was established in 1998 by the Rome treaty, and has been tasked by the U.N. Security Council to prosecute human rights violations in the Darfur conflict in Sudan.
The 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, attempted to place women's issues within the mainstream of international human rights discussions.
With its emphasis on "good governance," the World Bank highlights important human rights issues. The Council of Europe and the European Union have stressed that countries seeking to join the political structures of Europe must have policies that protect human rights.
In 2002, the United States established the Millennium Challenge Corporation to provide economic assistance to countries that govern democratically, invest in their people and encourage economic freedom.
THE ROLE OF PUBLICITY
Another positive development is the light of embarrassing international publicity that increasingly is focused on persistent human rights violators. Global, regional and national groups have created a web of pressures that make it almost impossible today for states to avoid being held accountable publicly for their human rights practices.
The value of publicizing violations and trying to shame states into better behavior should not be underestimated. Even vicious governments may care about their international reputations. For example, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Argentine military regime devoted considerable diplomatic effort to thwart the investigations of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Furthermore, publicity often helps at least a few of the more prominent victims of repression regain a measure of freedom and perhaps avoid execution. The World Wide Web has made it easier for human rights groups to link up and publicize issues.
National and international norms and expectations are being altered for the better. The idea of human rights has a moral force and mobilizing power that is difficult to resist in today’s world. And, as more and more citizens throughout the world come to think of themselves as endowed with inalienable rights, the demand for human rights continues to cause dictators to flee and their governments to crumble.
The sword might prove mightier than the word in the short run. But the task of human rights advocates, wherever they may be, is the ancient and noble one of speaking the truth of justice to power. And one of the most heartening lessons of much recent history is that truth can triumph.
This article, the fourth in a series of four, is adapted from a chapter in an upcoming IIP print publication, "Human Rights in Brief." It is based on the essay “What Are Human Rights?” by Jack Donnelly, a professor of international studies at the University of Denver. Ruth Wedgwood, Edward B. Burling professor of international law and diplomacy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, served as adviser on this publication.