You may recall that December of last year marked the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and so far into 2008, we have seen some steps forward as well as some steps back in terms of major events in international law. On the positive side, we are seeing dramatic advancement in the prosecution of some of the world’s most long standing human rights abusers, involving former heads of state everywhere from Latin America to Southeast Asia. Khmer Rouge leaders, for example, are finally being brought to trial in Cambodia (stemming from the establishment of a joint Cambodia-UN tribunal in 2006 to try former officials for crimes committed during the regime), albeit despite the fact that Ieng Sary, the former Khmer Rouge foreign minister, is now frail, in his eighties, and struggling to get through days in court. The most stupendous development for human rights that has emerged this year is the US Supreme Court’s ruling last month to reinstate habeas corpus for prisoners at Guántanamo Bay. The ruling means that prisoners will now be able to challenge their detentions in US courts, whereas previously they could be locked up indefinitely without trial. Although we eagerly welcome this ruling, it is a shockingly overdue attempt to rectify what has long been a gross abuse of the most basic human rights.
It would be a misconception to think that western countries are innocent of human rights abuses, even though they may appear more “civilised” than other countries, or are coloured by the protective umbrella of democracy. Britain, for example, is currently taking one of the more forceful stances on sanctions for Zimbabwe, following the Mugabe government’s recent, shocking mutilations of democratic supporters in Zimbabwe leading up to its sham elections.But, quite apart from the fact that the viability of sanctions is arguable (read a brilliant article by Simon Jenkins at The Guardian if you’re interested in hearing why sanctions are not always the best option), Britain’s own human rights record, at least in terms of terror detention, is pretty poor. Just last month, evidence of a legal black hole in Iraq emerged, with the British Army standing accused of detaining two men, without trial or legal aid, for five years.And Prime Minister Gordon Brown has met with a barrage of criticism for trying to have the number of days possible to hold a prisoner without charge extended from the already-extreme 42 to 56. And in Russia, we constantly hear complaints regarding prisons, the increasing gap between rich and poor, stringent control of the press, and corruption.It seems the Institute for Contemporary Development (supported by Dmitry Medvedev) puts it best when it says that democracy is preferable simply because it is the most effective way of protecting the financial interests of the elite. In other words, it seems as though the human rights register is wildly different for every country, and, in the end, the outcome of most cases has far more to do with the interests of its government than the prevailing of justice and common sense.