Around the world, there are many areas where attention must be paid to basic human rights. From the right to life and liberty to freedom of work and education, there are many areas where human rights can be improved. Aseil Al-Shehail, independent consultant and human rights advocate, shares the meaning of being a human rights advocate. She explores the most critical human rights issues and explains how basic protections can help people live healthy and dignified lives.
Human Rights Advocacy
Human rights advocates must be able to promote their initiatives using their communication skills. They need to be compassionate toward disadvantaged people and have respect for all individuals. Human rights advocates need to have diplomatic skills and the ability to promote their causes by contacting governments and those that can help affect change. Finally, human rights advocates need to possess a deep conviction to support their causes despite potential opposition.
Focus Areas for Human Rights Advocates
In many countries, liberties are being curtailed and people have become victims of violence and oppression.
Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights
One important area of focus, for human rights advocates, is economic, social, and cultural rights. People must be allowed to work in satisfactory conditions. They also need an adequate standard of living and to have their physical and mental well-being supported. Finally, everyone should have the right to education and cultural freedom.
Economic rights are another crucial piece of the puzzle. Every citizen needs to have the right to work and the right to choose their own jobs. They must not be compelled to work in specific capacities at the government’s choosing. They must receive fair and equitable pay for their efforts, and they must have safe and healthy working conditions.
A living wage is another important institution. Many countries do not mandate that full-time workers receive a wage adequate to support themselves with a decent living. This is an area that requires significant change.
Workers have the right to reasonable working hours, time off for vacations, rest days, and family leave, as needed.
Employees should have the right to form and participate in trade unions. These unions need to be able to organize on a national and international level, as desired. Workers need to have the right to strike when their rights are not being respected.
Family rights are essential as well. All young people must be respected regardless of their parentage. Families need to be supported, and marriage must be a matter of free will for both parties. The age of legal marriage needs to be restricted to protect young women from exploitation. Expecting and new mothers need to be accounted for in the workplace.
All children should have the right to special measures of protection. They should be protected from social and economic exploitation. If they are able to work, the conditions must be strictly observed. Countries need to set age limits for working youth and to restrict their hours to allow for economic and social development.
Civil and Political Rights
Civil and political rights are another key area of focus. The United Nations holds that every person should have the right to freely determine their political status. Governments need to take their citizens’ rights into consideration when planning policies. They need to respect their citizens as human beings while helping them participate in the political process. This applies not only to democratic countries, but to governments of all types.
All people should have the right to practice their political beliefs and to avoid oppression from government sources. Political and civil rights must be given equally without regard to race, color, sex, language, religion, political opinion, national origin, property, or birth. There are many countries around the world where these rights are under assault, and human rights advocates like Aseil Al-Shehail are instrumental in preserving them for everyone.
People must be able to dispose of their own wealth and resources in any way they see fit. They must not be denied their means of subsistence.
When rights are violated, there must be clear direction for recourse. The case must be heard by a competent legislative, administrative, or judicial authority, and fair remedies should be prescribed.
The right to life is also protected by the United Nations and by human rights advocates. It is imperative that no human being be deprived of their life arbitrarily. While some countries, like the United States, have not abolished the death penalty for serious crimes, strict rules must be followed. Additionally, military service must be performed under certain rules, and where countries require compulsory military service, the rights of conscientious objectors need to be respected.
Finally, one of the most basic human rights, that is still being withheld in some places, is slavery or forced labor. This practice must be abolished globally.
Supporting Fair Conditions for All
When human rights advocates work together, they will be able to enhance living conditions globally. Basic human rights will be protected, and people will be able to live their lives free of oppression. For many, this may simply be an idealized vision of the world, but human rights advocates, like Aseil Al-Shehail, it is not just a vision, it’s a responsibility.
Anders Behring Breivik has won part of a human rights case against the Norwegian state.
The court upheld the mass murderer’s claim that some of his treatment amounted to “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.
After the judgement, Anders Breivik’s lawyer, Oystein Storrvik, called for his solitary confinement to be repealed.
Anders Breivik, a right-wing extremist, killed dozens of young center-left political activists in an attack on the island of Utoya in July 2011.
Earlier that day, he set off a car bomb in Oslo, killing eight people.
In her ruling, judge Helen Andenaes Sekulic said the right not to be subjected to inhuman treatment represented “a fundamental value in a democratic society” and also applied to “terrorists and killers”.
Photo Getty Images
Anders Breivik had challenged the government over his solitary confinement, which saw him kept alone in his cell for 22 to 23 hours a day, denied contact with other inmates and only communicating with prison staff through a thick glass barrier.
His prison regime deviated so markedly from that enforced upon any other prisoner in Norway, regardless of the severity of their crimes, that it had to be considered an extra punishment, Judge Sekulic said.
However, article three of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) required that prisoners be detained in conditions that did not exceed the unavoidable level of suffering inherent in detention, given the practical requirements of the particular case, the judge said.
The prison authorities had also not done enough to counteract the damage Anders Breivik had suffered from being in isolation, she said.
The judge also noted that Anders Breivik had been woken up every half hour at night over a long period of time and on some occasions subjected to strip searches with female officers present, which he found particularly difficult.
“Taken together with the other stringent restrictions which he was subject, this was regarded as degrading treatment in the Convention sense,” Judge Sekulic said, according to NRK .
State lawyer Marius Emberland said the government was surprised by the verdict but had not decided whether to appeal.
If neither side appeals against the judgement within four weeks, the prison is obliged to make Anders Breivik’s prison regime more lenient in line with the judge’s remarks, NRK reported.
The prison must work to bring in other prisoners and “facilitate a community”, the judge said.
However, Judge Sekulic ruled that strict controls on Anders Breivik’s correspondence were justified and his right to a private and family life under article eight of the ECHR had not been violated.
The court also ordered the Norwegian state to pay Anders Breivik’s legal costs of 330,000 kroner ($40,000).
Bjorn Ihler, a survivor of Anders Breivik’s massacre of young activists on Utoya, tweeted that the judgement in Breivik’s favor showed Norway had a “working court system, respecting human rights even under extreme conditions”.
According to an Amnesty International reports, the torture of suspects in police detention is widespread in China with implements like spiked rods and torture chairs regularly deployed to extract confessions.
The report is based on interviews with nearly 40 Chinese human rights lawyers.
Despite China’s top court banning torture in 2013 and criminal justice reforms, rights groups say the practices are still widely used.
Chinese authorities have not responded to allegations.
After similar allegations by Human Rights Watch in May, the foreign ministry said Chinese law prohibited torture during interrogation.
Photo Getty Images
The Amnesty International report describes suspects being slapped, kicked and hit with shoes or with bottles filled with water.
It also details tools of torture including “tiger chairs” in which individuals’ legs are tightly bound to a bench, with bricks gradually added under the victim’s feet, forcing the legs backwards as well as long periods of sleep deprivation and the denial of sufficient food and water.
Amnesty International said that for police, obtaining a forced confession is still considered the easiest way to secure a conviction.
The report’s author, Patrick Poon, said local officials and police “continue to pull the strings of China’s criminal justice system. Despite defense lawyers’ best efforts, many claims of torture are simply ignored”.
The Amnesty International report comes a week before China’s human rights record is set to be reviewed by the United Nations anti-torture committee in Geneva.
The UN has called for the Security Council to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC) over its human rights record.
The human rights committee passed a motion seeking a probe into alleged crimes against humanity committed by the Pyongyang regime.
The motion still needs to be voted on by the General Assembly itself.
A UN report released in February revealed ordinary North Koreans faced “unspeakable atrocities”.
The UN Commission of Inquiry detailed wide-ranging abuses in North Korea after hearing evidence of torture, political repression and other crimes.
It led to Tuesday’s non-binding vote, which was passed with 111 countries in favor and 19 against, with 55 abstentions.
China and Russia, which hold veto power on the Security Council, voted against the motion.
The resolution also condemned North Korea for its poor human rights record, and urged the Security Council to consider targeted sanctions against those responsible for the crimes.
Michael Kirby, who chaired the report, described the move as “an important step in the defense of human rights”.
“One of the only ways in which the International Criminal Court can secure jurisdiction is by referral by the Security Council. That is the step that has been put in train by the big vote in New York,” he said.
The General Assembly is to vote on the motion in coming weeks.
Diplomats say, however, that long-time ally China would probably use its veto to block the Security Council from referring the case to the ICC.
The UN report said North Korea’s human rights situation “exceeds all others in duration, intensity and horror”.
It said those accused of political crimes were “disappeared” to prison camps, where they were subject to “deliberate starvation, forced labor, executions, torture, rape and the denial of reproductive rights enforced through punishment, forced abortion and infanticide”.
The report, based on interviews with North Korean defectors, estimated that “hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have perished in these camps over the past five decades”.
It included an account of a woman forced to drown her own baby, children imprisoned from birth and starved, and families tortured for watching a foreign soap opera.
North Korea refused to co-operate with the UN report and rejected its conclusions.
Speaking ahead of the vote, a North Korean foreign ministry official warned the committee of the possibility of further nuclear tests.
Penalizing North Korea over human rights “is compelling us not to refrain any further from conducting nuclear tests”, Choe Myong-nam said.
The North Korean mission at the UN held a rare briefing to discuss its recent report on its own human rights situation.
A North Korean official acknowledged his country runs labor camps to “reform” detainees, but dismissed criticism of its rights record as “wild rumors”.
A UN report released in February 2014 said North Korea was committing “unspeakable atrocities” against its own people on a vast scale.
North Korea is thought to hold tens of thousands of people in prison camps.
Official Choe Myong-nam told the briefing – which was open to reporters and foreign diplomats – that there were “no prison camps” operating in North Korea but there were “detention centres where people are improved through their mentality and look on their wrongdoings”.
He said North Korea was a “transition society” and as such “there might be some problems, for example in the economic and other areas, we may need to establish more houses and social facilities in order to provide people with better living conditions”.
Choe Myong-nam blamed North Korea’s economic situation on “external forces”, Reuters reports, in an apparent reference to the stringent international sanctions the country is under as a result of its repeated nuclear and ballistic missile tests in recent years.
The North Korean mission at the UN held a rare briefing to discuss its recent report on its own human rights situation
As the country moved forward “the enjoyment of the people will be further expanded”, Choe Myong-nam said.
The UN report in February said there was evidence of “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights” in North Korea.
It said those accused of political crimes are “disappeared” to prison camps, where they are subject to “deliberate starvation, forced labor, executions, torture, rape and the denial of reproductive rights enforced through punishment, forced abortion and infanticide.
The report, based on interviews with North Korean defectors, estimated that “hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have perished in these camps over the past five decades”.
North Korea’s report rebutting the UN findings, first released last month, said that “hostile forces are persistently peddling the ‘human rights issue’ in the DPRK [North Korea] in a bid to tarnish its image and bring down the social system and ideology chosen by the Korean people”.
The open UN briefing comes days after North Korea agreed to resume formal high-level talks with South Korea – which were suspended in February – after Northern officials made a surprise visit to the South for the Asian Games.
According to the UN’s human rights chief, Navi Pillay, the downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane in Ukraine may be a “war crime”.
Pro-Russia Ukrainian rebels and the Ukrainian authorities have accused each other of shooting down flight MH17.
A Ukrainian official said on Monday that MH17’s data recorders show it came down due to “massive explosive decompression” caused by a rocket.
Meanwhile, heavy fighting has again prevented an international police force from reaching the crash site.
The Ukrainian military said it was battling separatists for control of several towns near the site in eastern Ukraine.
All 298 people on board the airliner – mostly Dutch – died on July 17.
The downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane in Ukraine may be considered a war crime
International police want to help secure the huge site so that plane wreckage and human remains can be examined by international crash experts.
Most of the bodies have been removed, many of them repatriated to the Netherlands.
“This violation of international law, given the prevailing circumstances, may amount to a war crime,” Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said of the downing of MH17.
“Every effort will be made to ensure that anyone committing serious violations of international law including war crimes will be brought to justice, no matter who they are,” she said.
Navi Pillay spoke as the latest UN report on Ukraine suggested at least 1,129 people have been killed and 3,442 wounded in the Ukraine conflict since mid-April.
The conflict has displaced more than 200,000 people, many of whom have fled east to neighboring Russia.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian security spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters on Monday that recovered flight data showed the aircraft crashed due to a massive, explosive loss of pressure after being punctured multiple times by shrapnel.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that Poland broke the European human rights convention in helping the CIA to render two terror suspects.
The judges said Poland had co-operated with the illegal transfers in 2002-2003, allowing two suspects to be interrogated on its territory.
It is the first such case concerning a CIA “black site” prison in Poland.
Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian, was arrested in Pakistan and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi, in Dubai.
Poland broke the European human rights convention in helping the CIA to render two terror suspects
The court held that “the treatment to which the applicants had been subjected by the CIA during their detention in Poland had amounted to torture”.
The two men are currently held at the US Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.
They complained to the court that they had been tortured at a US-run facility in Poland called Stare Kiejkuty, where Nashiri was held for six months and Abu Zubaydah for nine.
The ECHR, in its press release on the case, said that “the Polish state, on account of its acquiescence and connivance in the HVD [extraordinary rendition] Program, had to be regarded as responsible for the violation of the applicants’ rights committed on its territory”.
It added that Poland had been aware that the men’s transfer to and from its territory had been carried out by the process of “extraordinary rendition”.
“Consequently, by enabling the CIA to transfer the applicants to its other secret detention facilities, the Polish authorities exposed them to a foreseeable serious risk of further ill-treatment and conditions of detention in breach of Article Three [prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment],” it said.
The court ordered the Polish government to pay each of the men 100,000 euros ($135,000) in damages. It also awarded Abu Zubaydah 30,000 euros to cover his costs.
Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot have signed an open letter insisting Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova not be billed as members.
The letter said Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova had forgotten about the “aspirations and ideals of our group”.
Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova performed alongside Madonna at a concert in New York on Wednesday.
They were jailed for two years after singing a protest song in a Moscow cathedral in 2012 but were freed in December.
Known as “Masha” and “Nadia”, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova spent 16 months in prison.
Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova performed alongside Madonna at a concert in New York
The six members of the collective who signed the letter – Garadja, Fara, Shaiba, Cat, Seraphima and Schumacher – say they wish to remain anonymous.
They said that their group belonged to a “leftist anti-capitalist ideology” but that the pair had become “institutionalized advocates of prisoners’ rights”.
The letter read: “Unfortunately for us, they are being so carried away with the problems in Russian prisons, that they completely forgot about the aspirations and ideals of our group – feminism, separatist resistance, fight against authoritarianism and personality cult, all of which, as a matter of fact, was the cause for their unjust punishment.”
The remaining members of the group criticized Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova for appearing at the Amnesty International concert in New York.
“Our performances are always <<illegal>>, staged only in unpredictable locations and public places not designed for traditional entertainment,” the group said.
The group said that although Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova had repeatedly stressed they were no longer members, the public announcement before their speech spoke of “the first legal performance of Pussy Riot”.
The letter did praise the former members for their new cause.
“Yes, we lost two friends, two ideological fellow member (sic), but the world has acquired two brave, interesting, controversial human rights defenders – fighters for the rights of the Russian prisoners.”
However, it added: “Unfortunately, we cannot congratulate them with this in person, because they refuse to have any contact with us.”
Malala Yousafzai has received the EU’s Sakharov human rights prize at a ceremony in Strasbourg.
In a speech, the Pakistani schoolgirl and campaigner, who was shot in the head by the Taliban, dedicated the award to “the unsung heroes of Pakistan” and to human rights campaigners worldwide.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz presented the award.
Malala Yousafzai, 16, was shot a year ago after campaigning for better rights for girls in Pakistan.
The Sakharov Prize for free speech is awarded by the European Parliament annually in memory of Soviet physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov.
The 50,000 euro ($65,000) prize is considered Europe’s top human rights award.
“I am hopeful the European Parliament will look beyond Europe to the suffering countries where people are still deprived of their basic rights, their freedom of thought is suppressed, freedom of speech is enchained,” Malala Yousafzai said.
Malala Yousafzai has received the EU’s Sakharov human rights prize at a ceremony in Strasbourg
“Many children have no food to eat, no water to drink and children are starving for education. It is alarming that 57 million children are deprived of education… this must shake our conscience.”
Malala Yousafzai began her speech with a famous quote often attributed to the 18th Century French philosopher Voltaire: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
She said children in countries such as Pakistan “do not want an iPhone, a PlayStation or chocolates, they just want a book and a pen”.
MEPs gave her a standing ovation.
More than 20 former laureates attended the ceremony, a parliament spokesman said. Malala Yousafzai is the 25th laureate.
Martin Schulz called her “a global icon” and told her “you have given hope to millions of children”.
“It is our responsibility to ensure that your dream becomes a reality,” he said, referring to her ambition to spread free education to boys and girls everywhere.
Martin Schulz also praised her father for “not locking her away, and giving her freedom”.
Mala Yousafzai joins a distinguished list of winners of the Sakharov Prize that includes Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi.
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