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Sadly, People Die As Human Rights Ignored

By Jimmy Carter

This op-ed appeared in the March 16, 1998, edition of USA Today

For the last eight years, Saddam Hussein's behavior has so outraged the world community that it has spent $120 million to try to keep him from stockpiling nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. That's money well spent.

Regrettably, although they also can save lives, human rights investigations don't enjoy the same degree of attention even in this, the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is unfortunate because these institutions, which receive a tiny portion of the U.N.'s regular budget, have the ability to prevent devastating and expensive crises.

For example, after visiting Rwanda, Senegal's Bacre Waly N'diaye chronicled the increasing ethnic violence against minorities. He asserted the killings met the definition of genocide, which automatically should have triggered intervention by the international community as stipulated by the genocide convention. Instead, his 1993 U.N. Human Rights Commission report was ignored. About a year later, nearly 1 million people had been murdered.

N'diaye's mission cost $20,000, but funding wasn't adequate to publish and distribute his report. There is no telling how many lives might have been saved had his report garnered even a small amount of the support being rightly given to U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq. Rights investigators also have been blocked, harassed or ignored in other places:

  • The special rapporteur on the independence of the judiciary, Param Cumaraswamy of Malaysia, is faced with a $25 million libel suit in his own country because of comments he made about possible corruption in the course of his work.
  • The government of Cuba successfully blocked the special rapporteur's visits and led the effort to cut back the powers of a U.N. expert group,whose work has resulted in the release of unfairly detained prisoners.
  • The plan to investigate human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is promising, but there still are serious questions about whether the team will be successful without increased support.

These examples illustrate that not all U.N. investigative mechanisms are created equal.

Weapons inspectors in Iraq are full-time, well-paid professionals, and the integrity of their missions has been jealously guarded by the international community.

Human rights investigators also are highly qualified and dedicated. However, they are usually unpaid volunteers who lack adequate staff and resources. Their efforts often are ignored or blocked, usually by human rights violators themselves, and they receive little political support.

Vast amounts of suffering and money could be spared if we paid more attention to problems earlier. The tragedy is that governments do not take seriously most U.N. Human Rights Commission reports about emerging crises.

We might not be facing the current crisis with Iraq right now if the international community had taken more vigorous actions in the late 1980s,when information about Saddam's murderous campaign against tens of thousands of Kurds came to the attention of the commission.

From Algeria to the Congo, from Bosnia to Rwanda, the global community has failed to respond meaningfully to some of this century's greatest evolving tragedies. All too often, governments wait too late until leadership and resources are needed to clean up after a war and to count and bury the dead.

We can and must do better. We can start by upgrading the status of human rights reports and recommendations, giving them equal attention to those produced by other U.N. investigative institutions. This will require an increase in financial support and a commitment to guard the integrity of human rights investigators with the same vigor applied to Iraq.

Also, nations must act together and with conviction when troubles are detected. The U.N. high commissioner for human rights should immediately inform the Security Council when serious patterns of human rights violations emerge. The council can then decide what diplomatic and other efforts todispatch to prevent the situation from escalating.

In this age of greater worldwide cooperation, preventing genocide andother human rights violations must be among our highest priorities.
On this, we should all agree.

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