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Title: Overview of Human Rights Practices, 1995

Author: U.S. Department of State

Date: March 1996


OVERVIEW

Several distinctive events of 1995 marked progress toward resolution of some of the world's most catastrophic human rights crises. Most dramatically, the November Dayton Accords ended the fighting in Bosnia, which for the first 6 months of the year was the source of continuing, massive, and highly publicized crimes against humanity. At the heart of the Dayton Accords is a framework of commitments and institutional mechanisms aimed at restoring human rights and promoting justice, without which peace cannot be secured.

Other conflicts which had spawned major human rights violations also moved closer to resolution; 1995 saw steps towards peace in Angola, the Middle East, and Northern Ireland, with inevitable setbacks along the way towards the resolution of long struggles. In Haiti, continued progress toward the restoration of democratically elected government, with the assistance of the U.S.-led Multinational Force, marked another bright spot for human rights. In Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in Latin American and in parts of Asia and Africa, some new democracies consolidated their movement towards more open civil society, and a few experienced peaceful transfers of power through democratic elections. Internationally, a number of new human rights institutions took root; especially noteworthy was the work of the International War Crimes Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. The U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women focused global attention on the rights and empowerment of one half of the world's people, many of whom suffer discrimination and mistreatment in every part of the globe.

In many countries around the world widespread abuses of human rights continued unabated. The pages of this volume document innumerable instances of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture, arbitrary detention, and denial of fair trial in all parts of the world. Fundamental freedoms of conscience, expression, assembly, association, religion, and movement were routinely violated by many governments. Discrimination based on race, sex, religion, disability, language, or social status was a pervasive problem in many societies. Basic worker rights were often denied. While democracy advanced in many countries, it registered uneven progress in others; some young democracies were snuffed out by violent coups d'etat. Continuing conflicts in Afghanistan, Burundi, Chechnya, Guatemala, Kashmir, Sudan, and elsewhere resulted in major human rights violations. In countries such as Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria and North Korea, governments continued systematically to deny basic rights to their citizens.

The Pursuit of Justice and Peace

The post-Cold War world poses new challenges to human rights.

Familiar abuses committed by strong central governments repression of dissent, torture, political killing persist. These are increasingly matched, however, by human rights abuses stemming from the dissolution of state authority, and from the manipulation by cynical leaders of ethnic, racial, and religious differences to incite atrocities against civilians. The experiences of Bosnia, Burundi, Afghanistan, and Liberia demonstrate that no area of the world can claim immunity from this danger, which has serious implications for the future of human rights promotion. Alongside advocacy and more traditional diplomacy, the development of institutions that will carry human rights protection into a new century is becoming an increasingly urgent task, as the familiar shapes of our world steadily undergo significant change.

Bosnia provides a stark example of a human rights nightmare sparked by aggression against civilians based on their ethnicity. The efforts in 1995 to end the horrors of Bosnia, however, yielded valuable lessons that might be applied in future conflicts. Intensive U.S. diplomacy backed by credible force led to the Dayton Accords which ended the conflict.

The drafters of the Dayton Accords recognized the essential relationship between peace, justice, and respect for human rights. The Accords provide an interlocking structure of constitutional guarantees; new institutions, including a constitutional court, human rights chamber, and ombudsman; international monitoring of elections and human rights performance, and a mandate for the investigation and prosecution of war crimes. This unprecedented peace agreement synthesizes human rights, justice, and conflict resolution, in a framework that has the best chance of securing a real peace.

The diplomatic and military efforts to end the human rights crisis and restore democratic government in Haiti were an important forerunner to the Dayton Accords; in Haiti, as in Bosnia, we saw that international support for the reconstruction of civil society, democratic institutions, and the rule of law is essential to ending human rights catastrophes.

As the promotion of human rights increasingly moves beyond cessation of immediate abuses to broader reform of political, legal, and social institutions, justice assumes an ever larger role in fostering reconciliation. Individual accountability is a critical element in the passage of nations from repression to freedom. For human rights to take hold, leaders must be held accountable to their people and to the fundamental norms of the international community as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international law.

A successful transition from a conflict-ridden past to democratic governance is aided by official efforts to acknowledge the sufferings of victims and honestly reckon with the past. In settings ranging from Chile, Argentina, and El Salvador, to South Africa, Germany, and South Korea a variety of institutions rooted in local political cultures has arisen to address the need for accountability as a prelude to reconciliation. The U.N. War Crimes Tribunals in the Hague represent one of the clearest attempts by the international community to integrate justice with reconciliation and peace.

Implementation of the Israeli-Palestinian agreements brought with it a continued reduction in the level of violence in the West Bank and Gaza. The withdrawal of Israeli forces drastically diminished the confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians and resulted in fewer Israeli human rights violations. The Palestinian Authority, for its part, took important first steps toward creating institutions of self- government, though its progress was uneven.

South Africa continued to consolidate its new democratic institutions, and to deepen national reconciliation by promoting broader justice.

Familiar Abuses in New Contexts

In a number of countries, familiar patterns of abuse occurred in changing contexts in 1995.

The Chinese Government continues to commit well-documented human rights abuses in violation of international norms. Although there was greater emphasis on legal reform, by year's end almost all public dissent against the central authorities was silenced. At the same time, robust economic expansion produced increased social mobility and access to outside information. The experience of China in the past few years demonstrates that while economic growth, trade, and social mobility create an improved standard of living, they cannot by themselves bring about greater respect for human rights in the absence of a willingness by political authorities to abide by the fundamental international norms.

In Russia, while Communist totalitarianism has been succeeded by electoral democracy, the future remains uncertain. This year saw continued and widespread use of Russian military force against civilians in Chechnya, the undermining of official institutions established to monitor human rights, and the continued violation of rights and liberties by security forces.

The Government of Cuba's behavior regarding human rights remains deplorable; human rights activists and dissidents are regularly arrested, detained, harassed, and persecuted, while the Cuban people continue to be denied the most fundamental rights and freedoms.

Nigeria presents a more classic picture of human rights abuse, as the regime of General Sani Abacha continues ruthlessly to suppress dissent.

The situation in Colombia has not improved, owing to entrenched conflict among security forces, guerrilla armies, paramilitary units, and narcotics traffickers, compounded by the near impunity of narcotics traffickers.

In Guatemala, serious human rights abuses continued to occur, although significant progress was made in the peace negotiations between the Government and the guerrillas. Several human rights activists were also elected to Congress in the November elections.

Indonesian security forces in East Timor and Irian Jaya were responsible for significant abuses, although the Government was willing in some cases to prosecute those charged with abuses.

Outposts of unreconstructed totalitarianism remain in Iraq and Libya. Severe human rights problems persist in North Korea, despite progress on some other issues under the Agreed Framework.

In Burma, the State Law and Order Restoration Council continued to rule with an iron hand and to commit a wide range of serious human rights violations, although the release from house arrest of democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi was a positive development.

While Turkey has instituted significant legal and constitutional reforms, it has not yet ended a continuing pattern of serious human rights abuses, including restrictions on freedom of expression, torture, and the excessive use of force against its Kurdish population in the course of the struggle against PKK terrorism in the southeast.

Egypt's long campaign against Islamic extremists has entailed continued abuses, including alleged extrajudicial killing and torture.

Saudi Arabia continues to restrict basic freedoms of expression, association, and religion, and systematically discriminates against women.

The government of Mexico continued its effort to end the culture of impunity surrounding the security forces and to initiate comprehensive justice reform; serious problems remain, however, such as extrajudicial killings by the police and illegal arrests.

Ethnic strife continued to complicate efforts to resolve instability in Burundi and Rwanda. In Sudan, the brutal civil war waged along ethnic and confessional lines exacted an inexorable toll in human suffering, while in Somalia, anarchical regional power centers, based on clan affiliation, persisted in the absence of a viable central government. Tentative signs of progress were evident in efforts to end Liberia's long and costly civil war, although final resolution remained problematic at year's end.

Rights of Women

This year saw an increased international focus on the human rights of women and the advancement of their status. The World Summit for Social Development at Copenhagen in March, and above all the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in September, cast a spotlight on the broad range of issues related to the human rights, equality, and empowerment of women.

At the Beijing Conference, governments reaffirmed the universality of human rights and explicitly accepted the principle that women's rights are in the mainstream of all human rights.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action committed governments to take specific steps to end violence against women, addressed the problem of rape in armed conflict as a human rights violation, called on the United Nations to integrate women into decisionmaking, urged an end to harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation, and dealt with issues of gender discrimination.

The Beijing Conference drew attention to the political, civil, and legal rights of women, who continue to be significantly underrepresented in most of the world's political institutions. Women in many countries are subjected to discriminatory restrictions on their fundamental freedoms regarding voting, marriage, travel, property ownership, inheritance practices, custody of children, citizenship, and court testimony. Women also face discrimination in access to education, employment, health care, financial services including credit, and even food and water. Other longstanding violations of women's human rights include torture, systematic rape, domestic violence, sexual abuse, harassment, exploitation and trafficking, and female infanticide.

The 1995 Country Reports chronicle the many abuses of women's human rights which continue around the world and include information on the steps some governments are taking to address these problems.

Many countries are making strides towards enabling women to realize their human rights. The Nongovernmental Organization Forum which took place in tandem with the formal Beijing Conference vividly illustrated the courageous and creative human rights work that women are increasingly undertaking at the grass roots level.

Worker Rights

Failure to respect basic worker rights as defined in several key International Labor Organization (ILO) Conventions is a growing problem in many countries. These core worker rights include freedom of association, which is the foundation on which workers can form trade unions and defend their interests; the right to organize and bargain collectively; freedom from discrimination in employment; and freedom from child and forced labor.

Despite broad international recognition of these principles, free trade unions continue to be banned or suppressed in a number of countries; in many more, restrictions on freedom of association range from outright state control to legislation aimed at frustrating workers' legitimate efforts to organize. For example, in 1995 Nigeria was cited by the ILO for its failure to repeal decrees dissolving unions and denying unions the right to elect their own leaders, two of whom in early 1996 remain jailed without charges. For the third time the ILO condemned Burma for its refusal to guarantee workers the right to join unions. Similarly, the ILO called on Burma to terminate its forced labor practices. The suppression of worker rights in Indonesia has remained a persistent international concern.

The relationships between worker rights, trade, and foreign investment remain the focus of ongoing discussions in 1995 in a number of international forums, including the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the ILO. Domestically, the United States took action that resulted in the suspension of Overseas Private Investment Corporation benefits in several countries on worker rights grounds. Concern continues to grow over the practice by several countries of curtailing the rights of workers in export processing zones (EPZ's). In South Asia, Pakistan is a case in point, and EPZ's remain problematical in several Central American countries. A failure to protect worker rights in EPZ's often has a disproportionate impact on female workers, since they are usually the large majority of EPZ workforces.

Religion and Human Rights

In some countries, religious differences were seized upon in 1995 as a pretext for human rights abuses. Elsewhere, religious differences themselves set groups in conflict, especially when these differences were related to ethnic differences as well. The depth of the passions and commitments surrounding religious issues make this an especially pressing and sensitive problem.

Religious ideas and institutions have a major role to play in promoting respect for human rights. All the major religious traditions of the world offer deep resources and teachings that speak to the theory and practice of peace and justice, and many courageous men and women are putting those teachings to work in some of the hardest-fought conflicts and deeply persecuted societies of the world.

As new technologies foster increasing communication and contact among groups and societies, the religions of the world will have a major role to play in helping to articulate ideas and foster institutions that are authentic and compelling.

Human Rights Activists

No government, no matter how powerful or well-intentioned, can perform the human rights work being done at the grass roots by nongovernmental organizations (NGO's), whose members often expose themselves to great personal risks. The grass roots work of NGO's is irreplaceable not only because it is effective, but also because it is the strongest proof of the universality of human rights. Precisely because NGO's are deeply rooted in local societies and cultures and spring from their own communities, their work has an undeniable authenticity and legitimacy. Unfortunately, human rights NGO's continue to face impediments, harassment, and persecution in many countries of the world.

Looking Forward

With each passing day, we are increasingly at home in the post-Cold War world. That growing familiarity with the new international setting brings with it the recognition of what must be done to secure the progress of human rights into the next century. The challenges human rights advocates face are significant, indeed greater than one might have anticipated during the heady days of the Cold War's end. Yet the new international environment offers opportunities of its own for the development of institutions that will protect human rights in sustained and structural ways around the world.

These institutions cannot simply emerge of their own accord. They can come about only through the concerted effort of people of goodwill from countries and cultures around the globe, united in a commitment to reduce human suffering and protect human dignity. One of history's foremost champions of human rights, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said that "the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice." There is still a long way to go along that arc.

John Shattuck
Assistant Secretary for
Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

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