2011-09 Krister Thelin article in Dagens Nyheter

“The time is ripe to grade on Human Rights”

Published 2011-09-04 00:50 Expert on Human Rights:  It’s time to rank human rights in a global human rights index. The tools are available and it is a simple task if the will exists. The UN has a panic touched anxiety when it comes to comparing human rights in different countries. But grades are not only proper in school but also in terms of democracy, rule of law and human rights. Sweden and the EU should accelerate the development of human rights – including the ones we can follow in real time in North Africa and the Middle East – by encouraging the establishment of a Global Human Rights Index, a ranking of human rights in UN Member States. It is a task that seems very natural for such a respected institution as the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Lund, writes Krister Thelin.

Organizations like Freedom House and Transparency International rank the world’s states in terms of democracy, liberty and freedom from corruption. Sweden is generally high in these measurements and we are happy – or worried – if we lose a notch. A DN commentary of May 26, 2011 described in positive terms a project on ranking global adherence to rule of law, which is of course a key component of the respect for human rights.

But in terms of the overall state of human rights in the world, there is no ranking. The UN, whose main purpose under the Charter is to develop the area of ​​human rights, has a touch panic anxiety when it comes to comparisons in this area. All states, whether they are mature democracies or semi- or complete dictatorships, are considered to be equivalent and should not be compared. This is the dominant approach. The echoes of the Cold War and the polarization between North and South makes the issue so charged; historical, cultural, social and economic explanations for variations between countries in development terms is considered more important than the differences themselves. And avoidance of stigma  is the underlying message. The notion is sometimes hinted at that the idea of ​​universal human rights is actually a European invention that fits badly in some states internal socio-cultural system and thus is only an expression of persistent colonial oppression – though no one wants to say it openly. For the many human rights sins of states, there are always excuses.

The UN’s so-called human rights committee is tasked to monitor compliance with the UN’s most important convention in this area, namely the Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which was adopted in 1966 and came into force in 1976. The Convention has been acceded to by some 170 Member States, including Sweden, while countries like China and Cuba remain outside.

The Human Rights Committee reviews approximately twelve countries per year at its three month-long sessions in Geneva and New York. The Committee was established in 1976 and consists of 18 independent members from different countries, who are elected in their personal capacity and not as representatives of their country. The work mainly involves dialogue with representatives of states to review their reports regarding human rights in the country. The Human Rights Committee also examines, in a quasi-judicial written procedure, complaints about human rights violations from individuals in those States Parties that have acceded to a specific protocol to this effect (about 120 countries, including Sweden).

During the Human Rights Committee session in Geneva in July this year, the question of human rights rankings came up during the opening session, which was followed by examination of state reports from Ethiopia, Bulgaria and Kazakhstan.

The proposal for a ranking received a cool reception, as usual, from the overwhelming majority of Human Rights Committee Members. But something is happening. The ongoing development of democracy in the Arab world presages cracks in the wall. While the resistance in the chamber was palpable, representatives of the Arab world’s non-profit human rights organizations, who also attended the meeting as observers, showed a different side of the debate in the corridors: “We want rankings! It helps us to put pressure on regimes and accelerate the development of human rights “.

This demonstration of interest can be contrasted with a not-atypical attitude within the Human Rights Committee regarding countries with poor human rights implementation: “Many countries do not know what they signed up to. We need to understand that! ”

Achieving a global human rights index, in which issues such as discrimination, gender equality, torture, police brutality, and freedom of expression can be added to the rule of law issues, is a relatively simple matter. The material is already in the Human Rights Committee and the rest of the Monitoring Committees’ own reports. It’s just a matter of preparation and presentation. The UN also experimenting with different Development Indices, which are certainly not intended to be used for human rights rankings, but can be easily adapted served to do so. Sweden’s own country reports, developed by the Foreign Ministry, which were commendably and with some fanfare presented for the first time during Almedals week (an annual Swedish political event) this year by Ministers Carl Bildt and Gunilla Carlsson, are other tools that can be used, if the will exists.

A look at the Human Rights Committee’s investigations over the last three years of nearly 30 states gives a good indication of how a human rights rankings would look . It is based on the frequency with which countries are required to submit reports. The longer the period, the better human rights situation in the state is to be regarded. The category of those countries whose condition placed them at the lowest level are the states have not once fulfilled their reporting duties at any point. These include a large number of countries in Africa and Asia, together almost a fifth of all States Parties to the Convention on Civil and Political Rights.

Next, follow those who will report again after three years. Here are Cameroon, Russia, Chad and Uzbekistan – as well as with a logic that is the UN’s own, the only democracy in the Middle East, namely Israel. The best countries include, naturally, aside from Sweden, the Netherlands, a number of other mature EU countries and Switzerland and New Zealand. The intermediate group, those with a reporting requirement in four years, includes a large number of states from all continents, including Serbia, Hungary, Jordan, Rwanda, Togo, Tanzania, Colombia, Mexico, Azerbaijan and Mongolia.

Sweden and the EU should be able to accelerate the development of human rights, including that which we now can follow in real time in North Africa and the Middle East, through the encouragement of “benchmarking”. Grading is proper in school – and also in terms of democracy, rule of law and human rights. It may perhaps be somewhat sensitive in foreign policy terms for Sweden as a state to unilaterally establish a world ranking list. But the task seems very natural for such a respected institution as the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Lund.

All states will not appreciate being judged and placed according to merit, but it just shows that the mission is needed. And for those States that honestly strive for better human rights implementation, eventually a higher position in the ranking awaits. No state is safe from relegation – not even a mature welfare democracy like our own country. That is precisely the aim of a fair world ranking of human rights.

Krister Thelin
Judge and member of the UN Committee on Human Rights

One response to “2011-09 Krister Thelin article in Dagens Nyheter

  1. Pingback: Sweden versus social and economic human rights? Part 1: Benchmarking human rights | TerraNullius

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