What good are human rights?

During my first year of law school, I took a class called Public International Law in which we studied human rights and the remedies that exist for human rights violations. Since national governments are often the worst violators of human rights, it is often impossible to seek justice from the government itself. We learned in that class what remedies exist in the international arena—that is, how a person can sidestep his/her own government and get a remedy under international law.

Towards the end of the semester, the professor said that he hoped we were getting frustrated—frustrated at the lack of a meaningful remedy for someone who was tortured or raped or discriminated against by his/her own government. He noted that while international law provides many rights, it provides strikingly few remedies, and those that it does provide are often strikingly ineffective. Fighting for human rights can be incredibly frustrating, he concluded.

His words are on my mind as I sit in the small room that is the Human Rights Intervention Unit at People’s Watch. We have been filing complaints with various national and international human rights bodies—the Indian National Human Rights Commission, the Tamil Nadu State Human Rights Commission, the United Nations, etc. The victims I write about were tortured, raped, even killed by police. Some were targeted because they were “untouchables.” Others because they were calling out corrupt officials or bosses. Some appear to have been victims of random acts of violence. The victims (or their surviving family members) tried to get justice—they complained to the perpetrators (which sometimes led to additional abuse) and they complained to local politicians. But nothing was done. The torture, rape, or murder went unpunished.

So People’s Watch tries to find justice outside the system. We ask the UN to step in. We ask the National and State Human Rights Commissions to get involved. But I know as I write to these bodies that the victims are unlikely to see any justice. The Tamil Nadu Human Rights Commission is particularly inept—when it receives a complaint about police brutality, it often just asks the same police who tortured the victim to investigate. Not surprisingly, many have criticized the Commission as being merely an arm of the government, rather than an independent watchdog.

While the UN is, of course, independent, it also can do little to help. The most we can hope for from the UN is a “letter of allegation” or an “urgent appeal” addressed to the Indian government. Both are basically a written inquiry about the situation that requires no real action by the Indian government except to explain what happened. And it’s far too easy for the government to simply accept the violator’s version of events.

So what good are human rights if they can’t be enforced?

Ten years ago, I was teaching Math at a remote village high school in rural Kenya. And I do mean remote—no electricity, no toilets, no running water. About five hours from working internet. I had previously been teaching Math in Boston, so the subject matter was quite familiar—graphing equations, geometric proofs, etc. However, other things were quite different, including the methods of punishment. Instead of issuing a detention or calling a student’s parents, the teachers at my school in Kenya would make the student kneel on the ground for an hour in the hot sun or give the student a slap on the face. (I once heard that a teacher at a nearby school made a particularly naughty student dig a six foot by six foot by six foot hole in the ground. It took the student several days.)

Corporeal punishment was technically illegal in Kenya at that time, but many schools (especially in the villages) still used it. My Kenyan colleagues used it sparingly, but they would occasionally whack a student on the butt several times with a wooden paddle. The students didn’t like this, but what could they do?

Assert their human rights, that’s what. Kenya is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which requires the government to eliminate and prohibit all forms of corporeal punishment. The students at my school had somehow obtained printouts of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and they insisted, while waving these printouts ferociously in the air, that their rights were being violated. The teachers initially confiscated the documents (not the ideal response) but they eventually began to back away from using corporeal punishment.

So we must remember that there is power in knowing one’s rights even if effective remedies for a violation of that right do not yet exist. This is why People’s Watch works heavily in human rights education for school children, and it’s exciting to imagine a future where all children can assert their rights as effectively as my students did in Kenya. In addition, while existing human rights monitors may be weak, they can be strengthened, which is why People’s Watch frequently reports on the effectiveness of India’s human rights commissions. So while fighting for human rights can indeed by incredibly frustrating, we have the opportunity to help create a future where human rights are honored and protected. I can think of nothing more important.

For as long he can remember, Brian has wanted to make the world a better place. This led him to become a Math teacher, a yoga teacher, and a Peace Corps Volunteer. While teaching Math and Physics at a small village high school in rural Kenya, he picked up Swahili, started a chess club, and discovered his true passion‰ÛÓhuman rights and international development. Upon returning to the U.S., Brian pursued a law degree and spent three years studying international law and human rights. Having seen the power of education to transform lives, he also raised money to send his former Kenyan students to college. Since graduating from Penn Law School in 2010, Brian has been clerking in the Superior Court of Vermont, researching legal issues for judges in the Criminal, Civil, and Family Courts. He is excited to work in the field of human rights in India, a country that has long fascinated him.

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6 thoughts on “What good are human rights?

  1. fascinating work you’re doing, bt. we’ve had good outcomes with teaching lao kids (and pediatricians) on the UN CRC. seems that in these stiffling situations, empowering the people is the best/only thing we can help with. keep up the good work 🙂

  2. Brian, reading articles by the two of you leave me with mixed emotions. I was a teacher for many years, and having taught at schools in both urban and rural settings, I can say that it is at times really annoying and hard to be around children, but I say this with absolute certainty that to resort to punishment/ instilling fear in a child is a sad reflection on a teacher’s lack of creativity. We had a student at the rural school who would tremble each time his name was called out or when a teacher would go near him. We knew it was not only out of fear of what the next moment would bring and there was more. For years, overlooked it as a neurological disorder, spoke to his indifferent parents about it but years after found out that he was physically, mentally and sexually abused by a teacher in his previous school and could therefore not handle adults anymore. The teacher would make him stand stark naked in blazing sun for not doing homework. He would beat him with a wooden stick on the head and other horrifying things. In a sensitive situation like this one and several others that you deal with, one wonders what are rights or the very notion of rights in a complex set up? And of course how rightfully is their violation addressed. It is indeed frustrating.

    The story from Kenya brought a smile to me- it could be a great film story. Just out of curiosity, how did the kids manage to ‘obtain’ the printouts ‘somehow’ in rural Kenya? For the sake of a better story for this potential film- I would imagine a young, highly popular American teacher secretly meeting and inspiring the kids after school hours. Or may be not, since I am pulling a familiar Dead Poets Society plot! Great Work, guys!

    Here is an article from a popular website-

  3. Brian
    Keep fighting on this issue. Hopefully someone somewhere will listen and take action. At the same time we have to spend time educating the citizens of India that they have real rights and should excercise them. Use RTI, media( which is now more receptive to such stories) , organize the community , use social network and mobile to publicise incidents and shine a light on the issue. The http://www.ipaidabribe.com initiative which I co- founded does just that in the area of corruption.

    India has examples like the Jessica Lal case where the Public demanded and got the system to act. But this was the Middle class pushing it and the poor and marginalized in India do not have the same clout. The same civil society outrage is happening now in Pakistan with the horrific shooting of Malala Yousafzai . Eventually civil society has to stand up and demand action. The perpetrators are really bullies and you have to stand up to them time and time again. It is not easy but giving up is not an option.
    Your Kenya story and the suggestion of educating young people about their rights is the key. I too recall an incident at Stanford shopping mall in Silicon Valley about 20 odd years ago. A woman was smacking a child , presumably her son, for something. A bunch of other kids from the other side of the mall started chanting ‘ child abuse, child abuse”. I have not seen a more distressed face than that of the mother. Hopefully she learnt something that day. In India unfortunately there is still a strong ” Spare the rod spoil the child” tendency both at school and home.
    For too long we have also equated human rights only with torture, detention and other physical abuses . In India we must also address human dignity , the right of every Indian to be respected regardless of his caste, creed, gender, economic circumstances etc. that is another story.

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