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.