Human rights eroded by torture, security fears, discrimination in 2010 | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 29.12.2010
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Human rights eroded by torture, security fears, discrimination in 2010

Human rights abuses have been the rule rather than the exception in 2010. National security trumps rights and conflicts displace tens of thousands. But progress has been made improving international institutions.

Waterboarding torture as seen in a film by Amnesty International

Perpetrators of torture get away with their crimes too often

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay capped off a turbulent year of human rights by marking the 60th anniversary of her office and honored the achievements of hundreds of thousands of rights workers who risk their lives to speak out for human rights.

"While combating discrimination and other important human rights causes, they themselves are often subject to discrimination," she said. "In fact, every year, thousands of human rights defenders are harassed, abused, unjustly detained and even murdered."

Mass rape continues to be an appalling reality, torture remains widespread, extra-judicial executions, arbitrary detention and disappearances are all too prevalent in repressive societies, and national security interests and xenophobia are eroding human rights in democratic ones.

Some progress

Meanwhile, progress is slowly being made in strengthening the international laws and institutions that hold human rights violators accountable for their crimes.

A white flag decorated with the logo of the UN Human Rights Council

It's difficult to judge the state of human rights

However, it is getting harder to gauge whether the human rights situation is improving, according to Julie de Rivero, the Geneva director for international non-government organization Human Rights Watch.

"What we have seen is an increase on the attacks on human rights defenders not only in places like China and Iran, but also in other places where we had been a little bit hopeful about reform, such as Bahrain," she told Deutsche Welle.

De Rivero pointed to Sri Lanka as a place where crimes against civilians continue to be committed with impunity.

"We saw the war end in Sri Lanka, but at a very high cost for civilians that were caught in indiscriminate fire by both sides," she said. "And, yet, there has been no accountability for war crimes in that country."

Violence against women

Another worrying trend, de Rivero noted, is sexual violence against women, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"The scale of the phenomenon, I think, always compels us to focus on this particular situation because rape has been so normalized as a weapon of war in that country that it is shocking and the devastation that it causes is incredible in the lives of individuals and the community," she said.

De Rivero added that the war on terror and heightened concern for national security are leading to a further erosion of human rights, even in democratic societies.

Making perpetrators accountable for their crimes remains a major concern for the international community, according to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesman Rupert Collville.

Women and children walking along a road in the Congo region

Rape and violence against women persist in DRC

"You have certain human rights violations that just continue year after year," he said. "You get some progress and then you get backsliding on something like torture. Almost all states have laws that prohibit torture and declare it a crime, yet many states are still practicing it and many states do not prosecute those who commit it."

Justice's slow march

Discrimination is another major - and ongoing - concern, he said, adding that it affects women, homosexuals, people with disabilities, the elderly, minorities and indigenous peoples.

A woman wearing a headscarf in the colors of the German flag

Discrimination troubles both industrialized and developing nations

"It is a constant theme on every continent, including in the developed countries, where I think the treatment of migrants or foreigners has clearly deteriorated in the past decade or so," Collville said.

While too many people get away with the crimes they commit, not all do and patience is needed as the wheels of justice turn slowly, Collville said.

"Twenty or 30 years down the line, people still are being brought to court and charged with serious crimes - that perhaps is the strength of the system," he said. "Circumstances change and people who think they are actively immune to justice sometimes find that is not actually the case in the long term."

Author: Lisa Schlein /sms

Editor: Sophie Tarr

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