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RFK Center
HUMAN RIGHTS: Leadership Wanted

The following op-ed by Director of RFK Partners for Human Rights, Santiago A. Canton, appeared on December 9, 2012 in El Pais (in Spanish). Please also see Human Rights Day statements from our partners. 

Progress toward the protection of human rights at the universal level has its origins on December 10th, 1948 with the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UN Human Rights Commission and all the declarations, conventions, treaties, and protection bodies that arose in following years to defend the dignity of all persons have their genesis in this foundational year for the international human rights movement.

However, the laws of physics also apply to human relations and that original impulse has gradually lost momentum. Today, new initiative is needed to prevent the advances that have been made to be lost in a web of bureaucracies and declarations that would only increase the list of broken promises.

At the universal level, the UN system suffered a profound modification in the last decade. Everything seems to indicate that the new Human Rights Council and its mechanism for Universal Periodical Review that evaluates all countries will, in the final analysis, allow states to ignore the gravest situations. In other words, quien mucho abarca poco aprieta.

In Latin America, a process similar to the one at the UN is under way, one that can weaken the independence and rapid response capacity of the regional human rights system. It should not come as a surprise that this process was initiated by Colombia and Venezuela that seek to hide their human rights violations under the rug.

But the main explanation for the universal weakening of supranational protections for human rights is found in the eclipse of the traditional leadership by new leaders who are either taking steps back or prefer to look the other way. In previous decades, leaders included several European countries, the United States and Canada, and sporadically, depending on the political moment, various Latin American countries.

The United States, since 2001, has lost the legitimacy to launch a global agenda. As long as Guantanamo remains open and the drone attacks continue, it will be difficult for the U.S. to regain the needed legitimacy to lead in international fora. To speak out and denounce, one must first lead at home. 

Europe has been unable to resolve its grave economic and political crisis and also cannot drive a global agenda. Of course, there are always exceptions and various European countries, in particular the Nordic states, continue to lead, but a new global agenda will require the support of a block of countries. The efforts of individual, isolated countries will not be enough.

The weakening of these traditional actors is combined with the rising prominence of states with important weight in the new international order, whose objective has also been to launch a human rights agenda; however, one that is clearly rhetorical, empty of substance and avoiding actions that would produce concrete results.

Countries like Russia, China seek to limit the role of human rights protection bodies and mechanisms. While other relevant countries, such as South Africa, India or Brazil prefer to look the other way when what is needed is to denounce violations committed in other countries.

Latin America also has its own problems. The important achievement in the recognition of human rights has not corresponded with the denouncing of those violations when they occur in neighboring countries. While the strong reaction to the coups in Honduras and Paraguay was an important step, when it comes to criticizing other countries for specific violations of human rights, states choose silence rather than denouncing abuse. The argument for non-intervention in internal affairs has regained the strength it knew so many decades ago.

There are many global human rights challenges today. A necessary first step is to find the leadership that will revive and press forward the project that began in 1948. Latin America, which played a key role in the approval of the Universal Declaration, which has an unparalleled record in fighting for human rights, and which has a regional protection mechanism unmatched in the world, can be that leadership. But to take the initiative toward human rights, we must be willing to denounce all violations, regardless of sovereignty or the political shade of the government in power. After all, a victim of torture does not care about the ideology of the torturer.

Santiago A. Canton
Director, RFK Partners for Human Rights
Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights
Former Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights


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