Why human rights matter in times of crisis

Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, blogs from Beirut, Lebanon. Follow Salil on Twitter @SalilShetty

At a time of extreme contestation of what constitutes truth, and an era where “fake news” is almost celebrated, the rule of law based on real evidence is more essential than ever.

International human rights law and humanitarian law are long-established standards and norms, and are critical to be able to distinguish right from wrong.

Human rights give us a framework to interpret and describe why what we see is wrong. And they give us a legal architecture to hold governments to account and demand change.

And what is the alternative to addressing the massive challenges the world faces without international solidarity and accountability, without a shared commitment to uphold the equal and inalienable rights of every person?

Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the global refugee crisis. Lebanon bears a heavy burden today, but without even the notional agreement between states to cooperate, the only choices would be for Lebanon to carry the weight of the crisis entirely alone, or for defenceless women and children to take their chances against Syrian and Russian bombs and armed groups.

The full realization of our human rights may be far from the reality now, but if we give up on the aspiration the world risks spinning out control and becoming a still more chaotic and dangerous place. One where hospitals can be bombed without even the threat of consequences, where refugees have no future but to hope for the largesse of states under no compulsion whatsoever to offer them a home.

A globalized world where countries do not cooperate on massive challenges which affect all humanity is a nightmarish vision.

But a human rights framework alone is lifeless without people willing to stand together and demand justice. Our leaders need to hear that demand from us.

So let me now talk about some of the ways that Amnesty International, as the world’s largest human rights movement, is responding to crisis in the world, and making a difference.

We are a campaigning organization and our role is speaking truth to power – tirelessly and without fear or favour. Our job is to shine a light on abuses, to hold the perpetrators to account, and prevent them from happening again.

We begin our work with building a strong evidence base through our rigorous research. And we use that to call for justice and protection of human rights.

We use a variety of levers to press for change. We use old and new media to highlight abuses wherever they happen. We lobby governments, companies and inter-governmental bodies such as the UN directly. We mobilize public pressure through our global movement of campaigners. We use strategic litigation in the courts to seek crucial victories. And we underpin this with our human rights education programme, empowering people to lay claim to their rights.

Shining a light on abuses within conflicts

Firstly, we are shining a light into the darkest places to raise the alarm, and as a basis for campaigning to end abuses, seek accountability for them, and ensure they are not repeated.

At the end of last year we released the findings of our investigation into the appalling abuses by militias and government forces in Iraq in the state against so-called Islamic State. Our team has gone back-and-forth on the ground to document abuses and violations by all sides in the battle for Mosul and the devastating effect it has on civilians.

Our team has also been investigating attacks by the US-led coalition, finding they are disproportionate and leading to an alarming rise in civilian casualties. Our recent press release on this has added significant pressure on the US to investigate what was one of the worst airstrikes in recent memory, and we continue to call them out.

We show no favouritism here. A pick-and-choose approach to human rights would be deeply harmful. So we have also criticised actions such as the execution of IS suspects accused of large scale crimes such as the Speicher massacre.

In Syria, as well as documenting abuses on the battleground, we have been shining a light into the darkest recesses of detention centres run by the government, and also armed groups.

In February we released a report on the campaign of killings happening inside Saydnaya Prison on a horrific scale – on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, groups of detainees are hanged in utmost secrecy. In five years, as many as 13,000 people were hanged secretively in Saydnaya. Most of them, we believe, were civilians opposed to the government.

There was huge worldwide media coverage and global anger in response to our findings. President Assad was forced to react. The next stage is to ensure that any peace or reconstruction talks include a focus on detainees and disappearances.

Calling out governments who fuel conflict or support repression

Secondly, we call out governments who fuel conflicts or support repressive states.

In Yemen, we have unearthed evidence of arms supplied by countries including the USA, UK and Brazil – including internationally banned cluster munitions – being used in attacks by the Saudi-led coalition. We are now engaged in efforts to hold these countries accountable through parliamentary inquiries and litigation.

We have pointed out the sheer absurdity of the US and UK earmarking around 450 million dollars of aid to Yemen in the two years since the conflict began, while transferring more than 10 times that amount – 5 billion dollars’ worth – of arms to Saudi Arabia in the same period. Those arms have been used to fuel a conflict that has shattered the lives of thousands of civilians, forced three million people to leave their homes, and left Yemen confronting a humanitarian disaster which leaves more than 18 million people in desperate need of help.

But we have also documented abuses by Huthi forces on the other side, including their shameful recruitment of children.

Fighting for justice

Thirdly, we fight for justice and accountability.

In situations where war crimes and crimes against humanity are committed – as happens with frequency in this part of the world – the road to justice is long and full of obstacles. Many lessons from the past remind us of the fact – including our own work.

But for all its grim news, 2016 also gave us the conviction of Radovan Karadzic for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Srebrenica. And the life sentence handed to former Chadian president Hissene Habré for rape, sexual slavery and the killing of 40,000 people.

Justice may be slow in coming. But with commitment and persistence, we have to hold onto hope that it will come.

There are some glimmers in this part of the world. It was difficult to imagine only a few years ago that Israeli violations in Gaza and the West Bank could be examined by the International Criminal Court, given the backing Israel receives from the US and others. But Amnesty’s innovative research on the 2014 conflict is now being used by the Office of the Prosecutor.

And one day, we hope, accountability will come too for Syria. We are working and will continue working towards that.

Against the backdrop of Security Council deadlock and reckless use of the veto, the General Assembly took the rare step in December of establishing a mechanism to work towards investigating serious crimes committed since 2011.

Universal jurisdiction offers another route to justice: national courts can try international crimes. The first such case against high-level Syrian officials was taken up a couple of weeks ago by a Spanish court.

Our Justice for Syria campaign will be running for the next year, building pressure on states to push for accountability. We must build the momentum for a long struggle ahead.

Transitional justice

In post-conflict situations, our human rights work is vital to restoring the rule of law. Victims are often marginalized in these processes for the sake of political expediency – I have recently visited Sri Lanka, where this remains an ever-present risk eight years after the conflict ended. But it is vital to put victims and their demands for justice and reparation at the centre of a transitional justice process.

This is sometimes a difficult message to give. But future stability is staked on justice and reparation for victims. Time and again this is clear.

So when we document abuses in Iraq, Yemen and Syria we need to look at it not only in terms of accountability and non-repetition, but also reparations. The right of people to return to their land and homes, in a safe environment, and obtain compensation for their losses.

In Lebanon, tomorrow you will be marking the anniversary of the beginning of the armed conflict that lasted fifteen years. It has continued to impact your lives two generations later.

Huge numbers of people disappeared during the conflict – the vast majority of them civilians taken at checkpoints, or killed in military operations or revenge attacks. Years later, their families are still demanding a meaningful acknowledgement of their plight and a serious investigation. They want to know the fate of their loved ones, in the hope their remains could be returned.

They demand nothing more than to the truth, and we stand with them to seek the justice they deserve.

Some families believe their loved ones were taken in Syria and remain there in detention. The Lebanese government has a responsibility to seek information about their whereabouts and fate, beginning with investigations right here.

All too often conflict has its deep roots in the fertile soil of repression and abuse. So in the end we must change the ground from which conflict erupts. That is slow, painstaking, difficult work. But we see some small steps forward, and cumulatively they add up to something.

In Tunisia, the Truth and Dignity Commission has held public hearings over the past six months where victims have come forward to speak of their torture or the disappearance of their loved ones over the past few decades. The commission has an uphill battle ahead but the mere fact that the hearings are taking place and are televised live has provoked debate in Tunisia about the past and the kind of future people want to see.

Every single abuse is one too many. But every time there is an outcry for the arrest of someone defending human rights leading to their release, or a small step forward in seeking accountability in Palestine or Syria, it bends the arc of history a little more towards justice.

The human rights abuses of the future

Beyond the present, we are also looking at where the human rights abuses of the future are coming from. As William Gibson said, “the future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed”.

And sadly the way it is distributed poses big challenges for the future.

Conflict is already changing, with drones and killer robots being used increasingly. And we expect more of this, turning our assumptions on their head. When artificial intelligence kills, who can be held responsible? When counter-terrorism operations target people before they have done anything on the basis of algorithms that determine they are likely to carry out violence, how can they defend themselves?

We need to be prepared for this. Amnesty will be opening a hub in Silicon Valley later this year to ensure that our voice is heard in the development of new technologies which will make all of this increasingly possible.

Note: This blog is an excerpt from a speech delivered at the Issam Fares Institute, American University of Beirut, on April 12, 2017. Download the full speech here.