Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Sixty-five years of the Universal Declaration: Good News!

Sixty-five years ago today, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the time, Eleanor Roosevelt described it as the Magna Carta of humanity. Its significance as a statement of generally accepted norms has continued to increase over the decades.
Today, the Geneva-based Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights will issue its ‘War Report’.

According to the announcement, the report finds that ‘at least 37 armed conflicts took place in 24 states and territories in 2012, resulting in the direct loss of at least 95,000 lives and many hundreds of thousands of wounded. A significant proportion of casualties resulted from use of indiscriminate weapons in populated areas, and 2012 also saw the pervasive incidence of rape and other acts of sexual violence.’
These figures are appalling, but let us put them in perspective. The figure of 95,000 over the year equates to about 260 persons every day.
In my recent book, Unimaginable Atrocities, I wrote the following:

Since 1945 the prohibition on the use of force has contributed to the effective prevention of world wars, and made the second half of the twentieth century considerably more peaceful than the first. Admittedly there have been terrible conflicts in the six decades since 1945, but nothing to compare with the two conflagrations that engulfed the planet in the first half of the twentieth century. Cherif Bassiouni has estimated the deaths attributable to armed conflict in the years since 1945 at about 92 million. That means an average of approximately 1.4 million every year or slightly less than 4,000 per day. It is an extraordinary and terrifying figure, a rather cold statistic that conceals within it imponderable personal tragedies at the individual level. But juxtapose the numbers with the Second World War, when somewhere between 62 to 78 million people perished in slightly fewer than six years, with most of the killing concentrated in four years. That’s an average of 10 to 13 million per annum, or between 28,000 and 35,000 every single day. When the two world wars are taken together, the total number of deaths is somewhere between 78 and 94 million, roughly equivalent to the figure for the entire period since 1945. The comparison is even more dramatic when note is taken of the world population in the first half of the twentieth century of around 2 billion, compared with seven million in 2011. In other words, the world is a far, far safer place today than it was before the United Nations was established. The Charter’s prohibition on the use of force without Security Council approval deserves some of the credit for this. It should not be discarded lightly.

The point is not that killing in conflict has become banal or unimportant. But to the extent that humanity, basically since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has gone from 4,000 killings per day in conflict to 260 killings per day is quite astonishing. One conclusion might be that the estimate upon which the 4,000 per day was based upon is exaggerated. Or that the Geneva Academy has grossly underestimated the situation. But if the Geneva Academy has got it wrong, it should be easy enough to point to examples of large numbers of killings in conflict to disprove its figure. I think the Geneva Academy has got it right.
There is no doubt that there are fewer killings as a result of conflict in recent years than in the previous century, and perhaps ever, in human history. This can be seen by looking at the well-known mass killings in recent decades – 800,000 in Rwanda in the space of three months in 1994, for example, 200,000 in Darfur in 2002 and 2003, or 3,000,000 to 4,000,000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo over a decade or so from the mid 1990s.
How can we explain this development? Better protection of human rights. More robust mechanisms of monitoring, like the Universal Periodic Review. The International Criminal Court and its deterrent effect. The prohibition of the crime of aggression. United Nations Peacekeeping. The number of 95,000 would surely have been higher if Cameron and Hollande had managed to pursue their plans for military intervention in Syria in August, but international civil society and its memories of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 prevented that.
The sixty-fifth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is no time to be complacent. But it is an occasion to recognise progress. Article 28 of the Universal Declaration states that '
Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized'. This is not the only message in the Declaration about the importance of peace.
The Geneva Academy’s report is, in one sense, a terrible message about human suffering resulting from war. Yet in another it is actually good news, and cause for celebration on 10 December 2013.

1 comment:

CopperBoom said...

That is nice but what about inequality, structural violence, etc.? The violence has not decreased, it has taken on a different shape, in forms of institutionalized racism, harsher immigration laws, etc.