6 Efforts to promote human rights at the regional level
Global efforts to promote human rights are supplemented by regional human rights structures and mechanisms. By virtue of greater proximity to regional and national challenges, regional mechanisms can foster stronger ownership of efforts to protect and promote human rights. They can contribute significantly to the development of standards and to the implementation of international human rights law and to the promotion of the rule of law and democracy building at country level.
Regional human rights systems have been established in Europe, the Americas and Africa, and to some extent in Asia and in the Middle East. These systems differ in focus and in scope, and are in various stages of development, with challenges on different levels. Europe has the most effective systems, through the Council of Europe, the EU and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Norway is an active member of the Council of Europe and the OSCE.
In the Council of Europe and the OSCE, Norway’s efforts are based on the Government’s human rights priorities: individual freedom and public participation, the rule of law and legal protection, and equality and equal opportunities. The Norwegian authorities will pursue consistent policies across global and regional forums, drawing on the knowledge and experience gained from bilateral efforts.
Several of the regional systems in other parts of the world are still in the formative stage, and several may also face significant resource and capacity challenges. Exchange of experience can contribute to further developing the various human rights systems. The regional systems are also important partners for the UN, and for the work undertaken by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
The Government intends to strengthen knowledge about, and contact and cooperation with, relevant regional organisations and mechanisms in other parts of the world, with a view to promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Where possible, the Government will help strengthen and develop these systems.
The references to specific countries in this chapter are intended to illustrate trends and current challenges in the various regions, and do not constitute an exhaustive survey of human rights challenges. The situation in certain countries is dealt with in more detail in Chapter 7, which focuses on bilateral efforts on the ground.
6.1 Europe and Eurasia
The European Convention on Human Rights provides for strong protection of human rights in Europe. The Council of Europe, the European Union (EU) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) all promote human rights protection in practice. The countries of Western and Central Europe are well-established democracies with a high degree of respect for human rights. Yet while this part of the world continues to lead the way in the fight for human rights, there are also certain negative developments in some countries in this region. To some extent, the European continent is still divided, more than 20 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Parts of Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia are governed by authoritarian regimes that do not promote and protect human rights in accordance with international norms. On the contrary, there have been worrying setbacks against established rights in these areas. Freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association have been restricted in a number of countries. Minority groups, including religious and belief minorities and sexual minorities, are subject to discrimination. Human rights defenders are often threatened, and the authorities are not providing proper protection.
Several of the countries in this part of Europe are under considerable cross-pressures. They are geographically situated in the neighbourhood of Russia, while at the same time they are participating in the partnership programmes of NATO and the EU. The consequences of conflicting interests between different bonds of loyalty have become particularly clear in the human rights area.
The 2014 Council of Europe report on the state of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Europe, issued by the Secretary General, points out that human rights are currently more at risk on the European continent than they have been since the end of the Cold War. The report analyses developments in Europe and how the Council of Europe can help member states in complying with fundamental common standards in the pan-European system. The report also makes it clear that these standards must be maintained in order to ensure European security. Effective follow up of the Secretary General’s report is vital.
The conflict in Ukraine and the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, as well as developments in certain other countries in Eastern Europe, represent considerable challenges for Europe today, including for the Council of Europe. The serious deterioration in the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, even while the country was chair of the Council of Europe, is a particular cause for concern. However, the challenges in Europe are not limited to the eastern parts of the region, although that is where the challenges are the most serious. For instance, Italy is the country that at present has most cases against it in the European Court of Human Rights. It is also problematic that while open conflicts dominate the European agenda, parts of Europe are experiencing more hate crime, more discrimination against Roma and other minorities, and more discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as pressure on independent media and restrictions on the freedom of assembly and association.
Textbox 6.1 The Council of Europe 2014 status report
The report State of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Europe shows that many of the 47 member states have considerable human rights challenges in specific areas:
ethnic discrimination/national minorities (39 member states)
conditions of detention, including overcrowding in prisons (30 member states)
corruption (26 member states)
ill-treatment by law enforcement officers (23 member states)
social exclusion and discrimination of Roma (23 member states)
set-up and functioning of the judiciary (20 member states)
shortcomings in migrants’ and asylum seekers’ rights (20 member states)
excessive length of proceedings (11 member states)
trafficking in human beings (11 member states)
lack of freedom of expression and media freedom (8 member states).
6.1.1 The Council of Europe
The Council of Europe is the only purely pan-European international organisation, and the European Convention on Human Rights encompasses all 820 million citizens in the 47 member countries. The Council of Europe is thus a key platform for Norwegian involvement and for the active implementation of Norway’s European policy. Through active participation and dialogue in the various forums of the Council of Europe, Norway promotes the international rule of law and the development of democracy, human rights and the principles of the rule of law in a broader Europe.
The Council of Europe has various mechanisms for monitoring member states’ compliance with their human rights obligations. The European Convention on Human Rights established the most effective and far-reaching monitoring mechanism in the world. All residents of Council of Europe member states can apply to the European Court of Human Rights in their own language to request that their case be considered if they believe that their rights under to the Convention have been violated. The Court’s judgments are binding under international law, and the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe supervises the national execution of judgments.
In addition to the European Convention on Human Rights, the Council of Europe has conventions with independent monitoring mechanisms in areas such as minority rights, torture, trafficking in human beings and social and economic rights. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance and the post of Commissioner for Human Rights have also been established under the Council of Europe. Recently, the Council of Europe has assisted countries with particular human rights challenges in drawing up national action plans. National implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights, including the securing of an independent judicial system, is a key component of these action plans.
The Venice Commission is the advisory body of the Council of Europe on constitutional matters. The Commission provides legal assistance to the authorities of member states in connection with the development of constitutions and other key legislation. All Council of Europe member states are members of the Venice Commission, as are a number of countries outside Europe.
Civil society plays an important role in the work of the Council of Europe, for instance in expert committees and at country level. However, many meetings and processes are not open to civil society. The work of NGOs is largely coordinated by a separate body, and a number of international NGOs believe this arrangement undermines their influence. The Norwegian authorities will work to ensure stronger cooperation between the Council of Europe and civil society.
Norway is the member country that currently makes the largest voluntary contributions to the Council of Europe’s work for human rights and democracy. In order to ensure predictability, Norway has signed a multi-year framework agreement for its contributions. These funds will primarily be used for financing and implementing national action plans. Norway is also providing funding for the European Court of Human Rights to help it reduce its backlog of cases, as part of the process to make the European human rights system more efficient.
6.1.2 The European Court of Human Rights
Through the case law it has established over the past 55 years, the European Court of Human Rights has given substance to, clarified, and further developed the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court has played an important role in securing wide acceptance for the Convention in the European legal systems. Since it was founded in 1959, the Court has processed nearly 600 000 applications and delivered more than 18 000 judgments. Judgments finding that the Convention has been violated are for the most part followed up by the country in question, which implements the measures needed to remedy the situation and to prevent similar violations in the future.
The Court has implemented key reforms in recent years, resulting in an increase in the number of applications processed and a reduction in the backlog. Even so, the Court and the entire monitoring system for human rights are facing major challenges. The main problem is the massive backlog, which is due to unprecedented growth in the number of applications – from 10 000 in 2000 to 66 000 in 2013 – without a corresponding increase in funding. The member states of the Council of Europe have failed to reach consensus on the need for fundamental changes to the system. At the end of 2013, the Court had 70 000 cases pending that could not be declared inadmissible without further consideration. Of these, 48 000 were what are known as repetitive cases. These are cases concerning structural or systemic violations of human rights in certain member states, which have not been remedied despite previous judgments against them by the Court and examination by the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers. Typical examples of such structural problems are weaknesses in the legal system, such as slow processing of cases and inadequate execution of sentences. It will not be possible to maintain the right of individuals to petition the Court unless member states enforce the Court’s judgments and carry out the necessary national reforms to prevent similar cases arising in the future. The Norwegian Government will play a constructive role in helping the Council of Europe to increase the efficiency of the European human rights system. We will take active part in the reform process, for example by contributing to the special account that was set up to enable the Court to tackle its backlog of cases.
There is an ongoing debate on the role that the Court should play. This is partly due to certain decisions that have generated dissatisfaction in the member states concerned. There is also dissension as to whether the Court goes too far in its interpretation of the Convention and in reconsidering national judgments. The debate on the role of the Court is important and necessary. Here, too, Norway will play a constructive role to help maintain the legitimacy of the European system of human rights.
6.1.3 The European Union
The European Union and its forerunners have contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe for over six decades, as reflected in the statement by the Norwegian Nobel Committee announcing the award of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to the EU. The eastward enlargement of the EU has highlighted the challenges of implementing the principles of the rule of law in several of the new member states and candidate countries. The enlargement of the EU has also sparked new debate about the instruments the EU has at its disposal to ensure lasting respect for human rights in its member states.
The EU accession criteria, known as the Copenhagen criteria, were established in 1993 in connection with the eastward enlargement of the EU, and apply to all countries seeking membership. These political, economic and legal criteria must be met before a country can become a member. In the years prior to the major enlargement in 2004, the Norwegian authorities assisted the candidate countries in their efforts to meet the accession criteria through the Norwegian action plan for the EU candidate countries. This work is continuing in the countries in the Western Balkans, where the process of integration with the EU remains an important driver of the reform process that will strengthen human rights and the protection of minorities in the region. The Norwegian authorities cooperate closely with the EU and the Council of Europe on providing support for justice sector reform, with a view to strengthening the capacity of these countries to implement human rights in national law and ensure their application in practice by the courts. The Norwegian authorities will continue its efforts to strengthen human rights in countries seeking closer integration with the EU.
In addition to the Copenhagen criteria, the EU has an extensive body of legislation and an institutional apparatus related to implementation. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Court of Justice are key elements of this apparatus, but other bodies with specific tasks and responsibilities, such as the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights and the European Institute for Gender Equality, have also been established. In 2012, the EU appointed its first Special Representative for Human Rights. The same year, the EU adopted a Strategic Framework and an Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy as an integral part of its external policies.
Where possible and appropriate, the Government will consider aligning itself with the EU’s human rights architecture, if this does not duplicate the work of the Council of Europe. For third countries such as Norway, the EU is an important arena for promoting key priorities through consultation processes and cooperation. Norway and the EU often have similar views on human rights issues, and alignment with EU declarations and joint démarches can strengthen our common position.
Under the Lisbon Treaty, the EU is required to accede to the European Convention on Human Rights. A draft accession agreement has been negotiated, facilitated by Norway, between the European Commission and the Council of Europe. The draft agreement is subject to an internal approval process in the EU, and will also need to be ratified by all the Council of Europe member states. If and when the EU becomes a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, it will be possible to bring not only EU member states but also the EU as an organisation before the European Court of Human Rights for violation of the Convention. It will then also be possible for the EU to be a party in cases brought against EU member states concerning the relationship between EU legislation and the Convention. This will make it easier to place responsibility for a violation of the Convention on the party that is best placed to rectify the situation. EU accession to the European Convention on Human Rights would strengthen the protection of human rights in Europe and further reinforce the key role played by the Council of Europe.
6.1.4 The EEA and Norway Grants
Through the EEA and Norway Grants, the Norwegian authorities help to reduce social and economic disparities in Europe. The scheme is designed to support fundamental European values such as democracy, non-discrimination and gender equality. It also aims to strengthen contact and cooperation between Norway and the 16 beneficiary countries in Central and Southern Europe, not least through the NGO programmes. The total funding for the period 2009–14 is around EUR 1.8 billion. Norway provides some 97.7 % of this funding, and Iceland and Liechtenstein provide the rest.
In all agreements with beneficiary countries, reference is made to the protection of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and these issues are also given priority in all relevant programmes funded by the scheme. In addition, there are specific programme areas that provide for cooperation on issues where there may be particular human rights challenges. These include the situation of the Roma people and other vulnerable minorities, development of the judicial system, correctional service reform, civil society activities, and the development of democratic institutions with important watchdog functions or key roles in protecting human rights at national level. Norwegian authorities also participate in the cooperation within the EU to identify measures to address problems in the Mediterranean area due to the huge flows of migration from the south.
In close cooperation with the Council of Europe, the Funds for Non-Governmental Organisations under the EEA and Norway Grants have drawn attention to important issues in the EU, such as the fight against hate crime, the need for more knowledge about the history and culture of minorities, and education in the principles of democracy and the rule of law.
Textbox 6.2 Suspension and withdrawal of funding under the EEA and Norway Grants scheme
In May 2014, the Norwegian authorities stopped all further payments to Hungary under the EEA and Norway Grants scheme. The NGO programme and a programme on adaptation to climate change are exempt from the suspension, as the Hungarian authorities are not responsible for the implementation of these programmes. The reason for the suspension is that, in contravention of the Memorandum of Understanding, implementation and control of the Norwegian funding has been transferred out of the central government administration. In addition, the Hungarian Government has carried out an illegal investigation of the NGO programme and harassed our partners (the fund operator for this programme). This is also a breach of agreement.
In order to ensure sound management of the EEA and Norway Grants, it is important that the principles underlying the scheme are respected. At a conference in Riga in 2013, which was financed by the scheme, the view was put forward that Latvia should be shielded from the equal rights policy of the Nordic countries and the West, as this policy includes tolerance for sexual minorities. Closer examination showed that this attitude was characteristic of the conference organiser and its work. Norway and the other donors considered this to be a clear breach of the values underpinning the Grants scheme and that are set out in the rules and procedures for the scheme. Funding to the organisation concerned was therefore withdrawn.
Both the EU and the Council of Europe have drawn up treaties that require their member countries to fight discrimination and racism. Through cooperation agreements with the Council of Europe and the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, programme efforts are systematised in cooperation with the beneficiary countries. In addition, there are opportunities for cooperation at programme and project level with other bodies, including the OSCE, UNHCR, UNICEF and WHO. This work is followed up through annual reports and meetings with beneficiary countries and key actors.
Textbox 6.3 The Roma people
The Roma are Europe’s largest minority group. A vast number of Roma people live under extremely difficult economic and social conditions. Many of them are subjected to intolerance, discrimination and social exclusion. The situation of the Roma is a challenge for the whole of Europe, and needs to be met both through effective measures in the countries where they represent a sizeable minority and through a joint European effort. Norway is helping to improve the situation for the Roma people in several beneficiary countries through the EEA and Norway Grants, providing funding for projects in areas such as education, job training and health services. The Norwegian authorities cooperate closely with – and coordinate their efforts with – the EU, the Council of Europe and other actors with broad experience in this field. The Norwegian authorities also support NGOs that promote Roma rights and offer social and welfare services in areas with significant Roma populations. A broad approach is needed to ensure that the Roma people are better equipped to succeed on an equal footing with the rest of society.
6.1.5 The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is the world’s largest regional security organisation, and an important forum for dialogue and cooperation on security throughout the Eurasian region. The participating states include the member states of the Council of Europe, the US, Canada, Belarus, Mongolia and five Central Asian countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The OSCE is the only regional organisation of this type where Russia takes part on an equal footing with the EU and the US. It is based on the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, under which a state may not dismiss criticism of serious violations of human rights as interference in its internal affairs. The Helsinki Final Act sets out that the participating states will cooperate on security, economic and human rights issues. Commitments relating to democratic development and respect for human rights have been reconfirmed and expanded in a number of subsequent documents agreed at ministerial level and at summits, most recently at the Astana Summit in 2010.
Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms is a key part of the OSCE’s comprehensive security concept. The principle is that greater respect for human rights and democratisation will increase security for all. The OSCE’s three independent institutions – the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the High Commissioner on National Minorities, and the Representative on Freedom of the Media – as well as the OSCE’s various missions in 15 participating states, all work to build institutions, strengthen democratic structures and promote the participation of civil society in areas experiencing or threatened by conflict. The OSCE has unique experience and expertise in observing and mediating international conflicts. This is why the OSCE was asked to deploy the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, to which the Norwegian authorities are providing both funding and personnel. The OSCE is also playing an important role in the practical development of democracy on the ground in a number of countries through the transfer of expertise on democracy and human rights. ODIHR’s extensive, long-term and systematic approach to and experience in election observation is a key element in this work, and sets the standard for electoral processes.
A number of states, including Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, the Central Asian countries and Hungary, have introduced restrictions on human rights that give cause for concern, despite the commitments and obligations these countries have taken on through their own participation in the OSCE. There is debate within the organisation about so-called traditional values in relation to universal human rights, and this creates challenges for the organisation. The growing gap in values between participating countries is putting the OSCE institutions under pressure. In other words, much remains to be done to implement the commitments and political decisions that have been made. The aim is to further strengthen the OSCE as a platform for dialogue on democracy and conflict resolution.
The budgets of the OSCE institutions have been considerably reduced in recent years, partly as a result of the financial crisis and partly due to an attempt on the part of some countries to limit the OSCE’s capacity to effectively monitor human rights developments. In light of the continued and increasing challenges the OSCE is facing, the Norwegian authorities will work to reverse this trend. Norway contributes to project cooperation under the auspices of the OSCE, and was one of the first participating states to enter into a framework agreement with the OSCE on funding for projects that promote human rights and civil society. The Norwegian authorities also provide experts to the OSCE’s institutions and missions through the Norwegian Resource Bank for Democracy and Human Rights (NORDEM).
The Norwegian authorities consider it important that the Council of Europe and the OSCE cooperate as closely as possible. Both organisations are engaged in the development of democracy and the rule of law, and their work is complementary. Improvements in terms of democratic rights and standards have been achieved through cooperation at expert level between the two organisations, followed up with coordinated efforts at political level. It is important to continue to look for synergies in this context, in order to further strengthen cooperation and attain the best possible results through the work of both organisations.
6.2 North America and Latin America
The human rights situation on the American continents is complex, with differing challenges from north to south and among the various Latin American countries. Democracy is firmly established in North America. A diverse civil society and independent media contribute to open debate, also on difficult issues. Discussion of human rights matters is an important component of the bilateral dialogue with the US, where Norway also regularly raises the issue of capital punishment.
High murder rates, inadequate or non-existent investigation into homicides, and widespread impunity characterise much of Latin America. The main structural challenge to the work of protecting human rights is the weak rule of law, and the subsequent lack of effective legal protection. The courts do not have sufficient capacity; moreover, they are not fully independent of the executive branch of government. Corruption is also widespread. There have been substantial political changes in many Latin America countries following the transition from more autocratic forms of government, but in some of these countries the electoral process is still subject to criticism.
The situation in Cuba gives rise to particular concern when it comes to rights that are fundamental to an open and democratic society, such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association. Dissidents are not able to freely form organisations or to publicly criticise the authorities without risk of reprisals. The authorities in Venezuela restrict both the freedom of the media and the freedom of those in opposition to promote their cause.
In Colombia, which is criticised for its inability to protect its citizens from violence and threats, there are numerous reports of assaults on human rights defenders and union members. Various degrees of political control over free media and the killing of journalists is also a problem in many Latin American countries. The number of journalists who are killed is particularly high in Mexico and Honduras. In other countries as well, union members and local leaders are threatened and assaulted. The rights of indigenous peoples are at risk in many Latin American countries, even though nearly all of these countries have ratified the ILO Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries (C169). Indigenous people and people of African descent rarely participate in the political processes in the countries where they live.
Poverty is still a big problem in Latin American and Caribbean countries, and is one of the causes of substantial migration from Central America and Mexico to the US and Canada. Control over migration routes and the increasing influence of violent drug cartels have created a breeding ground for human trafficking and forced disappearances. Domestic violence and problems related to the criminalisation of abortion are also widespread in this region.
However, despite the challenges, the overall situation is improving in many countries. Democracy is being strengthened, formerly excluded groups are being heard, the middle class is growing, and income disparities are being reduced. In recent years, several countries have also adopted legislation to protect the rights of minorities. For example, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Uruguay now allow same-sex marriage. A number of Latin American countries are also playing an increasingly constructive role in multilateral forums.
The Inter-American human rights system
The Inter-American human rights system, which is a regime for the protection of human rights under the Organization of American States (OAS), is, after the European system, the most well-established and highly developed regional human rights system. The two main bodies, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, enforce the American Convention of Human Rights. Both the Commission and the Court are in contact with the African and European systems, in part to exchange experience.
The inter-American system is widely recognised. However, the Court has come under pressure for putting abortion, same-sex marriage and freedom of expression on the agenda, and for controversial decisions in the reparation processes in the wake of military dictatorships, such as setting aside national amnesty laws.
A large and growing caseload is a burden on the finances and capacity of the Commission and the Court. The overall level of support for the Inter-American system from its own member states is inadequate. A number of OAS countries have not ratified the American Convention of Human Rights (the US, Canada, and seven small countries in the Caribbean), and are therefore not subject to the jurisdiction of the Commission or the Court. Even so, the voluntary economic contributions of the US and Canada are among the largest to the system. The fact that Venezuela and the Dominican Republic have withdrawn from the Court gives cause for concern.
Both the Court and the Commission are underfinanced, and improved funding in itself would improve their capacity. In principle, the OAS member states should fully finance their own institutions. If a considerable share of the funding comes from international aid, the system’s credibility may suffer. The primary responsibility for financing these institutions must lie with the OAS member states. However, the current situation is critical, and an increase in Norwegian support could be significant for the continued work of these institutions. The amount of funding will be determined on the basis of the support provided by other countries.
6.3 The Middle East and North Africa
There are major human rights challenges in the Middle East and North Africa, including severe limitations on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association. The lack of openness and opportunity to participate were among the main reasons for the wave of uprisings that swept through the region in 2011. In several countries, popular demonstrations led to the overthrow of authoritarian leaders, and these states are now facing challenges in building stable, sustainable democracies.
In the countries that have undergone a change of regime, transitional justice is virtually non-existent. Both recent and earlier incidents of abuse by security and police forces, and others, are still generally going unpunished. Even where elections have been held, it will still take time to develop good governance based on democratic principles, such as the right of participation, inclusion and pluralism. In Egypt, the situation for political opponents and civil society has worsened since the military takeover in July 2013. Political opponents have been imprisoned and subjected to abuse by security forces. There have been a number of trials where fundamental legal safeguards have not been met. Libya is in a situation resembling civil war. The authorities are unable to protect the population, and a number of human rights defenders and journalists have been executed. The human rights situation in Yemen resembles that of Libya in many ways.
Human rights defenders and journalists are also being oppressed and persecuted in countries that have not had a change of regime. Minorities and disadvantaged groups are particularly vulnerable. Freedom of religion and belief tends to apply only to the majority religion. The desire to protect religion, fight terrorism and safeguard the state’s interests is put forward as justification for restricting freedom of expression. This is particularly the case in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, but also to some extent in countries like Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
The region still has a long way to go in terms of abolishing the death penalty. The death penalty is allowed in most of these countries, but practice varies. It is extensively used in Iran, even for minors. The situation for LGBTI people is critical. Homosexuality is prohibited in most of the countries in the region, and may be punished by death in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Moreover, brutal execution methods based on sharia law are still being used. Legislation that discriminates against women is in force throughout the region, but varies in scope from country to country. Harassment of and violence against women is widespread. Marital rape is not normally prohibited, and there have been rape cases where the victim herself has been convicted and punished. Many women played an active and important role in mobilising opposition to authoritarian regimes in 2011, but met new, serious challenges when Islamist governments were subsequently elected. Increased pressure from conservative religious forces, combined with traditional attitudes, has created a situation in many countries where the immediate concern for women is to reassert already established rights. Women’s low level of participation in economic and political life is also preventing gender equality and the realisation of women’s rights.
There is little respect for the rights of migrant workers in a number of countries, especially the Gulf states. Many work in very poor conditions, and in practice are virtually without legal rights in the event of abuse. It is generally illegal for workers to form unions, take part in collective bargaining, or strike.
Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and its continued occupation of the West Bank has brought about restrictions on the Palestinians’ freedom of action and movement, and the civilian population is suffering disproportionately. There are also huge humanitarian challenges in Gaza. This was the case even before the conflict in the summer of 2014, as a result of the Israeli blockade and the authoritarian governance of the de facto authorities (Hamas). The hostilities in the summer of 2014 increased civilian suffering; both Israel and Hamas must be held responsible for this. There is reason to be concerned about the status of legal protection, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly and association in the West Bank as well. Honour-related violence is another serious problem.
The civil war in Syria has resulted in massive losses of life and terrible suffering for the population, and caused large flows of refugees and internally displaced people. The conflict has involved brutal violations and abuses of human rights, and has created one of the largest humanitarian disasters in modern times. This is having a major impact on the neighbouring countries and is destabilising the region.
Discrimination against and abuses of sectarian groups and minorities in Iraq is increasingly being documented. The dramatic developments in 2014 have exacerbated these problems. Sectarian violence is spreading, and the rights of religious and ethnic minorities are constantly being violated. The conditions for the free press have worsened, and freedom of expression is under pressure. The Iraqi authorities have a major task ahead if they are to regain the confidence of the population and safeguard their political, economic, social and cultural rights.
In addition, there has been a new and alarming development. Militant jihadist groups such as ISIL are carrying out massive and grotesque attacks on the populations of Syria and Iraq in clear violation of the values that underpin human rights, democracy and the rule of law. They have committed atrocities that could qualify as crimes against humanity. ISIL is a particularly alarming example of a group that, by means of extreme violence, is taking control over large areas of land and threatening the existence of states. ISIL is a transnational movement, and represents a threat to life and security far beyond the region in which it operates.
The human rights system in the Middle East and North Africa
There are no regional human rights institutions that cover the whole of the Middle East. However, there are instruments and institutions that cover parts of this region. In 2004, the Arab League adopted the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which generally builds on the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in 2009, the Arab Human Rights Committee was established to monitor the states parties’ compliance with the Charter. The Charter has been criticised for inadequately addressing the death penalty and women’s rights, and for the way it refers to Zionism. Another weakness is the fact that, for certain rights, national legislation may take precedence.
In 1990, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) adopted the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which is based on an Islamic interpretation of human rights and the principles of sharia law. In 2011, a human rights commission was established to monitor and support member countries in their implementation of the Declaration. The commission has been criticised for a lack of independence and for its selective emphasis on religious rights.
OIC’s multilateral human rights work has focused on the ‘defamation of religion’ agenda, with a view to protecting religions, for example by restricting expressions and actions that can be described as blasphemy. The objective of protecting religion can in turn be used to stifle political and civilian rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, and freedom of religion or belief.
6.4 Sub-Saharan Africa
There are many human rights challenges in sub-Saharan Africa, but there are also positive developments that should be highlighted. Since the 1990s, a number of sub-Saharan states have adopted new constitutions that safeguard fundamental human rights and the principle of separation of powers, held multiparty elections, and seen peaceful transfers of power. More and more African countries are ratifying the international human rights instruments. National human rights institutions and commissions have been established in 27 African countries, and 18 of these were assigned ‘A status’, the highest ranking for compliance with the Paris Principles. Knowledge and awareness of human rights have increased among African populations. Civil society organisations, including women’s organisations, have become important human rights actors. Poverty is still widespread on the African continent, but in many countries, economic growth has improved the framework for fulfilling economic, social and cultural rights.
However, serious and systematic violations of human rights are being committed in a number of countries. Civil and political rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association are under pressure. Human rights are also interpreted and adapted in several countries so as to allow the authorities to control and criminalise political opponents, the media and civil society. Antiterrorism legislation and national security interests are used in some countries to arrest and convict journalists, human rights defenders and members of the opposition. In Ethiopia, a country that has been criticised for violating the right to freedom of expression and other civil and political rights, national legislation sets clear restrictions on international financing of human rights work in the country.
Police violence, torture, arbitrary imprisonment, extrajudicial executions and impunity for abuse by the authorities are examples of the serious violations of human rights that occur in this region. Legal protection is weak in many of these countries. Corruption is widespread, even though the fight against corruption is often a high priority on the political agenda and in civil society campaigns. Some African countries still use the death penalty, but most have either abolished it or introduced a moratorium on executions. Rwanda has a number of challenges in implementing democracy and human rights, but it is also among the countries that are at the forefront of international efforts to abolish the death penalty. Eritrea is among the countries that are criticised for the lack of freedom of expression and for extensive abuses by the police and security authorities, and it has also had a system of compulsory, indefinite military service for both men and women. Several hundred thousand Eritreans have fled the country.
It is common for men and women to have different rights and opportunities, on the basis of traditions and sociocultural customs, and to some extent these differences are supported by both Christians and Muslims. However, active gender equality work is being carried out in most countries, and many traditional and religious leaders are taking part in these efforts and promoting equal opportunities and rights regardless of gender. Homosexuality is punishable by law in a number of the countries in this region. While the policy towards this group is developing in a negative direction in some countries, as illustrated by the anti-gay bill drawn up in Uganda, signs of greater tolerance and acceptance are being seen in others. For example, on the basis of provisions in its constitution, South Africa has played a leading role in efforts in the UN to strengthen human rights for all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Several of the countries in the region are fragile states in conflict or post-conflict situations with displaced populations and major humanitarian challenges. South Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic are among these. In addition to being torn apart by armed conflict, these countries have weak institutions and serious governance problems, and impunity is rife. Both government and non-government actors commit abuses. Rape and other forms of sexual abuse are common.
The civilian population in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile in Sudan have been subjected to extensive abuse as a result of the longstanding armed conflict between the central government forces and various rebel groups. In other parts of the country, there have been reports of restrictions on freedom of the press, violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief, and abuses on the part of the police and security authorities.
The north-eastern parts of Nigeria are also unstable and severely affected by violence and conflict. The Nigerian authorities have been unable to protect their citizens against Boko Haram’s campaign of terror and brutality. There have also been reports of killings and other violations of human rights by security forces.
The African human rights system
African countries adopted the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 1981 under the auspices of the Organisation for African Unity, the predecessor of the African Union (AU), and mandates for a number of special rapporteurs have since been drawn up. By August 2014, 53 out of 54 African countries had ratified the Charter. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, based in the Gambian capital, Banjul, monitors its implementation and evaluates the state reports that states parties are required to submit every two years. The AU has also established the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Arusha, Tanzania, which 27 countries have ratified. Both the Commission and the Court have the authority to consider complaints if the member state concerned consents. The system is underfinanced and has considerable capacity problems.
The African Charter differs from the UN instruments in that it includes collective rights, but does not include the right to privacy or a prohibition against forced labour. It also imposes explicit duties on individuals. There is a whole article on the protection of the family, which sets out that the family ‘is the custodian of morals and traditional values recognised by the community’. At the same time, the AU has set a strong example at regional level in promoting the right to abortion for women whose lives or health are at risk or in cases of incest or rape, as set out in the Maputo Protocol. The AU is also leading the way by adopting a binding instrument on protection and assistance of internally displaced persons (the Kampala Convention).
The African human rights system is a young regional regime that is in a process of continual development. Despite their weaknesses and challenges, the African monitoring mechanisms have an important role to play in promoting norms and ensuring implementation of human rights at the national level. A key factor in this respect is the system’s legitimacy within the region. Funding from outside the region are needed, but should be contingent on African countries supporting these mechanisms themselves and demonstrating their will to implement human rights in practice.
6.5 South and East Asia
This is a region of considerable ethnic, political and religious diversity. In ideological terms, the whole political scale is represented, as are most of the world’s major religions. Serious human rights violations take place in some of the Asian countries. In others, however, issues relating to civil and political rights, such as freedom of expression, religious tolerance, freedom of assembly and association and use of the death penalty, are moving up the political agenda as the global economic centre of gravity moves eastwards.
With some clear exceptions, the general trend has been to foster political legitimacy through the development of democratic and legal institutions. Better education, the rise of the middle class and access to information technology have increased demands for good governance and modern institutions. Although these developments are not equally strong throughout the region, the fact that Asian countries are gradually recognising the importance of the rule of law and human rights is of great significance.
However, there seems to be a lack of political will when it comes to implementing civil and political rights, and regimes in the region are continuing to give priority to economic and social development. Major challenges still need to be overcome in certain countries. One of the prime examples is the serious human rights situation in North Korea, which has attracted renewed international attention following the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, which was published in 2014. Reports on the treatment of political prisoners, the use of violence, the methods of punishment, and disappearances are particularly alarming.
Women’s rights have improved in Afghanistan since the Taliban’s fall in 2001. However, much remains to be done with regard to the rule of law, corruption and gender equality. Legislation designed to improve the situation of women has been passed, but there are major problems with its implementation. Many children, especially girls, are not enrolled in school or drop out of school. Children and women are particularly vulnerable to violence and abuse. Terrorist attacks are still commonplace. Many of these problems also exist in Pakistan, where blasphemy laws are also undermining freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression and the rule of law. Terrorism and sectarian violence, combined with the authorities’ inability to control this violence, is hitting many religious groups hard.
Human rights defenders are working under difficult conditions in a number of countries. Many of them are persecuted; in some countries they are illegally detained and kept in isolation, or even disappear. Arbitrary arrests and detentions in China have been a particular cause for concern. Freedom of expression is under pressure, particularly in the context of electronic communications. Impunity for government officials who are involved in violations of human rights is relatively common. Inadequate civilian control of the military is also a challenge to democracy that affects the human rights situation in several countries.
In Vietnam, freedom of the press, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association are severely restricted. This issue is regularly raised at all levels in our bilateral contact, and not least in the context of the bilateral dialogue on human rights with Vietnam.
Strong economic growth in many Asian countries has created better conditions for realising economic, social and cultural rights for large parts of the population, but it has also increased economic and social disparity. Today, most of the world’s poor are living in Asian middle-income countries. Gender inequality and other forms of discrimination have deep roots, for example due to caste systems. Religious and ethnic minorities are discriminated against and experience violence in many countries. Violence and socio-cultural discrimination against women is common. Large-scale labour migration is creating a need for protection against human trafficking and exploitation. Corruption is endemic in many Asian countries and is undermining fundamental social values.
Although the situation is not uniform, the overall impression is that civil society has become stronger and more visible in Asia in general, and in certain diaspora groups in particular. Through studies, analyses and awareness-raising campaigns, these groups are influencing the human rights agenda at both national and regional level. However, the general approach in both bilateral and regional relations is characterised by caution and a reluctance to politicise various issues. In many countries, compliance with human rights obligations is considered to be an internal affair, and criticism from outside is regarded as inappropriate interference.
The South-East Asian human rights system
Setting regional standards that are in line with the global system, and establishing binding obligations and effective regional monitoring mechanisms, requires a sense of community and mutual confidence that countries in the region seem to lack. At present, there is no explicit ambition to develop a regional human rights regime, although there is a regional debate on the need for a development in this direction. In the sub-region of South-East Asia, however, it has been possible to develop common standards. The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights was established under the auspices of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in 2009 to promote human rights and compliance with international standards in the region. One of the first steps the Commission took was to draw up the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, which came into force in November 2012. The Declaration has been criticised for not meeting the standards set by global and other regional human rights instruments. Other criticisms relate to insufficient consultation with civil society in the drafting process, and for being too forgiving towards national interests, for cultural relativism, and for providing extensive opportunities for derogation on the part of the authorities.
Despite these weaknesses, the process of developing the Declaration has created a framework for human rights in South-East Asia that may reduce the current scepticism about supranational monitoring mechanisms. Once this scepticism has been overcome, it will be important for the principles set out in the Declaration to be strengthened and made more meaningful. This would be similar to the developments in the existing and more extensive regional regimes in Europe, Africa and the Americas.
promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe and provide funding through the EEA and Norway Grants for implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights;
seek to strengthen the work of the Council of Europe and the OSCE to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law, for example by supporting the implementation of these organisations’ action plans for certain member states;
seek to ensure that the Council of Europe strengthens its cooperation with civil society, and take initiatives to this end vis-à-vis member states and civil society organisations;
help to improve the effectiveness of the European human rights system, including through active participation in the reform process and contributions to the special bank account opened by the European Court of Human Rights to help it deal with the backlog of cases;
increase knowledge about and contact and cooperation with other regional organisations and institutions, such as the African Union, the Organization of American States, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and their respective commissions, and with regional bodies in the Middle East, to promote human rights, the rule of law and democracy;
expand cooperation with other countries and civil society with a view to strengthening the various regional human rights systems.