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Human Rights with Ove Bring

Ove Bring. Photo: Atlantis bokförlagOve Bring is well known in the fields of international law and human rights. He has been a professor in international law since 1993, and currently works at The Swedish National Defense College. He has been a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration since 1999.

Bring visited Lund last week to participate in a panel discussion, organized by the Association of Foreign Affairs and Amnesty International, concerning the West Bank.

In the Western world we often feel protected from crimes against human rights. Does this worry you?

It worries me when there are oppositions made between east and west, and south and north and one believes that one is flawless and has the right to criticize others. It is particularly important to psychologically examine oneself and admit our own flaws in order to have a constructive dialogue with those who need to shape up when it comes to human rights.

I see a positive development since 2006, when the Human Rights’ Council was established. They have introduced the Universal Periodic Review which means that all UN member states’ human rights are examined in turns. I admit it sometimes resembles a sandbox with many blows below the belt but it is necessary in the international community. A Western country like Sweden can be criticized for how its minority group of Sami people is treated. So, in the end, my worry is actually beginning to fade – we’re moving in the right direction.

Lately an EU country, Hungary, has received a lot of negative attention for not respecting human rights. Did this come as a surprise? The EU has been putting pressure on Hungary. Is this enough?

It was unexpected that an EU member – accepted to the union under the condition that they respect democracy and human rights – can’t live up to these standards and that a Central European country that has experienced two World Wars have already forgotten and can’t achieve better outcomes. For example, it is a problem to get rid of judges above a certain age in order to appoint new ones that are in agreement with the political authority and the EU realizes this.

Hungary is very sensitive to economic and trade sanctions. This may force them to back off and accept the conditions. As the EU has better means to pressure Hungary than, for example, the UN Security Council does, this problem is best solved within the EU. There is no quick fix to this problem – continuous check-ups are needed. This is where the EU has the possibility to use political pressure to make a difference.

Is it possible for a country not adhering to its human rights responsibilities to conceal this fact during an inspection? 

Once observers are let into a country, it is impossible to withhold the conditions. I was once on a human rights mission in Tibet where we were denied access to a prison and the opportunity to meet the prisoners. This type of concealment is pretty much a guarantee that they have something to hide. “Naming and Shaming” can be an effective, but peaceful, way of bringing human rights violations into the light just by opening discussions.

Has the West become more tolerant of neglect of human rights?

In order to maintain good bilateral relations, American administrations have a history of looking the other way when it comes to their allies’ neglect of human rights. I don’t want to accuse all western countries of this, but the USA, which is the principal NATO country, has repeatedly sent double messages; they have historically been a great defender of human rights, however, they also let countries – that were on the “right” side during the Cold War – off the hook.

20 years after the end of the Cold War, it is not that simple anymore. One example is with Pakistan, where efforts have been made for the two nations to remain allies. At the moment there is a crisis between the two countries after the assassination of Usama Bin Laden and the continued presence of American drones in Pakistani territory. It is obvious that the USA wants this tension to pass.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the UN Declaration of human rights, 1949. Photo: BlatantWorld.com. flickrIn your latest book you assert that “human rights” is not a Western invention, although it is sometimes assumed to be. Would you like to introduce a new actor on the human rights scene?

In my book I’d like to show that elements of human rights can be found in many Oriental cultures long before Western cultures “invented” human rights during the Enlightenment. This is very interesting as it removes the argument presented by certain regimes accusing the West of forcing their ideas on them via the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This argument is not valid – the declaration is truly universal.

Furthermore, this argument is generally presented by the political elite in these countries. During the Arabic Spring regimes were criticized by their own people for not promoting human rights or democratic principles.  This means that the principle of cultural relativism has almost collapsed with the Arabic Spring – it has been proven that it’s not the West that wants to enforce human rights in Tunisia, but the Tunisians themselves.           

What is your impression of the development of human rights during your life time?

This is something that comes and goes. After the Cold War, when the Security Council could finally work in the way it was intended to, things really seemed to head in the right direction. One example of this is when actions were taken against Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War.

However, after 9/11 the George W Bush administration redefined the importance of human rights by prioritizing the need to fight terrorism. Captives at Guantanamo in Cuba and in the Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan were tortured – physically as well as psychologically – and denied trials. The credibility of Western standards of human rights disappeared after the actions of the Bush administration – this was a setback for human rights. Even European countries, such as Poland and Sweden, were involved in this.

Now the situation in the West is once again improving. However, conditions in China are unchanged. A difference is that today we are more conscious about the situation thanks to NGOs. We no longer have colonialism and the Cold War is over. So, with a longer perspective I have to say that the situation is better.  

EDITH BRODDA JANSEN

 

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