Wednesday, 10 December 2008

International Human Rights Day - thoughts from Ireland to Cambodia

Today, 10th December, is International Human Rights Day. And it also marks 60 years since adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations.

In Ireland, the Equality and Rights Alliance is calling on TDs and Senators to ‘stand up for human rights and equality. Amnesty International Ireland made the point as it launches its report Human Rights: The Sustainable Future that this meant not only speaking out against human rights abuses abroad, but also at home. The message is an important one. Ireland, like many developed nations, does little to mark International Human Rights Day, and the role of international human rights treaties tends to be limited to a rhetorical one. At the same time, the government encourages and expects developing nations to ‘live up to’ their international human rights obligations.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin writing in the Irish Times today, states that “The 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights offers us an opportunity to renew our commitment to securing the declaration's promise of dignity and justice for all.” In practice this renewal of commitment must include both human rights protection at home and abroad. For the Universal Declaration provides the promise of dignity and justice for everyone. And in the current financial climate, the impact of budget cuts on key human rights bodies in Ireland - Equality Authority facing a 43% cut and the Irish Human Rights Commission a 24% cut – are significant. At the very least such cutbacks send out a message that domestic human rights bodies are a luxury – something the government would not suggest to the developing nations they provide development aid to.

International Human Rights Day does however, provide me with an opportunity to highlight significant concerns regarding human rights violations that are being systematically carried out in a country I know well – Cambodia. The country has dropped off the international news agenda in recent times, even as it is gearing up to begin trials of people accused of crimes against humanity arising for atrocities committed during the Pol Pot era. However, whilst Cambodia has been consolidating its rebuilding process following those terrible years of violence and occupation and although its economy has grown dramatically, human rights abuses are widespread. Ironically many of the abuses arise out of years of strong economic growth as the rich consolidate their power and wealth.

Land theft and community evictions are at record levels and represent one of the most significant areas of human rights abuses in the country. According to Amnesty International in 2008 some 150,000 Cambodians were estimated to live at risk of forced eviction and tens of thousands have already been forcibly evicted in recent years: Cambodia: A Risky Business –Defending the Right to Housing. These actions leave people homeless or relocated to inadequate resettlement sites with poor infrastructure and limited access to work opportunities. The Cambodian authorities fail to protect the population against forced evictions and in fact many with political and/or economic power are allowed to act with impunity in arbitrarily expropriating land – Cambodia: Rights razed: Forced Evictions in Cambodia. The basic rights to land and housing, access to sanitation, amenities and the possibility of work, are crucial in a country where so many of the population are simply struggling to survive on a day-to-day basis. It is not surprising therefore that many of the countries civil society organisations took to the streets today to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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