ICTJ Forum: A Wrong Turn for Human Rights



ICTJ President David Tolbert’s recently published op-ed in Project Syndicate sounded a serious warning about what Tolbert describes as “backsliding by the international community” on the protection of human rights. The piece attracted a lot of attention in the international human rights and justice communities, and in this edition of ICTJ Forum, ICTJ Communications Director Refik Hodzic interviews Tolbert to discuss Tolbert’s assertions from this piece, and to hear more reflection on Iraq, Ukraine, and other countries where conflict and human rights abuses are making headlines.


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In his recent opinion piece, Tolbert describes an acceleration of not only brutal human rights abuses, but impunity for the perpetrators:

“The world has plunged into a period of brutality, with impunity for the perpetrators of violence. Syria is suffering untold civilian casualties as a divided United Nations Security Council sits on the sidelines. Gaza was pummeled to dust yet again with the world watching on. Iraq is in flames, with no end in sight. Atrocities are mounting in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, which are also being swept by an epidemic of sexual violence. Even Europe is not immune: a civilian aircraft was shot down over a conflict zone in eastern Ukraine, and officials were prevented from investigating.”

In conversation with Hodzic, Tolbert says his motivation to write the op-ed grew out of a sense of urgency over the state of world today.

“If you read the newspapers, if you look at the world’s situation today, you’ve got to be deeply troubled,” says Tolbert. “We’re seeing backsliding across the board, whether it’s in the Middle East, Africa, and in other parts of the world. This has seemed to be going in the wrong direction for some time, but now, it seems to be accelerating […] What is even more concerning is the reaction--or lack of reaction--from the international community writ large, particularly the great and emerging powers, which seem to have turned their back on human rights.”

Particularly troubling, says Tolbert, is a reversal of what for some decades had been a robust and growing trend of international commitment to accountability for heinous crimes.

“Where there have been human rights abuses of these kinds of levels—at least since 1989—we have seen some response from international community; sometimes it is late or not as effective as we would like them to be, but there was a movement for accountability,” says Tolbert.

“If we looked back a few years ago, we would have thought that the great powers & emerging powers would be at least committed to stopping or addressing these abuses; or, if this didn’t happen, there would at least be some kind of system to address this—but we’re not seeing that today.”

In considering recent international political shifts, Tolbert reflects on the parallels between today’s power dynamics and Cold War-era politics, and points to the ongoing draw back of European and North American powers—particularly the US—on human rights.

“The US engagement on human rights has been reeling ever since 9/11, and particularly after the loss of US credibility with Iraq. The unity of Europe has broken apart in a lot of ways, and the emergence of spoilers in that vacuum […] I think there is a great feeling of discontent, there’s a feeling of hypocrisy on the Western powers in particular, and a feeling of economic injustice that is not being addressed.”

For transitional societies and countries facing a legacy of human rights abuses of the past such as Colombia and many countries of the "Arab Spring", Tolbert remains confident that demands for truth, justice, and reparation will never be swayed. But in the absence of support from the international community, the possibility of that justice can come under threat.

“[Victims'] quest for justice can’t be extinguished by external circumstances,” says Tolbert. “What I would worry about it that these processes need international support.”

PHOTO: Ukraine - A local citizen collects parts of a seized Ukrainian Army Truck that was set alight during fighting between pro-Russian militants and government troops at Oktyabrskoye village, about 20 km. (12 miles) from Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, May 14, 2014. At list six servicemen were ambushed and killed and eight others wounded Tuesday afternoon outside the town of Kramatorsk, Ukrainian defense ministry said. ---(Copyright Maysun/Corbis / APImages)