ICTJ Presents "Taking a Stand: The Evolution of Human Rights"

9/19/2011

Taking a Stand: The Evolution of Human Rights, a book by the current UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and former ICTJ president Juan E. Méndez, provides an eye-opening firsthand account of the fight against violations of human rights and impunity. As a renowned human rights lawyer and political activist, Méndez has for several decades passionately advocated for the rights of minorities, political prisoners, asylum seekers, and other marginalized communities subject to human rights abuses. Taking a Stand offers tangible policy recommendations to be undertaken by the international community to uncover the atrocities of the past and prevent further abuse.

Méndez has himself experienced arrest and torture during one Argentina’s most turbulent political periods, in which scores of political dissidents were seized and tortured under the military dictatorship. Méndez, who was imprisoned for his political activism with the Peronist Youth movement, details the atrocities that prisoners face following the devolution of security and legal structures:

“The plainclothesmen pointed their machine guns at us as we lay on the sidewalk and then handcuffed us. They searched us, took our handguns, and asked for identification. Many of us, including me, carried guns at the time for protection. The police had no warrant and no probable cause to arrest us, as we were not breaking the law. But by 1974 the police were already aggressively and threateningly displaying weapons and flaunting the laws. Dozens of people were passing by. It all happened out in the open, as if it were something ordinary.”

This book also offers critical analysis of past movements to secure global human rights. While the book discusses the lack of institutional capacity to address human rights violations in the developing world, it additionally addresses the successes and failures of policymakers in the United States and Western Europe; human rights violations not only occur in developed nations as well, but these violations set dubious precedents about the importance of adhering to international legal standards.

Taking a Stand concludes with policy recommendations for both the international community and domestic governments to adopt to prevent further human rights violations. These recommendations focus on the improvement of state security and legal systems which in many countries are highly subject to politicization and abuse.

Méndez also recommends bringing the role of human rights lawyers as defense attorneys back into the forefront of the human rights quest, to complement the shift towards human rights lawyers as prosecutors. Lawyers as human rights defenders, he argues, are our first line of defense against abuse and are therefore powerful tools of prevention.

Méndez concludes his account by maintaining that ultimately, the realization of the human rights goal relies on the collaboration of both domestic governments and international actors, the lack of which, thus far, has resulted in highly fragmented policy. In order to halt torture, prolonged detention, and mass abuse, and to uphold justice and accountability, there must be a determined resolution of political will, solidarity on the behalf of grassroots organizations, domestic governments and international actors, and courage to uncover the atrocities committed in the past in order to prevent them from recurring in the future.

Read an excerpt from Taking a Stand: The Evolution of Human Rights.

From Taking a Stand by Juan E. Mendez with Marjory Wentworth. Copyright © 2011 by the authors and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.