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Human rights are never domestic

Friday 18 December 2015, by siawi3

Source: http://pambazuka.org/en/category/comment/96235
2015-12-15, Issue 755

Henning Melber

It is a matter of international solidarity to side with the oppressed, advocating their rights and thereby also promoting fundamental human rights universally. Namibia itself benefitted from such solidarity in its struggle for freedom. So how come the country is withdrawing from the International Criminal Court?

Once upon a time, anti-colonial movements were fighting for human rights against oppression and injustice. Representatives of these agencies claimed a moral high ground.

As the “Wretched of the Earth” they expected and demanded international support for their legitimate goals and appealed to a global consciousness, which translated into international solidarity.

Many of the transitions toward self-determination were supported by such acts of solidarity. Considered as a “trust betrayed”, Namibia was a special case.

The United Nations General Assembly declared Swapo “the sole and authentic representative of the Namibian people”. Numerous campaigns exercised practical support, collected money, offered humanitarian assistance, took care of needs. Namibian independence was a triumph of collective responsibility based on moral principles.

International solidarity in our and many other cases was based on intervention. How else was apartheid declared a crime against humanity and those fighting the system supported it [through many forms], including sanctions?

Some forms of such solidarity have survived. The position of the Namibian government as regards the people of the Western Sahara and Palestine are prominent cases in point. Morocco and Israel surely consider this as an undue intervention into what they claim to be domestic affairs.

They are, of course, wrong. It is indeed a matter of international solidarity, siding with the oppressed, advocating their rights and thereby also promoting fundamental human rights universally.

So how about the announcement that Namibia withdraws from the International Criminal Court (ICC) because it has become, according to President Geingob, an “abomination”? Namibia was - like more than 30 other African states - a signatory to the Rome Treaty and ratified early this century the ICC with its jurisdiction. Unfortunately (though not surprisingly), the most powerful countries did not do so.

The ICC subsequently implemented its mandate (with numerous Africans holding crucial positions as prosecutors and judges) with regard to investigating cases of mass violence, war crimes and crimes against humanity bordering on genocide. These cases were mainly (but not exclusively) in Africa, where most states had actively supported and signed the international treaties.

Most interventions of the ICC were initiated upon direct request from African states. In two cases (Kenya and Sudan), however, sitting presidents were implicated in acts of mass violence, which required ICC investigations.

Let us recall what we can more or less safely establish as facts in both cases: in Sudan at least an estimated 300 000 people died as a direct result of what can be qualified as state terror and war against minorities. In Kenya, investigations wanted to establish who was responsible and accountable for the deaths of more than a thousand people as part of election campaigns turning abhorrently violent elections of 2007. Notably, this was an initiative confined to a hearing.

If there is anything abominable, that is surely what happened in both countries, [against weak and most vulnerable fellow Africans]. And if there is something like international solidarity, then one could assume it demands from others not to be bystanders, which amounts to tolerating and thus endorsing state terror.

Is this what Namibia identifies with? Are we proud of abandoning an obligation to jealously guard human rights? And our only defence is that these were not committed by “imperialists” but “friends” or that powerful countries have not signed up to support the ICC?

Indeed, the ICC has no mandate to prosecute citizens of countries that have not signed up to or ratified the treaty (for example the United States, China, Russia, North Korea, India and Iran). But would that not be reason to embark on a worldwide campaign to name and shame and increase the pressure on these states? Russia, China, North Korea and Iran are so-called all-weather friends of Namibia. What about our principled respect for international human rights standards?

We should take a stance in favour of international solidarity with the oppressed, with the tortured and the maimed as others did in our own case. It would indeed share the understanding that “an injury to one is an injury to all”.

It would give practical meaning to what the Legal Assistance Centre rightly so responded in a press release to the allegation that the ICC would interfere into domestic affairs: “Human rights abuses are never a domestic affair. The words say it all - human rights belong to all humans - whatever their nationality and geographical location.”

We claimed that much, that apartheid could not be reduced to a domestic affair. It was a matter of international law and solidarity. Similarly, we should fight for anyone subjected to state terror and violence everywhere, instead of abandoning the moral high ground because a few friends have no moral compass. One cannot protect injustices by protecting and promoting other injustices. Two wrongs do not make a right.

A true abomination is being in the cosy company of rogue states and leaders, who have all reason to avoid being taken to task for atrocities they commit.

Henning Melber joined Swapo in 1974. This article previously appeared in the Namibian.