How human rights are violated

The majority of the content in this article is taken from the HURIDOCS EVENTS STANDARD FORMATS: A Tool for Documenting Human Rights Violations, written by Judith Dueck, Manuel Guzman, Bert Verstappen. 2001 Revised Second Edition

What constitutes a human rights violation has been the subject of numerous debates. In traditional discourse, human rights violations have been mainly held to be the responsibility of the state, in view of its various obligations towards its citizens. The World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 developed a broader perspective on human rights, and consequently on human rights violations. The assertion that human rights consist of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights that are indivisible, interrelated and interdependent also points to the responsibilities of various private actors, not just the state. Even environmental rights are now starting to be regulated as part of the (constantly) evolving recognition and intertwined nature of human rights. 

The Maastricht Guidelines, drawn up mainly to elaborate on the principles to guide the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, have helped in further solidifying the concept of attributing human rights violations to both state and non-state actors, albeit with emphasis on the role of the state. They state that violations occur through acts of commission, by the State or by parties insufficiently regulated by the State, or through acts of omission by the State.

These guidelines provide the main basis for the discussions in the following sections on how to identify violations so as to be able to document them.

Violations by the State – Acts of commission and omission #

On the part of the State, violations can be seen in terms of its failure to comply with three different types of obligations. These are:

  1. obligation to respect: the obligation to respect requires the state, and all its organs and agents, to abstain from doing anything that violates the integrity of the individual or group or infringes on their freedom. Examples of this type of violations are such acts as:
    1. extra-judicial execution (in violation of the obligation to respect an individual‟s right to life)
    2. arbitrary arrest (in violation of the obligation to respect an individual‟s right to liberty)
    3. banning of a trade union (in violation of the obligation to respect a group‟s freedom of association)
    4. restriction on the practice of a certain religion (in violation of the obligation to respect an individual‟s freedom of religion)
  2. obligation to protect: the obligation to protect requires the state and its agents to take the measures necessary to prevent others from violating the rights of an individual or group, including the prevention or infringement of the enjoyment of their freedom. Examples of this type of violations are acts of omission like:
    1. failure to act when a certain group, such as an ethnic group, attacks another
    2. failure to compel companies to pay decent wages
  3. obligation to fulfil: the obligation to fulfil requires the state to take the measures necessary to ensure for each person within its jurisdiction opportunities to obtain satisfaction of those needs which have been recognised in the human rights instruments and cannot be secured by personal efforts. Examples of this type of violations are acts of omission like:
    1. failure to adopt a basic health care system
    2. failure to implement a free education system at the primary level

Non-Government Entities – Acts of commission #

Non-government entities can also be involved in the perpetration of violations of human rights. Most often, the acts consist of violent actions similar to those committed by the State or its agents in contravention of the obligation to respect the freedoms of individuals or groups. Examples of such acts by non-state entities are:

  1. executions of civilians by armed rebels
  2. evictions of communities committed by trans-national companies
  3. battery by one partner against the other
  4. physical assaults by private guards against protesters

Some acts by non-state agents are in the area of economic, social and cultural rights. Examples are:

  1. setting wage levels that are lower than legislated rates
  2. discriminatory policies in the recruitment of workers
  3. dumping of pollutants

It cannot be denied that such acts by non-government actors lead to violations of human rights. There is still some disagreement, however, in terms of how to represent the actual violations and how to attribute these. 

There are those who still maintain that human rights violations should be attributed only to governments. In this approach, while the acts by non-government entities are acknowledged, these are seen as being ultimately the responsibility of the government. Thus, in the case of the kinds of acts by non-government entities that have just been listed, it is the government that is accused of human rights violations through its failure to prevent or combat these acts. 

On the other hand, there is a growing momentum in favour of the approach that considers acts by non-government entities as violations by themselves. For example, if we look at the design and promotion of the UN Global Compact, a principle-based framework for businesses, we will see that it contains principles, such as “the elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labour.” 

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