Humanity is on path to self-destruction, warns UN special rapporteur
Human rights are facing a “worrying backlash” from a global community that has failed to “learn the lesson” of the past.
Speaking exclusively to the Guardian, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, said the global community had become “complacent” in the face of injustice because the world no longer understood why human rights should be protected or what the world would look like without them.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that 70 years after world war two, when the last witnesses of past atrocities are dying away, we start to see human rights being questioned on a broad scale,” said Melzer, a Swiss law professor who assumed the UN post in 2016.
“The generation that had the answer is almost gone. They left behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for us, but it is as if its message is no longer understood, and it looks like we will have to learn the same lesson the hard way again.”
Melzer’s comments mark the 70th anniversary of the declaration in a week when world leaders are in an uproar over global migration flows, with numerous countries backing out of a UN compact in Marrakech seeking to make migration a universal right.
Melzer pointed to the grave human rights violations occurring in key migration routes as proof that the global community now considers human rights a “luxury” instead of a right.
“If European countries are paying Libya to deliberately prevent migrantsfrom reaching the safety of European jurisdiction, we’re talking about complicity in crimes against humanity because these people are knowingly being sent back to camps governed by rape, torture and murder,” said Melzer.
The first major dismantling of human rights began after 9/11, said Melzer, who worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) at the time. He said that the “global war on terror” saw the use of torture increasingly tolerated in public opinion as well as in mainstream entertainment. Popular TV series such as 24, in which counter-terrorism experts apply a bit of “sanitised torture” in order to “neutralise the ticking bomb just in time for the commercial break” are completely unrealistic, but reinforce the myth that torture is both effective and legitimate, he said.
“It doesn’t work that way in reality. First, interrogators are never certain about what a suspect knows. Second, the suspect has no reason to tell them the truth, because any false information he provides will also stop the torture and will send investigators off on a tangent while the bomb keeps ticking. Third, and most importantly, even if torture worked, this would not make it acceptable.
“With the same sinister logic we could say that chemical weapons, slavery and genocide work. But torture is not prohibited because it never works, but because it is so fundamentally dehumanising not only for the victims, but also for the perpetrators and for any society tolerating such monstrous abuse. It’s very important that we get a realistic portrait of torture: it is not clean, sanitised and effective, but dirty, messy and irreversibly destructive for everyone involved.”
The US Senate committee report acknowledging that the CIA had engaged in systematic torture was a historical opportunity, said Melzer, because it could have set an example for other states on taking responsibility for a practice that the global community had prohibited in absolute terms.
Yet four years after the report was released, there still hasn’t been a single prosecution – even though the UN convention against torture obliges the US to prosecute any official who has engaged in the practice, said Melzer.
“The US did not even seriously investigate allegations regarding the involvement of [Gina Haspel] in torture before appointing her as director of the CIA, and the US president even openly supported the use of waterboarding.
“All of this sets a deplorable example for other countries, like Israel, whose Supreme Court comes out with a decision openly promoting exceptions from the prohibition of torture – and no other state responds in protest or even voices any concern. This would not have been possible 20 years ago.”
The global erosion of human rights is just one crisis among many, said Melzer, from migration and the environment to financial instability, energy, poverty and cyber security. Rather than provide solutions to these problems, however, world leaders are instead “promoting regressive policies focused on national interests and decrying human rights as a threat to national sovereignty and security”.
Melzer added: “We must understand that, in a world full of globalised challenges, human rights are the very basis for our safety, stability and prosperity, and that any significant erosion of these rights will cause the collapse of our modern civilisation.
“The good news is that people are starting to realise that it is time for all of us to take responsibility. In a world where everyone has access to the internet, we have the means to communicate globally and change our collective awareness faster than ever in history.
“The recent protests by the gilets jaunes are proof that when people finally decide to stand up and say ‘enough’, governments have no choice but to listen. If we can do so peacefully and without violence and destruction, then there is hope for the future.”
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