United Nations involvement in human rights has been mirrored by increasing regional concern with human rights issues. The 1950 European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms came into force in 1953, the 1969 American Convention on Human Rightsin 1978, and the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rightsin 1987. Despite persistent advocacy in the region, there is still no regional treaty covering Asia or the Pacific.
The terms of the regional treaties substantially overlap with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights(ICCPR), but both the American and the African Charter go further, covering some rights under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights(ICESCR). Many countries have ratified or acceded to the UN Covenants as well as to the regional treaty relevant to them.
In Europe, the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedomsof 1950 (European Convention on Human Rights) has been very successful in setting human rights standards for European citizens, which have been applied through the activity of the Council of Europe, the European Commission on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights. The decisions of the Court are generally respected and implemented by the 47 members of the Council of Europe who have, by ratifying the Convention, agreed to amend their domestic laws to ensure compliance.
Similarly, in the Americas, the American Convention on Human Rights of 1969 (American Convention) creates a Commission and a Court. The American Convention refers directly to civil and political rights. It incorporates economic, social and cultural rights with a separate Protocol. Not all the countries that have ratified the American Convention have also ratified the Protocol. Moreover, the effectiveness of the Inter-American system is limited, however, by the refusal of the United States of America to ratify the Convention, and by the political instability of some of the member nations of the Organisation of American States.
The African (Banjul) Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Banjul Charter) was signed in 1981. It established the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). In 1999, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) issued the Sirte Declaration to establish a new regional institution, the African Union. The creation of an African Union has brought a renewed focus to democratisation and the protection of human rights in Africa. It replaces the OAU and manages the OAU mechanisms. The OAU passed a protocol to create an African Court in 1998 on Human and People’s Rights, which came into effect in 2004. The process of harmonising the new African Court on Human and People’s Rights with the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights was completed in 2010. The Commission, and States, and in some countries, non-government organisations with standing can bring human rights complaints to the Court.
That is not to say that there has been no legal response to gross human rights violations in Africa, though it has been mainly through prosecutions for genocide and serious violations of international humanitarian law (the law of armed conflict). Consider for instance, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (established in neighbouring Tanzania) that was established by the UN to prosecute persons responsible for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law (such as crimes against humanity, and war crimes) committed in Rwanda from April – July 1994 in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed. Also the Special Court for Sierra Leone was established jointly by the UN and the Government of Sierra Leone, to try those bearing the greatest responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Sierra Leone since 30 November 1996.
Asia and the Pacific
There remains no regional human rights treaty covering the Asia and Pacific regions. However, there has been recent progress towards establishing a regional human rights mechanism. The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) (Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) adopted the ASEAN Charter in 2007. Article 14 of the Charter commits ASEAN to developing an ‘ASEAN human rights body’. In 2008, the first meeting of a High Level Panel was convened to establish terms of reference for the human rights body. In November 2012, ASEAN produced a Declaration on Human Rights. It is not binding and has no complaints mechanism. Interestingly, it includes rights to development and to peace.
Another regional human rights organisation is the Asia Pacific Forum on National Human Rights Institutions (APF). Members include the national human rights commissions of Afghanistan, Australia, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, New Zealand, Palestine, the Philippines, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Thailand and Timor Leste. In order to belong to the APF, a national human rights institution must comply with the UN ‘Paris Principles’, a set of principles that safeguard the independence and mandate of national human rights institutions.