Implementing the Rights Everyone Has

April 2, 2010 | | Comments Off on Implementing the Rights Everyone Has

By Edward Eichler

An impoverished young Cambodian boy attempts to steal a bicycle. He is arrested, tortured by the police, and ends up in prison. Under the law, he has certain rights, including the right to a defender. But in actuality, this boy has no lawyer to advise him and no way to know of his what his rights are.


In 2005, Kofi Annan noted that “the era of declaration is now giving way, as it should, to an era of implementation.” Towards the end of the 20th century, many countries, including Cambodia, passed laws giving their citizens basic rights, such as the right to be free from torture and to have a public defender. It is now the norm to ratify international instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; indeed only 29 states have not ratified the ICCPR to date. The covenant prohibits torture under any circumstances. Cambodia is a party to this treaty.

But having ratified a treaty with a prohibition against torture is utterly meaningless if the implementation of such a principle is lacking—in fact, it may make matters worse, because being a party to such a treaty can give a state that does torture its citizens a veneer of respectability, legitimacy and even prestige. Thus, while the movement towards a widespread recognition of human rights is surely a positive sign, it is only the first step. Actually carrying out the reforms necessary to implement such rights is crucial. But doing so is a long and difficult process.

International Bridges to Justice (IBJ) is a non-profit based in Geneva, Switzerland which promotes public defense for ordinary citizens in Asia and Africa. They advance this effort by training public defenders in various countries, as well as by implementing “legal rights awareness” campaigns to raise awareness.

The most striking aspect of IBJ is how if differs from typical human rights groups. Amnesty International, for example, embraces its role on the outside. For them, “to work within the system would seem tantamount to condoning it,” as Kenneth Neil Cukier, a correspondent for The Economist, has written. Such groups concentrate on major human rights abuses and seek to deal with specific situations. Its approach perhaps stems from the fact that Amnesty International was formed in 1961—and at that point in time there were many countries around the world that were not yet parties to treaties such as the ICCPR. The goal of such groups, therefore, was to draw attention to grave abuses so that governments would embrace the various international instruments protecting human rights. But today, with most countries of the world having ratified such treaties, a new approach is called for.

IBJ seeks to institutionalize defense rights by training public defenders and helping them to become accepted members of the criminal justice system, along with judges, police officers, and prosecutors. IBJ “focuses on the long term, by slowly developing a sustainable infrastructure for legal rights,” Cukier writes. It “does not want to stop rights abuse so much as prevent it.”

In many countries, there is a strong presumption of guilt; for example, the rules in a Cambodian prison typically stated something like “don’t you dare try and tell a lie or you will be given more lashes.” Prisoners naturally felt compelled to confess crimes they had not committed.

IBJ seeks to change such entrenched, unfair systems, and to cultivate an approach that gives prisoners both dignity and actual legal safeguards.  In China, IBJ has supported public awareness campaigns in which the banner at police stations and courthouses was changed from “Confess—Better Treatment; Resist—Harsher Treatment” to “If You are Arrested, Know Your Rights.” Such efforts seek to plant the seed for a new mind-set to criminal justice.

But changing the system is not an easy task. Karen Tse, founder of International Bridges to Justice, has written that “the judges, prosecutors and police officer, who had long held almost absolute power…did not like the idea of defenders suddenly holding them accountable to laws and challenging their way of doing things… [T]hese defenders literally had to push themselves into the intractable old system and create a role for themselves amidst great opposition from the established order which had not invited their presence.”

Clearly there is much work to be done. But any attempt at transforming the unfair and arbitrary systems still in place around the world will require much more than signing an international covenant, no matter what rights are enumerated in the document. Facing such odds requires courage and resilience, but over time, as public defenders gain a seat at the table, change will come.

You can learn more about International Bridges to Justice at its website:

Photo courtesy of Flickr user amasc


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