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Violence against Healthcare: Social and Humanitarian Implications

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Historically, medical treatment during conflict has not been taken for granted as it is nowadays. For instance, in the 16th century, soldiers were not immediately taken from the battlefield to the nearest medical treatment facility, they had to wait two or more days until their conditions stabilized. Worst case scenario, they wouldn’t make it. Their sufferings were alleviated when the first surgeon began treatment on wounded soldiers. Ambroise Pare was the one who decided to give them a chance at survival. Therefore, back in the day, the term “violence” could not be associated with “healthcare”, since there wasn’t any humanitarian assistance available in the first place.

In the 21st, violence against healthcare does very much happen. Campaigns such as “Health Care in Danger” conducted by the ICRC and reports such as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health have coined the phrase “compounded cost of violence on healthcare” as a result of this type of violence occurring.

The case of Syria is a tragic example and it might seem more relatable to the general public due to the fact that is a contemporary humanitarian disaster. In one of the reports on ‘Protecting Healthcare in Conflict’ released by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria demonstrates just how devastating is the purposeful zeroing in on the destruction of medical facilities, the targeting of health care staff and the refusal of certain ethnic groups to allow the treatment of the ill and wounded. These attacks are having consequences of paramount importance on the increasingly significant exodus of healthcare staff, the vaccination campaigns that are being sharply curtailed and the inventory that is facing a seemingly insurmountable stock-out.

Variations in Violence

The most pervasive mode of violent attacks is on the medical personnel, irrespective of the fact that they are from an INGO or belong to the local workforce.  According to Bruce Eshaya-Chauvin, medical adviser to the ICRC, “healthcare workers in conflict zones are literally being hunted down”. Through the killing by armed groups of expatriate healthcare staff, their kidnapping from the workplace, their arrests and the constant threats coming from insurgents and governments in an equal manner, not to mention the countless explosive weapons used by armed forces during combat that render medical staff collateral victims and cause them severe injuries or even death, the healthcare system is being shattered from its roots.

Interesting cases have occurred when medical staff have been threatened to provide care for specific ethnic groups during the hijacking of an ambulance. An assistant medical coordinator at the ICRC in Bangui, Central African Republic recalled an instance in which she was “threatened by armed men who insisted on getting in the car and making us take them where they wanted to go. When we tried to explain our work to them they became angry and threatened us with machetes and rifles.” (“Effects of Violence on Healthcare”, 2014)

Another way through which violence against medical staff can be seen is through the limitation imposed by armed groups on the doctors while practising their jobs. For instance, a certain Dr. Cox talked to Discovery News about the rules of war and his experiences in Congo by saying that due to mortar rounds having fallen near the hospital, he had to tap the windows of the operating room to prevent them from shattering and perform the surgery while wearing body armour. This severely limits the way they practise medicine and puts them under constant psychological terror.

Violent events that are affecting the healthcare system as a whole are also those aimed at healthcare buildings. By buildings, it is meant hospitals, blood transfusion centres, laboratories, first-aid centres and those buildings in which medication and medical equipment is stored. Healthcare infrastructure is being hit by weapons during conflict, is being entered into by police and state armed forces or is being occupied for strategic reasons by armed groups. This ultimately leads to hospitals being unable to run generators because of lack of fuel or to the same healthcare buildings running out of drugs. According to the World Health Organization, 37% of the hospitals from Syria have been destroyed, while 20% have been severely damaged. There, the hospital under MSF jurisdiction was completely destroyed together with the rest of the town. This was the only hospital with surgery capabilities and the ability to provide treatment for tuberculosis and HIV for 270,000 people. Having suffered such a high degree of destruction – medical equipment, laboratory work and blood transfusions being thoroughly dismantled – it became extremely difficult for MSF to resume its activities. Nevertheless, the MSF personnel did manage to resume its activities by treating approximately 1,600 malnourished children only in the first 3 weeks.

Violent events also affect healthcare transportation. By transportation, it is meant medical vehicles such as ambulances, medical aircrafts, medical ships and machines used for the transportation of medical equipment or medical supplies. These vehicles are being attacked while en route by armed groups or state armed forces, they are being damaged by the same groups with the help of explosive devices and, most commonly, are being delayed and harassed at checkpoints. According to the Syrian-American Medical Society, 78% of the ambulances operating on Syrian territory have been badly damaged. The most representative cases in point are the attacks on healthcare infrastructure happening in Libya, thoroughly reported by the international media and the aid organizations.

Patients are also being attacked. Some even refuse to go to the hospital for fear of being identified by their wounds. Bijan Farnoudi, from the ICRC, told Al Jazeera that “a lot of the time they die because the ambulance didn’t make it in time, because the hospital they were trying to seek shelter in was destroyed the night before, or because they were simply too scared to travel to make it to the nearest clinic”, the latter also being a type of psychological violence against patients.

Doctor Rubin Coupland, a British war surgeon from the ICRC, is also advocating for the safety and dignity of patients by encouraging for the speeding of ambulance inspections at checkpoints. “It should take maybe five minutes to inspect an ambulance, not five hours”. He goes on to say that “you don’t have to put dogs in the ambulances to run all over the patients, as we’ve seen, to check for explosives”.

Another way through which patients are suffering from violence is by being abducted. For instance, in January 2014, the police raided a Ukrainian centre of the Red Cross. This event escaladed even further and the healthcare workers soon found themselves being shot at while witnessing the abduction of their wounded patients (“Attacks on Healthcare”, 2014)

Consequences of violence against healthcare

According to the Iraq’s health ministry, 18,000 out of 34,000 doctors fled the country between the years of 2003 and 2006 due to increasing violence. That led to the breakdown of the country’s health system, according to the founder of the NGO, Doctors for Iraq. The same individual warns that there are only 11 surgeons in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, “if anyone was killed, there would be no one to replace them”.

The worst-case  scenario in this situation is the complete withdrawal of entire agencies from disease-ridden areas. Unfortunately, this is not simply a scenario. For instance, MSF decided to pull out of Somalia in 2013, after 22 years of continuous humanitarian work due to the fact that 16 of its workers had been killed since 1991 and several had been attacked.

Both the fleeing and the withdrawal of healthcare workers have preposterous implications. The skills of these workers are often irreplaceable and the ability to recruit people after all the previous attacks becomes exceedingly problematic since they all have even more reasons to be afraid of getting killed.

There seems to be a whole campaign out there that has as its main purpose the targeting of anti-polio healthcare staff. For instance, only in Pakistan, in December 2012, 9 anti-polio workers were killed by gunshots, which led the United Nations to decide against the continuation of the eradication program in that zone of conflict. Approximately 2 weeks after this unfortunate incident, other 7 more workers, assigned to do community development work, were killed only because they were associated with the anti-polio work carried out by their colleagues. In February 2013, this time in Nigeria, members of an Islamist group killed 9 other healthcare workers. Since 2012, a shocking 60 healthcare workers dealing with anti-polio vaccinations have been killed, threatening a polio “renaissance”.

The same issue applies in terms of non-infectious chronic diseases. Because of this “militarization of healthcare”, many refugees are more predisposed towards overcharging and exploitation since they are not in their home country. Adjacently, the surge in non-infectious chronic diseases in war zones is something to keep an eye on since they are progressively in the foreground. Proof gathered from both natural disasters and warfare points out to the excess in mortality and morbidity as caused by non-infectious diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and cancer. Moreover, not being able to access basic medical care leads to a propensity towards outbreaks of cholera, dysentery, typhoid or hepatitis.  All those seemingly routine blood tests needed for chronic diseases, such as the thyroid stimulating hormone or different types of medications like an asthma inhaler become unavailable when violence against healthcare buildings, ambulances or stores occurs. Maternal deaths are another reason why the lack of international healthcare or the lack of access to it is so sharply felt. These deaths – that can otherwise be considered preventable – happen because of mishandled home deliveries, all the missed abortions which in many cases led to sepsis and all the conflict-related impediments that constrain both patients and physicians’ access to one another.

Since many doctors are being considered “enemies of the regime” for treating protestors, for instance, they are constantly targeted which makes hospitals unsafe places to seek treatment in. That leads to an increase in the setting up of alternative places to practice “medicine” such as makeshift hospitals, underground networks of healthcare workers or, in some cases, somebody’s living room.  People choose to be treated in these parallel healthcare establishments for fear of being arrested or, even worse, tortured by their ethnic group for entrusting their health to these medical practitioners that are viewed as foes. However, these places have unsustainable and disjointed care.

Non-measured, non-existent…

“What we are surprised about is how much these incidents almost go unnoticed” said Yves Daccord, the Director-General of the ICRC. This is probably due to the fact that all of these repercussions brought by violence on the healthcare system are equally tough to measure. As Rudi Coninx from the Emergency Risk Management and Humanitarian Response department at the World Health Organization stated, “If you ask someone at WHO, ‘What is the extent of the problem?’, if they were honest, they would say, ‘I don’t know’, as nobody collects these data in a systematic way”.

Legal Provisions 

A year after the creation of the ICRC, the Geneva Convention of the 1864 set the legal basis for the neutrality and protection of medical personnel, hospitals and ambulances against violence during active combat (ICCR, 1864). However, the Geneva Conventions that are currently serving as the legal frameworks for the carrying of medical activities in armed conflicts were negotiated in 1949. They were subsequently amended with the inclusion of the Additional Protocols that were meant to take into consideration newer types of conflict. However, these violations of the law go far beyond the principles enshrined in the Geneva Protocols. According to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Leila Zerrougui, the aftermath of conflict affects children’s right to healthcare, in terms of their ability to access healthcare services during wars and the difficulties encountered by the healthcare personnel in providing for their most basic needs. That happens in spite of the legal framework constructed by the United Nations Security Council in which the protection of children in conflict zones is rendered a priority. The denial of humanitarian access to healthcare services is situated among the other six violations classified by the UNSC as gravely affecting the wellbeing of the children. Another violation is represented by the attacks on hospitals and schools. The main idea is that all of these violations are inadequately covered in the current legal framework meant to protect healthcare in conflict zones.

Refashioning the System                              

Steps towards the remodelling of the healthcare system have already been taken starting with the mere acknowledgement of the problems posed by the violence against healthcare. For instance, in May 2011, at the World Health Assembly, the government expressed avid interest towards the matter by simply admitting violence against healthcare does happen; more than that, it is pervasive and something needs to be done about it.

Nonetheless, this is not the stage at which things should be stopped. Appropriate measures to advance the delivery of healthcare by enhancing security need to be taken both within the health community itself and in the arenas of politics, law by creating standard operating procedures within the military and enhancing humanitarian dialogue. For example, in the realm of politics, the obstruction in the manufacture and trade of light weapons and small arms could lead to less civilian deaths in active combat. Another solution to protect healthcare workers is to establish a special protection force. Furthermore, something that is already being done with leaders of rebel groups such as Charles Taylor is the prosecution of attack perpetrators on healthcare personnel at the International Criminal Court.

“One of the first victims of war is the healthcare system itself”, as Marco Balden interestingly stated. Some even believe that the legal framework is not as relevant anymore due to the urgency and importance of the matter. For instance, Paul Christopher Webster, an award-winning documentary film director who has reported from 20 countries since 1992, sustained the idea that “we need to focus on the consequences and not get bogged down in legalistic debates”. He then went on to say that “this issue [violence against healthcare] is very real and very important for huge numbers of patients”.   Regardless of differing opinions, what needs to be borne in mind is that the sick and the wounded are being denied healthcare that can make a difference between life and death when healthcare workers and killed, injured or threatened and when ambulances and hospitals are rendered non-functional.

Alina Toporas is a recent Master of Science graduate in Global Crime, Justice and Security at the University of Edinburgh Law School. She has previously worked for the European Commission Representation in Scotland, the International Anti-Corruption Academy (IACA), the Romanian Embassy in Croatia and Hagar International (the Vietnamese branch). She is currently serving as a Communications Assistant of the British Embassy in Romania. Her research interests are mainly targeted at the EU-UK cooperation in Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) post-Brexit. Alina is also the author of various pieces on transnational crimes (namely, human trafficking and illicit trade) with a geographical focus on South-East Asia.

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International Law

Omicron and Vaccine Nationalism: How Rich Countries Have Contributed to Pandemic’s Longevity

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In a global pandemic, “Nobody is safe until everyone is safe”, – it is more of true with respect to the current globalized world system. It is said that crisis strikes the conscience and forces the ‘commonality of purpose’ on one another- and a major one in magnanimous scale. But the current Covid-19 crisis seems to have emerged in oddity with this very axiom, of course, due to self-serving, in WHO’s words- ‘self-defeating’ and ‘immoral’, approaches to dealing the pandemic by wealthy countries.

 A new and potentially more transmissible variant of Covid-19 virus, named Omicron by WHO, has been detected in South Africa. With scientists yet to be confirmed about new variant’s epicenter and its likely implication on human immune system, the emergence of Omicron has brought the long-warned case of ‘vaccine nationalism’– a phenomenon in which each nation prioritizes securing ample doses without considering impact on poor ones- to light.

Unheeded to the repeated warnings by scientists and pandemic specialists, many of the world’s richest countries had embarked on a vaccine-acquisition frenzy and hoarded jabs more than their requirements. Some countries have even gone to the extent that they had acquired up to four times what their population needed. Thereby, it has left majority of poor and developing countries, particularly those in global south, unvaccinated, with further risk of the virus being muted into more virulent variants, as in the case of Omicron.

A simple numerical data over vaccination rate across the world exposes the grotesques picture of pandemic recovery divide among the countries and immoral hoarding and hedging efforts on vaccine supplies by wealthy countries. As of now, whereas only 3% of people in low income countries have fully been vaccinated, the figure exceeds 60% in both high-income and upper-middle –income countries. In Africa, the most under-vaccinated and the epicenter of ominous Omicron, only some 7% of its 1.3 billion people are fully immunized.

Given the 9.1bn vaccines already manufactured and 12bn expected by the end of this year, the question is- why does vaccination effort remain so discriminatory and dividing across the regions? The answer, in most part, lies in the ‘pervasive economic inequity’ inherent in initial vaccine-acquisition process. With their enormous capacity to pay out, rich countries, even before pandemic took devastating hold, had pursued a ‘portfolio-approach’ in investing on vaccine development research by pharmaceutical companies- simultaneous investment on multiple ones. In exchange, those countries stroke bilateral deal with each drag company to secure enough prospective vaccine doses to inoculate their respective population several times over.

This absolutist vaccine-acquisition drive of wealthy nations had substantially thwarted the holistic approach taken up by World Health Organization(WHO) under the platform of COVAX, a vaccine sharing program. With the aim of reducing the delay in vaccine allocation to poor and developing countries, and thus ensuring vaccine equity, the multilateral platform didn’t get enough incentives from wealthy ones, since started its journey in April 2020. Both investment and acquisition by well-off countries, having bypassed the COVAX, kept them into the front of manufacturing line, thereby, contributed to the distributional injustice.

‘What starts wrong ends wrong’- initial absolutist approaches in vaccine acquisition started to be manifested in discriminatory distribution of vaccines. Thereby, an amazing scientific breakthrough, development of vaccine in record time, has been offset by awful political policy. In mid-2021, when one portion of world were almost on the track of carefree normalcy, people in bigger portion were struggling to breath. Today, problem is not in production of vaccines, as 2 billion doses of vaccines are being manufactured in every month, rather in the ‘unfairness of distribution’.

Early monopolistic exercise by G20 on acquisition and subsequent stockpile of vaccines has resulted in such galling situation that they have commandeered over 89% of vaccines already produced and over 71% of future deliveries. Consequently, the global inoculation drive, since started, is so unjust that for every vaccine delivered to the poorest countries, six times as many doses are being administered as third and booster vaccines in the richest countries. Adding further to the crisis being escalated, while more than 100 countries, for past one year, have desperately demanded emergency waiver on TRIPs related regulatory restriction on Technologies crucial to pandemic recovery, it has repeatedly been blocked by UK and EU.

Picture is not all-about gloomy with respect to vaccine collaboration but it is quite tiny to the scale of requirements. Rich countries could not deliver on the commitments they did to help poor countries immunize their population. For instance, WHO’s target of having 40% of global population vaccinated by end of this year, through COVAX, seems certainly to fall short largely due to the rich countries failing to deliver on their promise to use their surplus vaccines to immunize the under-vaccinated countries. Far from near, the G7 countries had drastically failed to deliver on their promises made on G7 summit in June. As of last week, USA has delivered only 25%, with further embarrassing arithmetic of EU only 19%, UK 11% and Canada just 5%.

Given the frightening predictions from WHO that another 5 million could be added to the already 5 million death tolls across the world, in the next year or more, it is high time starting a collective endeavor with herculean efforts to inoculate large swaths of unvaccinated people in un-protected areas. Keeping large portion out of vaccination will only make the pandemic endure with no time to end, as virus continues to persist through mutating in un-protected area into a more menacing variant. If so, then again someone else may say, after next the worst wave-We were forewarned- and yet here we are.             

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International Law

The Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty (TPNW): Wishful daydream or historic milestone?

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The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), adopted in 2017, has entered into force on the 22nd of January of this year and the number of ratifying states continues to grow, with Mongolia being the latest to announce its accession. This positive trend is certainly welcomed with enthusiasm by the Civil Society campaigners and growing number of supporters of this treaty that represents a huge step forward for the global movement to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. It would certainly be dishonest to ignore the fact that this new international legal instrument remains controversial, to say the least, for most of the members of the so-called nuclear deterrence community. As preparations are ongoing for the first Meeting of States Parties, scheduled to take place in Vienna on 22-24 March 2022, it is useful to address some of the main doubts and arguments against the treaty.

In this regard, the main criticism is that it makes no sense to support a treaty on nuclear weapons if those states that possess them have not joined nor any intention to join it.  

In order to address this claim, it may be useful to recall that in the case of the Mine Ban and the Cluster Munition treaties, its main promoters and supporters were also states that did not possess those weapons, and that those international instruments also received some harsh criticism for this reason. Despite of this, there is no doubt now that both of those treaties have become remarkable success stories, not only by achieving the goal of approaching universalization, but also by consolidating a general moral condemnation of those categories of weapons. Therefore, the argument that a treaty necessarily needs to be joined by the possessors of the weapons can easily be rebutted. Despite of the current position of the nuclear weapons states, each new ratification of the treaty is not meaningless: on the contrary, it provides the treaty more authority and contributes to the growing pressure on nuclear weapons states to adopt further steps towards nuclear disarmament.

The other major contribution of the TPNW is that it facilitates the process of delegitimisation of nuclear weapons, necessary to finally amend the well-established foundations of nuclear deterrence doctrines. The humanitarian principles that are underlying the treaty are totally incompatible with those doctrines, and therefore are having an impact on them by highlighting the inherent immorality and illegitimacy of nuclear weapons.   

Another argument for the case of ratification is that it provides states the opportunity to support the process of democratization of the global debate on nuclear weapons, as this new treaty has been the result of a very open discussion with active engagement of delegations from all geographic regions and, in particular, of representatives of Civil Society. This is not a minor aspect of this process, but a key element. Indeed, unlike in negotiations of previous international legal instruments, in this era of growing complexity and interlinkages, the main challenges faced by humankind are being addressed by a diverse group of citizens, from all walks of life and regions. Traditional diplomacy is certainly not enough, and in the case of the TPNW, the positive results would clearly not have been possible without the decisive boost provided by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which was able to mobilize Civil Society and likeminded governments towards the goal of negotiating a nuclear weapons ban treaty. 

While it would be naïve to expect the establishment of the nuclear weapons states to be convinced by the humanitarian narrative and in a foreseeable future to amend its defence and security policies base on nuclear deterrence, the TPNW and its focus on the security of the human being instead of the traditional notion of the security of the state, are already having an impact on the academic and public debates in those states.

The second argument used by its critics is that the TPNW weakens the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  Actually, this is not only incorrect, the opposite is true. In fact, the TPNW can serve as an initiative to help implement article VI of the NPT, by which parties are committed to undertake to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”. This is of vital importance as the treaty clearly attaches a key role to all parties, and not only to those states that possess nuclear weapons. This commitment has also been reflected in the Final Document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference, and the TPNW can be understood as a reflection of that obligation to contribute to nuclear disarmament by non-nuclear weapons states.

Another common point is that the nuclear weapons industry is too strong and well consolidated and that it would be naïve to pretend that this treaty could actually have an impact on investment decisions.

This pessimism has also been proven wrong. In fact, in 2021, more than one hundred financial institutions are reported to have decided to stop investing in companies related to nuclear weapons production. As a result, the nuclear weapons industry is experiencing a considerable reduction and the trend towards the exclusion of this sector from investment targets is growing steadily. This is not only the consequence from the legal obligations that emanate from the TPNW but a reflection of the devaluation of the public image associated to these industries. As this public image continues to deteriorate, it is likely that this trend will continue and that the moral condemnation of these weapons of mass destruction will be absorbed into the mainstream of society.

Another common misinterpretation is that the TPNW should be understood as an instrument that is only designed to be joined exclusively by non-nuclear weapons states.

In fact, even though the treaty was developed by non-nuclear weapons states, it has been drafted and negotiated with the goal of universal adherence, including, someday, those states that still include nuclear deterrence in their national security doctrines. In particular, the TPNW establishes a clear set of steps for nuclear weapons states in order to eliminate their arsenals of nuclear weapons. Specifically, within 60 days after the entry into force of the treaty for a state party that possesses nuclear weapons, that state must submit a plan for the complete elimination of its nuclear weapons to a competent international authority that has been specially designated by states parties. The treaty also includes a process to designate a competent international authority to verify the elimination of nuclear weapons by a state before acceding to the treaty, and a process for states parties that maintain nuclear weapons in their territories for the removal of these weapons and report this action to the United Nations Secretary General.

It is also noteworthy that this treaty obliges states parties to provide adequate assistance to victims affected by the use or by testing of nuclear weapons, and to take the necessary measures for environmental rehabilitation in areas contaminated under its control. This dimension of the treaty constitutes an important contribution both to the protection of human rights of victims and to the now inescapable obligation to protect the environment, which are aspects that are not covered by the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). This certainly does not affect the value and vital role of this key instrument of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime but complements it by addressing the fundamental issue of environmental reparation.

The main challenge now is now not only to achieve a wider universality of the TPNW, but to engage more stakeholders and create awareness on the urgency of bringing pressure on the nuclear weapons states to finally move toward nuclear disarmament. In this regard, Civil Society initiatives have been promoting engagement of members of grassroots, parliament, the media and city governments, particularly in nuclear weapons states, which has had impressive results, with hundreds of local governments expressing support for the treaty and generating discussion among the population. These initiatives serve the purpose of putting pressure on politicians and especially, to facilitate a discussion within democratic societies about the sustainability and risks involved in the possession and harboring of nuclear weapons.

Indeed, the TPNW has a long way to go and overcome many obstacles to achieve its objective, but in its first year of entry into force, it has already had an undeniable impact on the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation debate, despite the expected skeptics and efforts to ignore its existence stemming from the still powerful nuclear deterrence establishment. Most of its technical experts, academics and government officials honestly believe that nuclear weapons have helped to guarantee peace and stability to the world and therefore should continue as the foundation of international security doctrines. These well-established ideas have been based on the questionable assumption that the deployment of these weapons have avoided war and can guarantee permanent peace for all nations. This has served as a sort of dogmatic idea for many decades, but recent research results have shown that the risks involved are significantly higher and that the humanitarian consequences would be catastrophic for every citizen of the planet. The humanitarian impact paradigm, which underlies the process that has inspired the TPNW, has provoked a tectonic shift in the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation debate, which had been limited to the NPT review conferences with its often-frustrating results. Certainly, the persistence of the different approaches needs to be addressed in a more constructive discussion among the supporters of this treaty and the deterrence community.

Finally, the fact that the first meeting of states parties of the TPNW will take place in Vienna is very meaningful as Austria has been one of the leading nations in this process, particularly in drafting the Humanitarian Pledge to fill the legal gap for the prohibition of nuclear weapons, which has been a decisive step towards the treaty that has already fulfilled that commitment. Despite of all the difficulties and the persistence of significant resistance, the active and committed participation of diplomats and Civil Society representatives, under the leadership of Austria, allow to envisage that this first meeting will help to strengthen the treaty and move forward in the long and burdensome road to the final objective of achieving a world free of nuclear weapons.

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International Law

Regional Mechanisms of Human Rights: The Way Forward: Case of South Asia

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Long debates have evolved since the 1948 UDHR as to whether human rights should always be perceived as universal, or whether they need to be regarded as contextual on regional and local cultures. If we look at  Art. 2 of the UDHR the rights apply “with no distinction given to their race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”. Still in spite of this, the universality has been criticized by some, who argue that by claiming human rights are universal, we ignore and undermine the cultural differences that exist between societies in different parts of the world

Historically, the first written evidence of human rights was found in the famous universal declaration in 1215 A.D., popularly known as the ‘Magna Carta’. Along with the same, there were many thinkers like Hobbes, Locke Rousseau, Milton, and Voltaire who argued in favour of  individual rights and with passage of time and the conclusion of two world wars, the United Nations Organisation came into being on 24th October 1945 that replaced the League of Nations.

Further, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was established in 1948 and is considered a milestone in the field of human rights whose primary aim is to protect and promote human rights. In contrast to the said aim, the critics of the UDHR label it as a Western-biased document that fails to account for the cultural norms and values which exist in the rest of the world. It is only with regard to a group of certain core rights like that are listed in the human rights treaties as ‘non-derogable rights’ or considered jus cogens such as the prohibition of the use of force, the law of genocide, the principle of racial non- discrimination, crimes against humanity, and the rules prohibiting trade in slaves and piracy that consensus among nations exist.

The core of the issue is that a group of nations are seeking to redefine the content of the term “human rights” according to their own social and cultural experiences as they argue that the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration reflect Western values and not their own. These countries sign many international human rights treaties and conventions, but the use of reservations and internal obstacles

jeopardize their implementation. Such claims of social and cultural differences in the past have been dismissed by the western countries and the USA who dismissed such claims as being a screen behind which authoritarian governments can perpetuate abuses.

Coming to South Asian Nations, there does exist violations of human rights in India as there is an absence of any regional framework that can hold the government responsible for the acts committed or provide a forum to individuals to appeal against the decisions of the Courts like the one existing under European Court of Human Rights. To illustrate, the aspect of women’s rights needs consideration and improvement in the daily lives of women to meet the gap between formal rights and actual implementation of the same.  What this means is that there exists a necessity to focus on translating the universal values enshrined under International human rights to local contexts that is the only option available to human beings irrespective of the geographical location to the ideals of equality and freedom from discrimination

In this context, there arises a need for establishing regional and sub- regional human rights codes or conventions. This has also been recognized by the United Nations since in absence of a universal approach that the South Asian states refuse to adopt, it is through regional initiatives that the motives of human rights could be achieved. The need for a regional initiative becomes even more significant because unlike Europe, America, and Africa there is no inter-governmental regional system for human rights protection in South Asia. In practice, the reason cited is that the human rights debate revolves around the South Asian views or perspectives. Although the South Asian governments have ratified international human rights instruments, they fail to reflect in the national constitutions or laws of most governments.

The fact that human rights will enjoy certain specificity in South Asia, still to be elaborated and applied, however, does not mean less for the universality of human rights. The reason being that the international human rights do not originate from merely one homogenous European value system or culture, but from various heterogeneous sources, some of these existing in the long history of South Asia. Thus, human rights are universal not only in their applicability to all human beings in every corner of the world, but are also universal because they originated from every corner in the world.

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