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Refugees Magazine Issue 111 (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 50th Anniversary) - Cover story: Human Rights, Human Wrongs

Refugees Magazine Issue 111 (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 50th Anniversary) - Cover story: Human Rights, Human Wrongs
Refugees (111, I - 1998)

1 March 1998
Fifty years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, millions of downtrodden people have been helped. But the future is bleak for many others. As many as 50 million refugees have been resettled or repatriated since the end of World War Two, but an equal number of uprooted people are struggling to regain their human rights today ... and facing a bleak future

As many as 50 million refugees have been resettled or repatriated since the end of World War Two, but an equal number of uprooted people are struggling to regain their human rights today ... and facing a bleak future.

By Ray Wilkinson

When Nazi stormtroops marched triumphantly into Prague in 1939, Josef Korbel, a Czech diplomat and lifelong democrat, faced immediate arrest and probable death at the hands of the Gestapo. He and his wife hastily deposited their two-year-old daughter, Madeleine, with friends and spent their days in the streets and restaurants dodging Nazi patrols. Once confident and influential men overnight had been turned into 'hunted animals' according to George F. Kennan, a member of the U.S. delegation in the city at the time. After a hazardous journey through Yugoslavia and Greece the Korbels eventually reached Britain, where he became a member of the Czech government-in-exile.

The family returned to Prague in the bomb bay of a transport plane at the end of hostilities, but three years later were on the run again, this time the targets of Czech Communists and the Soviets who seized power in the country. Refugees twice in one decade, the family this time reached the United States. "While I was a little girl, my family was driven twice from its home, first by Hitler and then by Stalin," Madeleine recently told Refugees Magazine, recalling her traumatic youth. "This experience may have given me a deeper sense of the value of freedom, and the knowledge never to take its blessings for granted. It has also led me, in my current position, to visit refugee centres when possible. For I know, whenever I look into the eyes of a refugee child, I will see something of myself. If circumstances had been different and time had stood still ... ."

The sentence is left deliberately incomplete. The young refugee girl, Madeleine Albright, nee Korbel, went on to a distinguished academic and political career and today is the U.S. Secretary of State. Another young woman on the run and in deep trouble at an early age is 18-year-old Yerusalem, a pretty girl from the Oromo tribe in Ethiopia who was forced to flee to Kenya several years ago during political unheavals. She was innocent, naive and a virgin when she was left in the care of a 'family friend' shortly after her arrival in Kenya. The Sudanese 'friend' proceeded to rape and imprison her and then pursued her after she escaped to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. The by-now traumatised youngster was locked up by local police on two occasions, entered and fled two schools and eventually went into permanent hiding. UNHCR is currently trying to resettle her in another country.

The two stories, similar in some aspects and dissimilar in many, are nevertheless instructive. Madeleine Albright's family made it to America. The Czech refugee girl was able to fulfil her human and intellectual potential because she resettled in an environment which respected and promoted human rights such as freedom of speech, security and access to education and health. Yerusalem's fate may be very different. Thus far, she has enjoyed very few, if any human rights, and unless her story takes a dramatically positive turn, she is probably doomed to always live life at the very edge.

The majority of people in the developed world probably rarely think of their human rights, or at best talk glibly about their importance. Many people in the developing world are probably not even aware that they have human rights - the very bricks on which their individual futures and that of the society in which they live are built.

UNHCR was established in 1951 shortly after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed, to help protect the world's most vulnerable group of people - refugees. In the nearly five decades since then, the organization has helped to resettle or repatriate as many as 50 million people. In recent years, the end of apartheid in South Africa, increased political freedoms in the former Soviet Union and the mass return of 1.7 million refugees to Mozambique are striking success stories of human rights at work.

A body of international refugee law has been put into place, the most important being the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. These are reinforced by regional instruments such as the Cartagena Declaration in Latin America and the Organization of African Unity's (OAU) Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. Practices such as torture, political killings and forced displacement on the basis of ethnicity are internationally unacceptable and even repressive governments are loath to be publicly targetted for such actions and feel compelled to pay lip service to human rights.

On an individual level, Andrew Grove, a refugee from Hungary, was named Time Magazine's latest Man of the Year for his role as the leader of Intel, a company whose products power 90 percent of the world's computers. After surviving the horror of the Nazis, the then youngster decided to flee to the west when Soviet troops invaded Budapest in 1956. Together, he and a friend "gathered the last of their money, the last of their courage and bought directions from a hunchbacked smuggler who spoke of secret byways the Russians had not yet discovered," Time reported of his dramatic escape. "Soldiers marched by, dogs barked, flares lit the night. Then a voice cried out, in Hungarian, the words paralyzing him with fear: 'Who is there?' Now at the limits of his courage, the boy finally answered: 'Where are we?' 'Austria' came the reply. Andras Grof, a name he would later Americanize to Andrew Grove, stood up and picked his way toward the future."

In other sections of this Refugees Magazine, there is a story of a refugee from Lithuania who recently returned and was elected that country's president and a young Romanian exile who brought joy and prestige to her adopted country, France, by winning a world swimming championship recently in Australia. Between them, these people are influencing or bringing hope and enjoyment to the lives of virtually everyone on the globe.

There is, however, a darker side to this human rights record. It may be the 50th year of the Universal Declaration and, impressively, 50 million people have already been helped. But in a chilling symmetry of figures, there are an additional 50 million people, refugees and internally displaced, still struggling to put their lives back together and regain even the most basic of human protections. Thus, while the holocaust and other atrocities originally inspired the Declaration and the Refugee Convention and ushered in a global era of relative liberalism, the threat to huge numbers of people remains undiminished.

And if the issue of human rights has at last gained respectability in the international corridors of power, it is nevertheless often the first chip to be bargained away in any subsequent horse trading. Jimmy Carter's efforts to inject human rights and ethical considerations into U.S. foreign policy was not a success. In the wake of the Great Lakes crisis in Africa in which tens of thousands of persons were reputedly killed and millions forced to flee, governments' first consideration today is often state security - not human rights.

These rights and the issue of refugee asylum have become two of the most contentious items on the international calendar. The term Fortress Europe has already entered the vocabulary as a handy soundbite to signify a general tightening of asylum laws. Governments everywhere are fine-tuning the rules and regulations and barring would-be asylum seekers, increasing penalties against airlines or shipping companies carrying suspect passengers, or approving innocuous-sounding arrangements such as the 'safe third country' rule which allows officials to eject people in flight who have already transitted another state. And if those rules don't work, some states simply expel even bona fide refugees.

Refugees as a group may be the most endangered people anywhere in the world. In the so-called refugee life cycle - flight, sanctuary, return - vulnerable civilians can be threatened many times over and virtually all of their human rights ignored. In the initial and most desperate phase, refugees often lose all of their belongings, their basic security, family and often their own lives. In refugee camps, they can be subject to abuse, including rape. Even when they return home they are often not able, as in Bosnia, to reclaim their old homes or political rights.

Women have always been vulnerable and 'easy' victims in this cycle, but increasingly, so are children. One recent U.N. report said youngsters were now being deliberately targetted during conflict and "it is unforgivable that children are assaulted, violated, murdered and yet our conscience is not revolted nor our sense of dignity challenged."

Human rights groups, humanitarian organizations and governments have begun to take a hard look at their respective roles and to examine such core questions as: if refugees and human rights are so closely interlinked, why don't all of the involved actors work together more closely and effectively? The answer lies partly in turf battles, politics and changing perceptions and situations . And there is still no overall consensus on major issues.

UNHCR, for instance, works closely to fulfil its protection mandate with governments which are often extremely sensitive to human rights issues, and the organization traditionally has been careful not to characterize itself as a human rights agency. It has also been cautious not to intrude on the mandate of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, though the two organizations are now working more closely than at any time. In trying to balance these concerns, UNHCR left itself open to criticism by other agencies that it has dodged many difficult issues and has turned itself into a straightforward relief organization rather than a protection agency.

NGOs are also putting themselves under the microscope and trying to knit together more closely than in the past human rights and humanitarian operations. Guy Tousignant, the new Secretary-General of CARE International, said in a recent interview with Refugees magazine that his organization in the past had not been involved in advocacy issues, but for the first time it was now developing an overall human rights policy. In a separate report, Human Rights Watch argued for a more coordinated and cooperative approach among organizations to refugees and human rights.

That there is a long way to go was underlined in a recent Washington Post editorial where Roger P. Winter, director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees, argued that well meaning human rights advocates sometimes make already difficult situations even worse. In Central Africa, he said, the human rights community "are so busy issuing strongly worded reports and ostracizing imperfect new governments that we risk inviting more instability and bloodshed, not less."

Advocates, he said, tend to regard themselves as "humanity's conscience and as vigilant protectors of the world's humanitarian ideals. We are fearless in judging others. We should be equally fearless in judging ourselves." Many of Winter's arguments were in turn criticized by the organizations he put under the microscope.

While organizations grapple with longtime refugee and human rights dilemmas, the global refugee tragedy has been further exacerbated by the proliferation of civil wars and the creation of another class of dispossessed peoples - the so-called internally displaced. Refugees are classified as people who flee persecution in their home country and seek safety in a second state. As such, they receive international protection and help from agencies such as UNHCR. Internally displaced people abandon their homes for similar human rights abuses, but remain in their own homeland. They receive only ad hoc assistance and are not protected by any international law.

Mona Rishmawi of the International Commission of Jurists believes that humanitarian organizations such as UNHCR must radically readjust their approach to embrace the internally displaced. New mandates or even a new international agency might be created to help the internally displaced. The 1951 Refugee Convention is ill-suited, she believes, to tackle mass movements of refugees such as those which occurred in Bosnia or Rwanda, emphasizing as it does individual refugees. Any move in that direction, however, would run into heavy resistance from governments increasingly loath to shoulder additional human rights burdens.

Change is obviously afoot. But as one senior, frustrated humanitarian official lamented,"If every person in the world has the moral right to seek asylum under the Universal Declaration, why is it so difficult for so many to even leave their own country? Where has that basic human right gone?" Where indeed.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 111 (1998)