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Human Rights Review

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Follow-up to the World Conference on Human Rights, New York 1998

IX. Response to acute human rights violations

72. The concern of the international community over particularly acute violations of international human rights and humanitarian law is reflected throughout the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. The World Conference expressed its dismay at massive violations of human rights, especially in the form of genocide, "ethnic cleansing" and systematic rape of women in war situations, creating mass exodus of refugees and displaced persons, and also emphasized that perpetrators of such crimes should be punished and such practices stopped immediately (sect. I, para. 28). The World Conference also condemned gross and systematic violations as serious obstacles to the full enjoyment of all human rights (sect. I, para. 30), and called on all parties to armed conflicts to strictly observe international humanitarian law.

73. Steps have been taken in a number of countries to address issues relating to summary and arbitrary executions, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and involuntary disappearances, including legal prohibition of such acts, making these acts punishable by law; improvements in prison conditions; changes in national legislation to address unwarranted periods of detention and to ensure detention provisions consistent with international human rights standards; the creation of national structures to investigate reports of arbitrary executions, torture and involuntary disappearances; and establishing resources provided for the rehabilitation of torture and trauma victims. Some progress has also been made in abolishing the use of capital punishment. Since 1993, nine States have taken this step, bringing the total number of abolitionist countries to 61 as of 5 December 1997 (see E/CN.4/1998/82). The World Conference recommendation concerning the provision of additional resources to the United Nations Voluntary Fund for the Victims of Torture has been echoed by the international community. Contributions to the Fund have increased steadily in the past five years to reach approximately US$ 4.5 million in 1997 (see figure III).

74. Five years after the World Conference, the Special Rapporteur on the question of torture stated his disappointment at the high incidence of torture in many countries, while noting that it has substantially diminished in some, notably where United Nations field operations are in place pursuant to a peace agreement (see E/CN.4/1998/38). The Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions recently noted that as in previous years, the Special Rapporteur is compelled to conclude that there is no indication that extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions have decreased. The Special Rapporteur is convinced that extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions can be prevented only if there is a genuine will on the part of Governments and the international community not only to enforce the safeguards and guarantees for the protection of the right to life of every person under its jurisdiction but also to strengthen them further (see E/CN.4/1998/68). The Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, in its last report to the Commission on Human Rights (E/CN.4/1998/43), emphasized that enforced disappearances, although a relatively recent phenomenon, have increased markedly in a number of countries. Most recent cases have occurred in the context of internal armed conflicts, ethnic and religious tensions and other forms of internal disturbances. The Working Group appealed once again to all Governments to take effective measures to prevent the crime of enforced disappearance, noting that if the political will of Governments exists, the phenomenon of enforced disappearances will disappear from history as quickly as it emerged. Reinforced measures to prevent grave human rights violations are necessary at the international and national levels. It must be noted that the recommendation of the World Conference concerning the adoption of an optional protocol to the Convention against Torture establishing preventive visits to places of detention remains unfulfilled. The Working Group of the Commission on Human Rights continues its work with the aim of submitting a final text to the Commission by its fifty-fifth session.

75. Responsibility for human rights violations is an essential component in the full implementation of human rights. The World Conference called on States to abrogate legislation leading to impunity for those responsible for grave violations of human rights and thereby provide a firm basis for the rule of law (Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, sect. II, para. 60). During the last five years, the relationship between this step and lasting solutions to conflict situations has been widely recognized. The Dayton Agreement, the activities of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and the truth commissions in some Latin American countries all bear witness to the practical dimension of this approach. The establishment of International Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, as well as the adoption of the Statute for the International Criminal Court by the International Diplomatic Conference in Rome on 17 July 1998 indicate progress in line with the recommendations made by the World Conference (sect. II, para. 96). These developments provide additional evidence that the international community is determined to hold all individuals, regardless of official rank or capacity, responsible for committing such horrific crimes as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The question of impunity has been the subject of study by the Subcommission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. Two reports have been prepared on the impunity of perpetrators of human rights violations: one in the area of civil and political rights and the other concerning economic, social and cultural rights.

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