MM 2001: Human Rights - People

December 21, 2000

UN expert charged with investigating torture

Governments do not look forward to getting a letter signed by Sir Nigel Rodley , professor of law at Essex University's Human Rights Centre. For he is the United Nations' special rapporteur on torture, and all UN letters charging governments with specific cases of torture go out under his name.

After teaching international law in various British and US universities, Sir Nigel worked for the UN and then became the first legal adviser to Amnesty International's international secretariat. He has been at Essex since 1990, and the UN's special rapporteur since 1993.

Last year, he sent 60 letters to 56 countries on behalf of about 700 individuals and 32 groups, altogether involving about 3,000 people. He also made official visits to Brazil and Azerbaijan.

During these visits he meets police, judiciary, interior ministers and representatives of the military and of non-governmental organisations campaigning for human rights. He also conducts unsupervised interviews with victims and their families. These can be traumatic: "Whenever you go into a place of deprivation of liberty, it is like being on another planet. Sometimes they are in bad physical shape, and one has to see whether they want to talk and to go through what one can and cannot do if they fear there might be retaliation."

Defender of universal rights against cultural revolution

Human rights are the rights of all humans everywhere, argues Jack Donnelly , a professor at the Denver University Graduate School of International Studies.

In 20 years of writing on human rights - inspired by starting a PhD during Jimmy Carter's presidency - his work has centred on attacking cultural relativism and defending universalism.

Much of his attention has been focused on Asia and the claim that universal human rights are not consistent with "Asian values".

"There are two arguments," he explains. "One is that human rights are a western construct and not applicable to Asia. The other is that human rights are in some sense a universal construct, but that it takes very different expression in different regions."

In fact, he says, the same regimes - in particular Indonesia, Malaysia and China - that claim to uphold traditional Asian values are regimes that have stampeded towards non-traditional economies and societies. "What is going on is an awful lot of cynical manipulation. What we have seen in Indonesia is that this argument that Asians are somehow not interested in universal human rights simply is not true. When you bother to ask people, they have remarkably similar aspirations to people in other parts of the world."

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