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Interview with Dr. Theodor Schilling (Professor of Law, Humboldt University; Germany)

Q1. How would you assess the United Nation’s track record on Human Rights?
You have to distinguish. The UN has done seminal work on the legislative level. They have adopted the Universal Declaration in 1948 which has become the basis of all later bills of rights, international as well as domestic.  This was followed by a plethora of binding treaties, most of them ratified by a large majority of States, of which the two Covenants on civil and political right and on economic, social and cultural rights are best known. Most of these treaties provide for monitoring bodies that have done, and still do impressive work in implementing the respective treaties. On the other hand, the Charter based monitoring system of the Human Rights Council appears to be seriously flawed in spite of past reform efforts. Especially, it is hard to deny that there is a strong anti-Israel bias in the Council’s resolutions.

Q2. Ban-Ki Moon recently stated that the Millennium Development Goals can still be met. Do you think this is realistic, and how would you assess the progress of this plan so far?

Well, I do not think that the Secretary General’s statement is realistic, and I do not know of any generally accepted report of progress so far, but I am not really an expert on that subject.

Q3. A few years ago, you wrote an article discussing human rights and the Security Council. Do you think the current model is outdated, and if so, what reforms would you suggest to help improve global security and human rights?

My argument then was that the Members of the Security Council, most of whom are also Members of one or the other regional or universal human rights treaty, are responsible, under those treaties, for the actions they take in the Security Council. While this view is controversial, I still feel it is the better one. Under that aspect, I do not think the present model is outdated. On the other hand, it is hard to suggest anything that might improve global security and human right protection at the same time. Rather, those two concepts are, to a certain degree, antagonistic. Security is arguably best guaranteed in a police State, but human rights certainly are not. Take the example of the so-called listing of suspected terrorists which in some cases at least amount to a civil death sentence, or to use an example of a suspect being prevented from making any financial transaction whatsoever, and hereby from any business or professional activity. While it may be arguable that the system of listing is furthering global security, it is a massive violation of various human rights, most obviously of the right to a fair trial, as it is a sentence pronounced by administrative bodies without any trial and based purely on often vague suspicions of intelligence agencies. Even in clear cases of mistaken identity, it is very hard to get removed from the list.

Q4. China is a growing actor on the international stage both politically and economically. One could assume that they are going to become the next “superpower”, but how can we characterize their Soft Power in terms of attractiveness to others with their human rights track record?

You appear to assume that attractiveness of a State’s soft power is positively related to a positive human rights record of that State. I’m not convinced that this is correct in general terms. Rather, China’s attractiveness for certain regimes appears exactly to be based on its indifference to the human rights records of those regimes. Also, the great attraction Mao’s regime had for many in the West obviously had nothing to do with its human rights record. Even today, many human rights activists appear to be more concerned with human rights violations by Israel than by China.

Q5. In today’s world, modern powers are no longer able to infringe upon Human Rights with absolute impunity. Do you think this is a trend that is becoming codified in law, or are the recent examples of the ICC and Bashir, and the US refusal to join the ICC, examples of the international community’s continuing inability to enforce an international standard of human rights?

Your alternatives are not mutually exclusive, and they are not even true alternatives. Many human rights standards have been codified in law. That does not mean that the international community is able to enforce them. The international community as such cannot act. It can only act through States, and those States, while human rights ought to influence their decisions very strongly, quite often see their interests elsewhere. Mechanisms to enforce human rights standards on the international level indiscriminately against all violators are nowhere in sight.

Q6. Can it be said that terrorists by their very acts relinquish their claim to human rights protection?

The answer is a most emphatic no. The claim to human rights protection is part of the right to human dignity. Human dignity, according to an important body of opinion, cannot be relinquished under any circumstances and must be protected even against the express wishes of its bearer. While this body of opinion, which was developed for persons engaging in activities like peep-show dancing and dwarf-tossing (being the dwarf) is disputable, a waiver of the right to human dignity is only imaginable by a clear and definitive act of its holder. Supposing that human dignity is violated by the act of dwarf-tossing, a dwarf who voluntarily chooses this activity for a living may be said to have waived insofar (but only insofar) his claim to human dignity. The situation of a terrorist is completely different. First, as is well known, one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. Second, the terrorist act itself regularly is not incompatible with human dignity. It therefore cannot be construed as a waiver of human dignity. Rather, to deny a terrorist her or his human rights would amount to an act of punishment not provided for in any bill of rights, and therefore clearly would violate those rights.

Interview conducted by Joel MacMillan & Kathleen Vesper, Institute for Cultural Diplomacy

Center for Cultural Diplomacy Studies Publication
Institute for Cultural Diplomacy


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