MINELRES: Some Quiet Victories for Human Rights
Mon Jan 9 22:43:11 2006
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Some quiet victories for human rights
Copyright © 2005 The International Herald Tribune
James A. Goldston
International Herald Tribune
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 22, 2005
NEW YORK In a world beset by terrorist violence, natural disasters and war,
small signs of progress are often overlooked. So it's no surprise that even as
Western donors spend millions to foster the "rule of law" from Baghdad to
Bolivia, recent advances across three continents have attracted little notice.
In each instance, ordinary people, with extraordinary courage, have gone to
court to rectify a government injustice. And each time, the judiciary - in
Africa, Europe, and Latin America - has responded just as the civics textbooks
prescribe: with wisdom, reason and a touch of humanity. The results - landmark
judgments vindicating fundamental human rights - demonstrate that independent
courts rendering impartial justice are more than a pipe dream.
The first case comes from the Dominican Republic, where the government has for
decades denied citizenship - and all the public benefits that flow from it - to
tens of thousands of Dominican-born (and often darker-skinned) ethnic Haitians,
despite the Constitution's promise of citizenship to all native-born residents.
Several years ago, two girls of Haitian descent denied Dominican birth
certificates and the right to attend public school brought a legal challenge.
On Oct. 7, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, a regional tribunal with
jurisdiction throughout the Americas, ruled for the first time that governments
may not discriminate on the basis of race in granting citizenship. The court
held that the government's discriminatory policies left the girls - and
thousands of others like them - effectively stateless, in breach of
international law. The court ordered the government to reform its birth
registration system; to open school doors to all children, including those of
Haitian descent; and to pay monetary damages.
Three weeks later, across the Atlantic, a district court in Bulgaria's capital,
Sofia, made history. Echoing the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board
of Education, the Bulgarian court affirmed that racial segregation in education
is unlawful. The case concerned School 103, located in the Roma ghetto of
Filipovtsi. Like many other ghetto schools in Bulgaria, School 103 is attended
only by Roma students and suffers from substandard material conditions and
educational performance. The court found that racially discriminatory patterns
of school assignment violated Bulgaria's newly enacted antidiscrimination
legislation, which faithfully incorporates European Union requirements. As
Bulgaria prepares for EU accession, the decision is significant not only for
the children at School 103, but for the thousands of Roma across Europe shunted
into second-class schools and denied equal educational opportunities.
Finally, just this week, a federal high court judge in Nigeria authorized a
groundbreaking lawsuit that seeks to lift the asylum status of the former
Liberian ruler and warlord Charles Taylor. In March 2003, Taylor was indicted
by the UN-mandated Special Court for Sierra Leone for his contribution to
crimes of murder, rape and mutilation during that country's decade-long civil
war. Shortly thereafter, Taylor was granted asylum by Nigeria's president,
Olusegun Obasanjo, and he has since resided in a private compound in the
Nigerian city of Calabar.
In May 2004, two Nigerian nationals petitioned Nigeria's high court to overturn
the grant of asylum. The men had had their arms chopped off in Freetown by
soldiers of the Taylor-supported Revolutionary United Front. Rather than
shelter Taylor, they argued, Nigeria must prosecute him or send him to the
special court to face trial. In rejecting the government's objections, the high
court held that the claimants had a right to sue for redress so long as Taylor
enjoyed asylum. The government has said it will appeal. Whatever the outcome,
the decision stands as a powerful example of an independent court standing up
to strong political currents.
What do these cases teach?
First, in an era marred by the resort to force as an arbiter of disputes, the
law as applied by capable judges still counts.
Second, don't underestimate the power of civil society. Each of these cases was
made possible by the determined persistence of victims, private aid groups and
lawyers working for little pay and at great risk.
Third, now comes the real test. These rulings have articulated - with the full
legal authority that only courts possess - basic principles that governments
may not breach. But the challenge is to enforce them. Will Bulgaria desegregate
its school system? Will the Dominican Republic grant citizenship to its ethnic
Haitian minority? Will Nigeria turn Charles Taylor over to the Special Court
for Sierra Leone? Supporters of the rule of law will be watching.
James Goldston is executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative,
which pursues rights-based law reform and builds legal capacity worldwide.
The Open Society Justice Initiative, an operational program of the Open Society
Institute (OSI), pursues law reform activities grounded in the protection of
human rights, and contributes to the development of legal capacity for open
societies worldwide. The Justice Initiative combines litigation, legal
advocacy, technical assistance, and the dissemination of knowledge to secure
advances in five priority areas: national criminal justice, international
justice, freedom of information and expression, equality and citizenship, and
anticorruption. Its offices are in Abuja, Budapest, and New York.
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