Most nations subscribe to shared concepts of human rights, such as the right to free speech and free practice of religion, and the right to shape the decisions of government. But as Mike O'Sullivan reports, discussions on human rights can also be divisive.
When private groups and government agencies issue reports on human rights, they point to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a global standard. Adopted by the United Nations in 1948 following the horrors of World War II, the document speaks of the inherent dignity and equal rights of all members of the human family. The declaration lists essential rights in 30 sections or articles, which deal with such matters as the right to choose one's job, the right to a fair public hearing in the face of criminal charges, and the right to an education.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other private organizations publish annual reviews, often pointing to the same egregious abusers of human rights, such as North Korea. The U.S. State Department issues its own report, usually concurring on key points.
Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, says precepts of human rights are clear and widely agreed upon.
"All members of the United Nations have agreed in principle to live up to the standards of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and there have been treaties that spell out in great detail what those obligations are," said Larry Cox. "So yes, virtually all governments have agreed that they should live up to these standards. The problem, of course, is that most governments do not."
He says the offenders today include the United States. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned some aspects of the U.S. war on terrorism, including the detention of people designated enemy combatants without access to civilian courts. The groups also point to Abu Ghraib scandal, and say the abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody in Iraq suggested a pattern of mistreatment and cruelty.
The Bush administration responded angrily to the charges, saying the United States is at war, that those in detention are treated humanely, and that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were isolated.
Conservative analyst Joshua Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute believes the two human rights organizations have a political bias.
"I think that groups like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch both have kind of a leftish ideological slant that puts a twist on some of their reporting, and that makes them sometimes hypercritical of the U.S., and also makes them very biased against Israel," said Joshua Muravchik.
The two groups criticized Israel's invasion of Lebanon last year, saying Israel indiscriminately attacked Lebanese civilians and so committed war crimes. Muravchik says the war was sparked by the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, and that the denunciations are selective, based on limited evidence and questionable testimony.
In fact, the two human rights organizations also criticized Hezbollah, which they said committed war crimes by targeting Israeli civilians. Amnesty's Larry Cox says his organization applies the same standards from country to country. He acknowledges that assessing the facts is difficult.
"It is also very difficult because, or course, when a government is attacked or criticized, its first defense is to say that you are biased," he said. "So in the old days when we used to attack the Soviet Union for its violations of human rights, we were often told that we were lackeys of capitalists. And in the same week, we might be told that we were communists by right-wing governments. And that still happens."
Joshua Muravchik says, in his opinion, terrorists pose the biggest threat to human rights today, and that in a democracy, these issues can be debated.
Muravchik and Cox note there are areas of agreement across the ideological spectrum, and that human rights advocates of all political stripes condemn the ethnic killings in Darfur, repression in North Korea and Burma, and human rights abuses in a number of other countries.