Striving for human rights

Why a culture of human rights needs a vibrant civil society.
by Beate Rudolf

Human rights place obligations on the state – it has 
to respect them, protect them against violations by private actors and create structures for the full real­ization of rights as well as the effective protection of rights. However, legal obligations alone are not enough. What 
are also required are an active civil society, which draws attention to problems and demands observance of human rights, and an 
independent human rights institution.

Germany has a high level of legal human rights protection. For example, Germany has ratified eight of the nine United Nations (UN) human rights treaties and regularly reports to UN treaty committees. Only one (out of a total of 21) individual complaints has so far been successful before the committees. Additionally, Germany has ratified the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and recognized individuals’ right to submit complaints. Fewer than 100 of the roughly 18,000 complaints made against Germany since 1959 have been successful in the European 
Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Nevertheless, there is still a considerable need for action on human rights in Germany. That is demonstrated by the recommendations of the UN committees of experts, UN special rapporteurs, the universal periodic reviews (UPRs) of the UN Human Rights Council and European human rights bodies. The fight against racism ranks highest among 
the frequently named human rights problems. New forms of 
racism also need to be dealt with, because racism is based less 
and less on the alleged inheritance of characteristics. Often 
people are classed together in groups and then attributed with inescapable characteristics on the basis of religion, culture or 
ethnic origin which become the reason why “they” cannot live with “us”. In relation to migration, international concerns are raised by long periods of detention before deportation and the treatment of child refugees. There are also problems with the 
repatriations of tolerated aliens to their countries of origin or 
the transfer of asylum seekers to third countries if they then 
face possible maltreatment, discrimination, hunger and homelessness there.

Human trafficking and modern forms of slavery are a more recent issue. Human rights require not only that perpetrators be brought to justice, but also that victims’ needs be placed at the centre of attention. This entails the right to remain for medical and psychological treatment and for protection against reprisals by of­fenders. And victims must also be able to assert their claims to wages and damages. Education, the living conditions of the poor and discrimination against women are other problem areas. There is criticism of the dependence of success at school on 
parental social status; structural discrimination of this kind is frequently increased in relation to children from immigrant 
backgrounds. The wage differential between men and women and the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions have also been criticized for a long time.

A culture of human rights can only develop where there is an 
active civil society that constantly draws attention to grievances and suggests solutions. Germany has this kind of active civil so­ciety in the human rights domain. Many organizations have joined together within umbrella associations. Self-help organiz­ations – for example, of migrants or disabled people – increasing see themselves as human rights organizations. They all participate in international monitoring processes and the domestic 
human rights policy debate. At the international level German civil society primarily contributes by compiling parallel reports as part of monitoring processes in relation to individual UN 
human rights treaties. They enable the supervising committees 
of experts to critically read the reports submitted by the government, to clarify contradictions and to formulate problem-centred recommendations. The government is responsible for implementing these recommendations for the full realization of human rights. However, politicians and policymakers often have other priorities. That’s why the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 called upon all states to set up independent na­tional human rights institutions to protect and promote human rights in their own countries. This happened in Germany in 2001 when the German Institute for Human Rights was founded by a unanimous vote in the Bundestag. This decision would probably not have been made without civil society action. The decisive impetus came from Forum Menschenrechte (FMR), a network of German non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The Institute contributes to the protection and promotion of human rights through political advice, human rights education, information and documentation, applied research, reports in 
legal proceedings and international cooperation. And it brings 
together the state and civil society to discuss the implementation of recommendations made by international bodies. That contributes to German politics paying greater attention to human rights. The circle is complete: human rights require a civil society and both require a national human rights institution. ▪

Prof. Dr. Beate Rudolf has been Director of the German 
Institute for Human Rights since 2010. Before that she taught public law and equality law at the Free University of Berlin.

by Beate Rudolf