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Human rights

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Debate Topics

Topic 1

Responsibility to Protect


Does the UN have a responsibility to protect?


Throughout the 1990s, humanitarian disasters and perceived United Nations' failures in Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo led to considerable discussion of the need for military intervention to stop atrocities among civilian populations, even though this would involve overriding traditional notions of state sovereignty. In 2000 a Canadian government initiative led to the creation of an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), which produced a report in 2001 calling for the recognition of a Responsibility to Protect citizens on the part of both national governments and the global community. This drew on existing thinking in the 1948 International Convention against Genocide, in which the United Nations and its members committed themselves to take acts to prevent and punish genocide. The ICISS Report went further, however, in arguing that a vital part of sovereignty was the responsibility of the state to protect its people, and that if a government was either deliberately targeting part of its population, or failing through inaction to protect them from serious harm, then it could not claim a sovereign right of non-interference to deflect mitigating protective action by the international community.  In effect, R2P sought to remove ‘the license to kill’ from the understanding and practice of state sovereignty. The Commission then argued that if human rights were truly universal, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) against gross violations did not stop at state borders, but that the international communities were obliged to intervene to uphold these rights in particular cases of large scale loss of life or ethnic cleansing. The notion of state and international responsibility to protect was later adopted by the UN Secretary-General's High Level Panel, which argued in 2004 that the UN should take on a responsibility to protect when five criteria of legitimacy are met. The five criteria were as follow; the harm was sufficient to constitute a ‘just cause’, the primary purpose of the military action was to halt or avert this threat (a ‘right intention’), the military option was a ‘last resort’, the means used were ‘proportional’ to the objective and finally, that the operation had a ‘reasonable prospect’ of success. If those criteria could be met, they argued, the United Nations collectively, should act.

Topic 2

The Death Penalty


Should capital punishment be retained/reintroduced?


Capital punishment is the sentence of death, or practice of execution, handed down as punishment for a criminal offence. It can only be used by a state, after a proper legal trial. The United Nations in 2008 adopted a resolution (62/149) calling for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, however fifty-eight countries, including the United States and China, still exercise the death penalty. As such, the topic remains highly controversial. Abolitionist groups and international organizations argue that it is cruel and inhumane, while proponents claim that it is an effective and necessary deterrent for the most heinous of crimes.

Topic 3

Restrictions on Freedom of Expression


Should freedom of speech sometimes be restricted?


The fact that Google, which owns YouTube, has voluntarily blocked the Islamophobic video clip Innocence of Muslims in Egypt and Libya has opened a spirited debate. Where YouTube is localised with country-specific versions of the site, Google routinely accepts government requests to restrict local access to content that clearly violates local laws. Google has restricted access to Innocence of Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore on these grounds. But for Google to preemptively restrict access without appeal from the Egyptian or Libyan governments based on what it decided were “very sensitive situations” in the form of violent protests is unprecedented and indeed troubling.

Free Speech Debate’s sixth draft principle says, “We neither make threats of violence nor accept violent intimidation.” Deadly demonstrations around the world, ostensibly fueled by outrage over Innocence of Muslims’ denigrating portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad, have been used to pressure governments, internet service providers and Google to block the video. Violent attacks are unjustifiable in any circumstance and must obviously be condemned, but caving in to violent intimidation can also be dangerous.

Google capitulating to violent intimidation in Egypt and Libya could potentially save lives in the short term, but it could also set a dangerous precedent, opening a Pandora’s box of grievances every time controversial content is posted and someone or some group takes violent offence. This could in turn lead to greater censorship and ultimately greater violence if people decide that killing is the most effective way to air their grievances and win their way.

Topic 4

The Right to Self-Determination


Is self-determination of peoples a universal human right?


Self-determination is loosely defined as the right of nations or peoples to "freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development". It is common to hear the assertion that this is a "fundamental human right". But what exactly does this mean, and is it correct?

Self-determination is an issue in many different contexts around the world. Many of these involve states which have, through territorial expansion, population shifts, boundary changes, independence from or colonisation of other nations, found themselves in charge of minority groups who may have strong ethnic, national, religious, cultural or linguistic differences from other inhabitants of a nation. This can lead to all sorts of problems; minorities may identify more strongly with a neighbouring state, or fear that their cultural and political identity is being diluted by state policies, while nation states are often concerned about instability or loss of their strong national identity if minority groups are given too much autonomy or special treatment.

So, on balance, is self-determination a universal right that should be available to all peoples, or is it an idea whose time has passed?

Topic 5

Anti-terrorism and Human Rights


Should terror suspects be detained without trial?


Internment can be defined as the indefinite detention of a person by a government, and the denial of the normal legal processes that would usually be available to them, such as the right to know the charges and evidence against them, the right to a public trial, the right to appeal to a higher judicial authority, etc. This is usually justified as necessary in a period of national emergency, such as a war or during a terrorist campaign, in order to ensure that dangerous individuals are not left free to threaten society. Typically, individuals are detained because of intelligence obtained by the security services. Because this topic assumes that internees are denied rights which would normally be available, it essentially applies to democratic countries where the government is subject to the rule of law. The debate raises issues of civil liberties and security, as well as of the relationship between the executive and judicial branches of government.

Different governments have assumed powers to intern those they feared since the beginnings of modern democracy, and these were widely used in both World Wars. In particular, Britain detained those of German background (including Jewish refugees from Hitler) as well as those with known fascist sympathies (such as Oswald Mosley), while the USA interned over 110 000 Japanese-Americans (Nisei) during the Second World War. More recently, in 1971 the British government used internment of hundreds of republican suspects in an attempt to shut down the IRA (abandoning it four years later after several modifications to the system).

Today, of course, the debate focuses upon the response of governments to the war on terror, and in particular to the actions of the USA and UK in handling terror suspects. The UK has previously derogated (meaning they could do more to limit detention than usual but not whatever they want) from Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which bans detention without trial, in order to hold a small number of foreign nationals seen as a threat to national security. This practice has since been stopped and there is no general Article 5 derogation currently. The USA also detained non-citizens without trial in the months following the attacks of September 11 2001, secretly arresting and holding over 750 foreign nationals (most of whom have subsequently been deported). Following the start of the campaign against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, some 600 fighters of various nationalities were classed as enemy combatants (rather than prisoners of war, who should be released when hostilities have ended) and taken to Guantanamo Bay, where hundreds still remain2. The significance of Guantanamo Bay is that it is a US naval base in Cuba, permanently leased from that country but not legally part of the USA. This means that the detainees could be held under military authority without appeal to the American legal system. There is now however a constitutional right to habeus corpus for those detained in the facility.

Topic 6

Women in Power


Should special measures be taken to ensure female representation in parliaments?


Women are vastly underrepresented in democratic legislatures across the world. Until 20 years ago women had never been more than 5% of MPs in UK Parliament. Even today women hold barely 20% of parliamentary positions. Governments and all the major political parties have been accused of merely 'window dressing' in their attitudes to female participation in politics. A survey by the Centre for Women and Democracy survey in May 2010 shows that the Green Party is the most progressive party in encouraging women, with 33% of its candidates being female. Labour comes second with 30%, closely followed by the Scottish National Party with 29% and the Conservatives trail with 24%. Perhaps surprisingly, the Liberal Democrats have the lowest proportion of women candidates of any of the larger parties at 21%.

Internationally the UK currently ranks 47th in the world in terms of women's representation in national parliaments, behind Rwanda, Afghanistan and Iraq; this is also behind the Welsh assembly, where 50% of members are women, and the Scottish parliament where the figure is 40%. Out of the 27 EU Member States the UK currently ranks 15th. In addition, just 33% of the UK's MEPs are women, below the 36% average for MEPs from the other 26 EU Members States.

In 1997 Labour was elected with a record number of female MPs through the use of all-female candidate lists. Many people argue for a similar form of 'affirmative action' or 'positive discrimination' to boost female candidacy and attempt to ensure parliaments reflect the gender balance of their electorate. This may be done either via targets (aiming to get a certain percentage of female candidates) or by quotas (requiring a certain number of women politicians), which are legally enforceable but inflexible. Other alternatives are all women shortlists from which parties select their candidate for constituencies. An innovative proposal in Nunavat, Canada, suggested two-member constituencies (one male representative, one female), but this was defeated in a referendum in 1997.

David Cameron has said that his party will impose all-women shortlists; he said he 'desperately' wanted to address the 'failure' of Parliament and the Conservative Party to reflect society. The underlying prejudice against women in parliament and government is undisputed; what is in dispute is the best way to address it. Essentially, what the proposition is arguing for is equality of outcome; the opposition counters with equality of opportunity.

Topic 7

The International Criminal Court


Is the ICC an effective deterrent?


In its preamble, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court explicitly stated that its objectives were not limited to investigating and punishing those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and other crimes of aggression. “Determined to put an end to impunity for the perpetrators of these crimes and thus to contribute to the prevention of such crimes”, the States Parties to the Statute clearly envisaged the Court’s punitive powers to have at least some deterrent effect.

In one obvious sense, successful prosecution of criminals prevents them from committing crimes during the term of their imprisonment.  However, the Court’s power to prosecute perpetrators can be conceived as having potential deterrent effects that are specific or general. If a period of imprisonment already imposed on an individual has the effect of deterring that same person from committing any further crimes, this would be a case of quite specific deterrence. But when this more limited deterrence also influences the potential for many others to commit similar crimes, deterrence begins to operate in the much more general sense expressed in the Rome Statute. 

In this general sense, a minimal level of deterrence would be expected to depend on widely publicizing the Court’s jurisdictional authority, past and present investigations and successful prosecutions.  Other attempts at more specific deterrence have been evident in occasional warnings issued by the ICC Prosecutor.  As the ICC functions as a court of ‘last resort’, it only begins proceedings when national or regional authorities have failed to take appropriate action. Therefore, while the Prosecutor may sometimes attempt to directly deter potential crimes by issuing warnings addressed at those already suspected of committing crimes, warnings might also be targeted towards the local authorities. An example of this approach occurred in the Prosecutor’s press release on 28 January 2013, urging Malian authorities to “put an immediate stop to the alleged abuses” by Malian forces.

One of the difficulties in this debate centres on the question of the ICC’s potential to deter would-be criminals, i. e. those who may otherwise have been influenced to join or collaborate with militia groups whose members have been committing atrocities with impunity. For practical reasons the ICC has intentionally sought to restrict its prosecutions to those “most responsible” for the crimes committed.  This makes it difficult to gather evidence for or against propositions about the number of persons who may have considered participating in such criminal acts but were ultimately deterred by the threat of ICC prosecution.

Topic 8

A Right to Self-Defence


Does an individual have a right to use force in self-defence?


Self-defense involves defending oneself, one's property or the wellbeing of another from physical harm. The use of the right of self-defense as a legal justification for the use of force in times of danger is available in many jurisdictions, but the interpretation varies widely. The self-defense laws of modern states find their origin in the Roman Law principle of dominium whereby any attack on the members of the family or the property it owned was a personal attack on the pater familias (head of household), and thus could be defended as such. This right is recognized to varying extents in all states, and by the United Nations. The level of force one may use in self-defense, however, varies between countries, and usually centers around what constitutes "reasonable force", which is a fairly nebulous term in specific application, but relatively straightforward in a broad sense. Some critics of self-defense law argue that it is outmoded, belonging to an earlier, more barbarous time, while its supporters insist that it remains a necessity in a still dangerous, modern world. Debates on self-defense revolve around the central question of whether in fact an individual has the right to defend himself, his property, and others against physical attack by means of force, or whether exerting force against another, even defensively, is itself a crime.

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