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“War is the ultimate violation of human rights”

Children stand on a playground in front of a destroyed building in Kalynivka, north of Kyiv. Photo: Sergei Chuzavkov/AFP.
Children stand on a playground in front of a destroyed building in Kalynivka, north of Kyiv, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, 15 September 2022. Photo: Sergei Chuzavkov/AFP.

By invading Ukraine, Russia is not only violating international law - it is also preventing people in Ukraine from enjoying the most basic human rights, such as the right to health care, medicine and education.

Lena Halldenius and Jessica Almqvist, both professors of human rights and coordinators of Lund University's new profile area Human Rights in a Polarised World, answer four questions about human rights one year after the invasion.

In the years after 9/11, terrorism was seen by many as the greatest threat. Now, with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, we are once again witnessing a war between two European states. Russia has been condemned. But what about human rights in war?

Lena Halldenius: War is the ultimate violation of human rights. A war like the one in Ukraine tears a society apart. Russia has made it impossible for Ukraine to protect the human rights of its own people by destroying the infrastructure needed to provide them. The right to health requires health care, medicine, medical research, and pharmacies. The right to education requires a school system, teacher training and school transport.

Jessica Almqvist: "Humanitarian law, the laws of armed conflict that govern the conduct of war, is applicable, but humanitarian law is not the only law to be respected during war. Even if a country is in armed conflict, it does not mean that all parts of the country are at war all the time. Children continue to go to school, adults need to earn a living and the sick need medical care. War puts all rights at risk. Human rights must also be respected.

The Universal Declaration of 1948 combines civil and political rights, such as the right to vote, freedom of speech and the right to a fair trial, with economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to health, education, food and housing. Why have the countries of the world divided them into two covenants?

Jessica Almqvist: "The Cold War made it impossible to agree on a single covenant. The countries on the UN Security Council, such as the US, China and Russia, have a problematic relationship with different conventions. It was not until 1992 that the US ratified the Covenant on Civil Rights, and it has signed but not ratified the other, the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. China has taken the opposite approach - it has ratified the Covenant on Social Rights, but not the one that deals with political rights".

Lena Halldenius: "Political and civil rights - such as freedom of expression and equality before the law - are sometimes seen as the 'real' human rights. They were the founding principles of Amnesty International and the basis of the civil rights movement in the US. They are concerned with the strictly legal status of the individual and what a social institution may subject an individual to. But economic and social rights - such as rights to work, health and living standards - are in some ways more radical and would never have passed muster today. They are far more ambitious than what is contained in the Global Goals for Sustainable Development. The rights are a product of the post-war era, which sought to eradicate poverty through welfare institutions and major social reforms".

What is the biggest threat to human rights today?

Lena Halldenius: "Rights used to be the language of resistance, but now it has become so codified and institutionalized that it has become the language of those in power. There is a danger that those in power are potential violators of human rights and the arbiters of what they mean. This is underlined by current political tensions. When do human rights matter? Can they go against a political agenda or not?"

Jessica Almqvist: "Unfortunately, this is often the case.  After the terrorist attacks in 2001 and in the years that followed, it was not possible to criticize the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Guantánamo or the torture in Abu Ghraib in the United States. There was silence. At the time, human rights were not a priority for those in power. Today, around 30 people are still being held in Guantánamo as a result of the war on terror. They are awaiting trial by military tribunal. Not for redress".

As a result of the political situation in Europe, both Sweden and Finland have applied for NATO membership. At the same time, Turkey has set tough conditions for Sweden's membership. Some say there is a risk of human rights violations if these conditions are met. Recently, the burning of the Quran and Turkey's demands for a total ban on such actions have attracted attention. Is there a human right to burn the Quran?

Lena Halldenius: "Within Sweden we can have a discussion about whether or not it is appropriate to burn the Quran. But now we are in a completely different phase, where we have a government that is trying to appease Turkey. Will an authoritarian leader in Turkey be able to demand that the Swedish government ban the burning of the Quran? There is a negotiation going on, which is a political incentive for people to keep quiet. It is in situations like this that the principle of freedom of speech becomes clear. If you are not allowed to say things that offend others, freedom of speech is not worth much.

Jessica Almqvist: "The European Commission has criticised Sweden and said that the burning of the Quran is not covered by freedom of expression. The issue is very complex. In Sweden, for example, it is not a crime to burn a flag, but in many other countries it is. In order to live in a multicultural society, we need to talk about this in a responsible and inclusive way. You must make a distinction between imposing criminal sanctions for burning a religious text and saying that it is morally wrong".

Lena Halldenius: "I would agree with that. But that is the challenge. The relationship with Turkey shows something interesting about this question. I may think that burning the Quran is offensive, inappropriate and, in this case, the stupid antics of a man looking for attention. But the state cannot forbid someone to burn the Quran. These are different things.

Jessica Almqvist: "Yes, defending human rights can mean defending someone whose views and actions you despise. That is what it means, but there are limits. Hate speech and incitement to racial or religious hatred are not allowed, and xenophobia must be fought".

Human rights in the UN system

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a statement of fundamental freedoms and rights adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948. Of the 58 Member States at the time, 48 voted in favour of the Declaration. The Declaration was adopted as "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations", but is not legally binding. UN conventions, on the other hand, are legally binding.

The main conventions within the UN system are

  • The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
  • Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) 
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
  • International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICRMW) 
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)
  • International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED)