2007 Threat #07 Other Atrocities Forecast

PDF:  07 Other Atrocities

THREAT:  Other Atrocities

Atrocity is an informal term for a range of acts proscribed in the International Covenant On Civil And Political Rights of 1976 (torture, slavery, child labor, child soldiers,…), for acts against the laws of war (war crimes), for acts that are culturally determined to be particularly heinous such as desecration of a corpse, child sexual exploitation, and willful acts against cultural property (iconoclasm). Any aggravated violent act against person or property might be seen as an atrocity in a loose sense but it is the act itself and the circumstances that will determine if an offence under any applicable law has been committed. For instance to burn Muslim battle-dead is a practical health measure, or an atrocity, depending on cultural perspective. Thus, atrocity in the broadest sense is a value (subjective) term.

The purpose of the Covenant (and various conventions relating to War) is to codify acts that the signatories agree are reprehensible and agree to proscribe in local laws. Many states may already have ways of outlawing and punishing the acts but often only in an indirect or rarely used way – deprivation of liberty (for slavery), aggravated assault (for torture), low level immigration offences (for human trafficking). For these nations, it is a consciousness-raising, coordination and standardization exercise. For those nations who routinely practice torture (usually in police custody) or condone slavery as a traditional institution, it is a way for the world community to encourage adherence to a standard of behavior perceived to be morally superior.
Atrocities are a special case of human rights abuses but not all human rights abuses are atrocities. Imprisonment without trial is not an atrocity as such, unless the prisoner is subjected also to inhumane and degrading treatment. The Covenant allows the government of a State to temporarily suspend some of the rights in cases of civil emergency (if it notifies other signatories), but none of the provisions forbidding atrocity. In other words, under this international instrument there is never a lawful excuse for commission of an atrocity.

Just as the real value of the Convention on Genocide is proscription of those acts that invariably precede genocide, hence providing a form of early warning, the value of the Human Rights Covenant is that it sets a high standard which can not prevent isolated atrocities but can offer pressure against institutionalized and/or State sanctioned atrocities.

Killing is objective; mistreatment is not — cultural variations and sensitivities abound. There is anecdotal evidence that Filipino and Indonesian maids are, by Western standards, routinely treated “atrociously” in Saudi Arabia, as low paid slaves subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment. Whether the treatment of “guest workers” of this type is contrary to the Covenant would be open to investigation. Several Islamic nations, including “moderate” ones such as Malaysia, order public whipping as a punishment for some offences. To Western sensitivities, whipping is often thought to be “barbaric” and an “atrocity”. In contrast, other cultures see imprisonment in a small room for many years as cruel, unnatural, and an atrocity.

*some factual material is from http://www.hrweb.org

International Covenant On Civil And Political Rights was adopted in December 1966 and entered into force 23 March 1976.


The UN Human Rights mechanism has sometimes received bad press in the West because it has brought shortcomings in developed nations such as treatment of illegal immigrants, or of indigenous populations to public attention. From its position on the non-barbaric moral high ground, it is difficult for a developed nation to see that an outsider could have any useful criticism or be motivated by any decent purpose. That common reaction is counter-productive to the global purpose of Human Rights protection and undermines the patently good purpose of UNHCHR.


There are reports of severe Human Rights violations every day – from systematic torture of prisoners in Algeria to organ harvesting in China. Often UNHCHR does not have the resources nor the diplomatic backing to investigate or act on accusations such as this. The work against atrocities needs daily support; not lip service every decade or so.


If political dissidents are summarily executed and their organs harvested for profit, or if prisoners are routinely tortured and mutilated, it ultimately makes little difference in a distant country. Politics is the art of the possible – and the necessary – and States will avoid diplomatic incidents if they can and if their own self-interest is not affected. This is why the activities of UNHCHR as an honest broker established under international Covenant should be supported in every particular. Only when UNHCHR reports are taken as seriously as a crime wave next door will one of the main goals of the UN be accomplished.