On Dec. 10, we will mark a historic milestone: It will be 70 years since 48 countries came together at the United Nations in Paris to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—widely hailed as the world’s bill of rights.
The adoption of the Declaration marked the first time that countries agreed on the freedoms and rights that deserve universal protection in order for every individual to live their lives freely, equally and in dignity.
We have come a long way since those powerful 30 rights and freedoms in the Declaration were agreed. I encourage you to take the short time to read it if you have yet to do so because, even today, these principles set out the most progressive vision of what our world could look like.
Today, as we near the 70th anniversary of this remarkable bill, I should be writing a celebratory piece about how much we have achieved together in these decades—which undoubtedly, we have—in making this vision a reality.
The truth is, however, that in 2018, we see rising intolerance, extreme inequality and a failure by governments to take desperately needed collective actions to address global threats. We are in exactly the situation that the governments who adopted the Declaration had promised to prevent.
Far from being a moment of celebration, I believe we should be using this historic milestone to take stock and refocus the fight to make human rights a reality for everyone.
The second article of the Universal Declaration explains that these rights belong to all of us—whether we are rich or poor, whatever country we live in, whatever sex or whatever color we are, whatever language we speak or whatever we think or believe.
That universality has not translated into reality and we see that this core principle, that underlies all human rights, is under severe attack. We and other human rights organizations have repeatedly highlighted how narratives of blame, hate and fear have taken on global prominence to a level not seen since the 1930s.
Jair Bolsonaro’s victory at the polls in Brazil at the end of October—despite his openly anti-human rights agenda—vividly illustrates the challenges we face. His election as Brazil’s president poses a huge risk to Indigenous Peoples and quilombolas, traditional rural communities, LGBTI people, black youth, women, activists and civil society organizations, if he is allowed to turn the dehumanising rhetoric he made on the campaign trail into public policy.
We have to ask why we now find ourselves in the exact situation that the Declaration tried to prevent, in which human rights are being attacked and rejected as protecting the ‘other’ rather than all of us?
The reasons for this are complex but one thing is clear. At least part of the blame lies in our failure to treat human rights as an inherently linked and indivisible package that is relevant to everyone.
The Declaration did not distinguish between civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. It did not differentiate between the necessity to realize the right to food and ensure the right to freedom of expression. It recognised the reality that—we now know well—the two are intrinsically linked. In the decades that followed, governments created the split between the two sets of rights and an imbalance in how they were perceived and protected.
International human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, must also take some responsibility for this imbalance. We are most widely known as an organization that campaigns for prisoners of conscience—someone who is imprisoned because of who they are or what they believe—and for our work on torture, ending the death penalty and freedom of expression.
We only began to actively monitor and campaign on economic, social and cultural rights in the 2000s. We have since developed a global body of work challenging violations of the rights to adequate housing, health, and education. We know that much more needs to be done.
The starkest example of why this is so important as a human rights issue is the long-burning aftermath of the global financial crisis. The experience of many European countries has shown just how vulnerable or practically non-existent our basic social protections are. To make the situation worse, legal protections for economic and social rights are often limited in these countries, meaning people are not able to mount a legal challenge even if their rights are violated.
In several countries, governments have chosen to respond to financial crises by introducing austerity programs. These programs have had devastating human costs and have undermined people’s access to basic necessities, including health care, housing and food.
Spain is a prominent example of this, given the government reduced public spending, including on health care, following the financial crisis. This led to quality health care becoming less accessible and more expensive. It has had particularly negative impacts on people with lower incomes, especially those with chronic health conditions, people with disabilities and on mental health care.
One man we interviewed for our report into the issue told us he was forced to choose between buying food or buying medicine, because health care had become so expensive: “I cannot live with the pain, I need to take my medicines. Either I take my medicines, or I kill myself [because of the pain] … so if I have to starve myself, I do it, because I must buy medicines.”
How governments have chosen to respond to public mobilization against austerity measures also proves the indivisibility of civil and political and economic, social and cultural rights—you cannot have one without the other. In Chad, we know that austerity measures implemented by the authorities were pushing people into deeper poverty. They undermined access to necessary health care and put education beyond most people’s reach.
There have been widespread protests and strikes across Chad in response to the impact of the government’s austerity measures. Instead of listening to the public, the government chose instead to respond by shutting down any dissent. It used excessive force against protesters and arrested them, thereby undermining their right to peaceful assembly.
But while the global financial crisis may seem like it is firmly behind us, we are still dealing with the social and economic ramifications years later.
People’s experiences of inequality, corruption, unemployment and economic stagnation have proven a ripe breeding ground for divisive leaders to spread their message of division and hate. This has had explosive consequences.
French President Emmanuel Macron has tried to position himself against the rise of this breed of divisive politics that is taking root. “Europe is tipping almost everywhere toward extremes and again is giving way to nationalism. We need all our energy to succeed. I have confidence in us,” said Macron in a public address in October.
Yet in France, people are raising serious concerns regarding Macron’s policies on labor rights, pensions and access to university education. Amnesty International has previously documented how the French authorities curtailed people’s right to protest under the cover of the state of emergency laws. As a result, we have seen environmentalists, labor rights campaigners and others unjustifiably banned from taking part in protests.
In 2018, protests calling for laws that respect economic, social and cultural rights are at best ignored by the French president, or at worst repressed violently by the police.
It is a pattern that we see all over the world. We urgently need to make governments accountable for their failure to implement their obligations in relation to all rights, no matter how they are categorized. If we are going to succeed in making this a reality, we must go beyond campaigning purely for their right to speak out and protest, we must also look at why they are speaking out in the first place.
Take Jamal Khashoggi, the now world-famous Saudi Arabian journalist who was brutally murdered in October in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey. Like many human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia, he was targeted by the state because he chose to exercise his freedom of expression—to say publicly what he thinks. In his final article for The Washington Post, he wrote about how his fellow Arabs are unable to openly discuss the issues affecting their day-to-day lives, because of a clampdown on freedom of expression:
“We suffer from poverty, mismanagement and poor education. Through the creation of an independent international forum, isolated from the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda, ordinary people in the Arab world would be able to address the structural problems their societies face.”
Khashoggi perfectly captured exactly why human rights are a package. Free speech is essential because it enables us to demand our other rights—but having freedom of expression alone is not enough. That is exactly why during the Arab Spring in 2011, people came out under the banner “bread, freedom and justice.”
What we still fail to appreciate today is something that was so painfully obvious for the people standing in Tahrir Square in Egypt seven years ago—that human rights truly are all or nothing. You are either able to exercise all of your rights, or you have nothing.
What needs to happen next if we are to make a breakthrough in making human rights a reality for everyone then is obvious and urgent.
As a human rights movement, we not only have to continue standing up for the rights of people to speak freely and protest, we must connect the dots between the economic and financial decisions our governments make and their impact on human rights. We need to collaborate with partner organizations to demand accountability for where the money is going, to challenge corruption, illicit financial flows and weak global tax structures. As Khashoggi said, we have to challenge the structural issues our societies are facing.
This is an enormous undertaking, and only possible if we all join hands and build coalitions with friends and partners across movements—human rights activists, lawyers, trade unions, social movements, economists and faith leaders. And with our friends across regions, we must ensure that the voices of those who need to be heard are loudest and amplified.
Only through solidarity can we realize a world without inequality and injustice and which lives up to the commitments made in the Declaration.
Kumi Naidoo is the Secretary General of Amnesty International. Copyright Le Monde diplomatique.