Hard times for human rights ideals

Publishing our new Human Rights Guide was bound to pose dilemmas. OneWorld is a global network with the promotion of human rights at the heart of its mission; yet world events in the fifteen years since we were founded reflect rather poorly on our endeavours.

I’m just old enough to remember the reverence shown in the UK towards fundraising efforts for the UN in general and its stewardship of human rights in particular. Here lay the answer to prayers that never again would Europe descend to the bestiality of the War years.

Such reverence survives but for many people in the UK the concept of human rights has acquired negative connotations, largely confused with concessions to European sovereignty. One of our major political parties is committed to repealing the Human Rights Act if it gains power next year.

This more questioning approach is played out in the international arena in a hundred different ways. The Chinese view greater freedoms as something to be earned over generations; the Russians simply close down any organisation receiving foreign funding in the name of human rights. Both acquire many new friends in bashing liberal western values.

Nevertheless, the human rights movement has taken quantum leaps forward, especially in tackling everyday discrimination against disadvantaged groups, from the disabled to indigenous peoples. And governments that behave badly rarely escape censure from human rights watchdogs. On the whole we know what there is to know about the political prisoners, the slum evictions, the human trafficking and maltreatment in detention.

Should our new Guide concentrate on progress towards the vision of universal rights or highlight how ineffective our global institutions have been in their response to these violations? How can the elimination of poverty be taken seriously as a fulfilment of rights when global economic management is such a shambles?

I decided not to quote the oft-repeated ideology that human rights are “inalienable, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated.” It sounds like the opening line of something out of Hymns Ancient and Modern which may explain why I’m not sure what it all means. I suspect that the phrase features more in corporate values statements than in the real world. The Guide does discuss the difficult relationship between economic and political rights, noting that each category is problematic enough on its own, quite apart from their indivisibility.

We do however stress the valuable contribution that a rights-based approach has brought to development programmes and suggest that it may be time for climate change campaigns to follow this lead.

Even here I feel a twinge of uncertainty; some well-meaning commentators argue that the insertion of rights issues into debates about financing climate adaptation may be a red rag to the bull. That just about sums up how the sanctity of human rights can no longer be taken for granted.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK