Human rights: the global approach
Stella Thomas speaks at Human Rights Forum in London, UK
At this, our last Ditchley conference of the year, we discussed the state of global human rights today, the efficacy of international systems in a challenging political climate and the strategies most likely to ensure the application of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While this note will try to give the flavour of a wide-ranging and passionate debate, it will also bring out the two core ideas which shone through: the application of human rights is all about accountability; and the essential responsibility has to be taken at the national level.
There were notes of both optimism and caution when we looked at the record. A lot had been achieved over the past sixty years in enshrining fundamental human rights across the globe. Many rights – civil, political, social, economic and cultural – that had not existed in international or national law prior to 1948 were now operationalised worldwide. The Universal Declaration had marked a turning point in handing rights to people and in giving them a mechanism for holding sovereign states to account. The principle of universal human rights now existed and its language could not be escaped, although even the optimists acknowledged that much remained to be done in terms of implementation. While the United States was seen as having damaged the concept of universal human rights in the years following 9/11, that concept was now being reasserted by President Obama’s administration.
On the debit side, participants pointed to widespread double-standards in both the rhetoric and application of human rights, with a huge amount of work remaining to be done in ensuring rights for all. Four billion people still lacked access to justice and the rule of law. We underlined the detrimental effect of sheer poverty and the lack of effective political leadership on human rights. Could we really say we were making progress?
On double-standards, many felt that the West undercut its own moral standing when it fell short of fulfilling its obligations to universal human rights while holding other countries to account. We worried that human rights had been and would be downgraded as Western governments dealt with the economic crisis, terrorism, Afghanistan and other national security issues. Double-standards and hypocrisy downgraded the very language of human rights. Through this prism, human rights were not seen as universal. Consistency was crucial.
Perceptions of double-standards could go wider, as when commitments under other international obligations, for instance linked to World Bank or World Trade Organisation rules, turned out to be inimical to the aims of the Universal Declaration. We heard how South Africa, in complying with international trade deals, had lost thousands of textile jobs, which directly impacted on the right to work and to just and favourable conditions of work. There was a plea to consider how the pressure to adopt pro-market policies could undermine the social and development aspects of the Universal Declaration. Even information technology, so often perceived as the symbol of an open and enlightened world, was regularly used to constrain freedom.
The negative impact of measures taken by the West in response to 9/11 continued to reverberate in the debate. The challenge was to reject any notion that security, for all its primacy, demanded a reassessment of human rights principles. Arguments about security would be more successful if they stressed the security dimension of human rights rather than accepting a tension between security and rights. Universal human rights, when successfully applied, by their very nature guaranteed people’s safety and security.
Language was seen as crucial, because it had established itself. There was wide agreement that the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration should not be revisited or rewritten, nor should states commit to a narrower set of core rights. Rather, states should be encouraged to restate their strong commitment to the Universal Declaration, while demonstrating locally that global human rights approaches actually supported specific local needs and aspirations and did not contradict principles such as equality or justice. We also acknowledged the important legacy of the Universal Declaration: it would be extremely difficult to agree today the set of rights that had been enshrined sixty years ago.
Nevertheless, the purported challenge of cultural relativism was widely dismissed. Politicians too easily used societal norms and traditions to avoid promoting human rights standards which might threaten their hold on power. In truth, cultural differences did not justify the denial of rights. The most fundamental human rights – freedom from want and fear – drew on all major religions. The concept of cultural relativism often led to the loss of women’s rights first and foremost and it was crucial not to use it to excuse human rights abuses. While the Cairo declaration and the 2007 Tehran meeting were pulling in the opposite direction, we noted that countries traditionally more supportive of group than individual rights, such as China, were not impervious to international public opinion. Leaders valued international respectability and did not like being pilloried. Differences of national approach were not a basis for re-examining the fundamentals.
Yet we were clear that rights would not be implemented in practice if each government, in its own jurisdiction, was not made accountable to its own people. The rule of law was vital, so long as it did not just provide the pretext for repression. Participants preferred to underline that access to justice, locality by locality, was the priority globally. There was some discussion about establishing a regional human rights body in Asia, the only region not to have created one so far. Participants agreed that developing sub-regional systems in parts of Asia would be more effective than an Asia-wide court. But we thought that creating new international institutions to promote the rule of law was less necessary than supporting local initiatives. A global fund should be created to build national capacity in implementing international standards. Language should be used that resonated locally. In addition, it was crucial to recognise the primary role that national human rights institutions played in upholding and protecting human rights. There should be stronger engagement and interaction between international and national human rights structures. Strengthening these vertical connections between international, regional, national and local systems would undoubtedly improve implementation of human rights standards.