65 Years of International Human Rights: Progress, Gaps, Regression
This morning I was interviewed by a local radio reporter in advance of World Human Rights Day, which is tomorrow, December 10, 2013. This is the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed in 1948.
The reporter wanted to know if anything has improved since 1948. A lot has. Probably the single biggest improvement is that over half the world’s population—women—are now recognized as subjects of human rights and have their rights guaranteed in most international human rights instruments. And women in many parts of the world enjoy many rights in practice as well--political rights to vote, economic rights to work and to equal pay, and so on. Lots more women are engaged in fighting for rights too.
Another improvement is that with the end of apartheid, overt racial discrimination is no longer allowed. Again, this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, in overt forms (such as discrimination against non-Jews in Israel) or covert forms (such as continued enslavement of “blacks” by “whites” in Mauritania). And the end of racial discrimination doesn’t mean the end of caste discrimination in India.
|DRC refugees fleeing conflict- Wiki Commons|
There are still gaps in the human rights regime. There is no declaration or covenant protecting the rights of LGTB individuals (lesbians, gays, trans-sexuals, bisexuals), although more and more protections are emerging through legal decisions. Little progress has been made in protecting aboriginal peoples’ rights as collectivities—most importantly to their traditional lands—as well as their rights as individuals. Some third generation “collective” rights such as to peace and a clean environment have a long way to go. It’s hard to believe the right to peace has any meaning when we know that over five million people have died from warfare, disease, starvation, and rape in the so-called “Democratic” Republic of the Congo since 1994. The world’s rulers still aren’t paying enough attention to the dangers of climate change, and it seems that corporations’ “rights” to make profits and countries’ “rights” to trade still take priority over the long-term life of the planet.
There are regressions as well. Since 9/11 the world’s most established liberal democracies have imposed controls on civil rights of those suspected of being terrorists; most such suspects are Arabs and/or Muslims, and Islamophobia runs rampant in these societies. New technologies have increased the surveillance capacities of the state and of corporations, rendering us all vulnerable to the Big Brother controls envisaged by George Orwell in his 1984. The welfare state is under attack: governments are cutting back on all types of social security, cheered on by a corporate sector that pays its CEOs obscene amounts while vigorously fighting unionization and protesting against even the tiniest rise in the minimum wage.
The reporter also asked me what I thought the worst human rights problems are in Canada. The worst by far is the treatment of First Nations people: not only because of their unresolved land claims, but because of gross violations of their individual rights. Indigenous peoples in Canada are disproportionately likely to be poor, to be incarcerated, and to commit suicide. The federal government that is supposed to finance education on reserves provides far less funding per pupil than the provincial governments where the reserves are located. Then there are the continuing multiple human rights violations of Canada’s poor, in housing, work, health, and education, just for a start. And we currently have a government with a terrible track record in environmental good management.
Finally, the reporter asked me what one person could do about human rights. Here I quote the Canadian political commentator Rick Mercer, whom I heard on a recent radio programme. He said everyone could use their own skill set, and mentioned his mother, a nurse, who use to spend her “vacations” donating free nursing at a summer camp for diabetic children. Lots of Canadians help other people to realize their human rights, from the volunteers at food banks to the doctors abroad in danger zones. Unfortunately though, to volunteer requires time, a regular schedule, and some money, even if it’s only enough to get to the place you want to volunteer at. Poor people without money for bus fares, with irregular and arbitrary work schedules, and with multiple demands on their time, often can’t volunteer in a formal sense, even if they would like to, but many of them help each other with child care, personal care for the elderly and disabled, and so on. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to uphold human rights.