DON’T GIVE UP THE FIGHT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS!
By Bernard Henry
Early May is a good time to celebrate human rights. Besides May 1, International Labor Day, there is also May 3, World Press Freedom Day, first established by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 1993 and celebrated yearly under the auspices of the UN’s specialized institution in charge of communication, UNESCO.
So let’s celebrate. But during the rest of the year, human rights actually give cause to little celebration. Since the year 2000, in spite of milestone developments at the UN and other intergovernmental organizations as well as in a number of individual nation-states, international human rights, arguably the noblest part of the political inheritance of the twentieth century, seem to have lost much of their prominence in global political life.
No wonder. After the 2000 presidential election in the United States dealt a severe blow to the until then sacrosanct, universally-revered Western pattern of liberal democracy, the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon of the following year definitely shifted the world’s attention to the reality of a terrorist threat that could strike anyone, anywhere, anytime, creating calamity and leading to a call to arms. A “war on terror” led by the United States ensued, infamously symbolized by the government-operated lawless zone of Guantanamo Bay and the “secret renditions” of terror suspects by plane from one country to another. In the early years, holding out human rights in protest was viewed as merely being an Al Qaeda supporter.
Then came the hunger riots of 2008—the first symptoms of the crisis of the global trade and free-market system we are still in today. After financial speculation on basic food items had devastating effects in most developing countries, the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States brought even the world’s wealthiest country to its knees, leading a major corporation like Lehman Brothers to plain, simple bankruptcy and exposing the long-running fraud schemes of star trader Bernard Madoff. So much for basic rights such as food and housing. In many countries rich and poor, it was felt that economic globalization was at fault and national borders were now the (only) safeguards of peoples against abuse of their economic and social rights, as was seen in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. Populism also rose in the West, limiting the scope of political questioning to how much damage immigrants were causing to employment and purchasing power. Now perceived as elitist in the West and “Western” in the rest of the world, human rights were forced to yield under the weight of economic collapse.
As a result, by the end of the first decade of the new century, human rights as codified in Paris and New York in the wake of World War II appeared to be dead in space. In its edition of February 18, 2010, Newsweek went so far as to declare the “Death of Human Rights”, detailing how Western states were now disregarding the poor human rights records of their economic, political and military partners in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. As the economic crisis lingers on and armed Islamism now spawns also in the relatively spared Sub-Saharan Africa, jaded everyday citizens and world leaders have learned to leave it to a cynical game of geopolitics and like human rights as little more than a benevolent philosophy which would be politically unrealizable.
Could this be true? If so, why should anyone, anywhere in the world, continue to fight for human rights?
Not so fast. Dismissing the previous and current decades as having been at best fruitless, at worst damaging in terms of human rights development would be quite foolish—or quite dishonest.
First, harmful as it may have been to human rights, the economic crisis is nothing to worry about, at least as far as Western countries are concerned. As the American political scientists Christian Welzel and Ronald Inglehart explained in their 2005 book Modernization, Cultural Change and Democracy, quoted by Stanford professor Larry Diamond in The Spirit of Democracy, economic hardship makes it more natural for people to affirm survival values, i. e. conservative, sectarian, inward-looking values, rather than self-expression values allowing for freedom, autonomy and tolerance.
This is thus hardly a time of rejection of human rights per se, actually a time of anguish and doubt fueled by uncertainty about the present and future of employment, health care and taxation. Austerity policies, however, do play a role in alienating constituents who feel more is being done to save their banks than to support their ailing bank accounts.
As social discontent grows in those bankrupt or economically-fledgling countries, an increasing number of disgruntled voters come to translate their adhesion to survival values into a first-time vote for the extreme right, ranging from the would-be nice-looking National Front in France to Greece’s openly neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. The sometimes ambiguous attitude of ruling parties toward migrants, especially the Roma, in some European countries further provides an unwelcome encouragement of intolerance, making people feel justified in their hatred of outsiders.
Second, although the 2000s were largely marred by both terrorism and America’s pushy response to it, these were years of genuine, significant progress for human rights in the world, very much in continuity with the year 1998 which saw the adoption of both the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and, on December 9, the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders née Resolution 53/144 of the UN General Assembly.
Precisely, the ICC came to existence in 2002 after the threshold of ratification of the Rome Statute by 60 UN Member States was reached that year.
Four years later, another new UN body was created out of an existing one—the Human Rights Council, designed to replace the Human Rights Commission which had been for some time under heavy fire for its outdated, unassertive monitoring and sanctioning mechanisms and for allowing authoritarian, repressive regimes to participate in its activities.
In September 2007 the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the first ever international human rights instrument to universally define the specific rights of indigenous groups in every country, whether civil, political, economic, social or cultural. Unsurprisingly, four governments notoriously still scrambling with indigenous rights claims at home voted against—the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
The following year saw the entry into force of the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, finally drafted in 2006 after years of fierce opposition from the Bush Administration which claimed the USA and all other countries should have national laws of their own about disability rights instead of a world treaty. Actually, the American reluctance turned out to be the best possible justification for the creation of a UN treaty on disability rights, as it reminded an oblivious international community that since the 1970s, disability has been a full-fledged human rights issue within the World organization. Although the USA eventually joined the Convention as a signatory, the Obama Administration still hasn’t ratified it.
Along with the creation of the Convention came that of a UN agency tasked to encourage and monitor compliance by Member States with its provisions, UN Enable. Another paramount new UN agency created in the 2000s was UN Women, officially named the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. Its founding Executive Director was the emblematic former Socialist Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.
A world gone completely obsessed with stopping terrorism could never have gone that far in making human rights progress and definitely take root after all in the twenty-first century.
Q.E.D. Human rights may be less popular nowadays but they are still just as needed as ever, needed and wanted too, although the latter will not be said publicly as easily as before.
The problem is that the “war on terror” and crisis-inspired survival values that have spread throughout the world since the beginning of the century have made it a lot more difficult for Human Rights Defenders, whether on their own or as members of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), to carry out their usual work and activities without fear of repression or at the very least intimidation. Some governments have even begun to lash out at them as “enemies of the state”, such as Russia which is now imposing a “foreign agent” label on NGOs receiving financial support from outside the country.
On March 15, in response to such alarming developments, fifteen years after the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration of Human Rights Defenders, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution whose title says it all – “Protecting Human Rights Defenders”.
In its Preamble, the resolution, originally proposed by Norway, recalls “the continued validity and application of all the provisions” of the 1998 declaration, as well as other Council and General Assembly resolutions and the Program of Action of the Vienna Conference on Human Rights of 1993 which was the first post-Cold War main event dedicated to human rights on the international stage. It reaffirms that “States are under the obligation to protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms of all persons” and acknowledges that “human rights defenders play an important role at the local, national, regional and international levels in the promotion and protection of human rights”, accordingly “[s]tressing that respect and support for the activities of human rights defenders, including women human rights defenders, is essential to the overall enjoyment of human rights.”
The resolutions calls on UN Member States to avoid or stop using domestic law and administrative provisions, including “national security and counter-terrorism legislation and other measures, such as laws regulating civil society organizations”, to hinder the work of Human Rights Defenders, let alone to stigmatize them and their tireless campaigning. It also highlights the important role played by “new forms of communication, including the dissemination of information online and offline” as “tools for human rights defenders to promote and strive for the protection of human rights”.
Taking stock of the “systemic and structural discrimination and violence faced by women human rights defenders”, the resolution “calls upon States to integrate a gender perspective” in their work to ensure the freedom and safety of Human Rights Defenders within their borders.
In one of the most powerful statements in the entire resolution, the Council, referring directly to such major UN human rights instruments as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, urges all countries to “create a safe and enabling environment in which human rights defenders can operate free from hindrance and insecurity, in the whole country and in all sectors of society, including by extending support to local human rights defenders”.
Adopted with the support of many non-Member States of the Council, such as France, Costa Rica, Portugal, Sweden and Uruguay but also, more surprisingly when it comes to human rights, Ivory Coast, Georgia and Turkey, the resolution came as a powerful reminder that the work of Human Rights Defenders is still relevant and important to today’s world and that it is neither an old-fashioned luxury nor a rear-guard crusade out of touch with reality but a clear and present necessity.
In one of his greatest hits, sometimes used as a “house anthem” by Amnesty International, the late Bob Marley sang,
“Get up, stand up,
Stand up for your right,
Get up, stand up,
Don’t give up the fight.”
Marley has been gone for thirty-two years but his words never ceased to resonate as a call to courage and action for Human Rights Defenders everywhere.
More than ever, we Human Rights Defenders must keep the flame alive, that very flame which symbolizes human rights at the UN, and carry on with our fight, undeterred, unabated, uncompromising. We are now humanity’s last line of defense against fear and despair.
Bernard Henry is the External Relations Officer of the Office to the United Nations—Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.
 New York and Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005
 The Spirit of Democracy – The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World, by Larry Diamond,
448 pp. Times Books/Henry Holt & Company.