Evelyn Wong (The UCL Student Human Rights Programme)
Wars, climate change, the credit crunch and their fallout present a historic window of opportunity to raise the bar in human rights development. Equally, however, they present the danger of human rights being swamped by exaggerated and paranoid political rhetoric. It was thus with a mixture of hope and trepidation that today’s panel approached the topic, “Human Rights and Global Responses.” As Tom Porteous warned, “The temptation to abandon human rights is a siren’s call.” Before politicians throw caution to the wind, they should consider that the future of human rights hangs in the balance, for better or for worse.
The international community has witnessed considerable progress over the last fifty years. The presence of UN agencies and NGOs on the ground continues to grow. Higher standards of human rights are now enshrined in treaty obligations. Porteous praised the combined efforts of state and non-state actors to press for accountability. Enforcement mechanisms, though “deeply flawed”, have never been better. Indeed, as he was speaking, the International Criminal Court readied its first arrest warrant for a head of state, marking a new high for international justice.
The prospects of further improvement are not nearly so bright. The difficulty of multi-lateral action rises in tandem with political, social and economic turmoil. Stakes mount, and consensus on what the rules are evaporates. Illustrative are the effects of global recession. As states grapple with mass migration and financial instability, human rights will be bartered in exchange for economic convenience.
Paul Rogers also cited financial plight as cause for immediate concern. But, money woes have long since been a source of public disorder. What makes the present situation singularly fragile is scale and depth of the rich/poor division. Over the past thirty odd years, the majority have done poorly for themselves. And, owing to sprawling literary communications, they know all too well their own marginalization.
Will powerbrokers confront the crisis or perpetuate the control paradigm? As far as Rogers was concerned, the distinguishing characteristic of modern politics is choosing over prevention ‘lidism’, the tendency to “keep the lid on things” without addressing underlying problems.
One manifestation would be literally to keep the lid on speech. The position of the UN Council of Human Rights is to remove platforms for whatever is perceived to be potentially dangerous. The role of its Special Reporter has been revised to include monitoring of abuses where the act is of racist or religious nature. A global guardian is thus transformed into a potential threat towards the rights he ostensibly defends. Jo Glanville called this reasoning of the ‘Alice-in-Wonderland’ kind. Apparently, the best way to exercise a right is to deny it. One would think that world leaders would be capable of making the simple distinction between befriending an unpopular dissident and recommending a right that is rightfully his. (They are not.) Repugnance, so often the product of a certain time and place, is not reason to remove the universal right to free speech.
Quoting from Friedrich Schillers’ ‘William Tell’: When the oppressed cannot find justice, when the burden becomes intolerable, then he reaches calmly up into the heavens and pulls down his eternal rights. Timothy Garton Ash stressed the need of ‘pulling down’. State and people must be both willing and able to translate rights into reality. This will be made difficult by a recent revival in emerging powers of sovereignty; that is, the no-right to question how states treat their citizens, or as in Europe, the formal recognition of such a right and subsequent disregard for it.
Contrary to the stereotypical notions of British liberty and European despotism, it is the European Convention of Human Rights and the court it established that defends us against our own state. Strangely enough, with all our legal tradition and accession to numerous treaties, Britain has gone backwards since writing the Convention into national law. A Convention-plus British Bill of Rights, Ash argues, would afford the ordinary citizen ownership through active debate and widespread legal literacy as to his rights. In essence, this would be our act of ‘pulling down’. Civil liberties, it seems, goes hand in hand with human rights.
So, the obvious antidote to political kidnapping of human rights is a move towards a law-based paradigm and better enforcement. Perhaps less obvious but more important is a redefinition of ‘security’, as Mary Kaldor suggests. There has been a dramatic decline in the number of wars fought and their death toll. But, the numbers of civilian casualties and displaced peoples have risen. Owing to technology, all contemporary wars are massive violations of human rights. Soldiers fighting for ‘security’ must see their primary role as protecting human rights. Much as policemen and firefighters work to save their community, soldiers are to put their lives on the line to save civilians. Security, in other words, must be synonymous with human rights.
After all, we are all in this together. There is no sense in condemning as a bloc those who fail to support our values. “It’s not us versus them”, said Kaldor. Ash agreed. The battle of British liberty is not ‘just British’. Our country is one of the most visible. But, our relative clout on the world stage is declining. If we are to make human rights a reality, international cooperation will be vital. We can only hope that global problems, such as climate change, and policies of globalization will bring about once and for all, a shared global ethic.