Archive for November 5th, 2013

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Human Rights! A political hot potato if ever there was one. A favourite target of the Right if you analyse British politics today. Only last month appeared the headline “Human Rights and an Affront to Justice” in Mail Online, to be followed by an article denouncing compensation payments to criminals, sanctioned by that much pilloried institution, the European Court of Human Rights. Shift the focus to world politics though, and Human Rights will be fully embraced. Foreign Secretary William Hague at this year’s Conservative party conference championed this view when he said: “Human Rights defenders languishing in the prisons of repressive regimes are not forgotten because of British NGOs”. Think other parts of the world – Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Rwanda, North  Korea, to name but a few – and the defence of Human Rights goes hand-in-hand with the defence of democracy and decency. That war and terrorism are still prevalent in so many pockets of the world perhaps speaks for itself: that there has indeed been little progress in the achievement of Human Rights on a global scale.

Of course, Human Rights’ issues and concerns go back long before 50 years. The writings of the major religions of the world explored them. Aren’t we all familiar with the basic human rights embodied in the Ten Commandments? Respect for the dignity of one’s fellow human beings and a code of ethics to promote harmonious co-existence is at the root of Human Rights. When these are breached war, conflict and terror take over. No wonder it was the years immediately after the horrors of World War 2 and the Holocaust which saw the greatest attempt to date, to establish a global organisation devoted to defining and upholding fundamental and inalienable Human Rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN National Assembly in 1948, must stand as the yard stick by which to measure the achievement of Human Rights in today’s modern world.


Without doubt, the 1948 document, with its thirty articulated rights was an inspirational and idealistic dream. That all have not been achieved in every country of the world is not surprising. That they still set the standards for decency in the democratic world is a measure of the progress that has been achieved. Institutions which represent such progress include the United Nations itself. From the original 51 member states of 1948 there are now 192. United Nations’ institutions such as the International Court of Justice and its Security Council do much to uphold the basic rights of 1948, and to maintain peace in the world. The United Nations’ 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child surely marks progression; its attempts to alleviate tension where there is war and suffering also exemplify on-going, albeit slow, progress. Its effort to act as a watchdog and advisory in the Syrian conflict is but another example. Work is still on-going in areas such as strengthening Labour Laws to achieve economic and social rights. For the optimist, the existence and efforts of the United Nations are the evidence that progress has been achieved in the field of Human Rights. Another institution which works hard for progress in the field of Human Rights is Amnesty International. Further evidence that progress has been made, at least in the Western democracies, is the existence of courts and laws which support the ideals. The European Union has its court at Strasbourg to oversee and uphold Human Rights; in the UK the Human Rights Act of 1998 codified these into UK law. (Of course, as touched upon in the introduction, there will be political nuances when judging the need for and success of such measures.)

At the heart of the debate on Human Rights is the tension between internationalism and nationalism. What right do international organisations have to intervene in the affairs of a nation state?

The pessimistic view that there is much that has stagnated, and indeed regressed, in the achievement of Human Rights is supported by an examination of scenarios where Human Rights continue to be violated today. Economically there is still much inequality and there is still starvation. Access to fundamentals such as clean water and medicine is still not available for everyone. Women are still struggling for equality – think only of Malala and how she was shot by the Taleban in Pakistan. Child labour, female genital mutilation, tribal genocide …..  the list could go on, evidencing the case that there has indeed been regression in the achievement of Human Rights. The World Bank has provided some statistics to support this failure: more than 64 million have been living in extreme poverty since 2007; 1 in 8 children in sub-Saharan Africa die before the age of 5; 1 billion people go to work hungry every day.

50 years on the fundamental and inalienable Human Rights remain the same. How to achieve them remains the political, economic, social and humanitarian challenge. What can you suggest?

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