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Human rights under siege

Every year on 10 December, the international community comes together to honour Human Rights Day and commemorate when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948. Reaffirming its commitment to the realisation of basic human rights, this year the United Nations are calling on everyone to stand up for someone else’s rights.

International human rights law has come to face compound challenges in the recent two decades. Long gone the optimism that followed the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action of 1993 which confirmed that the major changes in the international political scene at the time, and the aspirations of all the peoples around the world were finally moving in the same direction. Since then, political support for human rights globally has suffered a significant decline. Sovereignty–as a catch all phrase to assert supremacy of preferences of domestic governments–is back in fashion undermining the very premise of international human rights law: to collectively set and standards to ensure that the sovereignty is exercised for the protection and promotion of human rights of all.

Current scholarship identifies a key trigger of the declining political support for human rights as the rise of a newly populist politics in particular in Europe and the US, which vilifies human rights as an elitist and anti-democratic discourse, acting as the enemy of underdog masses. Many populist political movements around the world are in open retreat from upholding human rights obligations as specified by international human rights law of the last five decades. Significantly, the rise of anti-human rights populist politics unites a heterogeneous terrain bringing weak democratic regimes and authoritarian states together with constitutional democratic regimes of the West under pro-sovereignty, giving power back to people arguments. This has significant repercussions across the world as it revives the nihilist argument there can be no legal and universal core content to human rights.

Many populist political movements around the world are in open retreat from upholding human rights obligations

The reappearance of sovereignty as the primary reference for the interpretation, application and recognition of (domestic) human rights rings important alarm bells both for well-established norms of human rights law, for example, that of the right to life, the prohibition against torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, protection of freedom of expression, and for the future development of international human rights law standards in pursuit of protection of the most vulnerable in the light constantly changing social, political and economic conditions.

The negative effects of the declining support for human rights law and the anti-human rights rhetoric that accompanies it have already started to show its devastating effects on the most vulnerable groups. Asylum seekers, refugees and minority groups, in particular, have taken heavy hits. The failure of the European Union to distribute the burdens of incoming asylum seekers to Europe, in particular from Syria, has led to a paralysis of European refugee protection regime and threatens to undermine respect for principle of non-refoulement. Vulnerable minority groups, be they incoming asylum seekers or migrant religious communities have been vilified by populist politics undermining the recognition and respect for identities as the foundation of the principle of equality as developed under international human rights law.

The development of human rights law standards, for example, pertaining to specification of the rights of individuals who are caught up in conflict, are also bound to be effected by the decline of overall political support to human rights law. The fine-tuning of the application of human rights law in situations of conflict foremost requires an overall commitment to the relevance of human rights law, when military necessity and security concerns are heightened.

Scholars of international human rights law have time and again showed that the law of human rights is capable of taking into account the diversity of national and contextual circumstances

The political support for human rights, as grim as it may look, however, does not mean that the very purpose for the existence of international human rights law is mute. International human rights law is foremost a project based on the premise that there is a significant value in collectively identifying legal and universally applicable fine-grained human rights standards and holding all states into account based on these standards. Scholars of international human rights law have time and again showed that the law of human rights is capable of taking into account the diversity of national and contextual circumstances, whilst holding on to the universalist ideal that informs this collective enterprise. In the last fifty years or so, with trial and error as well as comparative learning, we have created an identifiable corpus of international human rights law standards that does not only exist in academic books, but that also flourishes in court rooms and public imagination and on the streets. Whilst political support for human rights is in retreat in the name of populist politics, international human rights law will remain a central normative and legal source for challenging the retreat of that support.

Featured image credit: ‘Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms'”, by David. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Rick Bennett

    Human rights have run hard up against the recognition that there is no free lunch – somebody always has to fight the bad nature of humanity to advance the good side. At some point any group that aspires to be a community has to agree that some fraction of its resources, in cases of conscription this may include lives, will be dedicated to combating those who will do harm to others. When the community leaders divert those resources to the aid of others, the community members are fully justified in examining whether the agreement remains valid. That this means that the down-trodden need to fight for themselves is a logical outcome.

    You may deride this as sovereignty, but it remains the counterweight to a government so large that it can bludgeon any individual into submission. Ponder what that would mean to human rights when it fell into the wrong hands.

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