Podium: A new declaration of human rights

From a speech by the Independent Labour MEP to the New European Left Forum in Athens
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The Independent Culture
EXACTLY 50 years ago, on 10 December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly voted in favour of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Most of the Articles agreed in 1948 bear the stamp of the horrendous experience of the Second World War, where personal rights were systematically infringed: but they also carry the imprint of the economic adversities leading up to that war, when mass unemployment reduced whole populations to misery, and denied hope to an entire generation. Thus there arose, in many countries at the same time, powerful movements for guaranteed social security, full employment and minimum economic rights.

These movements were sufficiently influential to mark the thinking of those who drafted the Universal Declaration. They were not, however, sufficient to secure its implementation. When he was asked what he thought of Western civilisation, Mahatma Gandhi replied: "It would be a good idea".

Human rights, as established in the American Constitution and in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, included the right to hold property. The rights which such ownership carry are still subject to continual modification. Planning laws, for instance, have greatly restricted the power to "do as we will with our own". Taxation can in principle erode or even annul such rights.

But the fundamental objection of socialists to this "right" remains: the concentration of property deprives non-property-owners of the "right" to hold property. A long history of dispossession marks the formation of all modern societies. Numerous expedients have been devised from time to time with the intention of opening up the question of ownership, and widening property rights. But, globally, these have failed.

The 225 richest people in the world have a combined wealth of more than a trillion dollars, which is equal to the annual income of the poorest 47 per cent of the world's people. (That is to say, 2.5 billion individuals). Fifteen billionaires have assets greater than the total national income of Africa south of the Sahara.

The United Nations Development Programme estimates that the cost of maintaining universal basic education, health care, reproductive health care for women, and adequate food and safe water, would be $40bn a year, or less than 4 per cent of the combined value of the holdings of the 225 richest people. We can be sure of one thing: this polarisation will continue, come hell or high water, come whatever crisis may fall on us. Why not raise a 40 per cent tax on precisely these 225 people, and simply meet the outstanding needs identified by the UN? In our present polity, the right to property for some has suffocated all the other rights of many.

Let us look at what the Universal Declaration was willing to tell us long ago in 1948 about the right to work, in Article 23: "Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment".

It is noticeable that the Declaration speaks of "the right to work, not "full employment" which is the chosen name for this desired state in such contemporary publications as the preamble of the Treaty establishing the World Trade Organisation. "Full employment" defines a situation in which everyone is employed, and assumes a particular economic relationship as fundamental to the provision of work.

The unemployed have few rights, and these are being eroded daily, as the cost of subsistence for unemployed people bears in on national treasuries. Benefits are cut, and unemployed people are forced into ever deeper misery.

It is a depressing fact that we need to face, that unrivalled possibilities of technical progress are, in our world, combined with growing distress and the rejection of increasing masses of people, who try to subsist in poverty and unemployment. This record gives us little to celebrate on the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, even though this document does us a service in that it reflects the hopes of our parents and allows us to measure the distance by which we fall behind those hopes.

A new declaration would have to insist that the real state of human rights may be understood by examining the extent of poverty and unemployment, as well as the numbers of political prisoners. The right to life itself is in jeopardy for many millions in the grip of poverty. And their right to a fulfilling social existence scarcely exists for the unemployed and those who are excluded in the miscalled "advanced" societies.