Today is Human Rights Day; a day designated by the United Nations to draw attention to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That declaration set out 30 fundamental rights belonging to all persons. But 76 years later, the state of play of human rights across the world leaves a great deal to be desired. Gross and systemic abuses continue to be perpetrated at an alarming rate. Despite the UN and regional systems investing vast sums into protecting and promoting human rights, they are disregarded in many countries.
A day does not go by without news reports of grave human rights abuses in countries across all regions of the world. We are confronted with deaths and displacements in Syria; looting and killing in Iraq; rapes and amputations in the Congo; repression of dissent and ill-treatment of workers in China; disappearances and beheadings in Mexico; torture and arbitrary detention in Guantánamo Bay; racism and xenophobia in Europe; subjugation of women and oppression of homosexuals across the Arab world; and the list goes on. The question that must be asked is: why is more not being done to protect individuals from these atrocities?
Human rights do exactly what they say on the tin. They are rights that belong to all people by virtue of them being human. Underpinning all rights is the foundation of non-discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion, sexuality or any other grounds. Yet discrimination persists and is enshrined in national laws across the world.
79 states criminalise people on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons may be imprisoned or sentenced to death by the legal systems that are required but fail to protect their human rights. And those abuses have no repercussions in the international arena where countries recently elected as President of the UN General Assembly, a member of the government of Uganda, which passed one of the most homophobic anti-gay laws anti-gay law. European countries systematically violate the rights of irregular migrants, refusing to acknowledge that those persons have exactly the same human rights as all other individuals within their territory. Australia goes further, forcing irregular migrants into a pseudo prison camp in a nearby country.
Women continue to be denied their rights in many parts of the world, particularly in Islamic countries where they frequently are treated as property rather than as humans. Even in Global North states such as Ireland and the US, women’s rights to health and to life are violated through legal or practical restrictions on abortions and reproductive health. Race and religion remain primary grounds for discrimination, whether against the Roma in Europe, the Aboriginals in Australia, Jews in Arab countries, Palestinians in Israel, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, and non-Muslims across parts of the Islamic world, to name just a few examples.
But it is not just discrimination against certain groups that ought to concern us. Many countries indiscriminately abuse the rights of any or all persons within their territory.
Most rights may be limited in exceptional circumstances, such as to protect the public or during times of warfare. A few rights, like torture and slavery, are absolute rights whose violation can never be justified. Yet even those rights are routinely disregarded and abused.
CIA torture included involuntary rectal feeding and rectal hydration, naked shackling, waterboarding, standing sleep deprivation, days in a coffin-size confinement box...the list goes on
The US Senate report on the CIA and torture released makes it clear that the US has systematically violated the prohibition against torture. Despite the report being made public, US politicians, security service personnel and commentators are defending the CIA’s ‘right’ to torture individuals.
The report also notes the other countries that were complicit in or partners to those practices. When Global North countries that hold themselves out as bastions of liberalism are willing to practice torture, then how can those same states criticise emerging democracies and non-democratic countries for doing the same?
Slavery continues to exist, whether through state laws or through their practices. Qatar was originally accused of enabling slavery through its laws requiring all migrant workers to surrender their passports to their employers, as many migrant labourers are involved in building the 2022 World Cup. Qatar pledged in November to introduce new legislation to replace the controversial "kafala" system and improve conditions for migrant workers by early 2015.
Human trafficking is one of the most lucrative illicit businesses in Europe, with criminal groups making about $3 billion per year
Failure to identify and protect victims of human trafficking, who are forced into the sex industry or as unpaid workers to repay their traffickers, has created a modern day slavery to which so many countries turn a blind eye. Even the UN itself has failed to protect women from sex trafficking by its own peacekeepers.
Then we turn to other fundamental rights that are not being upheld for billions of individuals. The right to life may be respected by countries that protect people from arbitrary or extrajudicial killing. But the right to life goes hand-in-hand with subsistence rights. There is no point having the right to life if a person is not able to subsist. Those fundamental rights include to water, to food and to housing.
One in nine people lack adequate access to water. More people have a mobile phone than a toilet.
Without access to adequate food, people die. Yet nearly a billion people do not have enough food to eat, and such deaths occur even in wealthier countries like the UK and the US where there is an increasing growth in food banks. Poverty is a leading factor in the failure to protect the economic and social rights of many individuals around the world. For the half of the world population living on less than $2.50 a day, human rights lack any practical meaning.
All of the human rights violations I have mentioned discussed are violations of which we have knowledge and information. There are many more hidden abuses around the world. There are closed states, such as North Korea and Turkmenistan, where reporting of abuses is near-impossible.
In holiday resorts, such as The Gambia, a blind eye is turned to violations in order to enable package tourism to continue
There are oil-rich countries in The Gulf, whose power lies in barrels of golden goodness required by the rest of the world. And then there are powerful states that flex their political and economic muscles to ensure that their abuses are ignored. China’s systematically violates the rights of its own citizens, as well as individuals in occupied Tibet and annexed Taiwan. And Russia behaves however it wishes within its region, completely ignoring the rights of persons in Ukraine this year, but at other points in Chechnya, South Ossetia, Georgia, and others.
But it is not all doom and gloom. There are macro and micro ways in which things can be changed. The UN has the infrastructure and mechanisms to protect human rights more effectively. Regions and countries have legal systems that can protect and implement those rights. What is required is a willingness to do so.
Countries that champion human rights need to put their money where their mouths are. Political and economic pressures can be placed on states to encourage them to focus on human rights. International sports organisations can refuse to hold the Olympics or the football World Cup in countries where human rights are routinely abused. Consumers can make ethical choices about where they shop, and people can stop financially propping up abusive regimes by refusing to holiday in those countries. Until human rights are elevated to a serious consideration for all decision-making, the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration will remain an unattained goal.
Rosa Freedman is the author of Failing to Protect: The UN and the politicisation of human rights
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