Today, the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, should be a day of celebration. Sadly, the litany of continuing human rights abuses does not afford us a second of self-congratulation. There are at least five things that should be done to advance the Universal Declaration in the coming years.
1. Recognise women's rights as human rights and work for full gender equality. 2. Make human security as important as national security 3. Democratise global governance for progress on climate change, trade justice, and accountable governance of the global financial system. 4. Ensure food, water and sanitation is available for all. 5. Make peace central to building a conflict-free and tolerant world.
1. Women's Rights - Rape and other forms of sexual violence are being used as weapons of war in far too many places around the world. The high profile cases of such atrocities in places like Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo show that these acts are conducted in order to humiliate, punish, inflict fear and displace women and their communities. These rapes and other sexual violence constitute grave violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. In some developing countries, the death of mothers in childbirth and children in infancy are still routine - deaths that could be prevented by the availability of simple healthcare. Millions of women persist in daily struggles to realise their right to sustainable livelihoods and basic services. It is critical that gender equality is achieved in every sphere of human activity and particularly within every level of government. Failure to do this will likely see the same kind of indifference by our predominantly male political leadership in the light of human rights violations of hundreds of millions of women and children around the world, as is currently the case.
2. Human Security - Take a good look at the excuses forwarded by supposedly democracy-promoting governments in the name of the stupidly-named "war on terror" that have allowed torture like water-boarding, the scandal of Guantanamo Bay, a CCTV camera on virtually every corner in countries such as the United Kingdom and several more invasions of personal freedoms, including racial and religious profiling and pernicious detention without trial legislation. It is not only "a couple of rogue states" that have either passed or attempted to pass repressive legislation constraining the rights of civil societ organisations over the last decade. Almost half the member states of the UN have used the excuse of the "war on terror" to do so. We must defend the space of civil society so that we can inform citizens of what social, economic, cultural, environmental and other rights their governments have signed on to; and to ensure that governments do not get off the hook. If humanity spent a quarter of what we spend on our supposed national security on human development we would see a massive advance in education, health, water provision and sanitation and much more.
3. Democratise Global Governance - Several global challenges from the environment and climate change to ensuring a fair and equitable trading system requires effective, transparent and accountable global institutions which are democratically governed. Yet, many of the most important global institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and the United Nations itself, are stuck in the geopolitics of the mid-1940s.
Other flaws afflict more recent institutions such as the World Trade Organisation which seems unable to deliver a fair trading system; or the International Criminal Court that seems to believe that violators of international human rights law by leaders of the most powerful countries, such as we saw with regard to the catastrophic Iraq war are immune from prosecution. Anachronistic institutions such as the G8 or, even arguably, NATO, continue to create illusions of relevance, compassion and concern while cynically failing to use the considerable power they have to address the daily 'tsunami' of 50 000 men, women and children who die from preventable, poverty related causes.
Climate change, frightening as it is to future generations, and notwithstanding the valuable time we lost under the denialist leadership of President Bush, offers us a real possibility to break down the dichtomies of north and south and east and west. Unless we act together we will all lose. True, people in developing countries who have been least responsible for the climate crisis, are suffering the first and brutal impacts of climate change; yet we will all sink or swim, if we continue to have the kind of foot dragging and lack of urgency being shown right now at the United Nations climate change negotiations taking place in Poznan, Poland. Citizens in rich and poor countries have much more in common right now. This is especially so given the global financial crisis, which has seen several elites in their countries behave with impunity in the absence of sensible and effective national and global rules that help manage the world economy in a more transparent and fair manner.
4. Food, Water, Sanitation - The news from Zimbabwe is so utterly shocking that virtually every human right is violated for a large number of Zimbabweans. Water is contaminated, cholera is spreading, public health systems have collapsed, workers are not paid and medical supplies have dried up. People have little or no access to sanitation and the food has been priced out of the reach of most ordinary people. Not only has a humanitarian disaster unfolded but political instability is threatened elsewhere as a result. Sadly, of the few governments who criticize the atrocities of the government of President Mugabe, some are themselves lacking in credibility given their own violations of human rights. However, let us be clear. The denial of the basic right to clean drinking water, food security, housing and sanitation, is the reality of hundreds of millions of people on this planet. Beyond the physical pain of being denied these basic rights, people also experience the erosion of their human dignity. In a world of abundance and opulence, this is simply shameful.
5. Peace: Armed conflicts, wars, occupation and their consequences destroy livelihoods, undermine democratic process and human rights including the right to self determination - and divert resources that should be directed to social development. Investing in human security best prevents conflict and builds peace. The protection of people in such vulnerable situations is now a universal obligation of all states and international democratic institutions. Yet, growing militarism reduces political space and public accountability of governments, diverts development financing and ultimately, renders lasting peace elusive and unrealisable. War and conflict disproportionately affects the security, dignity, and future of women and children. And , as we have often seen, during conflict human rights violations simply skyrockets. There must be a rethink about how to deal with the multiplicity of violent conflicts, where there is a much higher use of soft power and much less use of hard power, which if anything, in promoting extremism and terror.
What is to be done?
The world has made progress towards the realisation of some of the rights enshrined in the UDHR. However, it is deeply saddening to see that the same compliance deficit that pertains to the UDHR applies to virtually every other rights-based commitment made at a plethora of UN Summits from gender equality to environmental sustainability to the UN Millennium Declaration. Ordinary citizens can justifiably ask: "Should we be investing resources, time, energy and hope in processes that lead to commitments by governments which are rarely implemented with the urgency that the current situation calls for?"
Petitioning, pleading, talking to our leaders, holding mass awareness events such as music concerts and so on are clearly not having the kind of impact that the current situation of tens of millions of men, women and children in rich and poor countries today urgently calls for. Assertive but disciplined peaceful passive resistance and civil disobedience, backed by a deep sense of moral outrage by the broadest possible coalition of civil society across the world is probably what it will take to ensure that these changes stand a chance to be realised.
We owe it to both those human rights luminaries that have come before us, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi, as well as to our children, grandchildren and future generations to ensure the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ARE fulfilled.
Kumi Naidoo is the Co-Chair of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (www.whiteband.org) and Honorary President of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation (www.civicus.org)
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