| by Laksiri Fernando

( December 10, 2013, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) Today, 10 December 2103, marks the 65th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The Anniversary may be celebrated on the basis of considerable awareness that this Declaration has created amongst the people all over the world about their rights and duties to respect others’ rights. The UN and others have made the Declaration available in over 150 languages. This year the UN is awarding the International Human Rights Prize to six winners, and the well-known Pakistani student activist, Ms Malala Yousafzai, is the most prominent among them, emphasising the importance of the right to education, particularly of young women. It is just four days ago that the world lost one of the most illustrious human rights icons, Nelson Mandela, who was also a previous winner of the UN Human Rights Prize.

However, the Anniversary cannot unfortunately be celebrated as a fulfilment of human rights that are embodied in the Universal Declaration, not necessarily in full, but not at least in half, or to any satisfactory extent. This is irrespective of the fact that all member states have pledged to respect the fundamental human rights by the UN Charter (1945) and they all have accepted the ‘universality of human rights’ at the last World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993. This year the UN also commemorates the 20 years of that Vienna Declaration on Human Rights, yet these pledges are also not fulfilled to any satisfactory extent.

Global Picture
During the last six years, the worst or extreme risk countries for human rights violations have increased from 20 to 34, according to the Human Rights Risk Atlas (Maplecroft). This is in fact a 70 percent increase. I am not saying the Maplecroft tabulations are completely correct, but they are an indication. Most of the worst countries come from the Middle East and North Africa, due to the ongoing political conflicts and state suppressions. These are mainly Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Sub-Saharan Africa stands next due primarily to endemic ethnic or sectarian conflicts and includes Sudan, DR Congo and Somalia. Sexual violence is rampant in some of these countries.

Asia or South Asia is no better due to similar or other reasons. Some of these countries are Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and even India, highlighted by the report. China is no better, irrespective of its ongoing reform agenda. There is also no question that the state is not the only perpetrator in some of these countries.

Among the better or low risk countries, the most prominent are the Scandinavian ones (Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden) and Australia. America, although comes within the ‘better’ category, ranked only at the 139th place among the surveyed 179 countries.

Since the proclamation of the Universal Declaration in 1948, the global human rights conditions have fluctuated over time. Apart from the unfortunate debacles during the decolonization processes, the Indian partitioning being one example, both the Korean and the Vietnam wars marked the worst conditions of human rights violations prompted by international power conflicts during the Cold War period. The end of the Cold War or the demise of the Soviet Union was hailed as a new human rights or a liberal era, which has not happened. On the contrary, some of the conditions further deteriorated, a single superpower calling the shots and nearly dictating terms to other countries, especially under Regan/Bush administration which also became easy excuses for the worst violators in some third world countries on the pretext of patriotism or anti-imperialism.

What’s Wrong?
Has there been anything wrong with the Universal Declaration why human rights are not being fulfilled or why there is no much progress since 1948, irrespective of so much of talk? I had occasion to review the Declaration last year, “Human Rights Day: The Importance of the UDHR” (Colombo Telegraph, 9 December 2012) and there is nothing particularly wrong with the Declaration as a codification of most important fundamental human rights in simple and lucid language even a child could possibly understand. A major weakness however was in respect of cultural rights on which I will return later. 

The imperfections in formulation or priority given to civil and political rights or even the lack of enough emphasis on human responsibilities, that I have highlighted in my above said article, could be considered secondary, considering the importance of what is enshrined in this Declaration. It is true that a declaration is a declaration, although argued as part of international customary law, but there are two covenants, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) that are binding on the state parties promulgated in 1966.

But still some of the major nations in the world, some of whom are claimed to be the champions of human rights are not bound by these international instruments. The United States has not yet ratified the ICESCR and only ratified the ICCPR in 1992. The United Kingdom has made several reservations on the ICESCR and claimed that it is subservient to the UN Charter. The latter is a claim that many countries make in respect of human rights in general. China has not yet ratified the ICCPR and has made several reservations on the ICESCR that it has ratified, particularly on labour rights.

There are other countries, like Sri Lanka, who have ratified both the Covenants and made no reservations, but still routinely or habitually violate most of the rights if not all. Why? The reasons are multitude and they may be investigated at least briefly under different headings for the civil and political rights on the one hand, and the economic, social and cultural rights on the other. This is just a routine classification.

Civil and Political Rights
In respect of civil and political rights violations, which draw the immediate attention of the media and/or the rights organizations, not necessarily due to any particular bias, but because of their gruesome nature, the reasons and causes are either social conflicts or related to undemocratic political systems and practices. Religious intolerance perhaps account for 40 percent of these violations, ethnic antagonism for 20 percent, and a major bulk of the rest due to oppressive political practices.

It is unfortunate that religions that intended to bring peace on earth have turned into sources of violence and the present day religious leaders, not the founders, should be blamed largely for this sad situation including in Sri Lanka. Protestant-Catholic (Northern Ireland), Christian-Muslim (Bosnia and between the West and the Middle East), Shia-Sunni (Iraq, Iran, Pakistan), Hindu-Muslim (India), Buddhist-Muslim (Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka) and Buddhist-Hindu (Sri Lanka) conflicts have been endemic for several decades and responsible for thousands and thousands of lives lost. Race and ethnicity have been the other culprits. Not religion or ethnicity per se, but the use of religion and ethnicity for political purposes often discriminating and suppressing the minorities has been the major cause of violations. The UN should do something substantive on this matter without pecking the surface of the problem.

Although the direct military regimes are now lower in number, authoritarian systems prevail in many countries alongside some democratic structures giving rise to many violations in the suppression of political dissent. There are no easy formulas on how democratic systems with human rights could be promoted in these countries. Human rights or the Universal Declaration is not definitely a magic wand to wave. While some of the underlying causes of violations underpin socio-economic conditions, some are not. Underdevelopment should not be an excuse for human rights violations whether in Asia, Africa or Latin America. Respect and protection of human rights are not expensive matters; they do not cost money but only goodwill. It is primarily a matter of political culture that requires political will to change.

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
This is an area that escapes many advocates attention, whether it is Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, Asian Human Rights Commission or the International Crisis Group, for some reason. How could we render ‘amnesty’ for economically imprisoned poor? Can’t we Watch the economic and social rights and identify the perpetrators of violation? Is the responsibility to protect (R2P) applies only to the states, or could it be applied to the multinationals or the rich nations that insidiously violate the economic and social rights of the global poor? These are some of the questions that arise in respect of the economic and social rights and the current nature of human rights advocacy. People talk big about ‘indivisibility’ of human rights but act on selected fields suitable to their appetites awfully neglecting economic and social rights.

There are about 1.2 billion people in this world who are in absolute poverty to mean that they are deprived of basic human needs of adequate food, water, sanitation, clothing, shelter, health care and education. Many of them are in India, China, sub-Saharan Africa and some pockets in Latin America. If we take relative poverty to mean gross inequalities that affect people’s dignity or sense of equality, around 80 percent of the people who are living in developed countries are also deprived of this right. Relative poverty is also a matter between societies, particularly between the developed and the underdeveloped countries. While there are many reasons for these inequalities, colonialism and neo-colonialism have been major historical reasons for this uneven situation in the world.

If we take ‘equality before the law’ as a basic human right, ‘equality before society’ should also be a valid human right. While the UN proclaims the ‘indivisibility and interdependence’ of all human rights, no much emphasis is yet been paid on the economic and social rights of the people. Recent surveys show that over 70 percent of the US citizens ask for health care as a basic human right, but not yet accorded. Even in the case of South Africa, although the political Apartheid is dismantled, one can argue that economic Apartheid still remains.

Cultural rights are an area which is ambiguous both in the Universal Declaration and in the ICESCR. The rights of ethnic communities directly come under this category. However, the Universal Declaration (or the ICESCR) fails to recognize even the language rights of the minorities under cultural rights. Only in 1992, that the UN adopted a Declaration on Minority Rights nevertheless many of the controversial political issues are left unaddressed. This is an area more clarification, understanding and cooperation are required.

Common Endeavour
Human rights are a common endeavour. The East-West divide or the North-South divide should not come in between although the seeming differences in respect of perceptions, circumstances and approaches should be ironed out. The universalism versus cultural relativism is an old debate which has no much relevance or validity today in scientific terms. There has been a tendency to reject human rights as Western notions and that is like throwing the baby with the bath water. Throwing away is just emotional.

One can be critical of current approaches or even some notions of human rights but not rejectionist. Of course the UN or the West, that apparently dominates the most of it at present, can be more useful for countries without being pedantic or selective on political grounds. The member countries also should not hide behind the shell of ‘patriotism’ facing criticism or pressure. The Universal Declaration perhaps is the best that the world has so far produced as a vision for the future of humankind. Since it is not written in our old inscriptions, it should not be rejected. It is the future and not the past. All aspects of governance should be and will be weighed, measured and evaluated on the basis of human rights that they deliver to the people of all countries irrespective of the distinctions of ethnicity, language, religion, gender, social class or political belief.