Today, we celebrate International Human Rights Day. It gives us a chance to look back, reflect on the achievements that have been made, and celebrate progress. It also gives us a chance to look at the world today critically, and whether we are moving towards a world that seeks human rights for all.
Given the history of mankind, we tend to believe that ‘human rights’ is a relatively new term. However, the United Nations pinpoint the origin of Human Rights to the year 539 BC. That was when the troops of Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon; Cyrus freed the slaves, declared that all people had the right to choose their own religion, and established racial equality. Yet, history seems to repeat itself, and it’s been less than 200 years since slavery was legal in the United States.
Unfortunately, slavery is not over yet, and we still see modern forms of slavery taking place worldwide. That can include debt bondage, where a person is forced to work for free to pay off a debt, child slavery, forced marriage, domestic servitude and forced labour, where victims are made to work through violence, intimidation, and abuse of vulnerability.
Can we therefore still validate the notion from Kofi Annan in 2000 that this is the ‘Age of Human Rights’? Or do the global atrocities committed in the last few decades, and that are still occurring, speak otherwise? Some Scholars argue that Human Rights are simply a locomotive for the White Saviour Complex. Others argue that the highpoint of Human Rights occurred in the end of the Cold War and opened up a window of opportunity for Human Rights advocates to push for the implementation of International Law and the creation of global courts.
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” – this simple yet radical idea is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt, former chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, declared the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be the “international Magna Carta for all men everywhere.”
As she was a strong advocate for women, people of colour, and depression-era workers, we know that she meant all people, but this shows how even the language has changed over the past decades, as “men” have for centuries been the common denominator and ruling terminology. The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women wasn’t signed until 1979.
Following in the footsteps of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights was opened for signature on 4 November 1950. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg defends the convention and more than 20,000 judgments have been passed by the Court. In 2019, a 10-year reform process came to an end. The backlog of pending cases at the Court has been more than halved.
Nevertheless, some 60,000 applications are still waiting to be assessed, and more than 5,000 judgments have yet to be fully implemented. These numbers remain too high, and something needs to be done to make sure that justice is done and that systemic problems are tackled to avoid repeated violations.
There also needs to be increased focus on effectively protecting people in every corner of the continent, including unresolved conflict zones, and in all circumstances.
Looking at the Human Rights Scores from Our World in Data, we see that while some countries’ human rights are improving, others have been declining fast in the past couple of decades;
People worldwide are getting increasingly fed up with their governments, as we can see in the protests that have been taking place globally. Many of those protesting are people who have long felt shut out of the wealth of their country. In several cases, a rise in prices for key services has proved the final straw. Claims of government corruption are at the heart of several of the protests and are closely linked to the issue of inequality. In Lebanon, protesters argue that while they are suffering under an economic crisis, the country’s leaders have been using their positions of power to enrich themselves, through kickbacks and favourable deals.
What we can see is that people are aware that their human rights are being violated, and they stand up to protect these rights.
Of course, many of the protests have been linked to the environment and climate change, such as the school strikes that have been taking place all over the world, following Greta Thunberg’s example. SOAS students and staff have participated in these strikes, with the latest one on 29th November.
Although human rights apply to everyone, certain groups of people face particular barriers in accessing and enjoying their rights. To address such barriers, international instruments have been dedicated to the rights of certain groups including women, children, and persons with disabilities, for example. Young people often encounter difficulties in accessing education, quality employment, social protection and full access to civil and political rights, limiting their potential.
There is a need for specific protection to tackle discrimination against young people and to remove the barriers that stop them from accessing their rights. Further, most people don’t realise younger citizens can act as human rights defenders— or that they’re protected by international law when they do. Young human rights defenders face challenges adults don’t. Sometimes they’re not taken seriously, and often they’re completely overlooked despite often being the driving force of social change.
So what has been achieved in the past few decades? Quite a lot. Even since just the beginning of the millennium, more than one billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty, inroads have been made against hunger, more girls are attending school than ever before, maternal and infant deaths were reduced by more than 50 per cent, and climate awareness is higher than it has ever been.
The way we define human rights has changed and keeps changing, and we must never take the achievements that have been made for granted or they may disappear. The fight for our rights is ongoing and there is still much work to be done.
Rut Einarsdóttir is a SOAS Digital Ambassador and Operations Manager for SCRAP Weapons, a project for global disarmament in the CISD Department at SOAS, currently pursuing a MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development.