Celebrated on 10 December every year, Human Rights Day marks the anniversary of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Like the United Nations, it was borne out of the horrors of the Second World War, during which instruments of state accountability had proven either completely lacking or woefully insufficient. This lacuna was lamented by Winston Churchill, who urged the establishment of a rules-based system where “the people own the Government, and not the Government the people”.
For the first time, human rights were set out as universal, inalienable and indivisible. The 30 articles expressed in the Declaration cover an impressive array of political and social rights. From the 1960s onwards, nine 'core' UN human rights treaties were created, as well as a number of regional conventions, all either focused on implementing the rights set out in the Declaration or expanding rights into new areas. The UK played an integral role throughout, either in drafting these international standards, signing up to their aims or calling on other states to do the same. Today over 80% of UN member states have ratified at least four of these conventions.
This system is not without its critics, many of whom see human rights as an abstract and ineffective concept. This could not be further from the truth. Even Eric Posner, in his Guardian article “The case against human rights”, admits they provide “moral support for oppressed people”. This role should not be underestimated. Protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, speaking out against the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a police officer, can claim the backing of the UN Committee Against Torture. Women in Saudi Arabia flouting the ban on women driving cars cite the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. And mistreated workers building football stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar have called for the Government to improve conditions by ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers.
In spite of, or maybe even because of, this rapid progression, worrying signs of regression have grown in recent years. A group of ‘repeat offenders’ such as Egypt, Russia, Ethiopia and other states seem to be attempting to roll back long-held UN agreements. A review of the UN’s major gender equality declaration next year will not include any substantive debate over its provisions for fear of losing ground on issues that were established 20 years ago. They have also clamped down on “meddling” domestic NGOs, passing laws which restrict their activities and curtail their funding (which, given the hostile environment, often comes from “foreign” sources). Combined with an unofficial policy of harassment, even the most outspoken human rights advocates can find themselves silenced.
The UK too is not immune from criticism. Earlier this year, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association wrote in the Guardian about his worries over the Transparency in Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill (since passed into law) which proposed new rules for how NGOs can campaign ahead of general elections. He stated that “the bill actually does little more than shrink the space for citizens – particularly those engaged in civil society groups – to express their collective will”.
Meanwhile, as we grapple with the Lobbying Act’s potential ramifications, human rights have become a hotly-contested, party political issue. The Prime Minister himself announced the Conservative party’s position on the Human Rights Act and the European Convention, setting the scene for a likely showdown with Labour and the Lib Dems over what human rights protections we should have in this country.
Outside of Westminster, however, the hyperbole over “human rights gone mad” falls flat. Time and time again, regardless of political persuasion, when people are asked if they support, say, the prohibition against torture or the right to life, the answer is a resounding yes. The United Nations Association – UK and other NGOs have teamed up to show exactly that. People from all over the UK are signing an open letter to Party Leaders stating their support for human rights as an essential tool for holding states to account. Those in positions of power, whether in the UK or abroad, should take heed.