Obstacles to the progress of Human Rights in the World

Shirin Ebadi
14 May 2009


Sixty years ago, in the hopes of creating a better world, world thinkers came together to devise international standards for how we should live and governments committed to uphold and guarantee the rights and freedoms set out in these standards for the people of their nations.


Sixty years ago, in the hopes of creating a better world, world thinkers came together to devise international standards for how we should live and governments committed to uphold and guarantee the rights and freedoms set out in these standards for the people of their nations. Despite the fact that there has been progress in the area of human rights around the world, there still exist many observable instances of human rights violations.

I believe the most important reasons for the lack of progress on human rights internationally include some of the following:

Some believe that the criteria for human rights have been drafted based on Western and especially European standards, and are not in line with their religious and national cultures. Most undemocratic Islamic governments subscribe to such logic. They claim that since their governments obtain their legitimacy from religion rather than the vote of the people, then they are responsible for protecting Islamic Sharia, rather than the desire or will of the people. For these governments, the definition and interpretation of Islam is limited to that which the government itself proclaims as its own ideology. All other interpretations and understandings of Islam are then dismissed and nullified. As such, any criticism against the government, with respect to its human rights violations, such as discrimination based on religion or gender or lack of freedom of expression, is equated with a criticism of Islam. In such a situation, the fear of committing blasphemy forces the defenders of human rights into silence.

Muslim intellectuals through their religious interpretations and arguments have proven that Islam is not opposed to the concept of human rights. These progressive Islamic thinkers, whose numbers are on the rise, and whose voices can be heard throughout the Muslim world, have expressed their oppositions to dictatorships who in the name of religion justify their own actions, commit injustices and take advantage of the people.

In this respect I have to add that in the 19th session of the Conference of the Foreign Ministers of Islamic Countries in 1990 in Cairo, the Islamic Declaration on Human Rights was approved and most of the Islamic countries signed on to the Declaration. If we take this declaration as a strategy and approach by Islamic countries toward the implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then this is a good thing and acceptable. But if these countries wish to say that they are followers of the Islamic Declaration on Human Rights as opposed to the Universal Declaration, they will indeed be making a mistake. If Muslims feel it their right to write a declaration of human rights based on their own religion, then the followers of other religions should be accorded the same rights. In this way, we will be witness to the drafting of declarations for the followers of the Jewish faith, the followers of the Buddhist faith, and thousands of other declarations for other faiths. This is the wrong path. The administration of the world based on numerous existing religions is an impossible task. As such, we have to start from common principles agreed upon by all, rather than limiting ourselves to principles which only we ourselves believe in.

The surprising point is that it is not just undemocratic Islamic governments which utilize such excuses. In fact, governments which deny the existence of God, and whose underlying ideology is communism, are generally unwilling to accept human rights standards. These governments contend that human rights standards have been devised based on values of capitalist societies and are in contradiction to the values of socialist societies. As such these governments allow for the violation of the human rights of their citizens and all dissenting voices are forcefully crushed. Of course their claims are incorrect, socialism is not opposed to the freedom of expression and communism is not synonymous with authoritarianism, rather there are dictators who have interpreted communism as such. In essence both the belief in God and the lack of belief in God have been transformed into excuses for carrying out injustices against humans.

Another obstacle for the progress of human rights over the last sixty years can be attributed to the poor performance of the United Nations and in particular the Council on Human Rights. When the mandate of the United Nations was being drafted, it was optimistically believed that if not all but most governments were elected and approved by their citizens and as such governments would address and redress human rights violations on behalf of their people.

But we realized that in many cases, governments are not truly elected by their peoples and cannot make decisions which are reflective of the demands of the citizens of the world. In essence, how can we expect governments, which are systematic and repeated violators of human rights, to condemn their counterparts for these same reasons? So it is such that the scale of human rights has lost its balance. For addressing these challenges we have to call on non-governmental organisations as partners. Of course, these would be NGOs which are set up by people and are true non-governmental entities, not entities that have been falsely set up by governments. In this way, when there is a complaint against a particular country or a case is opened in relation to human rights violations in a particular nations, NGOs can participate in related meetings and provide explanations and, in cases where it is necessary, even be allowed to participate in the voting process. It is high time that we trust in the people, and create a United Nations which includes the true representatives of the people, meaning non-governmental organizations.

Another reason for the lack of progress of human rights is the misuse of the concept. Some governments have used the concepts of human rights and democracy to their own advantage and used it to advance their own political agendas. In this respect, we can point to developments in the Middle East, especially after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

Another point is that up until now the United Nations and international institutions have focused largely on pushing for civil and political rights and have been less focused on economic rights. One of the reasons for the increased poverty around the globe is due to the general lack of attention to economic rights. In this relation, I suggest that a convention titled: “the International Convention for Combating Poverty” be drafted and presented to the UN General Assembly for adoption. Encouraging governments to reduce defence spending, is one of the most important points which needs to be addressed in this Convention. Serious consideration needs to be paid to identifying appropriate strategies for allocating national resources in each country to improving the conditions of its citizens rather than the purchase and storage of weapons. For example, the Convention can stipulate that any country acceding to it cannot allocate more to defence spending than it does to health and education, and if a particular country’s defence budget is greater than the budgets allocated to health and education, then it would not be qualified to receive loans or financial credit, from the World Bank for example. Additionally, the Convention can stipulate that countries which are unable to repay their debt would have a large portion of their debts forgiven if they were to dissolve their military and rely solely on their police force for internal order and security. Through such strategies, smaller and poorer countries would be encouraged to buy fewer weapons—an approach which would certainly work to reduce civil wars and internal conflict.

I realize that such ideas, in the midst of all the unrest across the world and during a time when the arms race has reached dangerous heights, are like a dream but the real challenge for us in this day and age is to envision that which we dream and act upon it realistically.

The fight against terrorism and the protection of national security in recent years has served as yet another excuse for the systematic violation of human rights. Some governments, citing the excuse of safeguarding national security, have reduced personal freedoms and increased their own powers. It seems that we are now faced with the dilemma of having to devise mechanisms for expanding personal security instead of national security.

We have to remove this dangerous excuse from the hands of governments, especially governments which are not elected by their peoples, so that the safeguarding of national security does not serve as yet another excuse for repression and oppression of citizens. We have to once again be reminded of the main introductory words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: that peace and security can only be achieved through the observance of and respect for human rights.


Translated by Sussan Tahmasebi.

This is part of openDemocracy's coverage of the Nobel Women Redefining Democracy Conference 2009.

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