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The Human Rights Declaration at 60

Daniele Archibugi
10 December 2008

As the time comes to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the West has lost its moral authority and seems incapable of offering any hope of future dignity to the rest of the world. Guantanamo, 'extraordinary rendition' and Abu Ghraib will be just some of the words launched in the face of the West to deny its self-assigned role as the champion of human rights. Many despotic regimes, previously so used to being the accused, are now careful not to miss an opportunity to point out the fact that, when the circumstances are exceptional, all countries, whether they are run as democracies or not, are quite prepared to set aside human rights when it suits them.The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was approved by the United Nations' General Assembly on 10 December 1948 with 48 votes in favour and 8 abstentions (Soviet Union, and its allies, South Africa and Saudi Arabia).

It is obviously not true that human rights are violated with the same frequency in North America and in Asia, in Europe and in Africa - but a clear conscience is not just a luxury for those who hold close to their hearts the defence of human rights. Having turned sixty, the danger now is that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can actually take early retirement as the nations that have sponsored it have shown themselves incapable of respecting it.

This discredit is commonly associated with the Presidency of George W. Bush and a well-grounded promise has been made that a radical change of direction will occur with Barack Obama. However, the degeneration under the Bush administration is in truth simply evidence of a much deeper western problem that involves Europe and the United States, both progressives and conservatives. The West believed that, since it had considered itself the bearer of the values stated in the Universal Declaration, it didn't really need to consider itself to be subject to it and consequently approached the problem of human rights as an exclusively foreign policy issue. In a large part of the world this meant that human rights rhetoric was perceived as a new form of colonial domination by the West rather than an instrument of emancipation available to peoples against their home-grown despots.

It is still not clear in what direction the United States will move as far as human rights are concerned. The closure of Guantanamo and the abolishing of extraordinary rendition will be viewed as fundamental signals indicating that the change promised by Obama will also include human rights. And yet the main lesson to be drawn is that the cause of human rights can never again be entrusted to the hands of a single country - however efficient its internal system of democratic checks and balances. On the contrary, some external control must be added, which is exercised by impartial institutions that are independent of the ruling governments.Daniele Archibugi is Professor of Innovation, Governance and Public Policy at the University of London, Birkbeck College and is the author of The Global Commonwealth of Citizens. Toward Cosmopolitan Democracy (Princeton University Press) 

It is certainly encouraging that a vast majority of the world population endorses the idea that the UN should take an active role in the protection of human rights (see the poll by "World Public Opinion"), but any UN action will become more authoritative if it is supported by citizens and their representatives rather than just by government's ambassadors. If, on this anniversary, western governments aim to regain the high ground, they must have the courage to go beyond the essentially inter-governmental logic that has dominated the human rights regime to date and actively promote global checks and balances which are based on a greater degree of participation.

What does this mean in practice?

ICC: bring the US back in; define state aggression

First of all, the International Criminal Court, established five years ago for the purpose of prosecuting those responsible for the more serious violations of human rights, must be strengthened (a periodic assessment is carried out by the Global Policy Forum). The Court has neither the remit nor the resources to concern itself with everything, although it does have a great advantage over other inter-governmental agencies: it has the formal independence that is enjoyed by the judiciary. While the European Union recognizes the Court, the United States (under Bush) has withdrawn from it, undoing the progress made under the preceding administration. Even during the Clinton administration, the European countries had to sweat blood to persuade the United States to join. And even then it was not possible to get it ratified by the Senate. If the United States is really serious about adopting a status of equality with the other countries, it should accept the Court fully with all that this entails.

The member states of the Court must also accurately define and introduce the crime of state aggression, the only offence that could effectively be of concern to western governments (any surprise that this idea has so far gained no traction?). At this stage it is also essential that the Review Conference scheduled for 2009 be in a position to achieve a definition of this crime - to serve as a deterrent for all statesmen, including those from the West.

UNHRC: break the inter-governmental character

Secondly, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, which arose phoenix-like from the inglorious ashes of the old Human Rights Commission has inherited the latter's principal defect - being limited by a substantially inter-governmental approach. Only government representatives may sit on the Council and its investigations are slow and ineffective, while its indictments are couched in diplomatic terms. Such a body may certainly be useful as a practice ground for jurisprudence but is of no use to the victims of violations. It has now become necessary to find the courage to break the fetters of inter-governmental logic and to give institutional clout to civil society, including non governmental organizations and victims' associations, which have so far been only wallflowers. The institutional procedures required to achieve this may be of various kinds - provided there is the will to ensure that ‘Universal periodic review' does not degenerate into an empty gesture, in which the government representatives end up by mutually absolving each other.

Empower citizens

Thirdly, we need to finally allow citizens to become the main players in the production and protection of rights. The current legislative framework means that individuals are in possession of rights they have received from others without themselves having any institutional channel (other than their own governments) through which to demand them. It is thus not surprising that most of the inhabitants of the planet perceive them as abstract concepts that are remote from their own lives. One way of enshrining political equality in the demand for human rights could be to have a world parliamentary assembly directly elected by individuals, as requested today by a transnational coalition.. A world parliament could represent the first seeds of political representation given to oppressed peoples - to empower them to protect themselves, by themselves.

We should not, of course, expect that a fresh world parliament will have powers comparable to the national ones, but it might be a very important institution in signaling how each country could improve its human rights record, in denouncing gross violations, and in providing concrete solidarity to the abused individuals and groups.

Commemorations of the Universal Declaration often end up by merely lauding lofty principles and expressing righteous indignation over the violations committed. However, neither exaltation nor indignation do much to help the violated or to reduce the violations. After Obama's election, a West that is, we hope, no longer divided has an opportunity to redraft the human rights agenda on the basis of the participation and equality of peoples. We can only hope that this second opportunity is not missed.

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