70 years of hu­man rights

With hu­man dis­place­ment and cli­mate change there’s still work to do

The Peterborough Examiner - - Opinion - RHODA E. HOWARD-HASSMANN

Dec. 10 is the 70th an­niver­sary of the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights, pro­claimed in 1948 by the United Nations Gen­eral Assem­bly. Since then an enor­mous body of in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights laws has been de­vel­oped.

Some peo­ple think that hu­man rights should not be uni­ver­sal.

Some crit­ics be­lieve that hu­man rights are an ex­am­ple of West­ern cul­tural im­pe­ri­al­ism. They claim that non-West­ern coun­tries did not par­tic­i­pate in draft­ing the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion. Yet non-West­ern coun­tries have been in­volved since the ear­li­est stages in draw­ing up hu­man rights doc­u­ments. This is so even if, like West­ern coun­tries, they are quite hyp­o­crit­i­cal when it comes to ap­ply­ing the laws they agree to.

Other crit­ics ar­gue that hu­man rights pro­mote self­ish in­di­vid­u­al­ism. In­stead of car­ing for the fam­ily or com­mu­nity, peo­ple only care for their own rights. But in coun­tries like Canada where hu­man rights are by and large re­spected, it’s only be­cause cit­i­zens do have a sense of com­mu­nity and care for each other. Hous­ing ad­vo­cates, food bank work­ers, and mil­lions of vol­un­teers help make hu­man rights “work” on the ground.

Yet other com­men­ta­tors claim that as China and other non-demo­cratic coun­tries be­come more pow­er­ful, hu­man rights will be less im­por­tant in­ter­na­tion­ally. It is true that such coun­tries will work to un­der­mine many hu­man rights, at home and at the UN. But that makes hu­man rights more rel­e­vant, not less. We all need pro­tec­tion against abu­sive gov­ern­ments. Hu­man rights are still rel­e­vant, and new rights are evolv­ing.

One re­cent sign of progress is in LGBTQ+ rights. This topic is dif­fi­cult to dis­cuss in­ter­na­tion­ally, be­cause some African and Mid­dle East­ern coun­tries are still very ho­mo­pho­bic, as are some re­li­gious groups, in the West­ern world and else­where. We don’t yet have an in­ter­na­tional dec­la­ra­tion on LGBTQ+ rights, but the UN is pay­ing more at­ten­tion to them.

In the last 20 years, much at­ten­tion has been paid to “col­lec­tive” hu­man rights. These are rights that be­long to groups of peo­ple and that one in­di­vid­ual can’t ex­er­cise if oth­ers can’t also ex­er­cise them.

Indige­nous rights are col­lec­tive rights. Indige­nous peo­ples can­not live to­gether as col­lec­tiv­i­ties if their ways of life, lan­guages, re­li­gions, cul­tures, and land bases are threat­ened. In 2007 the UN passed UNDRIP, the United Nations Dec­la­ra­tion on the Rights of Indige­nous Peo­ples. Canada voted against the Dec­la­ra­tion, but later re­versed its po­si­tion. By 2016 the gov­ern­ment de­clared its full sup­port for UNDRIP.

A col­lec­tive right that af­fects ev­ery­one is the right to a clean and healthy en­vi­ron­ment. This in­cludes the right to pro­tec­tion against cli­mate changes that un­der­mine our liveli­hoods and well-be­ing.

An­other col­lec­tive right is the right to peace. Viewed nar­rowly, this is the right not to live in a state of war. In 2018, many peo­ple still live in wartorn coun­tries, es­pe­cially in the Mid­dle East and Africa. Oth­ers, as in Ukraine, live in fear of war. And we all live in fear of nu­clear war.

Both cli­mate change and war cre­ate huge refugee pop­u­la­tions. By

2050, it’s thought, there will be 200 mil­lion “cli­mate refugees” flee­ing ris­ing sea lev­els. Add to that the refugees who are flee­ing large-scale crime, like the Cen­tral Amer­i­can mi­grant car­a­van cur­rently try­ing to get into the U.S.

The UN re­cently agreed on a Global Com­pact for Mi­gra­tion, set­ting out vol­un­tary prin­ci­ples meant to save lives and en­sure suc­cess­ful mi­grant in­te­gra­tion into new coun­tries with­out un­duly bur­den­ing so­cial in­fra­struc­ture such as health care. But the real an­swer is to en­sure peo­ple don’t have to leave home at all.

One way to en­sure more peo­ple stay at home is by de­vel­op­ing their economies. The right to de­vel­op­ment is a col­lec­tive right. De­vel­op­ment ac­tivists usu­ally try to re­duce both poverty and in­equal­ity. There’s been an enor­mous re­duc­tion in world poverty over the last 25 years, even as in­equal­ity has been grow­ing in most coun­tries. This means it’s eas­ier to ful­fil what is known as eco­nomic hu­man rights, such as rights to health, ed­u­ca­tion and hous­ing.

Many peo­ple in many coun­tries have ben­e­fited from glob­al­iza­tion, though oth­ers, such as in­dus­trial work­ers in Canada and the U.S., have lost their jobs. This is one of the rea­sons for the spread of anti-im­mi­grant, anti-for­eigner sen­ti­ments in the West­ern world. Un­less we can fig­ure out a way to control these sen­ti­ments and re­duce the need for peo­ple to flee their own coun­tries be­cause of war, crime and cli­mate change, we are fac­ing an un­easy hu­man rights fu­ture.

A res­i­dent of Hamilton, Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann is Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus at Wil­frid Lau­rier Univer­sity, where from 2003 to 2016 she held the Canada Re­search Chair in In­ter­na­tional Hu­man Rights. This ar­ti­cle is drawn from her 2018 book, “In De­fense of Uni­ver­sal Hu­man Rights.”

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