70 years of human rights
With human displacement and climate change there’s still work to do
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.