Human rights belong to all

Human rights belong to all

“Everyone knows, or should know, why human rights are important.” This was the view of Canadian lawyer and scholar John Humphrey, one of the principal authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

December 10 marks Human Rights Day each year and celebrates the day in 1948 when the UN General Assembly adopted that Declaration. December 10 offers us the opportunity to reflect on what we know ‘ought to be’ and what has not yet been achieved within the human rights agenda. This gap in human rights terms between what we know ought to be and what actually is lies at the heart of what is wrong in our world, our communities and our lives. 

The preamble to the Declaration and the 30 individual articles that follow it offer not just a powerful set of ideas and aspirations but also the foundations for a set of international agreements and practices that have built up worldwide since 1948. It is impossible to list and discuss all of these ideas, but in marking Human Rights Day, we have chosen to highlight three of the most important. These are the principles of universality, justice and more particularly social justice and solidarity (the Declaration used the older term ‘brotherhood’).

Today, there are many parts of the world where human rights and freedoms are not recognised for everyone or not recognised at all. The graph shows the extent to which this is the case. However, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the various international human rights instruments that were derived from it have the ambition to be universal. They seek to establish minimum standards of life for everyone, everywhere.

The reasoning is simple: no human being should be enslaved, tortured or detained for speaking his or her mind. No human being should be homeless and hungry. Everyone should have access to some form of schooling and medical assistance. These are not things many of us in Malta think about. Most of us take them for granted. Yet, many other human beings around the world and perhaps, even closer to us, cannot take them for granted. Many, near and far, do not have these basic rights at all. 

The idea of universality challenges us to think why this is so. Does a Maltese suffer more than an Afghan when tortured or is the pain the same? Are we unique in wishing to express our views or practise our religion? Is it a privilege associated with race, religion, wealth or some other criterion to want a decent place to live in? Human rights simply lay down a few basic conditions for a dignified human life and when these basic conditions are lacking human dignity is denied. The challenge that the universality of human rights presents is that of acknowledging that we all have a role in ensuring that human rights are not a privilege based on nationality, race, wealth, gender, sexual identity or any other grounds.

The challenge of universality may take different forms in different contexts. In Malta this challenge may take the form of acknowledging that migrants escaping various forms of human rights abuses (violence, oppression of various kinds or severe and systemic poverty) are also part of the human rights agenda. They are also entitled to be included in the universal human family.    

Human rights are not a privilege based on nationality, race, wealth, gender or sexual identity

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration expresses two key ideas: that all individuals are entitled to certain basic rights simply because they are human and that human beings “should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. This reference to brotherhood is an essential, but routinely neglected aspect of human rights.

Human rights are often (mis)understood as being only about individual rights – rights exercised without reference to anyone else: “I have a right to…” is a phrase which resonates with all of us. Yet, the idea and practice of human rights makes it abundantly clear that it cannot be simply about individual rights.

Rights must be understood and practised with a sense of solidarity (a more contemporary word than brotherhood). Simply put, we must be mindful of the rights and needs of others because we live in families, communities and societies made up of other people who have the same rights we do. We also live in a world where many of the most pressing problems we face can only be tackled together.

When big pharmaceutical companies tried to exploit their intellectual property rights to stop the South African government from using generic anti-retroviral drugs for their large HIV-infected population, they were denying this obligation of solidarity. Yes, we all have the human right to enjoy our physical and intellectual property. However, by insisting on property rights first and foremost, at the expense of the right to health of others, such companies were failing in their duty of solidarity which is so fundamental to human rights as a whole.

When as landlords in Malta we increase our rents sky-high we claim this is our right: our property, our right to use it as we think fit. What about the right to decent accommodation for those families or individuals who cannot make ends meet? Yes, there is a right to private property but in exploiting it at the expense of the rights of others we are failing in our duty of solidarity, we are disrespecting the idea of human rights.  

Frequently we tend to associate the idea of human rights with what are termed civil and political rights – the right to vote, to be free from torture and inhumane treatment, to free speech and religious belief etc. Yet, without the most basic social and economic rights, human dignity remains unfulfilled. The idea of justice in human rights does not simply imply a list of formal rules, institutions and procedures; it seeks to promote a more inclusive concept that looks at society and its outcomes. In this context it is important that we distinguish between legal justice and social justice, the latter cannot be created by individuals as individuals, but only by individuals as members of groups. Social justice increases when economic rights are advanced or when we remove barriers that people face because of class, gender, age, ethnicity, religion or disability.

For example, just as we would want an end to discrimination against women in our own families and communities, instruments such as the UN Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women offers an agenda for pursuing this idea internationally. It seeks to hold governments and institutions accountable and it offers women a framework for taking action against injustice themselves, not having to wait for men or governments to act.

Here in Malta, justice has to be judged not just by the existence of a full ‘set’ of formal laws and institutions on paper but by whether society is ‘fair’. In any discussion, most of us could draw up a list of injustices, which could readily be addressed, not just by government but by everyone. Poverty, homelessness, domestic violence and discrimination of various types might make such a list today. 

The idea of human rights and the laws and practices that have underpinned it since 1948 were never intended to make the world perfect but rather to make it less imperfect. They were a response to the brutal realities of World War II and a vision of how things could be better, much better.  Just as human rights belong to all, so too does the responsibility to practise and promote them belong to all.

Omar Grech is director of the Centre for the Study and Practice of Conflict Resolution at the University of Malta. Colm Regan is a human rights teacher and activist, living in Gozo.

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