Sixty years of human rights: exclusive MO*poll

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights celebrates its sixtieth anniversary. MO* commissioned an opinion poll with 500 Flemish citizens on the issue of human rights. The good news: the Flemish people are well disposed towards human rights. But wether human rights will receive the necessary support on an international level, is quite a different matter.

Knowing the facts

Only 17 percent of the Flemish people know that the Declaration of Human Rights celebrates its sixtieth anniversary.
According to professor Marc Bossuyt (University of Antwerp), the low score indicates that most of the Flemish people don’t know the first thing about human rights. Eva Brems, professor of human rights and non-western law at the University of Ghent, believes that the fact that most people don’t know about the anniversary is not really a significant problem.
Only one person out of 500 could name out of a list of ten those rights that are explicitly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Professor Brems: ‘This doesn’t really matter. I think I couldn’t have done it either. On top of that, most human rights are a moving target, they follow a social evolution. The right to water is not explicitly mentioned in the UDHR or the covenants, but  is interpreted as such. The UN committee of the ECOSOC Covenant stated in its general comment that the right to water exists. The same goes for the right to free internet access. All rights are in principle in the first two covenants, if one interprets them the right way. To support this interpretation, other conventions came to life. Conclusive statements of the UN conventions reinforce certain rights as well.’

What strikes Brems the most, is the fact that the Flemish people don’t make a distinction between civil, political and social-economic rights. ‘No less than ninety percent perceive the right to work as a human right. That speaks for itself. The West has fiercely defended civil and political rights, much less social-economic rights. Amnesty International used to be on that same wavelength. After all, we started off as defenders of conscientious objectors in the Portuguese dictatorship. Now, we want to be more relevant for the South, and for them social-economic rights are just as important as political rights.’ It’s an evolution professor Bossuyt somewhat regrets: ‘I believe specializing is useful. Amnesty was known for defending civil and political rights. By entering new territory, they will lose strength in what used to be their fort.’

Security versus freedom

78 percent believe that in the war against terrorism the police can ignore the right to privacy of suspected terrorists.
Brems: ‘This doesn’t surprise me. The war on terror is a  competing discourse that strikes a chord with people. It proves again that it is easy to protect human rights when there isn’t a crisis. In the West it seemed obvious that the state is an ally in protecting human rights. But because it’s convenient, the state now reveals itself as a violator of human rights. Although it is more difficult, it is by no means impossible to fight terrorism without violating human rights. People always tend to defend their own rights more than they defend other’s. They sometimes forget that it concerns their rights too. This is why educating people about human rights is very important.’

Brems believes that much damage has been caused. ‘The US violated the ban on torture by allowing waterboarding, and of course there was Guantanamo. The UK allowed people to be detained for long periods of time without any form of proof. Countries like China and Russia justified already existing practices by using the war on terror discourse.’ Brems did notice that a reaction was beginning to take form, from civil society as well as the administration of justice. ‘Guantanamo will close either way.’ Marc Bossuyt believes that ‘the situation in the US will be solved after the presidential election.’

The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, thinks that new anti-terrorism laws should avoid vague or broad definitions of terrorism. ‘This can lead to an unjust restriction of civil rights, like the freedom of association, the freedom of opinion, or the freedom of non-violent political and social opposition. Some states added non-violent activities to their definition of terrorism, which increases the chance that people defending their rights in a peaceful and legitimate way are being persecuted. In my view, human rights should be central to every anti-terrorism policy: the protection against torture and arbitrary arrest and detention and the right to a fair trial must be guaranteed.’

Enforcing human rights with economic means

68 percent of the Flemish people agree that ‘Belgian development aid can only go to governments respecting human rights’.
Marc Bossuyt strongly objects. ‘If aid helps the population, it should continue, whatever the government does. Otherwise you punish the population twice.’ Eva Brems says that, as the chairwoman of Amnesty, she is pleased to hear that aid is being linked with human rights. ‘Human rights don’t have enough teeth as it is. Some extra pressure is a welcome bonus.’ The statement that people become victim twice, is not really convincing to her. ‘Usually, aid programs are not shut down because of human rights issues. Mostly, aid programs are used beforehand as a means of pressure. What’s more, one can always bypass the government and help the population through NGOs.’
47 percent of the Flemish people think that an economic boycott against countries violating human rights –  through a  trade embargo, for example –  is useless. 42 percent think it is useful.
Brems as well as Bossuyt question the efficiency of an economic boycott. Bossuyt: ‘Almost always the wrong people are being targeted, and seldom the intended goal is reached. The lack of severe sanctions concerning the violation of human rights is a frustration where you just have to live with.’ Navanetham Pillay thinks that the most important strategy to enforce human rights is in the hands of human rights defenders and the media, the journalists. Pillay: ‘I don’t know whether boycotts are generally efficient or not, but in my country, South Africa, they were. Without sanctions against the apartheid regime, the struggle against apartheid would have never been so successful. The boycott didn’t provide us with direct advantages, but it was a moral support for all those involved with the struggle.’

Human rights and migrants

Only migrants who promise and can prove that they respect all human rights, can be allowed to enter our country, believe 63 percent of the interviewees.
Professor Brems does not agree. ‘Of course, I don’t know what most people are thinking of, but I suppose most of them think of Muslims and women’s rights. Be that as it may, in this case integration and assimilation are demanded in advance. This is of course unacceptable, but it fits in with the general tendency in Europe to close the borders. And because of that, the right to asylum is affected.’

Are human rights universal?

62 percent of the interviewees believe that human rights should be adapted to local cultures.
‘I agree with that’, professor Brems says. ‘But universalism is not uniformity. Contextualization is necessary. In 1948, the West was very dominant. There was only one Chinese residing in the redaction committee of the Declaration. He was the only one without origins in the Jewish-Christian tradition. Later on, the West kept dominating the human rights debate. So I can understand that quite a lot of countries put that the Declaration and the covenants do not fully reflect their vision. Even between western countries, contextualization is accepted. For example, the freedom of speech is perceived differently in the EU than in the US. In the EU, hate speech is forbidden because we don’t allow racism. This is not the case in the US. We accept a different approach. I don’t see why contextualization should be impossible in developing countries.’

Navanethem Pillay states that there are clear limits to contextualization. ‘The UDHR states that all human rights apply to all people, and are indivisible. No country can have the possibility to say that a certain right can’t be implemented within their borders because of their culture or tradition.’

Eva Brems, who wrote her PhD on the universality of human rights, does not want to test the universal legitimacy of human rights by means of empirical research. Brems: ‘It is true that a lot of research has been done on the roots of human rights in different cultures. There are always results, like the fact that in certain cultures, values like equality and justice already existed. This can reinforce the legitimacy of human rights, but you can’t let the validity of human rights depend on that. Universality is a choice: the ambition is that they apply to everyone. The philosophical basis of that choice is another matter. Some people refer to God, others to the fundamental nature of mankind… There is no unanimity on that. In practice, it is possible to have a consensus on the universality of human rights without a shared philosophical basis.’

Brems points out that as an academic, she accepts that societies need time to ensure that certain rights are being respected. ‘In our society, in the seventies, people thought it was normal that homosexuals were expelled from the army. Before 1947, women were not allowed to vote. It is not fair to demand an immediate implementation of a standard that only after centuries became acceptable to us. As an academic it seems meaningful to me to evaluate the process concerning civil and political rights: is there progress? If you are a hardliner, you become estranged. Nevertheless, as the chairwoman of Amnesty it is my duty to display and condemn every shortcoming, as meticulously as possible.’

Poverty, development and human rights

In a developing country the government should give priority to economic growth, even if the freedom of speech and association have to be temporarily limited to ensure economic progress. 39 percent agree, 44 percent do not.
Brems: ‘Human rights and development are falsely
Navanethem Pillay: ‘Without sanctions against the apartheid regime, the struggle against apartheid would have never been so successful.’
rceived as contradictory. Partly because of the focus on political rights, and not on social-economic rights. Poverty is more than a question of income. More and more, poverty is defined in terms of rights.’
57 percent of the Flemish people do not agree with the statement that ‘for people living in poverty, human rights are the last of their concerns.’
Bossuyt: ‘This statement draws from a narrow definition of human rights. Social-economic rights help to fight poverty.’
Security and wealth are not more important than human rights and freedom, believe six out of ten.
Bossuyt is pleased as well as surprised. Brems points out that this is not a contradiction: a free environment improves the economy.
The fact that the Indian company Tata recently had to postpone the building of a big car factory because of protest actions, is seized by some as a proof that economic development is slower in countries with more civil rights than in countries with less civil rights, like China. Brems: ‘Giving your opinion is one thing. The relocation of a factory is another. You don’t have the right to relocate a factory. You can often hear that economic development demands the sacrifice of a generation. If that is a fact, I opt for a slower economic development.’

Human rights in a changing world

‘Because of the rise of new powers like China, Russia and India, universal human rights become less and less important in international relations’, believe about half of the Flemish people.
55 percent think that the US do not defend and spread human rights worldwide. 31 percent believe they do.
Marc Bossuyt: ‘ The fact that the US has stopped being an example reflects on the whole West. Europe can stay silent and become infected as well. Or Europe can criticize the situation, but a divided front weakens the strike power.’

Brems: ‘Amnesty thinks that the loss of credibility of the West is problematic. After the actions of the US, other countries just laugh when they are being criticized. The European policy of closed borders and the cooperation with the rendition programs of the US undermine Europe’s credibility as well. Because we think this is a serious problem, we pay a lot of attention to what is happening in the US and the EU.’

Brems fears that the rise of China and Russia will weaken the human rights discourse. The financial crisis makes standing up for freedom harder as well. A lot of countries find stability just as important.

Mark Bossuyt remarks that in the UN, things have already reached that stage. ‘The transition from the Human Rights Commission to the Human Rights Council in 2006 implicated a weakening of the human rights, even if it was the intention to strengthen them. In 1991, ten representatives of the Western group seated in the Human Rights Commission, and twenty Afro-Asians. In the current council it is 7 to 26. Since the West is the motor of the human rights, one can imagine the effect. The strongest weapon the UN had at it’s disposal was sending a special rapporteur to a country and drawing up country resolutions. This has become much harder. The Europeans let themselves be tricked.’

Veronique Joosten of the University of Antwerp points out that China described the country resolutions as the ‘ chronic disease of the Human Rights Commission’. It even came to a tug-of-war between China, demanding a two third majority for every country resolution, and the EU, fiercely opposing that demand. Successfully. Nevertheless, the country instruments are already being cut back. Joosten lists all the points: ‘During the transition to the Human Rights Council, the mandates for Belarus and Cuba perished. After that, Cuba ratified the two human rights covenants. Later on, they decided to not extend an innovative mechanism concerning Darfur, namely a group of experts, followed by not granting the mandate for Congo in March 2008. In September, the usual mandate for Sudan was only extended by six months, while the tradition wants that country mandates last one year. The Africans already made clear that they support a non-extension after those six months. The mandate for the independent expert for Liberia wasn’t extended either.’

The changing power relations in the world erode the capacity of the West to dominate the human rights debate. Brems: ‘In countries like China and Russia things will mostly depend on internal rather than external pressure.’
According to most of the Flemish people, Unicef (91 percent), Amnesty International (87 percent), 11.11.11 (83 percent), Liga voor de rechten van de mens (80 percent) and Centrum voor gelijkheid van Kansen (79 percent) carry out important work in the protection of human rights.
Professor Bossuyt is surprised that Amnesty doesn’t score higher. Amnesty chairwoman Eva Brems: ‘The rights of the child are always a primary concern, so I understand that Unicef is on top of the list, even if the rights don’t belong to their core activities. 11.11.11 has done some highly visible campaigns concerning the right to water, and that obviously paid off. Anyhow, their work has of course al lot to do with human rights as well.’

(Navanethem Pillay’s questions were asked by Gie Goris)

Human Rights: The making of

‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood…’ Thus begins the UDHR, which was adopted sixty years ago in the United Nations (UN): 48 countries voted in favour and eight abstained. The declaration was a result of an age-long (mainly Western) political evolution. And of the Second World-War. The War made sixty million victims and confronted mankind with its most gruesome side. People were prepared to start over.

Already in the first article of the UN Charter ‘promoting and encouraging respect for human rights’ is mentioned. A lot of countries thought that this idea should be developed. That is why the Commission on Human Rights was established in early 1946. The Commission gave a redaction committee (mostly Western jurists) the order to come up with a declaration of human rights. Their text became the most important UN-declaration ever, but it did not have any binding juridical power. That is why the Commission was ordered to convert the declaration into a covenant.

It would take until 1966 before the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights were drafted. After that, other conventions elaborating on the rights of certain groups of people came to life. Each of those conventions have been ratified by a lot of countries, but there are important exceptions. The US did not ratify the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Pakistan, China and Cuba did not ratify the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Iran did not ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. (jvd)

The United Nations Agreements on Human Rights: Ratifications in 2008

1966 Covenant on Civil and Political Rights                                              162
1967 Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights                          159
1968 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination 173
1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination
       against Women                                                                                 185
1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading
       Treatment or Punishment                                                                 145   
1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child                                            193
1990 Convention on the Rights of All Migrant Workers and  
       Members of Their Family                                                                     39
2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities                     41

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