Gregory Fabian: Human Rights – Why They Will Always Matter

Human Rights Day, we mark the 70thanniversary of a special day in the history of humankind. On 10 December1948, in Paris, the United Nations General Assembly, through the passage of UNGeneral Assembly Resolution 217A (III) adopted The Universal Declaration ofHuman Rights (UDHR).  The GeneralAssembly proclaimed that it was „a common standard of achievement for allpeoples and all nations“ and urged that „every individual and every organ insociety“ should strive „to promote respect for these rights and freedoms“ and„secure their univeral and effective recognition“ within one´s own country, aswell as in other countries.

The UDHR served as an impetus for developing the body of international human rights laws and agreements which followed it.  Thus human rights are enshrined in international laws and agreements which governments voluntarily sign and ratify. In doing so they are legally required to integrate the provisions of international human rights laws into their national law, and then to apply them in practice to protect all persons in the state, and not just citizens.

Thus human rights are legal obligations of the state to all those who dwell within its borders, and especially those who are members of the most vulnerable, marginalized, and disadvantaged groups in society. Also in signing and ratifying international human rights laws which are in the legal form of treaties, governments voluntarily obligate themselves to report periodically on progress in implementation to various UN Committees which monitor the implementation of human rights treaties both at law and in practice within the state.

Human rights compliance is the responsibility of all persons working in all branches of governmental authority from the highest political position in the state to the ordinary civil servant, including those who, while they may work in the private sector, are licensed to do so by the state.

Further, enforcement of human rights becomes the responsibility of not only national governments, but also of intergovernmental organizations, international and national NGOs, medical personnel, police, lawyers and judges, trade unions, journalists, academics, artists, teachers, students, religious organizations, business associations, women’s associations, and ordinary citizens.

It has been said that human rights developed out of the ashes of World War II. After the War, representatives of the world of nations, as Member States of the United Nations met to draft the UHDR. The drafters realized that the human atrocities and general suffering which occured were a result of states´ violations of what should have been the most basic fundamental rights that any person should be entitled to simply because they are a human being. The problem was that, as a matter of law, the world of nations had not agreed specifically to what those rights were. Thus the UDHR was drafted and adopted to specifically designate the civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights to which a person is entitled  simply because they are a human being. Eleanor Roosevelt, the Chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission and the wife of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a driving force behind its drafting and adoption.

The drafters also realized that the more that states did not protect, respect and fulfill the rights of all their peoples, the greater was the chance of igniting a conflict within, or even between states. Thus they saw states´ compliance with human rights as a form of conflict prevention, or if conflict broke out, as a means of peaceful conflict resolution. As such, States´ compliance with their human rights obligations can be seen as an integral part of the foundation for peace, security, and stability in the world.

Yet in our world today, ironically, we are seeing an increasing number of blatant human rights violations by national governments. We are seeing authoritarian populist demagogues arise at an alarming pace throughout the world by pandering to the most base instincts of their constituents using extreme nationalism as a tool.  They ignore or reject their international human rights obligations and any other form of international supervision or jurisdiction at the expense of all in the state, and in particular, the most vulnerable, marginalized and disadvantaged.

Increasingly, and at a fearful pace lately, we are seeing conditions deteriorate in many countries to such a degree that they begin to resemble the historical conditions which gave rise to World War II. Authoritarianism and extreme nationalism are on the rise. The lesson of WWII that there is a direct link between states honoring their human rights obligations and global security, peace and stability has been forgotten. We are seeing the steady degradation of international and regional security institutions and frameworks that have been developed since the end of WWII.

Also critics of human rights assert that they are not effective, have few enforcement mechanisms, and even that they violate the principle of national sovereignty. Yet we have see the evolution of international jurisdiction regarding accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity, such as the Nuremberg Trials, the  establishment of the International Criminal Court, and special trubunals such as the international Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and others. We have also seen the development of regional human rights laws and of human rights courts on the regional level such as the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Further, Human Rights Treaty Monitoring Bodies in the United Nations have established individual complaint mechanisms and other procedures to enable a person to uphold or defend his or her rights internationally if they have no effective legal or administrative remedy within their country to defend or uphold their rights under national law. Sadly, though, many governments are rejecting such international jurisdiction and supervision holding that it is a violation of national sovereignty.

So do human rights even matter any more? What good are they in addressing the alarming trend toward authoritarianism in our world, and in preventing and resolving conflict within and among nations?

Human rights will always matter, simply because a root cause of war, armed conflict, terrorist attacks, poverty, hunger, disease, famine, and other conditions detrimental to life is often the failure of governments to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights of all or a part of the population. And sometimes these violations within the state are so severe that they can spill over borders and result in conflicts with other states as World War II and other recent wars and conflicts so tragically exemplify. Thus governments´ compliance with their international human rights obligations is a crucial factor in building peace, security and stability in the world.

Human rights matter even more so to the individual person in society because their observance by government authority enables each individual to employ all of his or her talents, skills and abilities to realize his or her full potential as a human being. Thus they are essential to reaching ones personal destiny.

So what can each of us as individuals do to build a human rights culture within government (all branches, all levels), and within society as a whole?

First, we must ensure that there is human rights education as a part of primary and secondary education. For all persons must be empowered to know, demand, and defend these rights peacefully through the democratic process. A knowledge of human rights enables the ordinary person in society to hold their government accountable for violations of his or her rights using international human rights standards.

And in society in general, each of us should, at the very least, read the UDHR to understand what our rights are as human beings. Also, we should seek a knowledge of human rights through reading and informal or formal education and training. The drafters of the UDHR promoted in the Preamble that „every individual and every organ in society, keeping the Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.“

The UDHR is important in that it codified certain minimum moral standards that have been passed down throughout history by the world´s great cultures. The legal rights which it contains are universal, (i.e. they belong to all people at all times), inalienable (i.e. they cannot be given away or taken away), and interdependent and indivisible (i.e. the exercise of one right is dependent on the exercise of others).

As such, the UDHR´s thirty Articles provide an objective legal framework which enables the individual to measure the actions of government to ensure that they are human rights´ compliant, and to defend his or her rights if government violates them or threatens to do so.

Often, human rights are fought for in the political arena. But they are not about politics. Rather they are the subject of international laws and agreements to which governments have voluntarily and legally obligated themselves.  Sometimes they are politicized and distorted by politicians within the political arena. And when they are, they are minimalized, marginalized, neutralized, and rendered irrelevant.

And while human rights are most often protected under national law, often national laws do not meet the higher standard of international human rights laws. Or even when national law is fully compliant with international human rights laws, sometimes the international standard is not implemented in practice. So a knowledge of such gaps between international and national law, or between international law and national practice is crucial to enabling the ordinary person to defend and uphold their rights according to the highest international human rights standard to which a person is entitled.

Second, to build a human rights culture within society, we must exercise the right prescribed under Article 21 of the UDHR to participate in government and public affairs, particularly by using international human rights as standards by which to measure the actions of government. But participation must be more than just voting. It should include participation in public policy discussion groups sponsored either by government or by civil society, and in public affairs generally, and perhaps for some, even running for and holding a public office. It could include submitting one´s comments on pending legislation to the legislators.  It also should include discussion of public affairs and issues among friends and within the family structure. And when there is disagreement and polarization of opinions, international human rights laws and standards can be used as objective guidelines to find a compromise, or to resolve the dispute.

Most importantly, we must use the international human rights framework to hold government (all levels, all branches) accountable for what it does, or what it fails to do which may result in an interference with, or blatant violation of human rights. We must depoliticize discussions on public issues and policy by additionally viewing issues through the lens of human rights.

Finally, the following quote of Eleanor Roosevelt eloquently summarizes the importance of implementing human rights on the local level. 

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

Gregory Fabian J.D. is an international human rights lawyer and a member of the Bar of the State of New York who lives and works in Bratislava, Slovakia.