Posts Tagged ‘international human rights movement’

Policy response from Human Rights NGOs to COVID-19: ISHR

April 3, 2020

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, many human rights organisations have been formulating a policy response. While I cannot be complete or undertake comparisons, I will try and give some examples in the course of the coming weeks. If there are special ones you would like to draw my attention to, please do not hesitate. Here is one from Phil Lynch, the Director of the International Service for Human Rights:

 

Staying true to our values is never more important than during times of hardship or crisis. At ISHR, there are five values driving our response to the COVID-19 global pandemic: solidarity, dynamism, alertness, wellbeing and hope.

Solidarity

…Solidarity is an essential value at this time. At ISHR this means showing solidarity with colleagues – with a number of staff volunteering to help and alleviate the workload of others who may have reduced capacity – as well as solidarity with human rights defenders, with our programme staff reaching out to national and regional-level partners to discuss their wellbeing, situation, priorities and needs. Please do reach out to us if there are any ways we can provide support to you at this vital time. In addition to showing solidarity, we’ve also greatly appreciated receiving solidarity. I’ve personally benefited from the wisdom, insights and advice of other NGO directors in terms of their response to this crisis, and discovered the musical talents of neighbours as we’ve gathered on our balconies every evening to clap and sing our gratitude to the doctors, health care professionals and sanitation workers on the frontlines of this crisis.

Dynamism

This crisis has highlighted the importance of dynamism, adaptability and planning for uncertainty, as well as the limitations of log frames, tightly earmarked funds, and donor restrictions on building organisational reserves.

At ISHR we are determined to use this crisis as an opportunity to innovate and to test and expand new ways of working. Last year, thanks to the support of several donors – including the United Kingdom, Canada, Switzerland and the Netherlands – we launched the ISHR Academy – an interactive, online platform to build the capacity and skills of human rights defenders to leverage the UN human rights system to contribute to national level change. With a significantly increased demand for online training and strategic advocacy support, we’re currently working on new modules for the Academy, as well as translation into Spanish. With further financial support we’d love to develop even more modules and in additional languages. This would increase access to resources, strategic advice and tailored advocacy support for human rights defenders from all regions. The suspension, postponement and cancellation of a significant number of meetings and sessions of international and regional human rights mechanisms has starkly exposed the need for such bodies to develop means by which human rights defenders can more effectively engage and participate remotely. This is relevant not only now in response to the COVID-19 crisis, but in the longer term in response to the climate crisis and the imperative of reducing travel-related emissions. Effective means of virtual participation are also critical for defenders who lack the resources to travel to Geneva or New York, as well as those for whom travel may be restricted or banned by repressive governments. ISHR programme staff are actively engaged on these issues – leading and participating in strategic discussions and the formulation of practical recommendations as to how to use this crisis as an opportunity to make human rights mechanisms more accessible, effective and protective for defenders worldwide.

Alertness

ISHR is not the only body looking at ways to use this crisis as an opportunity. Unfortunately, some governments will use this emergency as a subterfuge to more permanently increase surveillance, as well as restrict fundamental rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, protest and movement. Alertness is therefore a critical value at this time. We must be vigilant to ensure that any laws or regulations enacted in response to COVID-19 are for the legitimate purpose of protecting public health, and that any restrictions they impose are reasonable, proportionate and strictly time bound….With persons in detention at particular risk, ISHR staff are also using the opportunity to push for the release of arbitrarily detained human rights defenders, including several with underlying health conditions in States including China, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Wellbeing

..All ISHR staff have worked remotely since at least 13 March, with exceptions only for staff that need to attend the Geneva office for short periods for essential functions. Staff are working from various locations and states of confinement in Switzerland, France, New York, London, Brussels, Abidjan and Jakarta. We have agreed a complete restriction on work-related travel, with both this restriction and the work from home arrangements remaining in place for the indefinite future.

….Financial security is imperative at this time and I am so impressed and thankful for the initiative of major donors such as the Sigrid Rausing Trust and the Open Society Foundations to proactively reaffirm their funding commitment, to indicate that they will be highly flexible in the use of funds and reporting requirements, and to invite us to reach out if we need further support. Best practice at this time of unprecedented uncertainty is to enable the conversion of project or earmarked funds to core or unrestricted funds. I am working with the Board to evaluate and prepare for a range of scenarios, ensuring the long term sustainability of ISHR. Your contributions as private donors will be vital in this regard – every donation helps!

Hope

The final value motivating ISHR at this time is that of hope, which we draw from many places.

We take hope from the doctors, health care professionals and sanitation workers who bravely and tirelessly provide vital care and support.

….

I wish you, your families, your loved ones and your colleagues are and remain healthy, safe and well.

—-

See also my earlier: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/03/27/covid-19-spread-leads-to-reactions-and-messages-of-solidarity/

http://www.ishr.ch/news/covid-19-focusing-wellbeing-solidarity-dynamism-alertness-and-hope

In memoriam Leandro Despouy: Argentinean human rights defender at the global level

March 16, 2020

When a good friend and soul mate dies, it is sometimes difficult to write something meaningful. So it was when I learned that Argentine human rights lawyer Leandro Despouy – whom I have known since 1976  – had died on 18 December 2019 in Buenos Aires, after a two-year battle with cancer. He was born on 4 April 1947 in San Luis.

The Argentine media paid quite a bit of attention to his passing but (understandably?) focused on his place in Argentinean politics (in the Radical Party) and his institutional role as Head of the Auditoría General de la Nación from 2002 – 2016.  But Leandro Despouy was of great importance to the international human rights movement as it developed in the last quarter of the 20th century. I hope that this ‘obituary’ does some justice:

He started as a lawyer and university teacher before state terrorism (in the form of the far-right death squad Alianza Anticomunista Argentina, known as Triple A) pushed him into exile in 1975 to France. He stayed a refugee until 1983 when he was able to return to his beloved country where he was appointed Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador for Human Rights by President Alfonsin. More about what he was able to do in that capacity follows below but I wanted to give special attention how remarkably active Leandro was during his exile. He did not succumb to porosity and made the best of his chances. Always upbeat and entrepreneurial he had great social skills.

Friends helped him with a part-time job (between 1975-1977) as professor of Political Economy at the Université de Paris VIII. In order to make ends meet he accepted many different part-time jobs, including (his favorite!) driving around fashion models and their clothes. The models were quickly enamored of this elegant Latino and sometimes donated suits making him the best dressed refugee in Paris. His own work situation improved when he became one of the assistants of well-known parliamentarian Nicole Questiaux for the 13th arrondissement in Paris and as from July 1981 for her replacement, Louis Moulinet.

Interestingly enough his first activist attention while in exile went to the repressive situation in Uruguay (he told me it was easier to keep politics out of it than in the case of his own country) and it was in that context that we set up SIJAU (Secretariat Internationale des Juristes pour l’Amnestie en Uruguay). Leandro – with the help of French lawyers like Joinet and Weil – managed to organise in December 1978 in the French Senate (!) an international conference that helped the opposition to unite and put pressure on Uruguay.

He undertook a similar effort on Paraguay with the creation of SIJADEP (Secretariat Internationale des Juristes pour l’Amnestie et Democratie en Paraguay).

Leandro was regularly in Geneva to follow up with the UN (and sleeping on my couch) and when the first UN mandate for disappearances was created he was briefly hired as a consultant by the then Director Theo van Boven. The Argentine Ambassador got wind of it and with ‘terrorist’ accusations this had to be terminated quickly.  In the summer of 1982 he did a short stint as Professor of Human Rights at the Centre International des Droits de l`Homme, in Strasburg, France.

Then comes the return to Argentina with the slow process of normalisation and the question of how to deal with the crimes of the recent past. From 1984-1989  he is General Director of Human Rights at the Ministry for Foreign Affaires and with it comes a series of opportunities at the international level. Here some examples:

President of the First International Conference of States Parties on the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1987).

In 1983 Leandro becomes a Member of the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities (later reduced to an advisory body for the new Human Rights Council). He plays a very active role, as Chairman and as:

  • Special Rapporteur of the Subcommission on disabled persons and human rights to study the connection between human rights, violations of fundamental human freedoms and disability which resulted in his final report, “Human Rights and Disabled Persons.” Which was adopted by ECOSOC resolution 1992/48 of March 1992
  • Special Rapporteur of the same on extreme poverty and human rights. Interim report adopted on 10 June 1994, E/CN.4/Sub.2/1994/19

In 2000 Leandro heads the Argentine Delegation at the 57th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and from March 2001 to March 2002 he is President of this Commission (currently the United Nations Human Rights Council).

In 2002 in Argentina he becomes the President of the Auditor General’s office (a function reserved for a member of the opposition under the Argentine constitution) but continues to accept assignments of an international nature:

In 2003: he is appointed as Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, United Nations Human Rights Council (until 2009). In that capacity he and four other special rapporteurs asked in 2005 to be admitted to Guantanamo Bay to visit the prisoners held at the US naval base. He and one other was refused permission (see: https://newsarchive.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=608&LangID=E}

He remained a sought-after speaker at courses and conferences, such as those organized by the International Institute of Humanitarian Law of San Remo, the Committee of the International Red Cross, FLACSO Argentina ,Harvard University, the European Society of International Law, and the Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle.

In 1993 he becomes the Assistant Special Representative of the Secretary Generals of the United Nations and Organization of American States, in the context of the UN and OAS joint mission to Haiti.  Between 1999 and 2006 he regularly carried out Expert tasks mandated by a variety of UN agencies for short jobs in e.g.: Brazil, Paraguay, Equatorial Guinea, Colombia, Russia and Ecuador.

This is of course not a complete biography and any additional information would be most welcome. Leandro certainly deserves a lot more recognition at the international level. When Ben Whitaker died in 2014. Leandro was one of the first to honor his contribution [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2014/07/16/ben-whitaker-died-one-of-the-early-human-rights-defenders-at-the-international-scene/]. I hope this does the same for Leandro.

Jackie Smith sees a world that prioritizes people over economic growth

March 3, 2020

Jackie Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and the editor of the Journal of World Systems Research, published a piece called “Human rights, not corporate rights” in Open Democracy of 26 February 2020. It is an excerpt of an essay published as part of a series by the Great Transition Initiative. To view the full series, click here. Jackie Smith argues that human rights offer a powerful framework for challenging corporate hegemony and creating a more just and sustainable world.

The growth and concentration of corporate power is one that deserves far more attention and critical analysis than it has received in academic and policy circles.

Capitalist globalization policies over recent decades have helped corporations grow and consolidate wealth on a global scale, which they have used to further concentrate market and political influence. The number of transnational corporations in the top 100 economic entities – including both corporations and governments – jumped to 69 in 2015 from around 50 at the turn of the twenty-first century. National governments are no longer the most powerful entities, and their position is continuing to slide as corporations grow. Alarmingly, among the leading industries are those most in need of governance for the sake of the common good: namely, those dependent on the perpetuation of our carbon-intensive economy, financial speculation, wasteful consumption, and the commodification of health care.

While corporate power has grown, the power of workers and communities has been steadily eroded by neoliberal globalization. The decline of trade unions and the growth of precarious work, fueled by the evangelization of neoliberal principles by economists and political leaders in governments and global institutions like the World Bank, have reduced the ability of people and communities to come together to advance a different vision of how the world could be organized. Cities have been hamstrung by budget constraints as they contend with effects of neoliberal globalization such as rising housing costs, effects of climate change, and social polarization. At the same time, critics of corporate globalization in the academy have been neutralized by the corporatization of universities and the polarization and commodification of political and media discourses. Indeed, we might say that today, global hegemony is exercised not by a national state or collection of states, but by the owners and managers of global corporations.

It is imperative, then, that scholars and activists do far more to focus on this critical issue and help find ways to challenge more directly the role of corporations in society today. Corporate concentration and market monopolization – enabled by US international economic policies, weak antitrust laws and implementation, corporate taxation, campaign financing, and other – undermine human rights in cities and communities worldwide.

By supporting human rights globalization as a counter-movement to corporate globalization, we can advance people-centered policies and build upon earlier work of transformative movements worldwide.

The United Nation’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process gives local human rights defenders one way of fighting back. US human rights defenders have recently challenged predatory corporate practices in a report to the United Nations. The report highlighted the impacts of corporations on local human rights, democratic political participation, housing, health, and racial and gender equity. It documented at great length the extent to which corporate practices violate government commitments in both national and international legal instruments.

While the UN process is limited in its ability to change behaviors of recalcitrant governments, what is powerful about international human rights treaties and institutional processes like the UPR is their ability to help social movements come together across various divides and promote a shared vision of the world we wish to see. Paraphrasing Frederick Douglass, human rights activists like to remind skeptics that those in power have never ceded power without popular pressure: “Human rights don’t trickle down, they rise up!”

The process of compiling UPR reports and then working to follow up with them helps groups and activists articulate shared priorities and visions of justice that account for global and historical omissions in local and national discourses. The UPR does not simply track violations but centers concrete remedies in the formal reports it makes to national governments. It is here that local activists have found opportunities to forge alliances with local government officials, who see value in using the international stage to amplify their pleas for federal funding to support social welfare needs. Thus, the UPR process helps build new community collaborations and foster public discourse and consciousness-raising around human rights as an alternative framework.

Corporate hegemony has constrained the political discourse and the political imagination we need to envision and fight for a world that prioritizes people and communities over economic growth and endless consumption. Although the odds seem daunting, global ideals and institutions that have been slowly and steadily advanced by human rights advocates over centuries may provide tools for advancing new projects and strategies that can realize human-centered policies and a more just and sustainable world.

https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/oureconomy/human-rights-not-corporate-rights/

Human Rights and Climate defenders should join hands says Andrew Gilmour

February 5, 2020

The Korea Herald of 4 February 2020 carries an opinion piece by Andrew Gilmour (former UN assistant secretary-general for human rights) entitled “Preventing climate change is a human rights issue”. In it he makes a strong case for human rights and climate groups to work more togehter:
…They’d seem to be natural allies. They both regard (with good reason) today’s situation as the worst in their movements’ existence. Second, they share common foes: Leading climate change deniers and environmental despoilers tend to be dismissive of human rights (Presidents Rodrigo Duterte, Donald Trump, or Jair Bolsonaro, to name but three). Third, both movements are accused of being “elitist” by their opponents, a charge neither group of activists has done enough to overcome.  But the two groups haven’t historically worked closely together.

…. In a seminal UN report last spring, Philip Alston castigated the human rights community for its failure to face up to the fact that “human rights might not survive the coming upheaval.” The idea that democratic systems failed to prevent global heating may well take hold, with a resulting urge to strengthen state powers at the cost of rights and freedoms.

To prevent this from happening, human rights advocates and environmentalists both need to broaden their mobilization campaigns by reaching out to groups who have traditionally not been allies of either movement. From Europe to the US to Australia, an alliance of populist leaders, corporate lobbyists and the Murdoch-owned press have pushed the idea that any gains for human rights or environmental protection will come at the expense of jobs. For example, the “gilets jaunes” protests in France were provoked, in part, by a fuel tax hike designed to reduce carbon emissions. (“Fin du monde, fin du mois” was one rallying cry — stop talking about the end of the world, when we’re just trying to get to the end of the month.)

Fossil fuel workers, cattle farmers and others need to know that they will still have livelihoods after serious measures have been taken to reduce global heating. Governments, NGOs and the private sector can offer such assurances through reskilling programs and subsidies for alternative land management and carbon sequestration. Without job security, too many people will remain vulnerable to wealthy climate science deniers — such as the Koch brothers — who have been able to convince them that climate change is basically a hoax against the “people” perpetrated by the “elite.”

Activists and sympathetic local officials must also work harder to win over indigenous people. In many countries, including Brazil, the Philippines and Honduras, there are examples of indigenous groups resisting renewable energy projects. Not because they are politically opposed to renewable energy, but because they have traditionally not been consulted about enterprises inflicted on them within their traditional lands and waters.

Climate and human rights activists should be reaching out to these groups to get their buy-in. Governments should be transferring ownership of forested land back to the indigenous communities who have proven time and again to be the most effective guardians of their own ecosystems. Instead, indigenous people are being attacked — literally. In 2017, an average of three indigenous, environmental or land rights defenders were killed every week worldwide.

Collaboration between human rights advocates and environmentalists will make it more likely that we come together to reduce emissions and mitigate the worst effects of climate change — and that we do so equitably. But the first step is to create far stronger bonds between the leaders and activists of each cause. Until both sides have fully recognized that neither agenda can be achieved without the other, they will continue to under-perform against their powerful opponents.

http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20200203000932

Alex Neve of AI Canada wants us to put human rights first in the new decade

January 3, 2020

..If ever there was a need for a resolution for a new decade, this is it: put human rights first.

…This decade has been a breathless time of mass mobilization, as staggering numbers of people have spilled out into public squares, streets and alleyways in communities large and small: The “Arab Spring” protests across the Middle East and North Africa, Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, FridaysForFuture climate strikes, the #MeToo movement and Women’s Marches and the March for Our Lives against gun violence in the United States. Protesters who refused to give up have toppled cruel leaders, stopped unjust laws and catalyzed struggles against deep inequities in Sudan, Hong Kong, Chile, Haiti, Algeria and Lebanon; and have been met with terrifying violence from security forces leading to hundreds of deaths in Iran and Iraq.

The decade has also been marked by the tension of technology’s wonders and threats. The digital world has opened up exciting new platforms of communication and means of accessing and sharing information, often to considerable benefit for human-rights movements. However, we have also witnessed an explosion of hate, racism and sexism on social media; growing awareness that the rise of artificial intelligence brings unimagined human-rights worries; and new tools of state surveillance and intrusion into our privacy that pose some of the most insidious and chilling threats to human rights that we have ever seen.

Above it all – as we move into the 2020s – the urgency of responding to the gravest human-rights challenge of our time, the global climate crisis, deepens daily. And the outright refusal of governments and businesses, including in Canada, to pursue climate action and deliver climate justice that is truly and ambitiously serious, stands out as perhaps the most unforgivable human-rights failing of the decade. The decade behind us reminds us that the threats to human-rights protection run deep and demand vigilance; the power of the people is, ultimately, unstoppable; there is great risk in embracing all that technology offers without addressing its many perils; and that if we do not safeguard our one and only shared global climate, all of our human-rights effort will ultimately be for naught.

And therefore with deep resolve it is imperative and it is incumbent upon us all to make the 2020s a very different decade.

  • A decade in which women’s equality, women’s leadership and women’s power is consistently at the fore.
  • A decade in which we at long last deliver the commitment – an empty one for far too long – of a world that will “never again” witness mass atrocities.
  • A decade in which we all live up to our shared, personal responsibility to say no to racism, bigotry and hate.
  • A decade that tackles the climate crisis; finally embracing the catastrophic reality that without a climate, all human-rights struggles inevitably mean nothing.
  • Quite simply, a decade that – no matter the cost, the inconvenience, the controversy or the opposing interests – puts human rights first.

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/07/09/environmental-defenders-in-alberta-canada-be-warned-oil-will-get-you/

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-a-resolution-for-a-new-decade-put-human-rights-first/

Sad end of year message by Andrew Gilmour as he leaves his UN post

December 29, 2019

His assesment of the human rights situation – as laid down in the article ofThe past decade has seen a backlash against human rights on every front, especially the rights of women and the LGBT communities. Andrew Gilmour said the regression of the past 10 years hasn’t equaled the advances that began in the late 1970s — but it is serious, widespread and regrettable. He pointed to “populist authoritarian nationalists” in North America, South America, Europe and Asia, who he said are taking aim at the most vulnerable groups of society, including Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, Roma, and Mexican immigrants, as well as gays and women. He cited leaders who justify torture, the arrests and killing of journalists, the brutal repressions of demonstrations and “a whole closing of civil society space.”

I never thought that we would start hearing the terms ‘concentration camps’ again,” Gilmour told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview. “And yet, in two countries of the world there’s a real question.” He didn’t name them but appeared to be referring to China’s internment camps in western Xinjiang province, where an estimated 1 million members of the country’s predominantly Muslim Uighur minority are being held; and detention centers on the United States’ southern border, where mostly Central American migrants are being held while waiting to apply for asylum. Both countries strongly deny that concentration camp-like conditions exist.

….Despite his dim view of the past decade, Gilmour — a Briton who previously worked in politics and journalism — said he didn’t want to appear “relentlessly negative.” “The progress of human rights is certainly not a linear progression, and we have seen that,” he said. “There was definite progression from the late ’70s until the early years of this century. And we’ve now seen very much the counter-tendency of the last few years.”

He pointed to the fact that in the past eight years or so, many countries have adopted laws designed to restrict the funding and activities of nongovernmental organizations, especially human rights NGOs. And he alleged that powerful U.N. member states stop human rights officials from speaking in the Security Council, while China and some other members “go to extraordinary lengths to prevent human rights defenders (from) entering the (U.N.) building even, let alone participate in the meetings.”…..

The rights of women and gays are also at stake, Gilmour said. He said nationalist authoritarian populist leaders such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have made “derogatory comments” about both groups. He said the U.S. is “aggressively pushing” back against women’s reproductive rights both at home and abroad. The result, he said, is that countries fearful of losing U.S. aid are cutting back their work on women’s rights. Gilmour also pointed out a report issued in September that cited 48 countries for punishing human rights defenders who have cooperated with the U.N. [See: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/12/10/andrew-gilmour-in-the-financial-times-about-reprisals/]

I feel that we really need to do more — everybody … to defend those courageous defenders,” he said. Gilmour said the U.N. should also stand up when it comes to major violations of international law and major violations of human rights, but “I have found it extremely difficult to do so in all circumstances.

..Gilmour said that after his departure from the U.N, he will take a fellowship at Oxford’s All Souls College, where he will focus on the importance of uniting human rights and environmental rights groups. “The human rights impact of climate change — it’s going to be so monumental,” he said.

What gives me hope as we start a new decade is that there will be a surge in youth activism that will help people to get courage, and to stand up for what they believe in,” he said.

https://apnews.com/1d7e80128857308743224aaaf28cd5f8

“to the streets” – the new battlecry of the human rights movement?

December 22, 2019

The Economist of 14 November 2019 contains a timely article on “Economics, demography and social media only partly explain the protests roiling so many countries today“. Two pieces published more or less simultaneously this month go into this question in relation to the human rights movement. Is #TakeToTheStreets the ‘new’ tool for human rights defenders?

The first is by Cate Brown in Open Democracy of 11 December “The era of state mobilization is over: Welcome to the streets”, – ss civilian protesters take to the streets to demand their rights, human rights leaders consider a future of citizen-led activism.

Protestors in Hong Kong gather against emergency anti-mask legislation, passed in response to months of demonstrations. Photo: Etan Liam/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

States are no longer trusted as representatives of popular interests or reliable guarantors of human rights, even in democracies. In response, civilian protesters have flooded the streets of major global capitals to demand immediate government action.

In Baku, demonstrators rallied for their right to assembly. In Beirut, citizens are calling for an end to government corruption. In Baghdad, protesters demand electoral reform, despite the deadly response of Iraqi security forces. In Santiago, dissent against a four percent increase in metro fares became a rallying cry for larger social reforms. And in Hong Kong, citizens have vowed to make ‘weekday chaos’ the new normal, adapting their tactics after six months of unanswered calls for political autonomy. Search the trending hashtag #TakeToTheStreets and you’ll find citizen-led anti-Trump and anti-Brexit movements in the United States and the UK. Search the #GiletsJaunes and you’ll find France’s infamous Yellow Vest movement celebrating their protest anniversary one year on.

…..quick concessions have failed to quiet broader calls for political reform. Instead, the single-issue protest movements have metastasized, gained momentum, and demonstrated staying power in the streets. Social media videos, like clips of Madi Karimeh, Lebanon’s ‘DJ of the Revolution’, or of the 170,000-person human chain linking protesters from Lebanon’s northern capital in Tripoli to its southern capital in Tyre, have helped build a sense of unity and vision among city-level protest movements…“Citizens are again claiming their rights in the streets, but there’s an important difference this year,” says Blavatnik School Professor of Practice of Public Integrity Chris Stone. “Citizen protesters are asking a new question: can we create a notion of rights enforcement that doesn’t depend on states?” It’s important for human rights organizations to consider this question. For years, the human rights movement has relied on parallel actions by frontline human rights defenders and global advocacy organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Frontline activists have played a central role in documenting incidents of abuse, convening civil society and amplifying messages across social networks. Groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International then strengthened their campaigns with rigorous investigation and documentation, and provided an important bridge to pliable state leaders and UN representatives.

But with a cadre of autocratic leaders like Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or populist leaders like US President Donald Trump, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro leading some of the world’s most influential states, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth suggests a tactical pivot towards nontraditional human rights allies and coalitions of smaller or midsize states.

“We used to look towards Geneva, New York, DC, and Brussels,” confirms a senior researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), “But the allies that we used to take for granted are no longer there.” Without reliable allies at the state level, the fundamental architecture of the human rights movement could be forced to change. “We need to invest in networks that are more grassroots-oriented,” continues the EIPR research lead, speaking on account of anonymity. “Local networks will help us diversify our allies and introduce us to arenas of mobilization that the Egyptian human rights movement knows nothing about.”

My generation of millennial protestors needs to recognize this opportunity: in the absence of reliable state allies, global rights organizations are ready to partner with us. Of course, groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have always worked with frontlines activists, but young civilian protesters may have a new opportunity to lead the way.

First, protesters need to invest in relationships that will strengthen their movements and amplify their demands. Next, protesters must look beyond the trending hashtags and the size of the crowds in the street: In a 2017 op-ed, Turkish scholar Zeynep Tufekci, author of Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, warns that social media networks may make it much easier to pull off a large protest than it used to be, but “the significance of a protest depends on what happens afterwards.”

Protesters gathered in Beirut, Baghdad, Santiago, Port au Prince, Barcelona and Hong Kong must organize their crowds and identify next steps for collective action. With an agenda in hand, international rights organizations can extend their support. And together, we can push for more participatory, safe and inclusive states. For now, the hashtag #TakeToTheStreets is still trending. We’ll see how far people-power can go.

https://www.openglobalrights.org/era-of-state-mobilization-is-over-welcome-to-the-streets/

—–

The second piece is by in Foreign Policy in Focus of 10 December 2019: “As the Decade Closes, the Power of Protest Endures” –Despite the dashed hopes of the early 2010s, social movements are still winning important fights — and building a framework for human survival.

..as we mark the final Human Rights Day of this decade, we are ending the way we began — in the streets. In Hong Kong, Nicaragua, in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Iran, and elsewhere, people have been on the march, facing bullets, beatings, and prison to demand an end to repressive and unaccountable government, to reject corrupt elites, and secure their rights. Are they naïve? Or do they know something important and powerful?

And what of the lawyers and communities challenging injustice in court, the investigators building meticulous records of human rights crimes, the journalists dragging into public view the buried facts, the advocates and activists pressuring and cajoling governments, companies, and other powerful actors to defend human dignity? They persist because they know the power of protest and resistance, and the efficacy of the human rights ideal, even if the tally of the past decade offers little encouragement.

From 2010 through 2012, protest movements swept across Iran and much of the Arab world. But in 2019, Tunisia stands alone among the countries of the Arab Spring in making the transition to democracy, and among its neighbors renewed repression and brutal wars have followed the uprisings. Hundreds of thousands have died, millions have been injured, and tens-of-millions have been displaced. The cost in lives, resources, and squandered potential is incalculable. Ten years ago, the smart phones and social platforms that helped to enable the protests were celebrated as vectors of positive change, opening avenues for speech and organizing beyond the control of authoritarian governments. They are now more often seen as fueling division, empowering surveillance, invading our privacy, and eviscerating the economic underpinnings of a free press.

Those who have sought refuge from obliterating violence and repression have met a rising tide of xenophobia, as politicians long confined to the margins of power ride a narrative of cultural, economic, and security threat, often focused on Muslims, refugees, LGBT people — anyone  seen as the “other” — to its center. They have sometimes been buoyed by hyper-partisan and often fraudulent media operations.

In the world’s biggest democracies — India, Brazil and the United States — the gravest threats to human rights and democracy come from elected presidents who openly praise dictators, demonize minorities, and undercut the rule of law, putting vulnerable populations at even greater risk. It would be easy to make a longer list of reversals: the promise of South Sudan, newly independent in 2011, now mired in war; Myanmar, where the pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has emerged as an apologist for ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity; Tanzania, where the media and civil society face ever tighter controls, arrests, and killings. And in Russia, a protest movement in 2011 held out hope for change, but instead Vladimir Putin increased his grip domestically, and enhanced his influence globally. Perhaps nowhere exemplifies the retreat more starkly than China, where once some Western analysts breezily promised that rising prosperity would bring progress on human rights and democracy. Instead, President Xi Jinping has put the fruits of development to work to build an algorithmically enhanced authoritarianism unrivaled in the scope of its ambition for control.

And yet. The protesters taking to the streets in Lebanon and elsewhere are not looking to a global scoresheet and calculating their chances. They are demonstrating that power without legitimacy can be checked in local struggles rooted in the demand for accountability, and ultimately for human rights. Ethiopia’s initial opening toward greater democratic space under President Abiy Ahmed tells us that some leaders appear to have learned this lesson, despite the crowing autocrats on the world stage.

And it isn’t only in street protest or in national struggle that we see the tools and values of human rights successfully at work. The millions of women and girls who bravely stepped forward to publicly shared their stories in response  to Tarana Burke’s #MeToo call built a global movement demanding an end to sexual violence. Persistent journalists turned accounts of Harvey Weinstein’s predation from Hollywood gossip into international news, and across the world, investigative reporting exposed the misogynistic abuses of other powerful figures.

They did so in the face of a U.S. president whose misogyny is proudly on display. Trade unions and women’s rights groups successfully fought for a new international treaty protecting against violence and harassment at work. Unevenly perhaps, but unstoppably, court cases, new regulations, a resetting of workplace norms, and sustained activism are creating new protections for women’s basic right to be free of harassment and violence. Spurred by litigation, culture change, and legislators responding to social movements, the rights of LGBT people are expanding around the world. A rearguard action by opponents in Russia and the United States decrying “gender ideology” and battling the spread of both women’s reproductive rights and LGBT rights is meeting both energized defense, and deep shifts in public opinion.

In a thousand smaller struggles, the embedding of human rights standards in domestic and international law is helping to bring the perpetrators of war crimes to justice, to secure land and environmental rights for communities threatened by development, and forcing companies to respect their human rights responsibilities. Local human rights defenders around the world don’t rely solely on the courage of their own conviction, or even the force of local law, rooted in their own experience, cultures and struggles, they are also part of a global ecosystem of shared norms, institutions, strategic collaboration, and communication that forms a resilient mesh that should be fostered and sustained. …

But a new global social movement is growing, in schools and on the streets. And existing norms around water, health, humanitarian disasters, and livelihoods offer a rich framework for building the accountability that is needed to spur action from wanton governments and companies. If we are back where we started the decade, we know the task, we have the tools — and like the protesters, we know the value of sticking to it.

Rescuing Human Rights – another way of re-assessing human rights

November 17, 2019

I wrote abut Hurst Hannum’s book ‘Rescuing Human Rights’ earlier [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/04/20/hurst-hannum-wants-a-radically-moderate-approach-to-human-rights/]. On 30 July 2019, Peter Splinter wrote for ISHR a book review “Rescuing Human Rights – Making the case for a reassessment of the scope of human rights advocacy”

 
Hurst Hannum, Rescuing Human Rights: A Radically Moderate Approach, Cambridge University Press, 2019. 223 pp.

Hannum argues the case for a hard-headed reassessment of what human rights are and what they can achieve, done with the aim of preventing unrealistic expansion or overreach that undermines their legitimacy and universal acceptance.

Hannum expresses a firm conviction in the durable value of human rights. He brings to Rescuing Human Rights a lifetime of rich and diverse experiences as an observer, teacher and practitioner of human rights in numerous capacities and settings. While conservative, Hannum’s thesis does not hark back to a golden age of human rights. He recognises that human rights law has evolved and will continue to evolve. He also accepts that “pushing the envelope of human rights norms may sometimes be a legitimate [advocacy] tactic.”

Hannum’s principal concern is with human rights ‘overreach’ – efforts to resolve contentious political issues by trying to make them into technical human rights matters that they are not. He is not a fan of a widespread inclination to advocate for human rights of the next good cause.

“Attempting to regulate ever more narrow slices of life under ever more diverse circumstances through promoting new human rights runs a serious risk of undermining both the legitimacy of human rights and their universality. The result may be to simply expand the number of rights that are routinely ignored rather than to bring real help to those whose rights, no matter how narrowly construed, are already being violated.” (p. 79)

He perceives that human rights activism based on an expansive concept of rights as the primary means to effect domestic social and political change is feeding a global backlash against human rights. He is concerned that this will undermine the legitimacy and effectiveness of human rights advocacy to protect universally recognised rights, which “facilitate the development and influence of other socio-economic-political-moral change agents in ways that are likely to respond to the needs of most people of the world.” (p. 10) While acknowledging that human rights are inherently political, as they constrain government behaviour, Hannum suggests that the more that human rights advocacy approximates politics, the less rights will be able to effectively set the boundaries for the open, inclusive, democratic politics required to effectively address major contemporary social, political and economic issues by ensuring that political decision-making takes account of the needs and preferences of all relevant parts of society.

“This book is an appeal for radical moderation, which values and promotes human rights norms without distorting or deifying them. …  Underlying many of the book’s arguments is the belief that human rights cannot provide dispositive answers to all of the world’s problems, although they may be a necessary precondition for resolving many of them.” (p. 157)

Rescuing Human Rights focusses on human rights as universal legal norms embodied in public international law, particularly universal and regional treaties. Hannum assumes a universal consensus over the core content and legitimacy of most human rights. He distinguishes human rights from moral and political standards, while acknowledging their complementarity as forces that shape societies.

While Rescuing Human Rights discusses human rights primarily as they are shaped and invoked at the international level, Hannum emphasises that they are applied in national contexts where the relationship of the State and rights-holders is played out. Human rights promotion and protection are essentially a national project that is shaped and constrained by national governments’ voluntary acceptance of universal legally binding human rights standards. An important chapter is devoted to arguing for flexibility in the application and prioritisation of human rights norms on the grounds that universality is not uniformity. This recognition points to the need for further examination of Hannum’s thesis in specific national contexts. Are the dangers of human rights expansion and overreach at the international level mirrored by developments at the national level in individual countries?

Rescuing Human Rights focusses largely on what human rights are not and should not be made out to be. Hannum’s thesis would also benefit from further exploration of how human rights can be used better to contribute to efforts to address major contemporary social, economic and political issues at the international and national levels. If one accepts that human rights cannot determine the outcomes for issues such as development, climate change and corruption, then what are the contributions that specific rights make in specific contexts to political, economic, cultural, moral and technological efforts to meet those and other challenges? Any recalibrating of human rights promotion and advocacy in accordance with the approach Hannum proposes would benefit from robust exploration of the important contributions that human rights do and can make, such as ensuring that climate change policies are developed in consultation with representatives of all persons whose rights might be affected and have regard to their human rights impacts, including for the most marginalised communities and groups.

Today, while human rights are increasingly invoked in connection with efforts to address a growing range of global and national challenges, they are also increasingly flouted or questioned in many parts of the world. This includes in some countries where until recently human rights appeared largely beyond challenge. Many governments are demonstrating a renewed brazenness in violating their international human rights obligations. In many countries, there is widespread apathy, popular disillusionment and even hostility for human rights. This current state of human rights has led to calls from civil society organisations, academics, governments and inter-governmental organisations for urgent stocktaking about what is to be done to defend and reinforce the post-1945 human rights achievement. Some call into question the human rights project, and others call for its reinvention. Some appeal to humanity’s better angels, and others buckle down on business as usual. Some pursue novel organisational approaches to human rights advocacy, and others look to human rights to provide solutions for ever more matters of concern.

The way forward is not clear. However, Hannum’s lucid argument for greater focus and humility in recourse to human rights and his call for the recalibration of the scope of human rights advocacy should form part of any discussion about the future of human rights. Rescuing Human Rights merits reading and reflection by all who study, defend or promote human rights.

Peter Splinter is an international human rights consultant and was Amnesty International’s Representative in Geneva from 2004 to 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @pgsplinter.

http://www.ishr.ch/news/book-review-i-rescuing-human-rights-making-case-reassessment-scope-human-rights-advocacy

Carnegie paper: international community must redouble efforts to defend human rights defenders

October 22, 2019

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace pubished on 22 October 2019 a working paper by Saskia Brechenmacher and Thomas Carothers entitled “Democracy,Defending Civic Space: Is the International Community Stuck?”. It concludes that as space for civil society continues to close, the international community must redouble its efforts to defend the right of human rights defenders to hold governments around the world accountable. The Executive Summary:

Civic Space Continues to Close

Since the mid-2000s, civic space has come under attack in many countries around the world. To counter this trend, transnational actors that support civil society have responded in many ways—from exerting diplomatic pressure and building international norms to providing emergency funds for activists. Despite these efforts, governments continue to impose legal and extralegal restrictions amid a worsening larger political environment for civil society. Closing civic space now appears to be just one part of a much broader pattern of democratic recession and authoritarian resurgence. The international response seems stuck: some useful efforts have been undertaken, but they appear too limited, loosely focused, and reactive.

Areas of Progress in the International Response

  • Research and knowledge dissemination: Timely information about civil society restrictions and overall trends is now widely available. Funders, policymakers, and relevant multilateral organizations are generally more aware of the problem; some actors have carried out internal strategic reviews and trainings to strengthen their programmatic and policy responses.
  • Support for local resistance and adaptation: Major funders have established or expanded emergency funds for persecuted rights activists and organizations. Some have also initiated programs to help civic actors adapt to regulatory, political, and legal pressures, while some have examined ways to offer more flexible funding. Several new transnational coalitions and initiatives have been set up to share lessons and lead joint campaigns.
  • Diplomatic pressure and international policy changes: Western governments have sometimes applied pressure on countries that are closing civic space, and they have supported advocacy in international bodies such as the United Nations. Civil society advocates have successfully pushed for reforms to harmful counterterrorism regulations, and some have begun engaging private sector actors on the importance of protecting civic space.

Factors Limiting the International Response

  • Lack of conceptual and strategic clarity: Ongoing confusion over the root causes of closing civic space impedes efforts to develop a more unified strategy. Diverse actors disagree on whether tackling the challenge will require addressing the global political backlash against progressive causes or the overall global democratic recession, or whether a more focused approach would be more effective.
  • Countervailing interests: Most Western governments still do not strongly prioritize closing civic space in their foreign policy agendas. They often refrain from escalating diplomatic pressure on repressive governments for fear of damaging their geopolitical, security, or economic interests. The loss of U.S. leadership on the issue has been particularly damaging.
  • Closing space at home: Civic space is now under threat in many established democracies, and the international repercussions are profound. Western governments that lash out against domestic critics are less likely to speak out against civil society restrictions abroad, and they have less credibility when they do so. Their actions also set a negative example for leaders in other parts of the world.
  • Inadequate scale: The resources committed to fighting the problem have been insufficient. Funders have also generally failed to embed their responses into a broader strategic framework. Explanations include a weak appetite for political risk among funders, the cross-cutting nature of the problem, and a lack of clarity on what a large-scale response might look like.
  • Working in silos: Weak coordination and information sharing between different parts of the assistance community persist. Obstacles include the diverging policy and organizational interests within and between governments, as well as divisions in the wider funder community, including between human rights organizations and development and humanitarian actors.
  • Struggles to change aid practices: Implementing far-reaching changes in aid practices has proven difficult, due to bureaucratic inertia, risk aversion, and narrower methods of monitoring and evaluation.
  • Chasing a moving target: The problem of closing space continues to evolve quickly, which makes it difficult for the international community to anticipate new openings and threats. For example, international actors have been slow to react to the spread of new technological tools for restricting civic space online and offline.

Policy Recommendations

  • Develop a strategic framework that links closing civic space to other key foreign policy challenges, articulates a positive vision of civic space globally, and offers tailored tactical guidance. Such a strategy should differentiate short-, medium-, and long-term priorities and distinguish between different types of political contexts.
  • Improve foreign policy alignment by issuing specific guidance on defending civic space to embassies, systematically integrating the issue into diplomatic training and senior leadership briefings, designating a senior official to spearhead interagency coordination on civic space–related issues, and amplifying the voices of civil society actors, particularly in restrictive contexts.
  • Avoid setting negative precedents by ensuring that domestic legislation does not threaten civic space. Nongovernmental actors should build cross-border alliances to share knowledge and resources, engage lawmakers in established democracies who stigmatize civil society, and champion transparency and accountability in internal practices and external partnerships.
  • Bolster coordination among concerned transnational actors by evaluating existing mechanisms, investing in new platforms or tools for information sharing and institutional learning, expanding country-level networks, and forging new partnerships between governmental and private funders.
  • Adjust funding practices to ensure a balance between support for long-term institution- building and catalytic funding, and track how much funding goes directly to local organizations as core versus project support. Funders should continue to expand flexible funding strategies for hostile environments, work with intermediaries that can reach a wider range of partners, and reduce grantees’ administrative burdens.
  • Anticipate new opportunities and threats by, for example, monitoring and recognizing examples of positive reform, developing targeted roadmaps that identify opportunities and flashpoints in collaboration with embassies or local partners, and investing in technological know-how.

For the full text of this working paper, see: https://carnegieendowment.org/files/WP_Brechenmacker_Carothers_Civil_Space_FINAL.pdf

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/05/05/civil-society-and-human-rights-ngos-are-fighting-back-but-against-odds/ and https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/02/21/amnesty-launches-report-on-laws-designed-to-silence-human-rights-defenders/

https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/10/22/defending-civic-space-is-international-community-stuck-pub-80110

More re-thinking and ‘shrinking’ of the modern human rights concept

September 8, 2019

I have referred to the issue of re-visiting the human rights concept – which keeps popping up especially when there is a sense of malaise – by several strands of thought within the human rights movement. Some think the answer is to broaden the base and the scope even more [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/08/05/amnesty-internationals-global-assembly-2019-deserves-more-attention-big-shifts-coming-up/]; others think a re-think is in order but those range from Trump’s State Department [[https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/07/11/trump-marches-on-with-commission-on-unalienable-rights/] to moderate academics [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/04/20/hurst-hannum-wants-a-radically-moderate-approach-to-human-rights/].

In a opinion piece in Foreign Policy of 6 September 2019 entitled “When Everything Is a Human Right, Nothing Is”  – a Lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Senior Adviser for the Institute for Integrated Transitions – shows he belongs to the latter category albeit with a strong dose of return to basics (return to the UDHR) and a whiff of cultural relativism:

.. given the myriad challenges to human rights today, rethinking some widely accepted human rights assumptions seems timely. …

Some disagreements over human rights come from repressive regimes or communal leaders, and such complaints are easy to dismiss. But when critiques come from people who are sympathetic to the cause of human rights, they reflect something more fundamentally troubling. How did an idea once powerful enough to unify a vast range of people in struggles against totalitarianism and apartheid become so impotent? A major factor, ironically, was the overweening dual ambition born of those successes. Human rights advocates have broadened the scope of issues covered by human rights while narrowing the room for differences in bringing those rights to life. In so doing, they misconstrue the original goals of human rights, most clearly embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the foundation for much of the post-1945 rights project. Even as their ambitions rise, human rights activists have failed to take into account how expansive new programs might aggravate suspicion of human rights in today’s multipolar world. And attempts to enforce a uniform conception of rights might reduce the space for local actors to formulate their own pathways, fueling skepticism about the rights themselves. For example, attempts by Western countries to promote gay rights in Africa triggered deep-rooted resentment about how the West treats Africa; the results are tougher laws, stronger rhetoric, more funding of anti-gay rights organizations, and even greater harassment of activists. As the New York Times reported, “More Africans came to believe that gay rights were a Western imposition.”

Non-Western countries do not necessarily disagree with basic human rights goals. Rather, as the Brazilian academic Oliver Stuenkel argues in his book Post-Western World, they contest the “operationalization of liberal norms” and “the implicit and explicit hierarchies of international institutions” that privilege Western countries. U.S. retrenchment in the Middle East and the rise of authoritarian states like China reduce the effective reach of ideas that are stretched too thin or that are not credibly universal, in the sense of being deeply grounded in all the world’s major philosophical and religious systems. And curtailing overly expansionist and revisionist aspirations, as Jennifer Lind and William C. Wohlforth recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, is essential to preserving the post-World War II liberal international order.

If advocates for human rights wish to overcome the current challenges, they would do well to learn from the course of the human rights project from ideal to reality in the wake of World War II. The framers of the Universal Declaration learned that the best way to build a system of rights with a strong claim to legitimacy across different cultures and ideologies was to stick to basics. Today, only a modest and flexible approach can restore the moral authority that gave the universal human rights idea its greatest successes.

The 1948 Universal Declaration was a product of intense debate, negotiation, and compromise, all done with the understanding that its principles could be brought to life differently in dissimilar parts of the world. Today’s human rights discourse, however, is pervaded by Western normative assumptions that are controversial even in the West. Westerners play an extraordinarily large role as funders and conveners of human rights organizations and scholarly debates, directly and indirectly shaping agendas, frameworks of analysis, and evaluation methods in the process. As a result, human rights have become, as the New York University professor Sally Engle Merry writes in Human Rights and Gender Violence, “part of a distinctive modernist vision of the good and just society that emphasizes autonomy, choice, equality, secularism, and protection of the body,” converting cultural norms from one part of the world into universal rights.

Consequently, nonindividualistic values—such as those promoting communal duties or those tied to religious belief—have been de-emphasized. Arguments that there are other means of promoting and ensuring human dignity are dismissed as unrealistic or ignored. African, Asian, and other non-Western human rights institutions and laws are marginalized.

Meanwhile, the number of rights, and rights claims, has risen steeply as various well-meaning special interest groups have sought to harness the moral authority of the human rights idea to their causes. The international legal infrastructure has been enlarged, producing institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) and doctrines such as the “Responsibility to Protect,” but these focus mainly on geopolitically weak or unimportant—10 of the 11 situations under investigation at the ICC are African—countries, while governments such as Syria’s commit atrocities with little fear of prosecution or intervention because Russia, one of its two main international backers, undermines any attempt to hold the country’s leaders accountable.

The human rights field’s ambitions not only have produced unnecessary clashes over human rights, but they have also diminished the core rights that were meant to, above all else, uphold human dignity.

In Europe, for example, advocates for abolishing circumcision have argued that a child’s bodily integrity is a human right while attempting to reduce religious freedom to a mere right to worship. This has led government ombudspersons to call for a ban, pediatric societies to call the practice “mutilation,” the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to pass a resolution against the practice, political parties to lobby for legislation outlawing the practice, and a court in Germany to rule that the act of circumcision should be considered a prosecutable physical assault. For devout Jews and Muslims, these developments feel like direct attacks on a ritual integral to their faiths.

In Asia, instead of welcoming the 2012 Human Rights Declaration by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as representing some important steps forward, organizations such as Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the U.S. State Department criticized the document for differing from their preferred emphases. Even though it included all the civil and political rights that similar documents elsewhere have—as well as innovative provisions related to those with AIDS, childbearing mothers, human trafficking, vulnerable groups, and children—these groups objected to the declaration’s emphasis that rights must be balanced with duties and that realization of rights has to take into account the local political and cultural context. But it is precisely the regional flavor that is most likely to increase the ASEAN declaration’s legitimacy—and thus the chance that it will be embraced locally.

In Africa, select issues that concern Western countries are often promoted in ways that pay little heed to local conditions, provoking a backlash. In Kenya, international attempts to prosecute Uhuru Kenyatta for fueling ethnic violence after the 2007 election ignored how this would boost his popularity among his supporters—helping him to eventual victory in the 2013 elections.

The mindset currently prevailing among many human rights actors thus makes it extremely difficult to realize the aim of the Universal Declaration’s framers to promote the implementation of fundamental human rights principles under a variety of circumstances and cultures. The result has been to reduce both the effectiveness and appeal of those principles. Human rights organizations are less able to embed themselves within local cultures and gain legitimacy in the eyes of local people. Greater flexibility in implementation would enable human rights supporters to focus on the importance of political dynamics and incentives to promoting change within countries. For example, the end of white rule in South Africa was brought about not by threatening apartheid leaders with international justice but by first sanctioning and then offering incentives for leaders to transfer power. Reconciliation and truth commissions played prominent roles; retribution was limited. The country crafted a new, inclusive national identity and developed a constitution around existing institutions, a stark contrast to efforts in Iraq and Libya that tried to replace institutions and exclude members of the previous regime.

The human rights movement should refocus on the principles of the Universal Declaration—a document more praised than understood. Its drafters developed a framework for human rights that was both universal and flexible. Their aim was to establish a “common standard of achievement,” based on the “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”

This would entail recognizing that in a world of great cultural and political diversity, human rights cannot be universal unless kept to a small core of rights so fundamental that almost no country would openly oppose them.

In the original Universal Declaration, only a handful were drafted in such a way as to leave little room for flexibility in implementation. These include protections for religion and conscience, as well as prohibitions against genocide; slavery; torture; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; retroactive penal measures; deportation or forcible transfer of population; and discrimination based on race, color, sex, language, religion, nationality, or social origin. Today, many human rights treaties make these rights nonderogable—i.e., there are no circumstances under which they can be lifted or suspended. Where other rights are concerned, the framers of the Universal Declaration were clear that universality does not mean homogeneity in implementation. They expected states to experiment with different modes of implementation—to allow “different kinds of music” to be “played on the same keyboard,” as the French philosopher Jacques Maritain, who supported the U.N. process, put it. Indeed, Eleanor Roosevelt made clear in 1948 during one of the debates over the Universal Declaration that methods for implementing many rights “would necessarily vary from one country to another and such variations should be considered not only inevitable but salutary.” For example, individuals everywhere have the right to be free of torture, but different countries may legitimately come to different conclusions about when private property may be taken for public use.

Moreover, in resolving tensions among rights, no fundamental right should be completely ignored. By specifying that all rights must be exercised with due respect for the rights of others, the framers intended that clashes should be occasions to figure out how to give each right as much protection as possible while never subordinating any right completely to another. Ultimately, a culture of human rights can only be built from the bottom up. Focusing on the gravest violations of human dignity while understanding that other rights can be protected in a legitimate variety of ways is the best way to achieve this.

https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/06/when-everything-is-a-human-right-nothing-is/