Human rights for everyone?

10 December 2017

Human rights for everyone?

Today is the International Day of Human Rights. And yesterday was the International Anti-Corruption Day. These may not have made front page news, and yet they are important, especially now human rights are being undermined from all sides and corruption is rampant. I'll always carry on resisting those who argue that human rights are a western or liberal invention. But as well as being universal, human rights are indivisible. Social rights go hand in hand with classic human rights: they depend on each other, a fact often forgotten in the west.

In 1948 negotiators in the United Nations reached agreement on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Seventy-one years on it's now fashionable in some circles to say that the Declaration was after all mainly a western idea. That is certainly not the case. Both communist and Islamic countries were on board. It's merely government leaders in countries which themselves abuse human rights who are attempting to frame the Declaration as representing 'western' human rights norms.

It's precisely because in the UN the entire global community was involved in establishing the many human rights treaties which followed the Universal Declaration, that they have not remained limited to rights which protect you against the state – the 'classic' human rights – but instead extend to duties imposed upon the state to ensure that everyone can lead a dignified life, including in relation to social rights. It is the combination of freedoms and rights upon which everyone can call which make human rights so valuable. Corruption is one way in which social rights are violated. You might well have the right to health care, but when in order to access that right you have to slip the doctor a 'consideration', if you're poor the right itself can mean little. The same goes, by the way, if as in the Netherlands you have to cough up €385 in what are known as 'own risk' payments, but that's another story. Or if you have a right to an education, but when you want a good grade you have to bribe the teacher. Corruption in such cases is a direct assault on human rights.

Last week I took part in a conference on the struggle against corruption. What impressed me was that the NGOs present were demanding that the EU authorities get out of their comfort zone and out into Europe, looking to involve people everywhere in this fight. The same can be said when it comes to human rights. Countless organisations are involved, but how many people are aware that today is the International Day of Human Rights? And how many contribute to the struggle? Human rights belong to all of us, wherever we are in the world. Because of that they are not only to be valued today, but defended throughout the year, not only by the intelligentsia, but by everyone.

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