How important are human rights?

13 January 2019

How important are human rights?

It's no coincidence that well-informed journalists such as Bas Heijne and Hella Hueck are drawing attention to the damage which has been done in recent decades by the sacred belief in the market, the way in which people feel insecure, rejected and in competition with everyone else, a struggle which they think they will lose. It's time therefore to look for the tools to give people hope of a victory. In this context could the international human rights treaties add another strand, obliging everyone to take account of the interests of others? My answer is that they could not exactly do this, but they could certainly help.

Neoliberals are also extremely attached to human rights, but their emphasis is on the individual. They have far less to say about social human rights, though it is precisely these rights which are under heavy pressure in the EU as well as in the Netherlands – the right to strike, for example, but also the rights to a decent income, adequate housing, education and health care. If these rights were at last taken seriously, there would be hope. The Legal Affairs Committee of the European Parliament voted last week to support my proposal that the European Social Charter, a binding treaty of the Council of Europe (which as well as the EU has almost all European countries as members), should at last be taken seriously.

This would mean that before the European Commission puts forward economic proposals, it would have to consider their social consequences. The Greek government recently got a rap on the knuckles from the Council of Europe when, under pressure from the Eurogroup, the chair of which was former Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, imposed draconian cuts in pensions. In the whole range of budget fetishism, there has never been any place for respect for human rights. As long as we are still unable to shake off the yoke of European control of national budgets, the least that can be demanded is that all proposals are tested against their social consequences.

The same goes for the trade treaties. The latest proposal is for a treaty with Vietnam. Not only is the human rights situation in that country below the acceptable standard, but such a treaty opens the door to further exploitation. What guarantees are built into the text that trade conducted under the terms of this treaty would be fair trade, and that such a treat would not put the position of Vietnamese workers under further pressure? The European Parliament shares my view that in the future effective reporting must be established which takes account of all human rights and recognises the responsibility of EU-based corporations for their activities in other parts of the world.

Unbridled marketisation cannot suddenly be got rid of with human rights, but if workers can strike, if people can call on their rights to demand not to be exploited – and succeed in that demand - if you have decent health care and education and can demand an adequate wage, then human rights would certainly be capable of strengthening the power of the 90%. That's why the vote in the Legal Affairs Committee was important. Of course, it doesn't have the force of law, but it gives hope – hope that it's possible to put an end to neoliberalism's hegemony.

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