Human rights are in your hands

10 Dec 2014
Author: Robert Precht

                                      Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948. You too can become a protector.

 

Justice Labs' mission is to empower individuals to create their own public interest projects rather than relying on exisiting organizations or governments to act. We have an online startup school and a faculty of distinguished mentors to help you start new organizations or develop short-term projects that can improve lives. The following article, by Hong Kong City University professor Surya Deva is very much in keeping with our philosophy. Prof. Deva makes the point that all of us, individually and personally, have a responsibility to enforce human rights norms.

Individuals are not merely bearers of human rights. They should also act as active protectors of their rights. It is worth remembering that the universal declaration expects that "every individual and every organ of society" shall strive to promote respect for human rights. This sentiment might also have underpinned the message of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for Human Rights 365 when he called "on people to hold their governments to account".

However, if people are to play a central role in ensuring that various state organs respect human rights, an environment suitable for their bottom-up engagement has to be created. If formal institutions do not create such space and continue to trample on human rights, people will have no option but to challenge state power.

Justice Labs aspires to be such an environment, enabling people at a grassroots level to create projects that protect human rights. Send us your ideas in our online Application and become a protector today. 

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Responsibility for the protection of human rights is in our hands 

by Surya Deva

On December 10, 1948, the world took an important and decisive step in adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a "common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations". To commemorate this milestone, in 1950, the UN General Assembly proclaimed December 10 as Human Rights Day. The theme for this year is "Human Rights 365", which encompasses the idea that human rights are relevant for everyone, every day.

Despite the adoption of a plethora of international human rights instruments since 1948, and the incorporation of such rights into constitutions as well as national laws, the realisation of human rights is still a dream for many people. Millions are forced to work in slavery-like conditions, child labour and violence against women are rampant in many parts of the world, human trafficking is not uncommon and the persecution of human rights defenders and political opponents remains a concern. Added to all this, armed conflicts continue to turn people into refugees, minorities still face many forms of discrimination, millions lack access to basic survival needs, and corporate exploitation of natural resources is resulting in environmental pollution as well as forced displacement of indigenous populations.

The human rights project faces many challenges. First, although states are obligated to respect, protect and fulfil human rights, they are part of the reason why these rights are not being realised. In many situations, states themselves are violators and, therefore, expecting them to safeguard human rights is unrealistic.

To resolve this apparent conflict of interest, we stress the importance of having the rule of law, separation of powers, an independent judiciary and a free media. But, in reality, it has not been possible to assemble these power-controlling mechanisms in many nations.

A related challenge is posed by the Westphalian notion of sovereignty. A majority of nations do not like the idea of other states or international institutions pointing fingers at human rights violations within their territory. This mindset has not allowed the establishment of robust international mechanisms of accountability similar to those found in the arena of international trade or investment law. Consequently, when countries are unwilling to protect human rights, or incapable of doing so, abuses largely go unaddressed.

Third, since human rights are often invoked to serve political or foreign policy goals, they are pressed into service selectively. States, for example, ignore violations perpetuated by their allies. When human rights become a matter of political (in)convenience, their legitimacy in reflecting common universal values is undermined.

Fourth, because of the power enjoyed by the currency of human rights, their language is invoked to further any kind of personal interests. The overproduction of human rights tends to devalue their importance. Moreover, the excessive focus on individual rights means that adequate attention is not given to fulfilling one's responsibilities of equally important collective societal goals.

Fifth, both recognition and implementation of human rights is not adequately inclusive. The lack of recognition of the rights of sexual minorities is a case in point. In terms of having access to enforcement remedies, "haves" are better placed than "have-nots". State institutions also tend to allocate more resources to realising the rights of advantaged sections of society.

Sixth, corruption undermines the realisation of human rights in several ways. Apart from the misappropriation of funds meant to fulfil these rights, corruption can undermine the legitimacy of institutions entrusted to adjudicate human rights disputes. Corruption can also open the door for powerful private actors to exert their influence on states to seek economic favours.

Last but not least, the rise of China as a new world power will have implications for how human rights norms are interpreted and enforced in future. Both Western powers and China will have to adapt to this new reality. It is noteworthy that Chang Peng Chun, a Chinese academic and diplomat, played a critical role in drafting the universal declaration. Leaders are expected to lead from the front so China will find it more and more difficult to ignore the universal value of human rights and hide behind shields of sovereignty and "Chinese characteristics".

Many steps could be taken to overcome all these challenges. But one single thing can make the biggest difference: people playing a vigilant role, both individually and collectively, to hold nations accountable.

Individuals are not merely bearers of human rights. They should also act as active protectors of their rights. It is worth remembering that the universal declaration expects that "every individual and every organ of society" shall strive to promote respect for human rights. This sentiment might also have underpinned the message of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for Human Rights 365 when he called "on people to hold their governments to account".

However, if people are to play a central role in ensuring that various state organs respect human rights, an environment suitable for their bottom-up engagement has to be created. If formal institutions do not create such space and continue to trample on human rights, people will have no option but to challenge state power.

Are governments all over the world listening to mass public protests? They ought to, before it's too late.

Surya Deva, an associate professor at City University's School of Law, specialises in business and human rights, and comparative constitutional law. Reprinted from the South China Morning Post, December 9, 2014.