Monday 12 April 2021

World Human Rights Today


World Human Rights Today

 Last week (April 9, 2021) a reporter in Pakistan named Hammad Sarfraz contacted me about an article he was writing about Amnesty International’s latest world report.  He sent me some questions via email, which I answered.  In the end, he did not use any quotes from me in his article, So I have decided to post my answers, as below.

 What is your assessment of the current state of human rights around the world? 

 I am very worried about the current state of human rights, especially because of the rise of the authoritarian political right, indeed even of fascism. Donald Trump, his family and the Republican Party are still a real threat to American democracy. Their fascistic policies are based on racism against Blacks, Hispanics, and Muslims, as well as on privileges for the extremely rich.

 Similarly, I am very worried about China’s move back from authoritarian dictatorship to full-blown totalitarianism, using modern means of information technology to try to control the entire Chinese population. And I worry about Putin’s dictatorship in Russia, Modi’s anti-Muslim Hindu nationalism, and leaders such as Bolsanaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Philippines, Orban in Hungary and Netanyahu in Israel.

 Aside from these threats to people’s civil, political and economic human rights, there are also the long-term threats of nuclear war and global climate change, violating the rights to peace and to a healthy environment, both emerging “collective” human rights.

  Were human rights ever universally guaranteed or were they only meant to be for the rich / developed countries?

 This question sets up a false opposition.  Human rights have never been universally guaranteed in practice; they are universal in principle. While it is true that some rich, developed countries were influential in formulating the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, so were several independent non-Western countries such as India and Iran.  The only groups that had no influence were colonized sub-Saharan Africa and indigenous peoples.  Since then, all members of the UN have had a say in formulating new documents such as the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child

 People who don’t live in developed, wealthy societies need human rights even more that people who do.  Ask yourself, which human rights could Pakistanis do without? The right not to be arbitrarily executed? The right to free speech? The right to adequate food and housing? 

 Perhaps some Pakistanis would prefer to get rid of freedom of religion, as it protects the rights of Christians in Pakistan.  But the principle of freedom of religion also applies to Muslims in China, India and Myanmar: should it be abolished because these are not wealthy western countries?  Should Muslims in the US have the right to freedom of religion, while Muslims in these three countries don’t?

  An increasing number of advocacy groups are cautioning us about the growing abuses and violations of basic rights.  Are we moving toward a post human rights world? 

 I doubt very much that we are moving to a post-human rights world.  People will always want the types of freedoms, protections and material security that the international human rights laws and norms provide in law and principle.  We will all have to fight vigorously, though, against the political authoritarianism and fascism that are currently emerging in various countries.

  What are the main challenges for global human rights norms ? 

 There are so many that I cannot even begin to enumerate them. The biggest challenge is always corrupt, self-interested elites that control states, wherever they are. The other challenge is unbridled capitalism which ignores the dangers of climate change, inequality, and continued discrimination. Racism, genocide, patriarchy and homophobia are always constant challenges.

 Countries that appear to be important in Washington’s grand scheme can get away with human rights violations. Saudi Arabia got away with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and India is currently getting away with its oppressive policies in Kashmir. These are two examples of how Washington conveniently turns a blind eye to violations — when needed. What are the consequences of Washington’s selective approach toward human rights?  

 This question should apply not only to Washington but to all great powers. In the Western world, aside from some small countries such as Norway, human rights are always a left-over after states take into consideration their strategic needs, political alliances, trade, and general economic interests. Other very powerful countries such as China and Russia don’t even bother with human rights. For example, China is busy exploiting Africa without any concern for human rights.

  What is your assessment of the pandemic’s impact on global human rights? 

 In Canada, where I live, the pandemic has exposed severe cracks in our system of state health care, as well as cracks in our welfare system. Elsewhere, presumably, it is much worse. Modi’s decision to simply close down India and force migrants workers to return home without adequate (if any) protections against the Covid virus has probably resulted in many tens of thousands of deaths that will never be reported.

  What would it take to reverse the deteriorating human rights situation in the world? 

 Continued, constant pressure by civil society groups upon the elites that control governments and the international economy.  This is why civil and political rights are so important, so that civil society and the general citizenry, can exercise their rights to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to vote and participate in government. When governments can throw civil society actors in jail with impunity, or torture or execute them, then there is very little possibility of change. Note that for all his racist, fascistic tendencies, Trump was unable to stifle freedom of speech and the press in the US; nor, despite stacking the Supreme Court and other levels of the judiciary with his own appointees, has he completely undermined the independence of the judiciary. 

 If I could pick only one human right, I would say freedom of speech. Some people might rather say, the right to food. But without freedom of speech, citizens cannot even be guaranteed the right to eat: witness countries such as North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela whose governments have committee state food crimes, destroying their own economics.