Politik und Gesellschaft Online
International Politics and Society 4/1998

Without Social Justice No Progress in Human Rights

Vorläufige Fassung / Preliminary version

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, fifty years old this year, still makes inspiring reading. Drafted as part of the post World War II settlement, the Universal Declaration (UDHR) reflects the world's determination to say "never again" to the horrors of world war, fascism and genocide. Its opening preamble proclaims that: "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world," and that: "disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people."

The world's leaders recognised that it was no longer adequate to leave protection of people's rights to their national governments. Rather, where these "equal and inalienable rights" were threatened within a country, the international community would be justified in seeking to protect them. Without this provision, it was recognised, "freedom, justice and peace in the world" would also be under threat.

The Universal Declaration also unites traditions of political thought from different eras. The extract quoted above reflects this, referring as it does both to the political liberties developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, of "freedom of speech and belief" and also to the need for "freedom from fear and want", which were the focus of later political movements. Elsewhere the UDHR also reflects the concept of duty: article 29 (1) points out that "everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible." It marked a major step, therefore, in the development of a set of global values to which all peoples and nations could aspire.

It is important for those of us from the social democratic tradition to recall the origins of universal human rights. Earlier European natural rights and liberties thinking had been seen as inadequate by socialists precisely because it did not deal with economic issues of poverty and equality of access to resources. The Universal Declaration, however, explicitly linked all rights - civil and political, economic, social and cultural - as indivisible and interdependent. As the United Nations would promote political freedom and stability, so the Bretton Woods institutions, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, would ensure there was no return to the 1930s poverty and economic depression which had contributed to the rise of fascism in Europe. Thus would all rights be protected for all people, regardless of "race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status" (Article 2).

However, even before the UDHR had been agreed by the UN General Assembly, Berlin had been divided and the Iron Curtain drawn across Europe. These indivisible rights were immediately divided into what became known as "red rights" and "blue rights," as the Cold War split the world into two competing ideologies. Human rights became a political football. The West criticised the suppression of dissidents and lack of political freedom in Soviet Bloc countries, while they pointed to the unemployment and inequality in the capitalist world. And both sides turned an equally blind eye to human rights abuses (of either colour) in their client states.

One of the immediate victims of this division was the proposed International Covenant of Human Rights which was intended to give legal force to the Declaration. Originally proposed as one document, it had to be split into two on the insistence of the United States, who did not want to see the same force given to implementing economic and social rights. Thus in 1966, after nearly two decades of wrangling, two International Covenants were signed, one on Civil and Political Rights (the ICCPR), the other on Economic, Social and Cultural rights (the ICESCR). More stringent monitoring and implementation procedures were agreed for the civil and political covenant, including an Optional Protocol which provides international machinery for individuals to use in making a complaint about the violation of any of the rights covered in the ICCPR.

The long-term effect of this division means that today, many people in the industrialised countries understand human rights to mean the civil and political rights of freedom of conscience, assembly and expression, a fair trial and no discrimination under the law. The battles of the Cold War years have written social and economic rights out of the concept of enforceable human rights current in most West European countries.

We now live in a greatly changing world and there are both new opportunities and new imperatives for a return to the original conception of universal and indivisible human rights, including social and economic as well as civil and political rights. This new world faces both old and new challenges. Genocide reappeared on the continent of Europe during the Bosnian war, and also in Rwanda in 1994, where nearly a million people were murdered. In both these horrific conflicts, the systematic rape of women was used as a weapon of war. Since the end of the Cold War, most wars take place in the poorest countries and eighty per cent of casualties are now civilians. Conflicts are increasingly within, not between, states, and the major causes of conflict - poverty and inequality - continue to damage the stability of many regions of the world.

The experience of Africa teaches us that the old socialist solutions do not succeed in bringing a rising standard of living for all. Bloated and corrupt governments hid their economies behind high protective barriers and imposed punitive levels of taxation on business. This, combined with their continuing dependence on primary commodities and the immense burden placed on many African nations by high levels of external debt, means that in sub-Saharan Africa, three out of every four households are living below the World Bank's measure of absolute poverty.

By contrast, the experience of East Asia up until last year shows that progress in radically reducing poverty is possible. In the 1960s six out of every ten East Asians lived in absolute poverty. Now poverty affects just two in every ten. The numbers of people living in poverty are still large but major progress has been made. Investment in human development was the key to the East Asian countries' success. South Korea, for example, before the recent financial crisis, spent around $400 per head on health care, compared with just $3 in Uganda. Governments committed to universal primary education and investment in technical skills training pulled their economies up at astonishing rates of growth, from starting points comparable with the poorest in Africa. (Economic Growth with Equity: Lessons from East Asia, Oxfam 1998)

However, the "Asian miracle" is under threat and in its old form not sustainable. The recent financial crises have exposed the weaknesses of regulatory systems and of democratic structures which might have reined in the unaccountable corporations and halted the extent of patronage, cronyism and corruption. Some countries had earlier shown signs of falling back from the commitment to human development and growth with equity on which much of their success was based. Indonesia and Thailand, for example, have not made the progression from near universal primary education to secondary provision, leading to skills shortages and weakening their ability to attract high quality investment. Many countries have increasingly engaged in rising currency speculation and unsustainable lending, resulting in bankruptcies and rising unemployment, making necessary the major IMF and World Bank rescue packages in place today.

In many ways, the crisis in the Far East raises similar questions to those which led the world's powers in 1945 to draw up the post-war settlement of the United Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. How are the newly-industrialised countries of East Asia to ensure that the proceeds of economic growth are fairly distributed and thus secure political and social stability? Equally, how are they to avoid seeing capital move from their economies to those of Vietnam or China, where labour costs are lower? The question of how to uphold global standards - whether in the political, economic or social spheres - is becoming more pressing as the world's economy becomes more integrated and capital moves more rapidly around the world.

The attitude of many East Asian governments towards human rights has proved to be at the root of the current crisis. Lack of respect for human rights led to authoritarian and patriarchal societies, in which vested interests have colluded with government and failed to secure the national interest. As one observer has noted, "the root cause of South Korea's economic plight was the business-government alliance. Major investment decisions were made not necessarily on economic principles but on which sector and conglomerates the government favored (sic)." (Tong Whan Park, South Korea in 1997, in Asian Survey 38, Jan 1998)

Before the crisis, some governments in the region argued that the phenomenal economic success of their approach showed that it was the one most appropriate to the region's culture and traditions. The Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad has long claimed that human rights were a Western import, inconsistent with Asian values and giving too much emphasis to the rights of the individual. Last year he called for a review of the UDHR to reflect the needs of developing countries, saying of human rights advocates that, "these people would rather see people starve than allow for a stable government," and adding, "in a country like ours where stability is important to provide a good life to our people, we consider the good life of people as the right of the people." (quoted in the Star daily paper, 31 August 1997)

However, this as much as Western countries' unwillingness to recognise and give proper weight to economic and social rights is a distortion of universal human rights. What is needed is a renewed and wider recognition of the interdependence of all human rights - civil and political as well as social, economic and cultural. There are in fact optimistic signs that the inter-relationships between political freedoms and economic and social development are being increasingly recognised. In South Korea, for example, the setting up of a new tripartite commission between government, business and trade unions was required by the IMF as a condition of the rescue package. And in Indonesia, the successor government to Suharto's regime has released political prisoners and has even begun to pull troops out of East Timor.

However, if human rights are to be seen truly as a framework of global standards by which all countries' policies and governments are to be judged, in the industrialised world we need to tackle rights issues too. While what we experience is relative rather than absolute poverty, tackling discrimination and inequality of access to education, work and a high standard of living is a key challenge. Equally, we can also be called to account for deficiencies in our protection of political and civil rights. One of the most obvious is the persistence of the death penalty in many countries. In Britain, the outlawing of independent trade unions at the security monitoring centre, GCHQ, was a breach of the right of labour to organise.

In Britain, we are now beginning to make progress. Passing through our parliament at present is a Bill to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. This will require all legislation to include a human rights assessment, British judges will be able to send a law back to parliament for a declaration of incompatibility if they feel it infringes any of the rights in the European Convention, and a new parliamentary committee will scrutinise Westminster legislation. There will also be an independent Human Rights Commission for Northern Ireland, as part of the Good Friday Agreement.

In the field of international development, my Department, the newly established Department for International Development, has adopted a human rights based approach to all our work. A White Paper in November 1997 set out the new framework, stating that: "sustainable development, as the 1995 World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen agreed, is not possible unless human rights are protected for all, including the poorest and most disadvantaged. States have a responsibility to ensure that these rights are respected." (Eliminating World Poverty: a challenge for the 21st century, DFID, 1997, para 1.19)

Our new development strategy is based around meeting internationally agreed targets for halving the proportion of the world's people living in absolute poverty (defined as less than a dollar a day) by 2015. The targets in turn are based on rights affirmed at the great UN Conferences of recent years - Jom Tien (education), Rio (sustainable development and the environment), Vienna (human rights), Cairo (population), Beijing (women), and Copenhagen (social development). They are ambitious, but achievable. But the international community as a whole needs to be united in working for the same framework of protecting and promoting "all human rights for all" - the slogan designated by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration.

In my capacity as Chair of the Human Rights Committee of the Socialist International (SI), I am also focusing on economic and social rights as the forgotten rights of the UDHR. The Committee has agreed that it is appropriate on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration for the SI to seek to highlight better ways forward for the next fifty years and beyond. A delegation of the SI made a presentation to the Human Rights Commission in Geneva earlier this year, calling for greater consideration to be given to the interdependence of all human rights.

My conclusion is firstly that we have a great opportunity now to make progress in protecting and fully realising the human rights that the architects of the post war settlement so eloquently laid down. The end of the cold war has been accompanied by a growing recognition that successful sustainable development is impossible where rights are divided and social and economic rights downgraded. We cannot care for our planet and neglect its people. Sustainable development requires a massive reduction of poverty for the 1.3 billion people living in absolute poverty and 2 billion only slightly above that level. And thus we must mobilise a much higher level of international commitment to meeting the international poverty eradication targets to which we are all in theory committed.

The second part of my conclusion is that it is imperative that we do make progress. Poverty and inequality remain the two great barriers to the realisation of all human rights for all. If we do not tackle these challenges, conflict, violence and environmental degradation threaten the future security of everyone in the world - rich or poor. Fifty years after the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is more than ever necessary to reaffirm, as the Preamble declares, our "faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and [determine] to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom."

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition bb&ola | November 1998