Human Rights: updated March 2018


Political Backlash

“Fundamental freedoms are in retreat in every region of the world,” warned the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, at the opening of the 2018 session of the UN Human Rights Council. He reminded the Council that “a disregard and contempt for human rights” had provoked “the most devastating wars of the last 100 years.”

Evidence in support of such foreboding is not hard to find. Too many despotic leaders are sustained in government through silencing the voice of their opponents rather than free and fair elections; too many governments respond to the refugee crisis with grand political bargains rather than respect for rights enshrined in international law. The rise of populism poses a profound threat to human rights, according to Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch.

Statistics reinforce these reflections of senior campaigners. The total of 22.5 million refugees across the world in 2016 was the highest on record. The International Labour Organization published a disturbing report of modern slavery, revealing that over 40 million people were subjected to enforced labour or marriage in 2016, including 10 million children.

The symptoms of this loss of appetite for protection of individual rights are not confined to headlines about fortress Europe or putative dictatorships in Russia, Uganda, Rwanda and China. The concept of civic space, fundamental to democratic rights, is threatened by many developing countries, rich and poor, which have enacted legislation clamping down on the activities of domestic NGOs.

A favourite pretext for these measures is the acceptance of foreign funding, perceived as a tool of western ideology to promote democracy and other freedoms unwelcome to autocratic governments. Examples include India and Cambodia.

Countries traditionally perceived as staunch defenders of human rights have by no means averted the global trend. The Edward Snowden revelations of 2013 exposed the US and UK spy agencies for their disregard of privacy in access to personal digital material. The slide in global standards is such that only 22 countries, just 2% of the world’s population, are successful in protecting “open” civic space, according to Civicus, the international alliance of civil society organisations.

This tightening of personal freedoms in both advanced and developing economies is most often justified as an unavoidable response to security threats. Branding political opponents as “terrorists” is a simple and very effective tool for achieving public deference. Finding the appropriate balance between individual rights and state responsibility for protecting the individual remains one of our great contemporary dilemmas.

A much more hopeful picture has emerged through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including the 17 Goals, approved by world leaders in 2015. This document substantially observes human rights principles associated with social and economic development. This is most explicitly reflected in the Goals to eradicate global poverty and hunger by 2030, a significant advance on the tepid aspirations of the Millennium Development Goals.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…

These are the opening words of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved by the embryonic United Nations General Assembly on 10th December 1948. In framing our rights, the text seeks to capture an essential truth of modern civilization – that the importance of every individual should be recognised by appropriate limits to the exercise of state power.

The language echoes the 1776 American Declaration of Independence and resonates still in 21st century mission statements of human rights campaign groups.

Article 2 translates the poetry of freedom into the solid principle of non-discrimination that protects disadvantaged groups in all international human rights law:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion…

The 30 Articles are non-binding principles, intended to guide the detail of international human rights law by reference to universal values that transcend cultural and ideological divides. The Declaration recognises that, in return for their rights, individuals have responsibilities described as “duties to the community.”

The Articles were drafted at a time of painful reflection on the causes of the Second World War. Perhaps for this reason, they are dominated by civil and political rights. The compression of social and economic rights into Articles 22-27 bequeathed a lack of detail which may partly account for the continuing struggle to frame the global poverty reduction agenda by reference to rights rather than aspirations. Likewise, it is rare for international trade or investment agreements to pay attention to rights issues.

International Human Rights Law

It had been the intention to adopt detailed international laws at the same time as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. In the event, it took almost twenty years to reach agreement, such were the ideological divisions of the Cold War era.

The command and control regimes of the communist bloc had no wish to further the cause of civil and political rights. By contrast, the US perceived social and economic rights as undermining its frontier tradition of individuals taking responsibility for themselves.

The eventual solution was to create two legal instruments of international human rights law, separating the contentious areas. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) were both adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966 and finally came into force in 1976. To this day, China has refused to ratify ICCPR whilst the US has likewise rejected ICESCR.

There are now nine core international human rights treaties, including ICCPR and ICESCR. The additions include child rights, discrimination against women and rights of migrant workers. As countries ratify these international treaties, they accept the obligation to protect their citizens through the introduction of commensurate national laws and institutions necessary to enforce them.

Important UN human rights instruments exist outside this core but may not carry the full weight of international law. Strong claims made by special interest groups sometimes overlook the reality that categories of human rights vary in their legal status.

Clarity in a limited number of specific social sectors has been gained through the efforts of human rights campaigners to encourage fresh UN Resolutions to spell out basic rights. For example, in 2010 the UN General Assembly approved a Resolution recognising that access to safe drinking water and sanitation is a human right

Women’s Rights in International Law

The pursuit of equal rights for women through international law has been a slow process. The principle that everyone is entitled to rights “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex…” was given voice in Article 2 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

However, the Declaration was non-binding and it took over 30 years for the international community to create a robust legal framework against gender injustice. The Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979.

CEDAW has been described as a bill of rights for women; it spells out the areas in which women experience discrimination and commits countries to amend their laws, construct national gender policies and create institutions to deliver them.

For example, CEDAW places an obligation on countries to ensure that women have the same rights as men to decide the “number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights.”

Progressing from recognition of women’s rights to positive actions for the empowerment of women is particularly associated with the Fourth UN World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995. The Beijing Platform for Action, a detailed policy template for empowerment, has proved a source of inspiration for policy on women’s rights.

An overdue development in 2011 was the launch of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, known as UN Women. This new body merged the four UN agencies previously engaged in gender issues, elevating the seniority of input within the UN decision-making process.

The stronger voice for women’s rights ensured that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), approved by world leaders in 2015, include Goal 5: “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” With a primary target to “end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere,” SDG 5 unambiguously merges human rights concerns with development aspirations.

Opposition to Family Planning

Campaigners for universal access to sexual and reproductive health rights must contend with some of the most sensitive issues in international development.

One strand of opposition derives from the narrow dividing line between voluntary family planning and coercion. A long shadow falls from the history of over-enthusiastic birth control policy in India in the 1970s and ’80s and the one-child policy imposed by China between 1979 and 2015.

China’s policy was explicitly coercive but claims to have averted 400 million births. However, a high price was paid in the denial of human rights in family life and in the unspoken tolerance of sex-selective abortion. From 2010 to 2015, China’s birth ratio was 116 boys to 100 girls. The Chinese authorities themselves estimated that, in 2020, there could be 30 million more men of marriageable age than women. Similar abuse is prevalent in India.

Religious conservatism is in a position to influence population policies and does so ruthlessly. The Catholic Church, which claims over one billion followers, opposes all forms of contraception, despite evidence of the consequent human distress. In the Philippines, one in ten girls aged under 20 is a mother.

Islamic teachings generally adopt a pragmatic interpretation of the Koran, supporting the right of women to space their children through use of family planning within marriage. Government programmes in Bangladesh and Indonesia have been praised for their success in reducing high fertility rates.

Answerable to the religious right in the US, Republicans seek to deny funding for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and to enforce legislation known as the Global Gag, or Mexico City, rule. This rule blocks US funds from supporting any developing country organisation whose programmes imply tolerance of abortion.

In 2017 the Trump administration expanded the scope of the Global Gag rule, triggering deep cuts in UN and international agency funding, ultimately closing down many field operations that supported people in need. Within ten days of his inauguration in 2021, President Biden signed a memorandum that restored the funding streams, including support UNFPA.

Nonetheless, it remains clear that the rights and welfare of millions of women in poor countries remain at the mercy of rotating US administrations. Wary of religious and racial sensitivities, and the on/off threat of the Global Gag rule, aid agencies and environmental groups have tended to suppress their views about population issues. Their silence may have contributed to the long term downward trend in funding for overall population assistance.

The 2015 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which defines the Sustainable Development Goals and is the most important statement of shared global ambition in a generation, includes not a single reference to population growth.

Population Policies

s that aim to influence fertility rates are therefore adopted by reference to national social and economic considerations rather than the global good.

With individual countries so widely spaced across the spectrum of the demographic transition, these policies embrace polarised objectives. China provides an extreme example. Within the space of five years, that country has abandoned its controversial one-child policy, first by relaxing it to two children and, more recently, through state media encouragement for families to have three children.

Such concern for the economic consequences of an ageing population has been apparent elsewhere, but through incremental policy measures such as tax breaks and subsidised childcare. For the time being, politicians in North America and Europe shrink from the rational solution of welcoming migrant workers from African countries and others with low dependency ratios. The presence of fiscal incentives to increase fertility rates in over 50 countries, including Denmark, Germany and Japan, is an awkward context for lecturing poorer countries on population control.

Nonetheless, the unwritten goal of stabilising global population is not seriously questioned. Likewise, it is accepted that any policies aimed at minimising population growth should be captured within the international development agenda – because that growth is confidently predicted to occur almost entirely in developing countries. This approach had been formulated at the landmark 1994 International Conference on Population and Development whose 20-year Programme of Action, known as the Cairo Consensus, has proved to be a decisive influence on population policy.

Now coordinated by the UN Population Fund, and articulated in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the Cairo Consensus clarified that population concerns are not simply a matter of family planning. They must also be addressed by redoubling commitment to national poverty reduction plans in general and women’s education, health and economic empowerment in particular.

India provides a vivid example of how a full period of schooling for girls reduces the risk of teenage marriage and increases awareness and demand for contraception. The state of Bihar has India’s highest fertility rate (3.2), alongside the largest percentage of illiterate women (26.8%). By contrast, low-fertility Kerala has a literacy rate of 99.3%, the result of decades-long state focus on basic education and health care.

The 5th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG5) accommodates this philosophy, aiming to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” The Goal relating to health (SDG3) addresses family planning concerns through the target for “universal access to sexual and reproductive health rights.”

However, the UN’s 2021 progress report for SDG5 delivers a gloomy prognosis for gender-based policies. Slow progress has been aggravated further by Covid-related setbacks for all aspects of women’s empowerment in low income countries.

Efforts to deliver sexual and reproductive health rights are also struggling. In sub-Saharan Africa only 56% of women hoping to prevent pregnancy are using modern contraceptives.

This is not to deny that consistent policy vision over the last two decades has led to a reduction in high fertility rates, prompting a lower rate of growth of the global population. Child mortality has fallen sharply. Countries such as Ethiopia, Rwanda and Botswana may be on track for more advanced demographic profiles.

But the average total fertility rate in sub-Saharan Africa remains as high as 4.6, generating alarming population projections for some countries. Some African leaders have themselves sustained the tradition of very large families, missing the opportunity to break down the cultural barriers that impede change.

Human Rights Law Enforcement

The vision of globally enforced standards of human rights depends on national frameworks of human rights laws, administered by adequately resourced institutions, independent of political influence. Such ideals are beyond the capacity, or intent, of many governments.

For example, the process of ending discrimination against women has been handicapped by the need to amend colonial-era laws which reflect the values of that period. Outdated property laws relating to marriage and inheritance in sub-Saharan Africa hamper progress towards equitable land ownership by women.

The shifting cultural landscape of modern times is especially problematic for Islamic States whose constitutions are founded on strict interpretation of the Koran, a text dating from the 7th century.

A number of these states have exercised reservations in the ratification process, a formal device which permits exemption from contentious sections of international law, such as those relating to homosexuality and the rights of women. However, many Islamic scholars advocate reinterpretation of the Koran in the light of modern values.

Nevertheless, there remain examples of extreme prejudice, such as the unjust treatment of women who are victims of rape or accused of adultery. Even the simplest reforms have been frustrated; it is only in recent months that women in Saudi Arabia have been permitted to drive cars or enter a sports stadium.

Many of the more advanced economies also stumble over international standards, typically when human rights laws prove inconvenient to domestic political culture. These barriers restrain the global pace of reform, as has the failure of the US to ratify CEDAW (the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women).

Where national laws fail to protect rights, or are inadequately enforced, grievances can be referred to higher regional authorities. One example is the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Ultimate oversight lies with the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), the 47-country body established in 2006. The HRC monitors the implementation of human rights through Universal Periodic Reviews. These are four-yearly self-assessments conducted by every country, by reference to fulfilment of its overall obligations.

Periodic national reports are also submitted for each core international human rights treaty. Together with information from other sources, these are scrutinised by committees of experts, known as Human Rights Treaty Bodies, whose findings are made public.

The HRC also engages independent experts, known as Special Rapporteurs or Special Representatives, to investigate specific topics or countries of concern. These experts act in a voluntary and independent capacity.

Each of these UN enforcement mechanisms is supported administratively by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The High Commissioner, currently Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein of Jordan, is responsible for promoting the recognition of human rights, both internationally and within other UN agencies.

The HRC has no powers of enforcement, its influence lying more in disclosure of its forensic work. Global action against an individual country can be authorised only by the UN Security Council. For example, the UK government is unlikely to suffer any meaningful sanction, despite declining to respond to more than half of the recommendations in its 2017 Periodic Review.

Rights-based Development

Human rights campaigners believe that the global economy would be less dysfunctional if the needs of the poor were more closely aligned with their rights. UN bodies and international aid agencies have always been encouraged to express their roles as fulfilling entitlements of the poor rather than compassion.

For example, a rights-based approach to household food security would overcome the current absurdity that hunger is caused not by shortage of food but by the inability of poor families to purchase enough to meet their basic needs.

Ensuring that gender considerations are taken into account in development programmes is a fundamental component of rights-based development. Equality and Development, the World Bank’s World Development Report 2012, explains at length why the exclusion of women from economic activity is a missed opportunity for development.

A rights-based approach also draws greater attention to the responsibility of governments for honouring their international legal commitments to social and economic rights.

It is a poor advertisement for the 21st century that, despite the strength of these arguments, supported in law, over 750 million people remain below the international poverty line and a similar number below the hunger threshold. Access to contraception remains far from comprehensive with 214 million women in developing countries unable to obtain the family planning services they desire.

The Universal Declaration itself bears some responsibility for disappointing progress towards development goals consistent with universal rights. It acknowledged that social and economic rights are dependent on the “resources of each State,” implying that these rights in poorer countries might be achieved only by “progressive realisation” over time.

Imprecise language adopted in the Articles on social and economic rights has caused further difficulties. For example, the extremes of wealth and inequality of recent decades have highlighted the subjectivity of the Article which asserts that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.”

Different countries have very different interpretations of what this basic standard of living should be. The 1986 UN Declaration on the Right to Development introduced a more dynamic approach by calling for “national development policies that aim at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals.”

Nevertheless, the two-speed approach to absolute rights found its way into a number of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the core strategic tool for global poverty reduction for the period 2000-2015. For example, the first MDG aimed merely to halve, rather than eradicate, the rate of poverty by 2015. The rights of half of the world’s poor were put on hold.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) covering the period 2016-2030 have very significantly restored respect for rights-based development. In seeking to eliminate poverty and hunger, embracing the slogan “leave no one behind”, the SDGs respect the vision of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The expectation that every country will report progress by reference to 169 targets, the majority of which relate in some way to human rights, introduces a strong element of accountability into the international human development agenda.

Focused government accountability inspires ordinary households to learn that poverty reduction and respect for livelihoods are enforceable rights, not favours, an important step towards political consciousness and participation in policymaking.