The human rights of the individual person and the rights of the peoples are the fruit of long historical efforts and achievements. Today it is a matter of maintaining and further applying existing human rights. The ever-existing inequalities must be processed so that equality and justice prevail for all. International governmental bodies and several local, national, and international human rights organisations (NGOs) are monitoring the implementation of the rights.
We must keep asking: Who has access to rights and what do we mean by human rights? Human rights stand as a triumph of the human spirit and intellect. Rights enhance our capacity to be more fully human.
The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) of 10 December 1948 is a landmark. “Universal” means that human rights apply to everyone. Rights also means that we have duties and obligations to others. All people are equal, and all should be free and none a slave to others.
Human rights are applied in the context of the nation-state. Today, there are 193 nation-states. The history of nation-states is the history of human rights.
Many individuals, not least philosophers, have pioneered the achievement of basic rights. For instance, French anthropologist Emmanuel Levinas stated: “Human rights do require recognition of the other as a fellow human being who, by his or her very existence and nothing more, possesses the right to have rights.”
Slavery is abolished.
Humankind has succeeded in abolishing slavery after several centuries of action. The conditions of slavery signified the absence of all rights, the opposite of citizenship. Slaves were unfree by definition; they had been deprived of recognition, social death. The possession of slaves was a marker of wealth and status. In addition, that included the clergy. The further up the hierarchy, the more slaves a priest, bishop, or cardinal owned. Today, there are still different forms of slavery, modern slavery such as human trafficking, forced labour, child marriage and more.
The nation-state and minority rights
The Berlin Treaty of 1878 and even more the Paris Peace Conference treaties after World War I were primarily about nation-states and the liberal principles that undergirded them – rights, constitutions, representation, and the rule of law. National belonging became a major criterion to get rights.
World War I began only thirteen months after the end of the Balkan Wars. A war among states, it too swiftly became a war among peoples, and thereby opened all the issues of nation-state creations; majorities and minorities, and who, precisely, would have the right to have rights. The war shattered much in four years, first soldiers’ lives; over seventeen million dead in total, more than twenty million physically wounded many more who suffered psychologically from the experience of battle. Women endured exploitative conditions in war factories, severe food shortages at home, and fractured families.
After WWI, the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations brought the concept of minority rights and protection into the very centre of the international system. The concept of minorities was created from 1878 to 1919 and remains with us today. It is a category of the nation-state. Minorities are an invention of the nation-state. The right to have rights.
Religion and the nation-state
Religion in the past has both limited rights and made rights possible. Religious identity took on newfound political meaning in the age of nationalism mainly developed in the 19th century. For instance, Orthodoxy was the state religion. The identity of a nation and of a religion coincided completely. In some constitutions there was no place left for Muslims, Jews, or other minorities. A minority was always a visible disruption of the unity of the nation, and therefore a “problem”.
After World War II, activists, individual states, and the international community sought to create such a world, one in which everyone – no matter his or her nationality, race, or gender – can exercise human rights, while those who violate these norms are subject to accountability. Equality of women became a founding principle.
Our history, however, has also known dictatorial nationalism combined with terror. Authoritarian systems and individual dictators and warlords are among the supreme violators of human rights. For example, the USSR experienced Stalin terror: Millions of people were experiencing denunciations, deportations, internments in labour camps, torture, and execution. Can we talk about human rights in a system that was bloody repressive, that killed, tortured, and deported millions of its own citizens? That allowed over six million of them to starve to death in 1932 during the collectivisation of agriculture campaign.
After World War II, the Soviet Union supported decolonization, nation-state founding’s, and international human rights. This position would win the Soviets sympathy in the Global South, which the USSR actively cultivated through support for guerrilla movements and national liberation struggles as well as cultural exchanges and economic development programmes with newly emergent countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
Human rights dissidents
Later, human rights activists in the USSR demanded the rights of free speech and assembly. They called for freedom of movement, within the country and abroad, including the right to emigrate.
The Helsinki Accords of 1975 marked a critical advance in human rights. “Helsinki” became a banner that activists of all stripes held high together. Many dissidents in Central and Eastern Europe used the Helsinki umbrella to criticize the existing regimes by promoting individual freedom such as the right to free speech.
Andrei Sakharov was a well-known dissident in the USSR. He was one of the “fathers” of the hydrogen bomb. However, later he questioned the usefulness of an underground nuclear test because of the health and environmental costs, which were too high. Sakharov, like Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer, had helped create the weapons of ultimate human destruction and then recalled from what he had done. He focussed on the intellectual freedom. He wrote about human rights. His perspective involved the recognition of the other, of our common future, the fundamental prerequisite for human rights. According to Sakharov, the basic aim of the state is the protection and safeguarding of the basic right of its citizens.
Western countries and dictatorships
Immediately after World War II and into the raging Cold War (1945-1989), Western countries and democracies supported right wing dictatorial regimes worldwide because they would act as a buffer against communism. Many dictators could do their own thing, such as Salazar in Portugal, Mobuto in DR Congo, Pinochet in Chile, Marcos in the Philippines and more. Western democracies such as the USA kept their eyes closed against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Colonial states also held back the decolonization of many countries in the Global South.
The UNDHR remains the fundamental document for all human rights endeavours. One day prior to the passage of the UNDHR, the UN approved the convention that defined, for the very first time, the crime of genocide and made its perpetrators liable for prosecution. The Genocide Convention built on the Nuremberg and the Tokyo tribunals, in which leading figures of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were tried for war crimes, crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity. The Nuremberg Tribunal was the more innovative of the two. It established the fundamental human rights principles that individuals, and not just states, can be held responsible for criminal actions. The claims by defendants that they were just “following orders” no longer suffice when the violations against peace and human rights are grave.
Crimes against humanity constituted a new doctrine, one that elevated into intern national law the fundamental principle of personal security against unwarranted and unjust state violence. In addition, at the turn of the twenty-first century the International Criminal Treaty (Rome Treaty) was finally established. Violators of human rights can now be hauled before international tribunals. Truth and reconciliation commissions, pioneered by Argentina and South Africa, have established a new form of transitional justice.
In 2005, the UN General Assembly unanimously passed the Responsibility to Protect (RtP), a resolution that profoundly limits state sovereignty in cases of massive crimes against humanity. Protecting citizens is first a major task of the nation-state and, when it defaults, it is a task of the international community. This principle has not yet shown its effectiveness. Powerful states often abuse the principle of RtP, whether through self-interest or power politics.
Since the passage of the Genocide Convention in 1948, genocides have taken place in Burundi and Rwanda, Guatemala, the former Yugoslavia, Darfur in Sudan, among Yazidis in Iraq and Rohingya in Myanmar. The Chinese government has launched a vast “re-education” campaign of Uyghur, placing tens of thousands of them in detention. Much of the world still lives under dictatorial regimes and in conditions of extreme inequality. On a global scale, democracy seems to be in retreat. In addition, today we are witnessing the largest refugee crisis in history, more than 81 million people.
Role of civil society
Every human rights advance, from slavery abolition to minority protection to democracy has been the product of popular movements. We have seen the dramatic growth of NGOs. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others have been founded, some local in character, others well-funded and with a global reach, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, with a high degree of professionalization.
Nation-state citizenship is still fundamental to our ability to exercise rights. The UN General Assembly passed in 2007 the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which affirmed Indigenous peoples’ full enjoyment of human rights and self-determination. Self-determination has become enshrined as a fundamental principle of the modern state system.
Human rights provide a powerful affirmation of the human spirit. They require that people be respected and afforded recognition no matter what their specific gender, nationality, or race. They demand that all people have access to the necessities of life, and have the freedom to express themselves, to work, build, and create as they wish, to join with others, as they desire, and to be free of the scourge of violence and forced displacement. Those are our fundamental human rights. We should demand nothing less from the worlds we inhabit.
Most nation-states have diverse populations. Diversity of all sorts is the intractable reality of human existence. How we can live with that difference is the critical issue.
Antwerp, 25 January 2021
Fr. Paul Lansu
Board Member Pax Christi International