The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted on December 10, 1948, is arguably one of the most important documents of the 20th century embodying the aspirational normative framework of human progress across the globe. For some it was Western liberal romanticism at its best, and for some the only tenable moral response to the rising wave of communism. Many authoritarian and dictatorial regimes remained oblivious to the UDHR, nevertheless, it has defined peoples’ struggles, national movements and transnational campaigns for justice and human dignity in the post war world.
Sadly, by 2020, the UDHR has lost much of its sheen and is increasingly seen as rhetorical declaratory activism of ornamental value with limited potential to offer a coherent framework for resistance against the rise of authoritarianism and demagogy across the world. The rise of ‘strong men’ populist leaders, who use successes in electoral democracy to subvert the essence of democracy itself, is contributing to the declining trust in the human rights framework as a response to atrocities, discrimination, indignity and denial of basic rights. A sense of pessimism is setting in, in the human rights community and advocates. However, many spirited citizens, groups and institutions continue to engage in the ‘good fight’ to defend rights and have also had significant victories in the recent past. The recent results of the US elections are going to give a new swell to human rights movements. These wins are critical, but it is important to ask some deeper questions about the rights discourse and its continued relevance in building a just and sustainable future for humanity.
The Freedom House released its annual report on democracy earlier in March with a screaming headline – ‘Democracy is in decline around the world’ – while evaluating 195 countries. The idea of human rights is inextricability linked to the idea of democracy. Therefore, the declining human rights standards and legitimacy of the human rights discourse needs to be located in this context of democratic decline. Lack of democracy is both a cause and a consequence of denial and suppression of rights.
Many recent studies have shown a direct link between democratic decline and market fundamentalism, crony capitalism and obscene levels of extreme inequality. As the Oxfam report shows year after year, inequality is growing and has reached morally outrageous levels. In a country like India, according to the Oxfam India report, nine individuals had more wealth than the bottom 50% of the country, which would amount to a staggering 60 to 65 crore people. Unfortunately, the human rights movement and even the discourse has not substantively engaged with the question of rising inequality.
The human rights discourse has at best touched the margins of the question of growing inequality through the work on ‘Right to Development’ but has failed to integrate the question of inequality as a central concern in its debates and deliberations. The human rights movements run parallel to the work against rising inequality and fails to recognise that it will not be able to achieve or defend rights amidst the prevailing levels of inequality. There is inadequate recognition of the fact that inequality is a systemic setback to the edifice of human rights, which will collapse (and is collapsing) with growing inequality.
Several advocates and academics from within the human rights movements have been aware of the challenges inequality poses to the realisation of rights and have been critical of the discourse by suggesting that lack of engagement with the question of inequality is deliberate and not incidental. Samuel Moyn says human rights are ‘a powerless companion of market fundamentalism’, while Susan Marks believes that human rights are ‘complicit in the rise of neoliberalism’. Our own Prof Upendra Baxi argues that the discourse is committed to the ‘promotion and protection of the collective rights of global capital’. It is clear that if the human rights movement wants to contribute to the struggles of defending democracy, then it will need to enlarge its spectrum and directly engage with big questions of current times like growing inequality and distributive justice.
The tales of the human rights movements and the struggles against inequality are same, as both want to build a just society where rights and dignity of every individual are guaranteed, protected, and promoted. However, often the human rights movements are trapped in procedural and technocratic nuances and are unable to negotiate with the messiness of real politics. This model of an expert, lawyer or professional led human rights movement is feasible when rule of law is intact and the government recognises, at least in normative terms, the universality of rights. It is doomed to fail in the current context when rule of law is compromised and values like fundamental freedoms and rights are under threat in the name of national security, religious fundamentalism, post-truth and politics of hate. It is imperative that the human rights movement comes out from the ivory towers of the UN and international commissions and builds a mass peoples’ movement for human rights in alliance with other peoples’ causes, including environmental struggles. The rich history of the global south in the last few decades of ‘wrested rights’ or ‘claimed rights’ needs to be celebrated. These are rights, like the right to information or right to food in India, which have been won by people after long democratic struggles. Hopefully, the human rights movements would embrace the path of building the movement bottom up through people’s participation and leadership.
The theme for this year’s Human Rights Day is to ‘Recover Better – Stand Up for Human Rights’ in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. If the human rights movement wants to take the theme beyond a ‘feel good’ empty slogan, then it would need to engage with more structural questions like the need for universal recognition of right to health and highlight how the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities with devastating consequences for the majority. A key demand for the coming year could be free vaccine as a universal right.
Amitabh Behar is CEO, Oxfam India.