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writing for godot

To think of ourselves as the holders of human rights is to be properly proud of having the self-respect that is necessary to be worthy. (Joel Feinberg).

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Saturday, 03 April 2021 15:52

Human rights: Food for a thought in need of revitalization ‘HR as a public matter’


Human Rights Reader 571


[TLDR (too long didn’t read): This Reader is about what is needed to make the placement of enforceable claims a reality beyond an aspiration by claim holders proactively demanding human rights principles and standards are respected and listened to. For a quick overview, just read the bolded text].


-Having the right to place enforceable claims enables us to ‘stand up like men, women and children’, to look others in the eye, and to feel in some fundamental way the equal of anyone.


Today, it would be probably impossible to create the United Nations or adopt the Declaration of Human Rights, because of the current fragmentation of the world (Roberto Savio)


1. National constitutions were meant to convert the UDHR principles into a daily experience. This horizon did not last long. Human rights have ceased to be a central public matter --since years now. They were regarded as a key public matter for a brief period of political history, a time that cannot return it seems --at least not in the short term. In all honesty, the historical bracket when the universality of human rights (HR) was politically adopted, not as a utopia, but as an innovative, concrete, long-term program of the post-war world order, is now threatened --if not actually declared obsolete.


2. Denying any loyalty or accountability to the UDHR principles,* and the implications the have, has resulted in global trade agendas having asserted themselves as the new overarching normative regime. In this scenario, the universality of peoples’ rights has been progressively transformed into a dependent variable of economic sustainability.

*: Relativism, i.e., the possibility that people hold varied and sometimes conflicting views about ethics, presents a vital moral threat to the UDHR and to all subsequent HR covenants. (Michael Goodhart)


Revisiting human rights principles and standards


3. Human rights principles** have been agreed by the vast majority of governments and shaped by the struggles of countless communities deprived of their rights. (Kate Donald et al, A Rights-Based Economy: Putting People and Planet First, CESR, 2020)

**: P– Participation A– Accountability N– Non-discrimination T–Transparency H– Human dignity E– Equity and Empowerment R– Rule of law (PANTHER)


4. As regards HR standards,*** these relate to the respective responsibilities of different actors in an economy (especially the government, public officials and corporations) --and require that those with authority are answerable to the demands of workers, poorer and marginalized groups, and those they are elected to represent. These actors must provide means to enforce responsibilities and seek redress when HR are violated. (K. Donald, et al)

***: These standards pertain to calls on states to cooperate internationally, to devote maximum available resources to the progressive realization of HR, to advancing economic equality of women… and many other along these lines.


5. Governments are indeed the ultimate duty-bearers when it comes to HR and are the legitimate authority in a way that private actors are not. The negative consequences of attempting to offload HR responsibilities onto private actors have been extensively documented. Shareholders of private enterprises are bound by what is called a ‘fiduciary duty’ to always demand profit maximization; and this limits their acceptance of social, economic, cultural and environmental rights as part of corporate objectives and responsibilities and they are thus accountable. (K. Donald, et al)


Yes, the global human rights system has many deficiencies


6. These deficiencies are partly the result of the fact that the system is not operated by a global government with substantial executive or judicial powers. It relies on the creation of strong HR systems within the nation-states that sign and ratify the treaties. But this is not enough. It is the enforceability that makes the HR-based approach a strategy and not just an aspiration.****

****: To put things in a historical perspective, in the Basic Human Needs-based approach, beneficiaries had no active claim to their needs being met. The ‘value-added’ flowing from the HR-based approach is the legitimization of such claims giving them a politico-legal thrust. Take the example of the child, in the Basic Needs approach, the malnourished child was seen as an object with needs (and needs do not necessarily imply duties or obligations, but just promises). In the HR-based approach, the malnourished child is seen as a subject with legitimate entitlements and claims (and rights always imply and are associated with duties and obligations). (Urban Jonnson)


7. Social systems that respond to HR violations, that assess the situation and that make adjustments are badly needed. The issue thus is about governance, i.e., a governance that fixes things when they go wrong, nudging duty-bearers to do what they are supposed to do, keeping them on track. More extreme corrective measures must be taken when deviations from the norm are extreme. Steering such a process requires constant monitoring and constant nudging to stay on course toward the desired HR goals. Some people view courts as the major instrument for correcting HR-violating behavior. It should be recognized though that having to take a case to a court means that smaller, nudging attempts to demand duty bearers act earlier have not been tried or have failed. This, keeping in mind that taking a case to court is beyond the means and possibilities of most claim holders. (George Kent)


8. My strong hopes for the HR-based approach have shrunk, mainly because the UN system is not as strong a HR fighter as I had imagined. The human rights tools are much blunter than what I fantasized about a decade ago. Look at the Sustainable Development Goals: I think the failures are largely due to the failure to develop serious strategies for the achievement of those goals. I now think it would be useful to stop thinking in terms of goals and recast them as rights. (G. Kent)


Bottom line


9. Taking HR seriously means, perhaps first and foremost, claim holders immediately demanding changes in the investment/expenditure priorities of national and regional budgets. Countries must not be judged by the words written in their constitutions,***** but by their annual budgets. (Boaventura Sousa Santos)

*****: Constitutions too often reduce the social role of the state to that of a mere subsidiary of the reigning economic power leaving the weaker at the mercy of the more powerful. (Roberto Pizarro)



Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

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