Human Rights in the new Millennium

On 10 December 2008 we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Together with the United Nations Charter this remarkable Declaration is indeed the constitution of our planet.
We remember that just one day before the proclamation of the UDHR, the General Assembly adopted another important human rights instrument, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 9 December 1948. It is shameful that such a Convention had to be written. It is grotesque that, notwithstanding the UDHR and the Convention, ethnic cleansing, forced population transfers, torture and genocide have continued to occur.
Yet, let us be thankful at least for the fact that we have clear norms of international law, even if all too often they are violated with impunity. Let us be thankful that gradually a culture of human rights is emerging, and that politicians make promises there upon, that many at least pay lip-service to human rights. It is for civil society to hold the politicians accountable and to demand that they deliver on their commitments.
The Universal Declaration is indeed an historic all-embracing document devoted to human dignity, to the spectrum of human rights. The Declaration was the beginning of the great adventure of codification of human rights norms and of the creation of viable monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. Seven core human rights treaties have been adopted, and the task of standard setting is not over. New conventions, protocols, declarations and resolutions await adoption by the General Assembly, ECOSOC, by the new Human Rights Council.
Let us not bellyache about the half-empty glass. Let us rejoice over the half-full glass and endeavour to continue filling it, day by day, with the conviction that we are going in the right direction with the same perseverance of the drop of water that pierces the stone: gutta cavat lapidem. Alas, grave human rights violations are being committed all the time and in all regions of the world. Let us double our efforts to meet the challenge. Let us not complain about the politicization of the Human Rights Council. It is what it is. The United Nations is a political organization. The Security Council, the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council are all political. How could we pretend that the Human Rights Council would be apolitical? Let us concentrate on making it work more efficiently, on making the Universal Periodic Review a meaningful exercise in human rights monitoring, on creating better enforcement mechanisms.
In 2008 we should also revisit the semantics of human rights and question the widespread mis-conceptions emanating from an obsolete terminology which postulates an arbitrary hierarchy of human rights. The so-called « first generation rights » (civil and political) are preferred in Europe and the United States over the « second generation rights » (economic, social and cultural) and are deemed more important than the frequently neglected « third generation rights » (the right to truth, to development, to a clean environment, to peace).
A new human rights perspective
Perhaps we should try a different approach, take a new look at the essence of human rights and formulate a new perspective. I would propose three new categories: 1) enabling rights such as peace, the right to development; 2) over-arching rights such as equality and non-discrimination; and 3) end rights such as the right to identity, i.e. the right to be just who we are. This right to identity is both a collective right, which affirms our right to our culture and traditions, and also an individual right, which vindicates our right to have our own opinions, even if they are politically incorrect, the individual right to be respected for what we are and essentially to be left in peace.
Indeed, we can understand the so-called third generation rights as « enabling rights », empowering us to enjoy civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Peace, however, is much more than just an enabling right: it is also an over-arching and an end right. It is alpha and omega, the starting point, the means and also the end of human endeavour. Enshrined in the preamble and Article 1 of the United Nations Charter, peace must remain at the heart of the Organization’s activities, because it is its raison d’?tre.
Civil society has a sacred duty to work for peace. Thus we welcome the adoption of the Luarca Declaration on the Human Right to Peace of 30 October 2006, which was formally presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council on 15 March 2007. This Declaration takes a holistic approach to peace and encompasses the promotion of conditions of social justice, the realization of the right to development, access to the necessities of life, including clean water and a healthy environment, the necessity of general disarmament, in particular nuclear disarmament, the prohibition of the privatization of war, the end to impunity. Read more about the Luarca Declaration at….
Literature has been and will continue to be the great promoter of a culture of human rights. Friedrich Schiller’s Don Carlos, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Jose Mart?’s Versos Sencillos, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter House 5, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Gao Xingjian, Fugitives, Alexander Solzhenitsyn Gulag Archipel -ago – these and countless other books and essays have given contour and content to the idea of human dignity, equality and the brotherhood of all members of the human species.
Let us also recall the famous preamble of UNESCO’s Constitution which stipulates: « Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed. » Here it is that literature has such an important role to play. Through enhanced knowledge and appreciation of each other’s literature we can contribute to the expansion of the culture of peace and human rights.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was at the heart of the Millennium Summit and justifies the world-wide effort to achieve the Millennium Develop-ment Goals by 2015. Let us not tolerate the obscenity of hunger and extreme poverty when States are wasting vital resources in useless armed conflicts. Let us demand our governments to curtail the armaments industry and to devote resources to save human life instead of destroying it. The human right to peace can and must be realized if our faith and our commitment sustain it. Pax optima rerum. (Peace is the highest good.)
A new hierarchy of human rights
In an effort to revisit human rights, a new hierarchy of rights appears plausible. Indeed, not all human rights have the same importance, not all have the same purpose, and some human rights even enter into competition or conflict with others. For this reason a re-thinking of human rights is appropriate. I would suggest the following hierarchy of human rights:
1. Right to life: art. 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, security of person (art. 9 ICCPR), right to health, food, environment, clean water; 2. Right to identity: both a collective and an individual right – the right to be who we are, the right to enjoy one’s culture collectively, but this requires the right to education, language, religion, family, privacy, truth, history; 3. Right to one’s homeland: self-determination, the right not to be expelled from one’s ancestral lands, the right to return of refugees and expellees, the prohibition of ethnic cleansing (this, again relates to the right to life and the prohibition of genocide); 4. Right to peace (freedom from war) – this is also intimately related to the right to life, and similar to Roosevelt’s « freedom from fear », and the raison d’?tre of the United Nations (article 2(4)) UN Charter); 5. All other enabling and overarching rights.
As indicated above, some rights are genuinely « end rights » and other rights serve the attainment of those end rights. It has been observed by others that the « right to freedom » is of limited importance to a starving Sudanese, for this would only entail his freedom to starve. It is obvious that in some cases, the right to food is more fundamental. Similarly, even though I personally very much believe in and advocate the right to freedom of expression, I do not see this right as an « end right » or as an « ultimate right ». The right to freedom of expression and the press are not ends in themselves, but rather rights that facilitate the search for truth, so as to be able to develop and complete one’s identity and to exercise democratic civil rights responsibly. Control of the press is just as damaging and dangerous when it is done by the private sector (CNN, Fox) as when it is imposed by governments. The crucial test is whether the people have the information they need to make their own decisions, or whether they are just victims of manipulation.
It is also important to distinguish between rights and options. Although we live in the midst of consumerism, I would like to observe that there is no human right to trade, as such, and surely no right to impose trade on others (this was what imperialism was all about – Boxer War, the exploitation of the African and Asian colonies, etc.). Nor is there a human right to privatization, or a human right to consume, as such. These are not human rights, nor obligations, but merely options.
Human rights means equality of dignity, equality of rights and opportunities. Alas, what many people want is not rights – but privileges! Let us try to change this in the new millennium!
Professor Dr. Alfred de Zayas