Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Human Rights: Confronting unfinished agendas

Kind permission of IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

Photo: Members of Nepal’s Madheshi community of Biratnagar attend a political rally to demand autonomous federal regions and greater representation in parliament, 19 January 2008. - Photo: UN Photo - Agnieszka Mikulska.

WASHINGTON DC (IDN) - Speaking to a university audience here in the shadow of the 61st anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and of the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined a human rights agenda for the 21st century which was more encapsulation than exhortation.

Clinton’s agenda made no call for revival, renewal and resurgence locked in to the needs of our times but was content with a focus on what could loosely be described as a three-point slogan -- human rights, democracy and development.

The separation of human rights into political rights (democracy), economic and social rights (development) and all other rights would have been baffling if Clinton had not made it clear that this was a linguistic convenience and not an attempt to set up rights in discrete little boxes.

“Human rights, democracy, and development are not three separate goals with three separate agendas,” she said. “That view doesn’t reflect the reality we face. To make a real and long-term difference in people’s lives, we have to tackle all three simultaneously….”

Few can quarrel with that approach.


Delegates considering the final draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights did not accept it without initial dissension, raising objections to various provisions, on such matters as equality within a marriage, the rights of private ownership of property (which complicates agrarian reform), the implied right to religious conversion, and the emphasis on economic and social rights.

A recurring criticism of the Declaration has been that it is Western-oriented. Eleanor Roosevelt, who led the eight-member group that drafted the Declaration, contributed to the propagation of this view by comparing the Declaration to the Magna Carta which was a British document (June 15, 1215) restricting the authority of the king and recognizing the rights of Britain’s landowning “nobility.”

Even Clinton gave the Declaration a Western tilt when she placed it in the context of the post-Second-World War cry “never again,” thus making it a document of European expiation, not of universality.

Perhaps if the Declaration had been drafted today, it might have a somewhat different flavour. On the other hand, the current 192 members of the UN seeking to draft a declaration would possibly produce the human rights version of the Copenhagen Accord on climate change.


The UN General Assembly voted several times on different aspects of the Declaration, and finally adopted the text unanimously, but with some abstentions. The Declaration has been translated into over 200 languages, and its emergence as a universal standard is commemorated across the world, even in countries whose leaders have shaky human rights records.

South Africa’s respected jurist Navi Pillay, who is the current UN Human Rights Commissioner, spoke of the Declaration with fervour on Human Rights Day (Dec. 10, 2009), saying that “the towering human achievement of the Universal Declaration humbles me and makes me feel profoundly grateful for the great privilege that I have to contribute to the UN human rights goals.”

She was delivering the keynote address at the University of Pretoria when she accepted the award of an honorary doctorate. She did what few UN officials do on such occasions, commending activists who fight for human rights and urging graduating students to “take up human rights advocacy.”

Activists know, Pillay said, that “human rights underpin the aspiration to a world in which every man, woman, and child lives free from hunger and protected from oppression, violence, and discrimination, with the benefits of housing, health care, education, and opportunity.”

Her sentiments were similar to those of President Obama who said in his Nobel Prize speech on the same day that “a just peace includes not only civil and political rights -- it must encompass economic security and opportunity. For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.”

This congruence of ideas, coupled with Clinton’s effort to push a human rights agenda for the 21st century, offer the possibility that Navi Pillay’s efforts will be supported by the U.S. and its allies. How different from the recent past.


Clinton’s decision to emphasize the economic and social aspects of human freedom and dignity is especially noteworthy because these are so often treated as “add ons” to any human rights agenda and not the absolute fundamentals that they are. A third of the Declaration deals with economic and social issues, and they dare not be ignored.

As Canada’s Pierre Trudeau pointed out many years ago, the “freedoms of” (assembly, speech, worship) would not make a difference in human life if they were not accompanied by the “freedoms from” -- freedom from poverty, hunger, malnutrition, and overall, misery.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has focused on the real life results of economic disparities on many occasions, from many platforms, and in many contexts. The conversation between him and a little South African girl whom he met outside her village hut portrays it all.

Noting the state of her battered home, her tattered clothes, and her obviously malnourished self, he asked her: “What do you eat?” She replied: “We borrow food.” Tutu followed up by inquiring: “Have you ever given back what you borrowed?” “No,” she said. “And what do you do,” Tutu asked, “if you cannot borrow?” Without missing a beat she responded: “We try to drink enough water to fill our stomachs.”

What happened to her human rights? And will she grow up to be one among numerous women across the world who are prisoners of circumstances totally beyond their control? Senator Ted Kennedy would often describe “minimum wage issues” as “women’s issues” because, he argued, women are the first and hardest hit victims of economic inequalities.

Can the global human rights agenda be completed while gender-based inequalities remain intact?


CEDAW, enacted 30 years ago (Dec. 18, 1979) is directed at eliminating legal acceptance of gender-based inequalities. Jessica Neuwirth, Director, New York office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, told a press conference on the eve of the convention’s 30th anniversary that it is a “watershed treaty that helped pioneer the concept of gender equality.”

Neuwirth considers the convention “an international bill of women’s rights.” Its terms require that “states must modify customary practices based on stereotyped roles for women, and those founded on notions of inferiority or superiority of either sex.”

Despite initial misgiving by some UN member states, CEDAW currently “enjoys wide acceptance by countries around the world with seven holdouts: Iran, Nauru, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga and the U.S.”

UN staff have compiled an useful list of the practical impact that CEDAW has had on women’s lives and their roles in society. For example:

India gave the lead, and both India and Bangladesh have since used provisions of CEDAW to fill gaps in domestic law so as to make sexual harassment explicitly illegal, and to set up complaints procedures for the benefit of women who complain that they have been harassed/victimized.

In Hungary, the Public Health Act was amended in 2008 to improve the provision of information and procedures to ensure that sterilization of women was carried out only with their consent.

The introduction of Morocco’s new Family Code in 2004 gave women greater equality and protection of their human rights within marriage and divorce, as mandated by CEDAW’s Article 16. The new law embodies the principle of shared family responsibilities between spouses.

Mexico launched a major transformation of its response to violence against women, with the passage in 2007 of the Mexican General Law on Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence. The law provides a comprehensive vision of government responsibility for preventing and eradicating violence against women, recognizing it as an extreme form of discrimination and violation of women’s human rights.

The Philippines enacted the Magna Carta of Women which stipulates that structures and practices that perpetuate discrimination and inequality should be abolished. A notable feature of the law is its attention to the rights of marginalized women, such as rural and indigenous women, informal women workers and migrant workers, and women with disabilities.


The elimination of gender-based discrimination destroys stereotypes, entrenches equality, secures the rights of women and girls in society, and protects their dignity; it also ensures that the contributions women can make to societal development are not lost through exclusion.

Eleanor Roosevelt made this argument indirectly when she said: “a woman is like a tea bag -- you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.” Purists will argue that a good cup of tea should be brewed not bagged but Roosevelt’s point is well taken.

More directly, Isobel Coleman writes in “Foreign Affairs” (January/February 2010) that “more women have been killed by male violence in the last 50 years than men have by all the wars of the twentieth century. The cost to the world is staggering -- not only in human terms but also in economic terms: lost IQ, lost GDP, cyclical poverty.”

What an outrageous waste of human potential. (IDN-InDepthNews/06.01.2010)

The writer has served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon ‘Daily News’ and the Ceylon ‘Observer’, and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore ‘Straits Times’. He is on the IDN editorial board.

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