What does human rights have to do with it?

How often do you think about human rights?

Understanding the human rights perspective is critical to respecting and defending the rights of all people worldwide regardless of race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and identity. As individuals and communities, we (rights holders) have a responsibility to hold our governments (duty bearers) accountable to upholding human rights. Wherever you are and however you identify, your human rights are inalienable.

Although human rights have not been fully realized around the world there has been progress as a result of global social movements demanding justice and an end to impunity as well as the international human rights framework. The human rights framework is both a legally binding mechanism as well as an ethical lens for respecting each other’s humanity.

As an ethical lens, human rights has been intrinsically valued in all societies and has a long history dating back well before founding of the United Nations. We can read about human rights concepts in various religious texts, throughout the renaissance, and the age of enlightenment. Human rights are associated with international relations as well as domestic affairs.

Human rights are internationally agreed universal standards. These legal norms are articulated in United Nations treaties including, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The first point (Article 1) that the UDHR makes is that, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Although the UDHR was written about six decades ago, its relevance is enduring. Many of the ideas address concerns and critical issues that people continue to face globally in in the 21st century. Issues regarding inhuman punishment (Art. 5), discrimination (Art. 7), property ownership (Art. 17), equal pay for equal work (Art. 23/2), and access to education (Art. 26/1) are pertinent matters in countries South and North of the equator. However, go to any country in the world and I am certain that you will find at least one article from the UDHR that has not been met. Which begs the question: since not one country has a clean human rights record, shouldn’t we think about human rights more often?

I use the royal “we” which includes not just you and me, but governments as well (which the last time I checked are made up of people). Bottom line is, international treaties are signed and ratified at the discretion of governments. Once a human rights treaty/convention is ratified by a United Nations Member State, the State has a legal obligation to apply the content to its national law, and government representatives have a responsibility to ensure that human rights are progressively realized.

More specifically, States have an obligation under international human rights law to respect, protect and fulfill human rights, including economic and social rights of people within their jurisdiction. This is particularly relevant given the current financial crisis. For example, when businesses (e.g., banks or corporations, etc.) threaten and/or erode basic human rights, such as the right to food or the right to water and sanitation, the government is obligated to step in to protect those rights.

So we think we know human rights, but when was the last time you thought about it? Did you think about it when you read about 46.2 million people living in poverty in the U.S.?  Or the lack of regulations governing the trade in arms and their impacts on women and children? What about the racial and ethnic discrimination that has caused numerous genocides globally? Do you ever consider the ways government expenditure or revenue impacts our human rights? How about the fact that around the world, one woman dies every 90 seconds from complications of pregnancy or childbirth?

Have you thought about human rights lately? Email me to let me know.

by Margot Baruch, Economic and Social Rights Program Coordinator, Center for Women’s Global Leadership, Rutgers University

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