The commemoration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affords us an opportunity to revisit the achievements and leadership of past generations in overcoming the horrors of the Holocaust and forging a new consensus on human rights.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which we commemorate next week, was a remarkable response to the experience of the Second World War. At a time when we are discussing possible improvement in international institutions and finding how difficult it is to reach agreement, it is worth reminding ourselves how much previous generations achieved. The post-war leadership showed enormous vision in seeking to establish new institutions which would seek to prevent fascism, world war and the holocaust from being repeated ever again.
The UN was established to sustain peace, resolve conflict and promote development. The World Bank and the IMF to better manage the world economy. And the Universal Declaration of Human Rights set down the fundamental rights that each human being should be entitled to purely by virtue of their humanity. I recommend to anyone who has not read it recently, a re-reading of the Declaration. It is an inspiring description of the basic rights that all human beings need to secure in order to be able to enjoy the dignity of their humanity.
The framers of the Declaration were very clear that human rights meant not just civil and political rights, but also cultural, economic and social rights. Not just freedom from fear but freedom from want.
Drawing on their experience of the pre-war years, they knew these rights to be interdependent. They understood that the economic depression and poverty of the ‘30s created the conditions that fostered political extremism, violence and war. And it was by working for both sets of rights – for full bellies and for free minds – that they sought to lay the foundations for a more peaceful post-war world.
But one of the tragedies of the Cold War years was that this vital argument got lost. The clarity of thinking in the Declaration, on the interdependence and indivisibility of human rights, fell victim to Cold War division – to political posturing, and to ideological point-scoring.
The West proclaimed itself the champion of political and civil rights, the East champion of economic and social rights. There was even talk of blue and red rights! But neither side fully honoured the duties contained in the Universal Declaration. While the democracies of the West largely upheld civil and political rights at home, they tolerated the denial or violation of these rights in countries that were anti-communist and pro-western.
The East asserted that priority should be given to economic and social rights, but the communist autocracies presided over new forms of inequality and elitism, as well as the suppression of freedom of speech and the rule of law.
More recently a new polarisation over human rights has arisen between north and south, with some governments in the south asserting that priority should be given to economic rights – that economic development should come before political freedom.
Until the recent economic crisis in Asia, for example, it was frequently argued that the stunning gains made in poverty reduction were more important than the failure of many of the countries concerned to respect civil and political rights. Some argued that the idea of human rights was a western import, alien to Asian needs and traditions.
But the crisis in the Asian economy belies this view. Asia’s economic difficulties are closely linked to a failure to respect the right of the individuals to political freedom. This helped to perpetuate a culture that protected cronyism and corruption, which were some of the fundamental causes of the economic crisis.
The crisis also demonstrates clearly that economic development without transparency, political accountability and equal respect for all citizens is unsustainable. Civil, economic, political and social rights must all be honoured in order to create stable and sustainable economic development.
This principle of the indivisibility of rights can be illustrated here at home too. Whilst obviously the effects are much less severe than those of the crisis in Asia, under the last government we suffered from the ideological belief that economic development would be more successful under conditions of social inequality and minimal rights for labour.
The legacy of these values, and the policies that flowed from them, is that Britain today is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world, with high levels of poverty and social deprivation. This ideological experiment has also demonstrated that high levels of inequality and reduced social protection do not improve economic development.
The legacy of Cold War division has affected the public debate about human rights in Britain. For most British people human rights are synonymous with political and civil rights. The right not to be tortured, the right to protest, freedom of religious worship. And campaigns around these issues are the main focus of the work of human rights organisations. One of the consequences of this focus on political and civil rights has been to marginalise – in the public debate – economic and social rights and thus cause those who hunger for education, health care and a decent living to believe that human rights are not for them.
I believe that it’s time we redressed the balance.
The great opportunity of our time – with the Cold War behind us, and on the eve of a new Millennium – is to reclaim those rights. To restate the true breadth of the human rights agenda. As the pre-amble to the declaration makes clear … “disregard for and contempt for human rights has resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.” And therefore the member states of the United Nations pledged themselves “to achieve, in cooperation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
We need to explain to those who argue that economic development matters more than human rights do that for millions of people in this world to be denied adequate nutrition, access to clean water and sanitation, and basic health care is both a moral outrage and a gross denial of their human rights.
One in four of the world’s population still live in this condition, on the very margins of existence, despite significant and continuing economic growth. And 35,000 children die each day from readily preventable diseases and malnutrition.
I’d like to ask the human rights movement to consider marking the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by focusing as much attention on the denial of these economic and social rights – and to generate as much anger about them – as it rightly does about the violation of political and civil rights.
I am not asking for more emphasis on social and economic rights and less on civil and political, but for a new balance that seeks to secure all rights for all people.
In our International Development White Paper, Eliminating World Poverty: A Challenge for the 21st Century, the Government has committed itself to using our influence to seek the realisation of the social and economic rights contained in the Universal Declaration for all the people of the world. We pledge specifically to work to secure the attainment of the international poverty eradication targets that derive from the great United Nations conferences of the past decade.
The key international target is to reduce by one half the proportion of people living in abject poverty by 2015. You may ask why only half. The answer is that this is what is achievable within 20 years. But then we can set another target and look for the elimination of abject poverty from the human condition before we are half way through the next century. Additional targets include universal primary education and basic health care for all by the same date.
These goals for poverty eradication have been endorsed by all the major governments of the world. Arid they’re agreed by the experts to be affordable and achievable. Being serious about the targets is a clear way of implementing the social and economic rights which the Universal Declaration commits us to.
Of course, the pace of progress in the realisation of these rights will vary from country to country. And frequently people use this argument to suggest that social and economic rights are not as achievable or enforceable as political and civil rights. In fact, when they adopted it on December 10th 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed:
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all people and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance…
If we pause for thought, it is obvious that it is also far from easy to secure full political and civil rights in the poorest countries. Of the 38 poorest countries in the world, 20 are engaged in conflict or recently emerged from conflict. It is enormously difficult to be a good democratic government in a desperately poor country. The assumption that civil and political rights can be secured separately and more easily than social and economic rights is in part a hangover from the ideological divisions of the Cold War and a denial of one of the major insights contained in the declaration. Another part of this hangover is the assumption that those who respect human rights should draw up lists of countries that fail to honour them and refuse to have any dealings with them.
In fact there is no country where all the rights contained in the Declaration are honoured for all citizens. The Universal Declaration is work in progress everywhere. And thus if we wish to commit ourselves to seeking to frilly honour the Declaration over the next 50 years, we must commit ourselves to work in all possible ways to secure progress on human rights for all, rather than to see human rights enforcement as a search for lists of who to boycott and who to denounce.
Of course this does not mean that there are not some governments that are so bad and so repressive that it is right for the international community to seek to isolate them and refuse to deal with them because they fail to honour in any way the standards set down in the Universal Declaration. But it does mean that we need to change our mindset to seek always, wherever we can, to advance human rights for individual human beings. The declaration does not ask us to wash our hands of bad governments but to hold out our hands to those who lack rights.
We face this dilemma all the time when working in development. We are clear that if we are to secure the international development goals, we must move beyond support for individual development projects. Clearly if people are suffering, a charitable response which brings relief to their suffering is entirely good. But this is not development. It is always better – if possible – to work with governments to help put in place universal primary education or basic health care systems or better and more effective systems of governance. Our aim now is – for example – to create the capacity to train teachers, print books, manage public finances and raise taxes so that when we depart, a long-term sustainable education system is in place. World Bank research shows clearly that reforms led locally are much more likely to succeed and be sustained than conditions imposed on reluctant governments by international financial institutions or donors.
So wherever possible, we want to work with governments who do wish to deliver basic advances in human rights for their people. We know of course that there is no such thing as a perfect government – anywhere -and therefore we need to bolster civil society – everywhere – to help keep governments on track. But wherever possible, we seek to work with those governments or those Ministers or departments, or states, or units of local government that do want to deliver human rights to some people: we have managed, for example, to support successful health programmes in Nigeria without working with central government. But we must also in such countries seek whenever we can to bolster civil society and the voices of those who will demand change and reform on behalf of some of the most oppressed people in the world.
And thus if we want to work for human rights we must be willing to take risks and reach out where we can, rather than sit smugly at home and feel good about hectoring governments that oppress their people.
In most cases, I believe that we can best secure respect for human rights by engagement and dialogue with countries. Obviously in each case we must make delicate judgements. We should never strengthen governments that violate human rights. But nor should we abandon repressed people living under unjust governments. Always the test should be what works – what brings real improvements in the observance of human rights.
This new approach also has implications for the way in which we work. In our White Paper the Government commits itself to a rights-based approach to development. That means making people the central purpose of development. Not by speaking or acting on their behalf, but by allowing them to speak for themselves – to articulate their own interests and needs.
Strategies for development should not be a secret deal between governments – done behind closed doors. And for this reason our development strategies now follow a process of consultation in the country concerned. And then we publish these strategies and make them widely available.
And that’s why my Department has played a leading role in spreading the use of Participatory Poverty Assessments (PPAs) across the world: a consultation tool that invites the poorest in the world to speak for themselves.
One finding of participatory poverty assessment that I find notable and that may be of interest to a society of lawyers is that poor people often give high priority to improved security and justice systems. The reason is of course that when you have very little, losing what you have can bring with it real catastrophe. Thus, being vulnerable to crime, without any recourse, contains enormous danger. And that’s why we work to try to improve access to justice for some of the poorest people in the world by improving policing or strengthening traditional adjudication systems. Clearly, our own model cannot be replicated in the poorest countries because the costs are simply too high. But the poor of the world give high priority to access to justice and we must find ways of responding to that need.
We have been promoting the use of these assessments – which mean listening to the voices of the poor – within the international financial institutions, particularly within the World Bank. Indeed, I can announce today that, in honour of Article 19 which provides that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and Article 21 (2), which states that ‘Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country,’ we will provide three quarters of a million pounds to give a voice to poor people in the preparation of the World Bank’s millennium World Development Report. This will help ensure that the voices of the poorest will be properly taken into account when shaping World Bank thinking for the next century.
But in the time remaining I do want to come down from the general to the particular and touch briefly on some specific areas of our human rights work within the Department.
I would like now to take some examples from the work that we do that demonstrate this interdependence of human rights.
I have recently visited Nepal – a very beautiful but desperately poor country. Whilst there I met with a community of about two hundred people who had recently settled on new land. It was very poor land and although it was next to a big lake, they were not allowed to use that water. We were supporting a local project that was helping them get settled and had managed to find a water source so that they could begin to plant. I asked one woman what she wanted for her daughter. She said that she hoped she would manage to keep her at school so that she would get a job when she grew up.
You may think this a small thing. But this village of people who welcomed me with beautiful handmade garlands of flowers, had until a few months previously been bonded labourers, most of them for generations. Some remembered when their father or grandfather had been left without land when his father died and had therefore taken a loan from a local landlord and been allowed to build a tiny shack upon his land. In return for this and a few sacks of rice each year, he had been expected to work and farm the land and his wife and children to work in the landlord’s house. And if the debt is not paid, which it rarely is by people with no means to earn an income, the next generation simply carries on the bond.
The Universal Declaration provides in Article 4, “No-one shall be held in slavery or servitude…“ But in practice in our world many are. The law must of course outlaw bonded labour. And I am told that in both Nepal and India, the law does this. But in conditions of complete destitution, people are still bonding themselves. The remedy of a legal prohibition is not enough. I asked the newly freed bonded labourers, how their landlord was coping without them. They said he had bought replacements – bonds are bought and sold between landlords. There must of course be a law – it must be enforced but for the people to escape bondage they must have a chance to earn a living. As Article 23 states, “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”
Incidentally, the people were still very poor. They were working very hard, on very poor land and struggling to keep their families fed, their children in school and to pay off their bond. I argued vehemently that they should not pay. They explained to me patiently that big landlords had a lot of power with the police and if they did not pay, they would not be safe. But Article 7 provides that “All are equal before the law and are entitled without discrimination to equal protection before the law”.
But I do not want to leave you with a gloomy impression of these brave people. With their very limited resources and their enormous courage, they were escaping from generations of slavery and demonstrating that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” – Article 1.
A few months earlier, I visited Mozambique, a country that was dealt a very hard hand by history – extractive colonialism, their fight for independence, helping to topple fascism in Portugal, as recently as the late 70s. They looked to those who supported them in their independence struggle for their model of state and economy and thus took on the hopeless Russian model. Then, the apartheid regime next door helped to foster a civil war that decimated the country. In recent years peace has been made, government is good and enormous progress is being made. But it is still one of the poorest countries in the world with a GNP per head of about $100.
We are concentrating our work in Zambezia province, one of the worst hit by the civil war and therefore desperately poor. Average life expectancy is 37.
One of our projects is the building of rural roads. These are built and maintained by local contractors who are trained as the roads are built and who employ local people to work on the roads. They are dirt roads. You may not think them the first priority for very poor people. But the land is very good and plentiful in Zambezia province. The problem is that people cannot increase their income because it is impossible to get surplus produce to market. Simple roads lead to increased incomes, more children at school and more people able to use health care facilities.
It may surprise you to know that we require the local contractors to employ at least 25 per cent women. The preamble to the Universal Declaration reaffirms the faith of the people of the United Nations “in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women”.
You might argue that we are taking this a bit far in demanding employment of women in road building in rural Mozambique. But the reality is that the war left many widows and the poorest of the poor in this desperately poor place are women headed households. And thus we are honouring the Universal Declaration when we do this and also making it more likely that malnourished children will live and be healthy.
In fact 70 per cent of the poorest of the world are women. And in the poorest countries girls are kept away from school, to help with the household work, collect the water and because clothes and books cannot be afforded for girls. But World Bank research shows that educating girls transforms a country. The single intervention that has the biggest development impact is the education of girls. Education, even just to primary level, produces young women who are better at earning an income, have their children later and have children who are more likely to live. They are also better at accessing health care and ensuring that their children are educated. Article 26 provides that ‘Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory…”
My last example is child labour. There are 250 million children labouring in the world. They work in mines, stitching footballs, making rugs and as child prostitutes. This means they lose their childhood and also get no education. And this sentences them in adulthood to poor employment and a low income. The Universal Declaration simply says in Article 25 (2), “Motherhood and children are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same protection.” And because this is inadequate, international human rights law has been enhanced with the convention on the Rights of the Child. And honouring that convention, the International Labour Organisation, a UN body made up of governments, employers and unions is about to adopt a convention outlawing the most abusive forms of child labour.
But we have learned that simply outlawing child labour can throw the poorest children of the world onto the streets as beggars and prostitutes. These children work because their families have too little to survive. Often they are children of women headed households. And thus we must move forward by organising a process of change to help increase the mothers’ income and to make schooling available to the children. This is what we are doing with our project with Save the Children in Sialkot in Pakistan to get the children, who hand stitch the footballs that supply the world, into school and to increase their family income.
So this is the case I want to put to you today. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains an inspiring document. We are marking its 50th Anniversary. I would like to suggest that the best way to do this is to re-read the Declaration and to spread the word that it gives equal status to social and economic and civil and political rights.
And that the best way that we can honour the Declaration is to commit ourselves to a new effort to do all in our power, “by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.”