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RIP: The universality of rights

Thomas Fowler / Share:
Western powers of the UN Security Council are willing to present themselves as the best defenders of democracy and human rights. This, however, is questionable when they cherry-pick countries to intervene in. Reuters

Choosing selectively the term universality, is in itself a fundamental contradiction. If the implementation of universal principles is made in an ‘a la carte’ manner, then universality is dead, argues Thomas Fowler.

On December 10, 1948, fifty-eight states became members of the new United Nations Organisation. Fourty-eight adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eight countries abstained including Saudi Arabia, hostile to equality between men and women. Two refused to participate in the vote. However, not one country voted against it.

The United Nations Charter, adopted three years earlier by 51 states, already reaffirmed its “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small”. The term “human rights” is mentioned seven times in the United Nations Charter. The Universal Declaration represents the first global affirmation of the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings.

The first article is clear: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” This magnificent declaration remains an ideal, a goal to be achieved by the countries that adhere to it, a hope for the peoples of the countries that are still deprived of it.

Today, 193 states are members of the UN and they have, over time, all adhered to the Declaration. But last year UN Secretary-General António Guterres deplored, “Sadly, we still have a long way to go before respect for human rights is truly universal”.

If we want to read it carefully, the Declaration is the most beautiful political project that can be conceived since it links civil and political rights to very wide social rights: the right to food, to health, to education, to housing, to work, to culture, (articles 22 to 27). And it is probably due to this double content that little respect is given to the text, even in Western countries known to be “vibrant democracies”.

Few countries have achieved the goals of the Declaration. Sometimes, it is political democracy that is flouted, sometimes it is social democracy that is non-existent and, in authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, it is often both. There is no doubt that this is one explanation for the great disorder in our world.

Where there is no freedom and where there is no social justice, frustrations arise and revolt ferments. In an open world like ours today, where neoliberal globalisation has put people in competition against each other, borders are being abolished – not only for business and trade, but also for the quest for hope or for the need of revolt. Today, the critical issue of migration is nothing else than the consequences of this new world disorder.

The great leap backwards from neoliberal globalisation, in which the objectives of the “Washington Consensus” have negated the social rights of the Universal Declaration, has only exacerbated inequalities and widened the gap between the poor and very rich all over the world.

While there is no doubt that free trade has led to the emergence of new economic vitality in the South, with the re-emergence of the middle class, most of these new economies rely on conditions of work and wages that insult human dignity. In Western countries, one observes a gradual decline of middle classes and a return to situations of extreme poverty that were thought to have disappeared.

A second explanation for the great world disorder is the double standards of values and principles of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration by powers that use them according to the opportunities, setting themselves up as defenders when it suits them and forgetting them when it is contrary to their interests. As often observed, countries with strategic natural resources or countries that are large customers of Western weapons are not treated in the same way as others. What is the point, then, of acceding to texts that are meant to be universal but which are not applied in the same way by everyone?

Governments provide us with a long list of this practice of double standards which removes any credibility from the principle of universality.

Choosing selectively the term universality, is in itself a fundamental contradiction. If the implementation of universal principles is made in an “à la carte” manner, then universality is dead.

Let us take a concrete example close to us.

When the Permanent Court of Arbitration, in The Hague, in 2016 gave its ruling on the question of territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea, then British Prime Minister of David Cameron, published a statement strongly inviting all the countries concerned to respect this judgment. Nonetheless in 2015, the same David Cameron disregarded the ruling of the Court of Arbitration when it ruled for Mauritius against Britain. Britain, said the court had violated the Law of the Sea by unilaterally establishing a Marine Protected Area in the Chagos Islands. The British government disregarded the ruling, and the Marine Protected Area remains in place today.

The same is true for the United States when they were convicted and condemned for mining the ports of Nicaragua.

How then are we to take seriously and respect international institutions when their decisions are openly disregarded by permanent members of the UN Security Council, whose mission is to “act in accordance with the purposes and principles of the United Nations” (Article 24 of the UN Charter)?

Unfortunately, the Western powers of the UN Security Council are willing to present themselves as the best defenders of democracy and human rights. At the same time, these countries have lost all legitimacy in this regard. How can we not forget the crimes committed by the US in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, by France in Algeria, Britain in Northern Ireland? Should we recall the military support of these three countries to Pol Pot’s forces between 1979 and 1991?

Should we recall how these three powers, directly or indirectly, supported the illegal overthrow of democratically elected governments? The US and France using military means, overthrew foreign governments in Latin America and Africa, and condemned in 1979 the Vietnamese intervention that answered the call for help from the victims of Pol Pot.

So what right, today, do they have to give lessons to us?

A third cause of the fantastic international disorder is found in a UN Security Council Resolution proposed by France concerning the right of interference. Called “humanitarian” and justified by threats of massive violations of human rights, this right has become a justification for the great Western powers to become the world’s policemen. And not under uniformly applied rules, but again according to their interests only.

This right to interfere, which was to be exceptional and limited to the risk of humanitarian disasters, was exploited for political ends. The most spectacular example, but not the only one, was the intervention in Libya. On the pretext of threats to civilian populations – threats increased by exaggerated reports from Western-supported NGOs – the US overthrew and assassinated Muammar Gaddafi, and caused absolute chaos in Libya.

If the rule is that we must end a dictatorial regime, then we must end all these regimes wherever they are – and not cherry-pick them. But that’s not the case. It’s only when the regime hampers the interests of one or more Western powers that there is an intervention. If one carefully observes the major regions of instability in today’s world, one is drawn to note that Western interventions are the problem and not the solution.

It is in this world disorder that a major threat for the whole of humanity is growing.

Thomas Fowler is a Cambodia watcher based in Phnom Penh.



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