Are human rights more under threat now than ever?
In this blog we look at the current state of human rights. We discuss some of the grim examples around the world and the influence of the arms trade and the continuing strength of slavery. We also look at climate change and how that is impacting on human rights together with new technologies and the activities of corporations.
The future of human rights around the world looks increasingly bleak. The gradual shift in power eastwards is just one of the slow drip of factors changing the landscape. We have also seen the rise in nationalism and far right organisations in Europe with their anti-immigrant mindset. There are a large and growing number of authoritarian governments including China, Turkey, Russia, Oman, Bahrain and many others.
In the Middle East, nation after nation is ignoring the rights of its citizens. Executions after cursory trials, the use of torture, disappearances and the denial of free speech and freedom of the press are common throughout the area. The promise of the Arab Spring has come to naught. The monarchies and dictators quickly regained power largely because the grass roots uprisings could not organise or find a voice. In Egypt for example, the protests were violently put down and all that has happened is one dictator has been replaced by another.
Major affronts to the cause of human rights have occurred in Burma with the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people. This with a country led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and in whom so much hope was placed. The hatred of Rohingya minority is so deep that it has led to these terrible events. See also a talk on this subject given in Southampton.
China’s treatment of the Uighurs has also caused considerable alarm. Around one million are detained in various camps for ‘re-education’. This allegation came to light in 2018 and is denied by the Chinese authorities. In August of that year, a UN committee heard that up to one million Uighur Muslims and other Muslim groups could be detained in the western Xinjiang region. At the same time, there’s growing evidence of oppressive surveillance against people living in Xinjiang.
It seems a long time since the optimism of the UN Declaration of Human Rights agreed in 1948. It was declared at the time as a ‘milestone document’ and in many respects it was. It set down in 30 articles how human beings were to be treated. The motivation was the horrific events of the second world war and in particular, the systematic murder of Jewish people in Europe. There was a clear sense of never again should these things be allowed to happen. Significantly, it was agreed by a wide range of countries and it led ultimately to the European Convention and the Human Rights Act in the UK. The word ‘genocide’ was created at this time.
Unfortunately, declarations and other fine words matter little if they are ignored in practice. To take one article, article 5 on the prohibition of torture. According to an Amnesty report in 2015, 122 countries in the world still use this practice, often routinely.
Another example is slavery, prohibited under article 4 of the UHDHR. According to Antislavery the practice is live and well and takes many forms including selling women and girls into prostitution, forced marriage and bonded labour. Many people in the UK believe that slavery was abolished in the nineteenth century with the banning of the triangular trade and do not realise that it is greater today than it was then.
So although the articles of the Declaration set out how states should behave and it is indeed true that many countries adhere to these principles, it is also true that a significant number of countries do not and it could argued that the situation is getting worse and not better.
It is also depressing to note that a number of UK MPs are lukewarm over the issue of human rights in this country. The website They Work for You reveals that the new prime minister Boris Johnson, the new home secretary Priti Patel and our own MP John Glen are all listed as ‘generally voting against equality and human rights.’
One significant factor in the decline in human rights is the arms trade. A key factor here is that the top sellers of arms to the world are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council namely, Russia, China, USA, France and the UK. Two other prominent arms exporting countries are Israel and Germany. One would expect that holding such an exalted position in the UN – as a result of being on the winning side of WW2 – would result in responsible behaviour and the setting of an example to the rest of the world. The opposite is the case and as we look at conflicts and wars around the world, weapons made by or brokered by these nations are usually to be found. In all the wars, it is ordinary people, women and children who suffer either from wounds, lost limbs or sight, lost education or displacement to join the 25.4 million or so who live in camps outside their own country (UNHCR figures).
Human rights possess inherent preventive power. The international human rights system was created in response to conflict to help prevent future conflict. It has a special role in averting the escalation of violence. Just as war, conflicts and insecurity increase the incidence of human rights violations, societies that respect human rights experience less violence and insecurity: they are more resilient, and they are more inclusive. The Secretary-General has acknowledged this, identifying human rights as the “critical foundation for sustaining peace”
A vivid current example is Yemen. Not only do we supply weapons to the Saudis who use them to bomb a wide range of civilian targets, but we also supply RAF personnel to advise them. This was a secret spilled by a Saudi prince at a London conference about 2 years ago much to the embarrassment of HMG. What is astonishing is that the former Foreign Secretary travelled around the middle east seeking to promote peace. Yemen is all but wrecked and our arms companies have played a significant part in the destruction.
The Court of Appeal has recently ruled against the government in the case of Yemen in a case brought by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. The government is to appeal this judgement. Recently, missile parts made in Brighton have been discovered in Yemen in contravention of international human rights law.
Climate and human rights
Increasingly, climate and the future of life on the planet is a concern. As temperatures rise, it has an effect on hydrologic conditions, ecosystem functioning and agricultural productivity. These effects are discussed in some detail in a United Nations report and in many other publications including the IPCC report.
A feature of these reports is the issue of human rights most particularly among those most affected by climate issues. These are often women, children and indigenous populations who get in the way of forest clearances, dam projects or other major activities which threaten their environment and livelihoods.
A major fear – arguably a selfish one – concerning the effect of climate change is immigration. The war in Syria and to a lesser extent conflicts in Mali and Somalia, resulted in huge movements of peoples, mostly into Europe, which gave us a taste of what major migrations of peoples will look like. This had signifcant political implications in most EU countries, indeed the immigration issue was an influential feature of the Brexit debate in the UK. It is curious to note in passing that worries about immigration at the political level do not seem to flow through into a desire to take resolute action on climate change which will be a key driver of people emigrating. Climate will have a destabilising effect on many regimes as their agriculture is affected. The previous prime minister Theresa May’s hostile immigration policy was (is?) almost ironic since the ‘hostility’ referred only to people.
A significant difference since the war concerning human rights is corporate power and influence. Although corporations have wielded great power in the past, controlling them was handled by states, for example anti-trust actions in the USA against the oil companies and other monopolies. Modern internet companies pose an altogether different threat. Firms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter operate across the world and seem to answer to no one. They extract enormous quantities of data about individuals and Facebook was alleged to be influential in elections. The thrust of the UN Declaration was the individual and his or her relationship with the state. Today, people are almost threatened as much by the activities of international corporations who are seemingly uncontrolled and uncontrollable. They have also shown themselves all to ready to adjust their policies to suit despotic regimes such as China and seek to do business there.
Another looming technological threat is face recognition which is just beginning to become noticed as such in the UK. Although it has benefits – finding missing persons or lost children, as well as an anti crime tool – it has enormous implications for civil liberties and individual rights. The right to privacy will be substantially lost as the technology develops. The influence of technology and the increasing influence of AI has been termed ‘digital feudalism.’ The crucial issue with these technological issues is control. We have recently introduced GDPR legislation into the UK to protect citizens from unwarranted intrusion. Yet the tech giants are outside this regime: it is not possible to find out from Facebook what information they have on you.
And we do not have to go far to see a more sinister aspect of the technology problem. A firm based just outside Salisbury in the village of Porton, makes and supplies equipment which enables regimes to intercept and monitor phone calls and internet traffic. They supply some well known countries with grim human rights records enabling them to find and arrest lawyers, opposition politicians and human rights activists.
Both these factors shows the individual to be threatened by corporate and state actors which both operate outside proper – or indeed any – democratic controls. Mr Zuckerberg, the boss of Facebook, declined to attend the house of commons select committee on his company’s alleged role in the Referendum.
So the nature of human rights has changed since the post war days and the foundation of the current human rights climate. The hope after the war that a new rules based international order with the UN as some kind of controlling force has all but ended. Despots around the world are increasingly ignoring treaties and international obligations and acting with impunity. The Palestinians live in an open prison in the Gaza strip while Israel relentlessly take more and more of their land ignoring numerous UN resolutions. New threats have appeared with the giant internet companies and with climate change.
There are however, some major changes in the current concerns and the beliefs behind those who promoted a better world after the second world war. Gone is the sense of optimism and a desire that by acting together in a rules based world order, we could see a brighter future for ordinary people in the world. ‘Never again’ was the clear desire amongst many people who had experienced two terrible wars and the holocaust.
That optimism for the future has all but disappeared and we have become used to horrific events in places like Syria, Chechnya, Burma, Libya and many other places around the world. Yemen has already been mentioned but there are countless other wars around the world which only scarcely get a mention. Wikipedia provides a list and there are 4 current conflicts with a death toll of 10,000 or more and 6 where the death toll is between 1,000 to 10,000. There is a very long list of smaller conflicts. In all these, it is the vulnerable who suffer and the children who are either sucked into the conflict or whose education is halted.
The UK was one of the early signatories to the UN Declaration although it has to be admitted that, along with France, there were worries at the about our activities in the colonies. We as a nation have been active in promoting human rights – we once had an ethical foreign policy – although less so in recent years. Yet we are host to the City of London which is the worlds leading centre for money laundering and tax evasion. It handles vast quantities of ‘dark money’ and some its banks have been fined billions of pounds for illicit money transfers on behalf of arms dealers, drug smugglers and other criminal elements. This weakens our moral position, a fact which is not lost on some foreign autocrats. It is difficult for us to adopt a high moral position when our financial institutions are helping Putin loot the Russian state, a fact revealed in the Panama papers.
Are there any positive signs? There has been a significant rise in activity and interest in climate issues with the Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg. However, this has not spilled over into concerns about human rights. There has been a dramatic attitudinal shift concerning the internet companies which have gone from hero to zero in the matter of a few years. More people are concerned about their activities for example with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Nevertheless, many people remain unconcerned about privacy or civil liberties issues.
Overall one must remain gloomy. The spirit of optimism has gone and it is difficult to find any commentators expressing a positive view of the future. Concerns about climate are essentially parochial and climate stress in other parts of the world achieve little more than passing interest. Commercial interests remain entrenched and powerful and are still able to sow confusion and doubt about the real impact of climate change. They are still able to claim that human actions are not necessarily to blame and that there has always been climate change. Politicians show little urgency or real interest in these matters. Revelation after revelation emerges about Yemen and the destruction there, partly supported by our arms sales, yet nothing changes.
The problem in the modern era is that human rights issues are more diffuse and threats come from several different directions. After the war it seemed simple enough to set up a system to prevent a repeat of the horrors of the Second World War. Now, it is authoritarian regimes, corporate power, the rise of AI and its effects, climate destabilisation, the arms trade and political indifference. The media’s role is also a factor with some outlets either not covering some of these issues or diminishing their significance. All play a part in threatening the wellbeing of millions of people.
There still remains a need for human rights organisations to promote the cause. Perhaps one optimistic sign is the number of organisations engaged in this work some of which are listed at the bottom of our site. There are many others.