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Human rights, both social and economic, are under attack



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Fifty-eight countries agreed on December 10, 1948, on how to live in freedom, equality and dignity.

In the 70 years since, we have come a long way since those powerful 30 rights and freedoms were set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nevertheless, though there have been many advances, economic and social rights are often ignored.

Even today, the Declaration constitutes the most progressive vision we have of what our world can look like.

As we mark its 70th anniversary, I should be writing a celebratory piece about how much we have achieved together in these decades – which undoubtedly, we have – in making this vision a reality.

The truth however is that in 2018 we see rising intolerance, extreme inequality and a failure by governments to take desperately needed collective action to address global threats.

We are in exactly the situation that the governments which adopted the Declaration had promised to prevent. Far from being a moment of celebration, I believe we should be using this historic milestone to take stock and refocus the fight to make human rights a reality for everyone.

The second article of the Universal Declaration explains that these rights belong to all of us – whether we are rich or poor, regardless of which country we live in, whatever sex or whatever colour we are, whatever language we speak or whatever we think or believe.

That universality has not translated into reality and we see that this core principle, which underlies all human rights, is under severe attack. We and other human-rights organisations have repeatedly highlighted how narratives of blame, hate and fear have taken on global prominence at a level not seen since the 1930s.

Jair Bolsonaro’s victory at the polls in Brazil at the end of October – despite his openly anti-human rights agenda – vividly illustrates the challenges we face.

His election as Brazil’s president poses a huge risk to Indigenous Peoples and quilombolas, traditional rural communities, LGBTI people, black youth, women, activists and civil society organisations, if he is allowed to turn the dehumanising rhetoric he made on the campaign trail into public policy.

We have to ask why we now find ourselves in the exact situation that the Declaration tried to prevent: When human rights are being attacked and rejected as protecting the “other” rather than all of us? The reasons are complex but one thing is clear. At least part of the blame lies in our failure to treat human rights as an inherently linked and indivisible package, which is relevant to everyone.

The Declaration did not distinguish between civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. It did not differentiate between the necessity to realise the right to food and ensure the right to freedom of expression. It recognised the reality that – as we now know well – the two are intrinsically linked.

In the decades that followed, governments created the split between the two sets of rights and an imbalance in how they were perceived and protected.

International human-rights organisations, including Amnesty International, must also take some responsibility for this imbalance. We are most widely known as an organisation that campaigns for prisoners of conscience – people imprisoned because of who they are or what they believe – and for our work on torture, ending the death penalty and freedom of expression.

The starkest example of why this is so important as a human-rights issue is the long-burning aftermath of the global financial crisis. The experience of many European countries has shown just how vulnerable or practically non-existent our basic social protections are.

To make the situation worse, legal protections for economic and social rights are often limited in these countries, meaning people are not able to mount a legal challenge even if their rights are violated.

Kumi Naidoo is the secretary-general of Amnesty International; Twitter: @kuminaidoo.

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