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Food for a passivist thought

Human Rights Reader 257

[As opposed to a human rights activist, the indifferent person has been called a ‘passivist’. (G. Cannon)]

– The world is not dangerous because of the bad people that are in it, but because of the good people who see evil and do nothing. (Albert Einstein)

– Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself. (A. J.


1. Human rights work is centered around promoting, respecting, protecting and fulfilling a set of universal principles.

2. The list of human rights (HR) principles has been expanded severally, but the longer list does not yet have a consensus among the various agencies. We give you here the more expanded list, namely the HR principles of:

  • equality and non-discrimination-against-any-population-group;
  • priority attention to vulnerable groups;
  • progressive realization and prohibition of adopting regressive measures;
  • informed participation by and inclusion of claim holders (leading not only to voice, but to influence);
  • transparency in government and in the use of public resources;
  • effective mechanisms to hold the responsible accountable;
  • responsibility that includes the obligation of accountability;
  • equitable distribution of development benefits;
  • effective use of public resources;
  • gender equality;
  • adequate availability and access to food and clean water (for the rights to nutrition and water);
  • awareness among claim holders of their rights;
  • adequate capacity to process claims on HR violations; * and
  • respect for the rule of law.

*: Remedial mechanisms must be physically, economically, socially and culturally accessible so that a person can go before tribunals, i.e., because they know the mechanisms exist, they can access courts on HR violation issues and they can seek the needed legal assistance. When these conditions are not fulfilled, claim mechanisms just on paper are useless. Note that complaint mechanisms can be on an administrative, and/or a legal level so that they can also be launched before national HR institutions such as ombudspersons or HR commissions. The latter are then to release statements, conduct public fora and disseminate information about these violations through the media.

3. In this context, it is the job of HR activists:

  • to look at patterns of constantly recurring HR violations and, in the most serious cases, consider and denounce them publicly as systematic HR violations;
  • as pertinent, also to keep an eye on the attainment of benchmarks set by the state for the progressive realization of specific HR as they point towards full realization;
  • to ask:
    • do World Bank-promoted PRSPs comply with HR obligations of national implementers and of donor states/international agencies?,
    • do donors have a HR-based approach driving their development cooperation?; **
    • have they conducted a HR-based monitoring of their ODA?;
    • are there budgetary regulations giving priority to social investments for the most vulnerable?;
    • are there regulations that set down a specific percentage to be allocated to social expenditures or investments?;
    • are budgetary allocations oriented to compensate situations of inequality?;
    • can discriminatory practices be detected in the allocations of the budget?;
    • has social expenditure increased or decreased in the last five years?
    • have there been any regressions in terms of HR?;
    • if resources are a major constraint, has the state appealed for international cooperation?;
    • is there a disaggregated system to collect information that divides data according to patterns of discrimination?;
    • have the vulnerable groups been identified and the causes of their vulnerability determined?; and
    • which percentage of the population threatened is covered by adequate social assistance and social transfers (in cash, in kind or providing work)?

**: Aid is supposed to be used to solve HR problems and not to improve the market conditions in the donor countries. Remember that, as a whole, rich countries have to do their best, at the maximum of their resources, to create an enabling environment respectful of HR in the countries they assist.

4. Moreover, it has become clear to HR activists around the world that what is needed is a framework law based on HR, i.e.,  a law to set the general context and to orient all national laws so as to give greater coherence to the national legal system in relation to the country’s international HR commitments/obligations.*** The international community should actively support this effort. Examples do exist of such framework laws. They are important, precisely because they give a mandate and capacity to the various duty bearers to fulfill their HR obligations.

***: Existing laws and regulations can be positive or negative (hindering) for HR; they can also have regressive provisions with respect to HR, thus the imperative to revise them.

Human rights learning issues are of key relevance here:

5. The above paragraph begs the questions: Do the civil servants/duty bearers know and accept the HR framework? Are there ad-hoc courses in place? If the answer is no, civil servants can be very uncooperative. So, if this is the case, the HR activist has to collect such evidence and denounce it, as well as lobby for HR courses for duty bearers to be held regularly.

6. Furthermore, there must then be norms and policies that provide for HR education including financial resources in the national budget for HR education: Not only for bureaucrats, but HR educational programs for groups vulnerable to HR violations ****, for school children, for community organizations, for women groups and for girls, for community leaders, for university students and their faculty

****: The political class has ceased representing civil society organizations that work with the most vulnerable (I am sure you can agree with me that consultations with civil society have been made a mere formality). This is why these organizations have to represent themselves!  They could use our support. Let us rise to the challenge. That potential is still to be unleashed.

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



1. The proof for the indifferent man is: If you change, the world changes. (A. Gomez)

2. It is said our head is round so that our thoughts (and prejudices, biases and indifference…) can continually change direction. (F. Picabia in The Broker, Issue 15, Aug. 2009).


Adapted from Screen State Action Against Hunger! How to Use the Voluntary Guidelines on the Right to Food to Monitor Public Policies. FIAN/Welthungershilfe, Nov. 2007.

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