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Food for an indeed enforceable thought


Human Rights Reader 372


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes human rights as the most important of the four ‘pillars’ in the UN Charter, when stating: “The recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” [The original Pillars of the United Nations are: Peace, Justice, Freedom and Human Rights.  Democracy is not mentioned in the UN Charter, although ‘freedom’ is seen as a substitute for ‘democracy’]. (U. Jonsson)


We do not need to demonize, but to democratize the SDGs process


Had you ever pondered? The human rights framework offers solutions that closest resemble the way humanity survived and operated prior to the establishment of theocratic, monarchic, colonial or oligarquic states.


  1. We cannot but look at the challenges being brought about by the sustainable development goals (SDGs) as a collection of separate morsels (goals) in a shish-kebab held together by a skewer. The mother of all challenges is the shish-kebab’s (neoliberal) skewer that holds together and binds all the morsels. Why? Because it (the skewer) has deliberately been made human rights (HR) deaf. We badly need a critical post-approval hearing about the post 2015 development agenda kebab –or perhaps that is not enough and some of its elements actually need some radical excision or graft surgery…


  1. For a long time, optimism that HR treaties could improve the lives of people coexisted with what can only be called cynicism about the willingness of countries to comply with them. In recent years, political scientists have found little evidence that countries that ratify HR treaties improve their HR performance. Instead, governments prefer to selectively complain about the HR violations in adversary or looked-down-on countries ignoring their own and their friends’ HR violations. Actually, human rights-violating countries do not admit that they violate HR and sometimes go to great lengths to conceal their violations. Sadly, international HR institutions have not been able to effectively step in, because they have been deprived of the needed legal power and have been starved of funds. (E. Posner)


  1. As a reminder, there are two essential approaches to translating international HR treaties into national law and thereby allowing individuals a recourse to invoke HR treaty provisions before national courts. This will be crucial in the SDGs era. One approach is the system of automatic incorporation where after the ratification of a HR treaty by the State, it automatically becomes part of national law. The other approach is the dualistic system in which provisions of international HR treaties only become a part of the national legal framework once they are enacted through ad-hoc national legislation. In both cases, parliaments and parliamentarians can and do have a prominent role in ensuring the application of international HR law, but they have a more active part to play in the dualistic system where further legislation must be adopted or adapted.


  1. Moreover, parliamentarians can and should be active in developing HR Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Follow-up Action Plans (UPRs are submitted by all countries every four years to pertinent UN HR bodies), as well as in advocating for a Mid-term UPR Review to better monitor the implementation of UPR bodies’ recommendations. The UPR actually provides useful entry points for parliamentarians to engage in more closely follow-up UPR recommendations.


  1. You may wonder what happens with enforcing the different categories of HR. Although enforcing civil and political rights does not carry monetary costs, it is to be noted here that there are other costs to implementing them (prominently, political costs). There are various costs involved in implementing economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) especially to effectively promote, protect and prevent their violation. As the primary actors in approving national budgets and thus shaping national priorities, parliamentarians are indeed the critical actors in ensuring that sufficient funding is provided to implement ESCR and that the recommendations of the UPR are enacted. Better late than never, in the post 2015 era, parliamentarians should thus consider the recommendations of the UPR (in addition to other pertinent comments and recommendations emanating from specific HR treaty bodies –children’s rights, women’s rights…) before passing the national budget every year. Similarly and crucially, appropriate measures and resources should be allocated and made available to raise the public awareness of HR and to ensure that HR Learning becomes a part of the regular curriculum in schools and elsewhere. Awareness-raising programs and regular training of parliamentarians and judges on the work the UN Human Rights Council and the UPR do must be absolutely supported. Parliaments can further establish permanent HR committees and sub-committees that will oversee the follow-up to the UPR recommendations.


It is man’s humanity that makes him so inhuman (Erich Fromm)


-No government has the right to hide behind national sovereignty in order to violate the human rights or fundamental freedoms of its peoples. (Kofi Annan)

-International law –including international HR law– cannot be enforced against great powers. There simply are no enforcement mechanisms. (Noam Chomsky)


  1. Apologies used by the perpetrators of HR violations include justifying these violations by distorting them or even negating them altogether and then uniting with other perpetrators far-and-near in persistently holding the same line of justifications. We have all seen (and are tired of) critics of HR using subtle apologetic nudges praising things purportedly slowly going ‘in desirable directions’. However that may be true, these purported achievements fall way short and are overshadowed by many regrettable omissions. These soft critics miss the chance to really throw weight behind key and overarching (and politically crucial) priorities and to truly frame the discussion unambiguously from a human rights-based perspective; there are no “a little pregnant” options here.*

*: Note that this is not the case of genuine progressive realization of HR plans.


  1. ‘Intentional ignorance’ and bogus apologies thus pertain to the inconvenient truth about the suffering of those whose rights are being violated, because they are deemed ‘inconvenient to be acknowledged’. Such an attitude leads to saying: “Yes, bad things happened in the past, but let us put all of that behind us and march on to a glorious future, all sharing equally in the rights and opportunities of citizenry.” Nice deception, isn’t it?**

**: Take for instance racist hatred in the US (and Europe); what do people see as some of the necessary requirements for ending it? There are many responses thrown at this question; many answers are or have been right, and some have achieved results. But racism is far from eradicated; it is not what it was not very long ago despite such efforts. It’s a long, hard road: No magic wand to address intentional ignorance. (N. Chomsky)


  1. Carrying out justice on HR issues requires not only caring, but commitment. The realization of HR in general depends on caring. Nice agreements can be adopted in United Nations meetings and governments can vocally proclaim the centrality of HR. But, if there is no commitment, no amount of these formal engagements means much. They are just promises. It is time to look inwards into the way HR work is done so as to put HR principles really to work –beyond promises.*** (G. Kent)

***: The fulfillment of basic needs generates promises; the fulfillment of HR carries correlative duties by the state.


Human rights accountability work encompasses assessing responsibility, answerability and enforceability.


  1. We must make the monitoring of HR-oriented processes and mechanisms meaningful, mandatory and not miss looking at cross-border impacts. National accountability processes presuppose a ‘conducive environment’; this invariably calls for broad public interest civil society and social movements participation. But, in reality, we know that, in many countries, public interest civil society organizations and movements are faced with diminishing resources and restricted political freedoms –a burden, but not an insurmountable one. In our search for accountability, ex-ante HR assessments of potential private sector partners must play an important role so as to flag the potential risks of undue influence that will call for extra vigilance and preemptive protective measures. (K. Donald, CESR)


We are neither right nor left, we are coming from the bottom and going for the top. (Spain’s Indignados slogan)


  1. As the late Tarzi Vittachi from UNICEF once said, the debate about the future (of the SDGs and of HR in our case) is always conveniently ‘about something else’. What has grown is the disconnect between the perception of many about HR and the world that we want to change. The disasters created by neoliberal globalization are now evident for everybody to see. The loss of legitimacy of the political system is deeper every day. The inability of the system to resolve even problems for the survival of the planet, like climate change, have become common knowledge. The unprecedented growth of social injustice is now even denounced by international organizations like the IMF and the World Bank. However, on all those issues, these organizations do not take any proactive position. Can anybody remain frozen in their vision of what HR work must be, if they/we do not relate it to what is happening in the real world out there? HR activists are just facilitators who only help us taking strong positions; they propose a vision and now, more and more, propose concrete plans of action. We cannot allow activists and just a handful of the converted to meet, debate among themselves and act by themselves. If the debate is left to activists and some representatives of selected organizations alone, the level of combativity will go on the decline. We have to further ask: Can those whose rights are being violated free themselves using the same instruments as the violators? Are we (and them) wrongly adopting the verticality that characterizes the ills of the violators’ political system? Horizontality is very difficult; true. But that is where we must go. We thus need to start acting by taking strong positions on global issues. Are participants in the post 2105 debate ready to adopt the needed mechanisms of organization and action, albeit limited at the beginning? I do not know about you, but I am ready. As said, international law –including international HR law– cannot be enforced against great powers. There are no enforcement mechanisms. A counter-power has to emerge… (N. Chomsky)


  1. So, activists must ready themselves to accept this, i.e., to fight the system, proposing some kind of counter-system and acting-upon it. Food for thought for you here. Without that clear decision, everything will always be ‘about something else’, and we will continue debating issues that are not really central. (R. Savio)


  1. It is participatory monitoring that will eventually lead to new commitments about what requires corrective action. Why? Because it makes the HR movement ultimately answerable to the people and communities whose lives are affected; it fosters the ‘leave-no-one-behind’ principle. Participatory monitoring is, therefore, not an optional add-on in our work. (CESR)


  1. In recent years, governments around the world have been implementing policies across sectors that impact negatively on the realization of economic, social and cultural rights. These retrogressive measures include, for example, privatization of the provision of public goods, unequal revenue raising and austerity measures. Plenty to monitor here! Government laws and regulations across policy areas negatively affect the realization (or the retrogression) of these rights. Sometimes the influence of policies on HR is direct and at other times it is indirect –there is always an impact though. But, on the other hand, we are witnessing a new era. Recent jurisprudence on economic, social and cultural rights demonstrates the willingness of some courts to decide individual and collective claims of violations and in some instances to require structural remedies to redress mass violations. More to monitor here…


From aspirational to operational


– People must be able actually to do or be, rather than be what they are prevented by others from doing or being. (Amartya Sen)

-Only a world movement will bring human rights to the world. The best of words can keep us going, but… (C. Mokhiber and S. Koenig)

-Revolutionizing our HR work will only succeed when you realize it starts with you. (R. Popovic) There is no alternative unless we come up with a better one.


  1. It is fair to note that many national and international civil society organizations are still searching for a new HR-based institutional path which will allow for continuous true popular participation –without delegating decision-making space to anybody else. They continue to search and the search will go on until genuine citizens movements find the power and the right pathways and structures to enable them to add HR contents and to impinge on the legislative process in each country. Without this happening, the negotiating capacity for a better world in pertinent political institutions is severely limited. (R. Bissio) In short, the public policy space needs to respond to claim holders. (Stop this nonsense of rather saying: “must respond to stakeholders”).


  1. Therefore, the challenge that remains for HR work is organizing and mobilizing claim holders to demand states bridge the gap between the sphere of international legally binding obligations on HR and concrete actions on the ground.


  1. Bottom line, we need to be bold and find the courage to speak up among friends, colleagues and claim holder, as well as duty bearers groups on vital public matters especially on HR. This will require fighting against all kinds of falsehoods and lack of transparency. Ultimately, it is claim holders who need to appreciate their individual and collective power. The only choice we do not have is pondering whether we ought to change the world; it turns out that every act we do carry out, or don’t, changes the world. (F.M. Lappe)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



I see many colleagues trying to introduce yet another right, the right of the commons which is to substitute the right to property by the right of use and the right of free access. They argue that the commons is the result of a social process of democracy and solidarity by civil society organizations that try to organize society in a different way. For them, it is not about opposing the commons and public services, but rather to build on the achievements of public services and to democratize their management and their orientation. Their ultimate aim is to change the right of property by the right of the commons, thereby creating a ‘commons based alternative’. (WSF TUNIS 2015) I remain yet unconvinced of how this supersedes or improves on applying the HR framework.

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