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There’s an epidemic of mass distraction, it’s time to focus on issues that matter – MRG’s message on Human Rights Day

10 December 2019

By Joshua Castellino, Executive Director of Minority Rights Group International

As Human Rights Day dawns upon us, it is worth reflecting on what drove commemoration of the day.

In the aftermath of the devastation of World War Two, the founding States behind the United Nations came together to say ‘…never again… genocide’, establishing the United Nations Charter of 1945 which promised a bold new era of global cooperation in building sustainable peace. A fundamental aspect of that vision was the establishment of a set of values enmeshed in law, where the individual dignity and worth of every human being would be respected. Captured in the world’s most translated document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed on the 10th of December 1948, this vision encapsulated the dream of a world where narrow constraints and accidents of birth would not be the only determinant in the extent to which any individual would have their rights and dignity respected.

In the seventy-one years that have passed, human rights have continued to burn as an ever-present flame for those fighting injustice the world over. It drove the decolonisation movement which got rid of colonial powers from African and Asian lands and was enshrined at the heart of new societies that emerged in their place. It served as a rallying call for communities under oppression to speak without fear, backed by a universal solidarity in their plight. It pioneered the idea that universal values could be held above the sovereign State, forcing scrutiny of how it treated its own nationals, while linking communities across the narrow geographic borders in which they found themselves. Human rights offered us a vision of ourselves as one global community, despite divisions foisted by politics and elites who wish to construct lines between us to maintain their own hegemony and grasp of power.

In creating space for dissent and dissonance the human rights movement also undermined itself.

Voices within the movement, critical about the pace of progress, the prioritization of some as opposed to other issues, and disagreeing with the extent to which the fight was being won, raised their voices in critique. These voices were seized on by others seeking to undermine the movement – portraying it as ‘liberal’ ‘snowflakes’ peddling ‘soft’ values in a ‘hard’ and harsh world. They painstakingly constructed an alternative reality dismissing the value of dissent, painting it as ‘anti-national’ and ‘anti-progressive’, even where this dissent was based on meticulous research and ‘hard’ facts.

These forces opposed human rights by adopting its own criticisms to undermine the movement for their ends, resulting in the broken world you see before you.

A world of growing angst and division, where governance is bereft of the intellectual heft and the necessary pragmatism to combat the biggest challenges facing humanity, like climate change. This is unsurprising since the nexus between over-exploitation of the world’s resources, and the people in power in most countries around the world at present is starkly visible. While the decolonization supported by the human rights movement removed European powers from non-European lands, it did not erode the odious structures put in place. Structures that enabled wealth in the richest countries to be built on the exploitation of the poorest, depleting their exhaustible natural resources for a miniscule return in the value chain, while engendering a culture of wanton exploitation.

Martha Akal, a Turkana mother of three children, herd her goats in the village of Kache Imeri, Northern Kenya, in the midst of a severe drought. In the absence of safe drinking water and food, pastoralists are extremely vulnerable to disease and famine. Panos / Frederic Courbet. Read about how climate change is impacting minorities and indigenous peoples in MRG’s 2019 Trends report, which focuses on climate justice:

Decolonization failed to create egalitarian societies as one set of men with vested interests replaced another. The political systems we struggle under today have acquired sophisticated skills in doing one specific thing: ensuring that groups of hyper-privileged men determined to keep human beings subjugated and relegated to their fate depending on the accident of their birth, maintain their tenuous hegemonies.

The new year will shortly arrive with an alarming need for swift and smart action on climate change, combined with a desperate need for investment in rebuilding the torn social fabric of nearly every body politic on earth. The divisions sown by the few to maintain their lifestyles are costing lives and generating resentment among the many. It is time we worked together to understand what collective action can achieve, mindful that the world’s problems are too important to be left to the unskilled vested interests who put themselves forward in the name of resolving these.

Real solutions do exist, among many communities who have lived sustainably on this planet, who have been crying out to halt its destruction. We will hear these voices if we listen and drown out the ambient bluster of those who seek to foist their weapons of mass distraction upon us.

The Human Rights agenda is flawed with plenty of scope for improvement: but in establishing the promise of the equal rights and dignity of all, it remains the only one that can unleash the collective innovative power of all human beings, not just the few who have brought our societies to the current point of destruction.

Feature photo: Eleanor Roosevelt and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, November 1949. © Wikimedia Commons