The future of human rights
How global developments challenge the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Ms Charlotte Vercammen
Charlotte Vercammen is a PhD researcher at Ghent University within the Human Rights in Context Research Team. She holds an MSc in Conflict and Development Studies from Ghent University (Belgium), during which she participated in the Think and Talk honours programme at Ghent University. Charlotte has gained experience in qualitative empirical research in Ecuador while writing her Master Dissertation on ‘The politics of representation: a frame analysis on the representations of urban working children by social workers in Quito’.
There are several issues surrounding the future of human rights, this blog will emphasise on the questions: ‘To what extend are global environmental changes challenging the human rights regime?’ and ‘How can we decolonise human rights?’.
To answer these questions, the indigenous-led protests in Ecuador in June 2022 will be used as an exemplary case.
In June 2022 there was a national strike in Ecuador as a consequence of economic and climate injustices and rights violations. Even though the constitution of Ecuador guarantees the inalienable right to demonstrate, the indigenous-led protests were heavily repressed by the Ecuadorian authorities. The protestors wanted President Lasso to stop expanding mining and oil extraction. Expansion not only runs counter to the scientific agreement on how to stop the worst effects of the climate change, but it would also push Ecuador further into debt, which is the main cause of the problems the country’s civil society was protesting for.
The repression of protests by the government has resulted in human rights violations, due to excessive use of force, arbitrary imprisonment of demonstrators and violence against journalists. Similar human rights violations were documented during the crackdown on the latest protests in October 2019 and these crimes continue to go unpunished.
States have frequently sided with mining businesses as anti-extractivist movements are deemed by governments to pose a threat to political and economic dynamics. Latin America is one of the most dangerous regions to protect the environment since dissent-controlling tactics include murder, repression, physical torture, and forced relocations, in addition to more indirect forms of social control. In fact, authorities have responded to anti-extractivist mobilization by criminalizing the demonstrators in an effort to minimize the costs of using force. Hence, opponents are portrayed as a social threat, making them proper targets of the state’s public prosecutors.
1. Changing the human rights discourse
While living in a fast-changing globalised world, it is necessary to understand the human rights regime not as a static set of rights but as a regime that will vary over time, cultures, and political contexts. What constitutes the fundamental rights of all human beings should be a topic of ongoing discussion and revision. Therefore, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (hereafter UDHR) should always be subject to scrutiny. Starting from the specific case of Ecuador (cf. supra), two main future global challenges to human rights were distinguished: the climate crisis and decolonisation.
1.1. Climate change
The climate crisis does not only create global environmental challenges but also a human rights crisis. The world is experiencing floods, droughts, and fires, which cause forced migration and famine as well as additional violence and deaths. Although extensive planning and cooperation will be needed to combat climate change, the negotiations must not get lost in technical and scientific details and neglect the people who are experiencing the effects of the problems first-hand. Securing a just transition to zero-carbon economies and a resilient society require upholding all human rights, including the freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association (art. 19 and art. 20 UDHR).
As advocated by the indigenous protestors in Ecuador, governments must refrain from using unneeded or disproportionate force to remove demonstrators who voice their complaints as they suffer the consequences of climate change, but instead start to address the structural causes of these protests. Furthermore, the role that indigenous communities can play in combating climate change should be acknowledged.
One of the most significant developments in recent debates on human rights is the expansion of the notion of human rights beyond the present, by including intergenerational rights. Many violations of human rights are long-standing and affect people over several generations. However, not only should we recognise and act on the human rights violations of the present and the past (Holocaust, slavery, etc.), but the idea of human rights should be extended by including the rights of future generations.
Every action we take has an impact on how the world will develop. The question is to what degree our decisions should be influenced by the need to protect the human rights of both current and future generations. This has obviously been very significant within the environmental movement, where many have argued that it is morally wrong for the current generation to act in a way that deprives future generations of their rights.
Future generations have human rights which we have a moral obligation to respect and protect.
While living in an era in which many authors and streams of thought are working on the topic of decolonisation, questions such as ‘Whose voices are privileged in the human rights discourse, and whose are not?’, ‘How can other voices be heard?’ and ‘What does it mean to decolonise human rights?’ should be discussed more in-depth.
Human rights are frequently described as being universal and inalienable. However, in this perspective, even for individuals living in the liberal democracies of the West, asserting that “human rights are universal” is a difficult argument. Although there are certain fundamental rights which belong to everyone, in many cases certain human rights are denied to particular vulnerable groups. For example, black people may find it difficult to exercise the right to work (art. 23 UDHR) due to discriminatory discourses and practices.
Instead of globalisation creating a world of uniformity and equality, it is rather establishing stronger patterns of inequality. As a consequence of globalisation inequality is not only defined between the boundaries of a nation-state, but across nation-states there will be individuals and communities who are advantaged by their connections to the power structures and others who are marginalised and excluded.
To answer the question ‘What does it mean to decolonise human rights?’, it does not imply that we are understanding human rights exclusively as a Western concept, not compatible with non-Western cultures. Since history showed that authoritarianism is not only present in the Global South and freedom is not a sole characteristic of the Global North.
Decolonising human rights entails challenging the Eurocentric notion (‘Eurocentric’ refers to the tendency to interpret the world based on norms and values of the Global North) of human rights, reclaiming the human rights tradition that has flourished in the colonised world as legitimate, and establishing a dialogue between these two concepts. First, critics state that the dominant discourse on human rights portrays itself as ahistorical, as if it were the product of thought exercises without a geopolitical context influencing the UDHR. Hence, contextualizing human rights is one of the tasks that decolonization entails, by demonstrating how it is related to the historical context in which it was developed. Second, decolonising the UDHR entails demonstrating how other nations around the world, in addition to Western powers, contributed to its creation. This idea is identified as "globalising human rights".
Another strategy for decolonising human rights encompasses the creation of a more comprehensive understanding of rights by including a non-Eurocentric and plural view of human rights. One way to accomplish this, is through transcultural interaction. As long as human rights are based on European ideals, they will be part of the process of globalisation from above, a dynamic in which a local conception of rights originating in Europe becomes global. To maintain their global significance while gaining local legitimacy, human rights must be reworked as an intercultural construct, leading to a “mestizo view of human rights”. This notion refers to the combination of European conceptions of rights with non-Western and indigenous perspectives.
Through the analytical framework that has been used throughout this paper we are able to understand the future of human rights through the lens of two global challenges: the climate crisis and decolonisation.
Starting this paper with the exemplary case of protests in Ecuador, I argued that similar protests against climate change, discrimination and the denial of human rights will keep on increasing in this fast-changing globalised world. Structural causes of these protests should be solved while acknowledging the indigenous communities’ contribution in combatting climate change. By doing this, human rights of not only the current generations, but also the future generations can be protected.
Furthermore, decolonising human rights should be one of the priorities of the future. It implies more participation from the Global South by including the voices of people that are marginalized (i.e. indigenous communities) throughout history. This is referred to as a “mestizo view of human rights”. This worldwide conception of human rights can be implemented through a transcultural discussion in which diverse values and cultures from all around the world come together on equal terms. This would lead to a more democratic and inclusive process of defining human rights.
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