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PARIS, Dec 1 2009 (IPS) - On December 10 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be 61 years old. It has brought undeniable progress to the world in this period, in particular the introduction of legal instruments to safeguard human rights, which continue to be spread globally.
At the same time, however, there are certain dangerous tendencies that are working against efforts to make human rights the common language of humanity.
To begin with, there are ideological refutations of the universality of the 1948 declaration because it is based on the primacy of the individual, whereas for Third World societies -Asian and African- the group or tribe is preeminent. According to this point of view, it is the protection of the collective rights of the tribe that safeguards rights of the individuals that comprise it. In this context, it seems a mistake to dismiss the significance of the “tribalisation” of power or of the sense of harmony and security that exists in minority ethnic, religious, or linguistic groups in the face of the inability of the state to provide them with effective protections.
In the second place, there is a religious threat that is irreconcilable with the universality of human rights, namely the contradiction between the contents of the Declaration and sharia, the Islamic law. This incompatibility is especially evident with regard to women’s fundamental rights, freedom of religious conversion, and the use of corporal punishment. Even more serious is the fundamentalist Salafist movement within Islam, which sees the defence of human rights as a neo-colonial legacy that amounts to a new crusade against Islam. This feeling is exacerbated by the anti-Islamic attitude prevalent in the West since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in New York which tends to paint each Muslim as a terrorist or would-be terrorist.
The third threat to human rights has grown somewhat weaker in recent years but remains significant and could grow stronger with the expansion of the two new superpowers, China and India. This threat is the so-called “Asian exception”, a view that dominated the Asia-Pacific human rights conference in Bangkok held two months after the World Conference on Human Rights of June 1993. The Bangkok Declaration, approved by more than forty representatives of Asia-Pacific governments, is the collective affirmation of the Asian approach to human rights, which, the document asserts, must be seen in the particular historical, cultural, and religious contexts of the countries of the continent.
Finally, there is a revisionist current that holds that since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is already 61 years old, it needs to be updated and revised to reflect the progress and evolution that have occurred since, including the changes to the community of intergovernmental institutions confronted with globalisation. This current is sure to grow stronger in coming years as technological advances continue to produce social, economic, and cultural change.
All of these threats lie within what for me is the greatest challenge to the universality of human rights: the social and economic fracturing of the planet. Must we be reminded of the fact that almost two billion people struggle to survive on a mere one or two dollars per day? Or that 35,000 children die each day from malnutrition? Given the tragic suffering and death of such a colossal number of men, women, and children, it is all the more unacceptable that despite the fact that all humans are equal, history continues to treat us as if we weren’t, erecting economic and social barriers between us.
This feeling of injustice is a reflection of the progress of the human conscience, and the passage from this recognition of inequality to action to eliminate it was possible in part thanks to the universal affirmation of human rights.
The defence of human rights is without a doubt the best response to the generalised deregulation that threatens us. However, it must not be limited to a solitary battle that becomes an end in itself. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)
(*) Boutros Boutros-Ghali was Secretary-general of the United Nations from 1992-1996.
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