A few days ago, the annual Human Rights Day marked the United Nations‘ adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948; the first global enunciation of human rights and one of the first major acts of the then newly formed UN.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights called upon the entire world to recognise and respect every human being’s inalienable rights “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”.
It is without question one of the most important documents ever created.
So, all these decades later, what is the true state of human rights across the globe? And how close are we to anything resembling the attainment of a universal human rights observance? Well, the sad fact is that the number of countries thought to be committing human rights violations has actually increased in recent years, rather than diminished.
A UK company called Maplecroft has been annually evaluating human rights violations across the world since 2008, assessing and ranking nations for the most serious human rights offenses. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Scandinavian countries, the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, Austria and Germany are the countries generally rated the most favourably when it comes to the human rights and liberties of its citizens, with the United States featuring slightly behind.
But in its 2014 Human Rights Risk Atlas, Maplecroft revealed that in the past six years, the number of countries with an “extreme risk” of human rights offenses had risen dramatically.
Freedom House‘s ‘Freedom in the World 2015’ interactive map is interesting to examine. The Northern Americas and even most of South (or Latin) America seems to fare very well, along – predictably – with Western Europe, the UK, Australia, India, South Africa and a few other locations.
But, again, countries with declines in freedoms and human rights appear to outnumber those with rises in the last several years. All of this strongly demonstrates that, on a global level, human rights and human dignity are actually in decline. Last year, Amnesty International investigated human rights abuses in 160 countries and territories across the globe and reported that nearly three-quarters of governments, around 119 countries out of 160, arbitrarily restricted freedoms, with 82% (131 out of 160) of countries torturing or otherwise ill-treating their people.
This time last year, an estimated 27 million people were believed to be enslaved in human trafficking across the world. As of 2012, 112 countries are estimated to have tortured their citizens and over a hundred countries repressing freedom of expression. Meanwhile more than 300,000 children are thought to be being exploited as child soldiers in the armed conflicts that are currently tearing apart once stable nations. 80% of all refugees are women subject to sexual violence and sex trafficking. At least 20.9 million people are victims of forced labour worldwide. Even a cursory glance at the reports and findings of Human Rights Watch at any time reveals the extent of human rights offenses occurring all around the world at any given time; it honestly seems like there’s barely a nation on earth that isn’t committing human rights abuses, though obviously some nations and governments have a far worse record in both amount and in nature, depending on the nature of their societies.
Last October the International Labour Organisation estimated that although the figures for forced child labour had dropped by a third since the turn of the century, the estimate still stood at some 168 million children. Further, according to Unicef, 22,000 children worldwide die each day due to poverty. Around 15 million girls are reported to be forced into child marriages around the world every year. One in three girls in the developing world is forcibly married by the age of 18, curtailing their chance to an education.
All of that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Of course any day would be a day in which human rights abuses are going on in numerous nations, cities, towns or villages all over the world. But North Korea, China, the Central African Republic or Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Pakistan and countless other countries where such abuses or oppression may occur with matter-of-course regularity are one thing; but when perceived human rights violations are also occurring in ostensibly ‘civilised’ societies, including the professed shining beacons of liberty and democracy in the world, it demands even greater pause for thought and examination.
We could talk at length about human rights abuses that go on in various African nations or in various South American or Central Asian societies, for example; but what about the spiraling human rights violations in ‘democratic’ NATO-member Turkey, where opposition supporters are harassed, attacked or killed and where journalists are put in jail? What about the maltreatment or violation of the rights of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers in, for example, European nations like Hungary and Bulgaria, or even in Australia?
And as modern, liberal nations like France and the United States manuever towards more and more Orwellian practises and laws under the guise of the manufactured, phoney ‘War On Terror’, what is going to happen to common ‘human rights’ in the modern, civilised West?
The United States’ NSA surveillance state was enabled via 9/11, along with the ‘Patriot Act’, both of which were major game-changers in American society. Following that example, Francois Hollande has said the French constitution may need to be altered in order to deal with this terrorist threat (following the Friday 13th Paris attacks), as the country is being prepared for potentially draconian policies, including the possibility of expelling foreigners considered a threat. With the state of emergency stated to extend over three months, the president seeks to expand his own powers and the powers of the state. This is potentially Europe’s 9/11 style police state in the making. In France, the talk is already of people being legally arrested without trial or charges and about law-enforcement agencies being allowed to break into people’s houses at any time of night and without any search or arrest warrants.
Even in the UK, this year, senior Tories have been telling David Cameron he must abandon his threat to withdraw from the European convention on human rights, particularly given his government’s stated, parallel desire to repeal the Human Rights Act.
Is this the direction Western, democratic societies are headed in? It is difficult to imagine countries like the UK, America or France ever becoming as inherently oppressive as, say, China or Russia; but all things are relative, and the degradation of liberties and rights in the first-world West doesn’t only effect citizens of those societies but has a potential knock-on effect throughout the world.
Last year at this time, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called “on people to hold their governments to account” in regard to human rights violations.
Surely ‘holding governments to account’ is a universal principle, referring to any government, no matter how ‘untouchable’, and referring to the human rights of any citizens of any country; not just countries it is strategically in the best interests of a few select powers to ‘condemn’. Yet we watch our leaders line up to condemn Bashar Assad in Syria while remaining silent on the Saudi state, to cite one recent, ongoing example. Certainly there is a scale of human rights abuse, if we can put it that way, whereby the nature of the violations in some countries are far worse than in other countries; for example, child slavery, genital mutilation, extra-judicial killing, torture, etc, all of which occur in, for example, some African nations, are much more serious than first-world violations like data privacy violations or mass surveillance.
There’s no question that someone living in the UK, for example, is absolutely more free and has more rights and more dignity than someone being more overtly oppressed in China or Cuba or Iran. But surely it is for the most civilised, developed nations to maintain high standards and to continue to try to lead by example? A world in which the more civilised nations fail to lead by example is a world in which other societies get more of a green light for their own abuses and are able to play the ‘hypocrisy’ card when they’re called to account for their lack of standards.
This can be seen, for example, in the US military’s abuses of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib – a disgrace that is still to this day cited by jihadists and Islamists in Iraq as a rallying call and as evidence of the ‘evils’ of Western imperialist invaders. The same applies to the long-term and widely publicised abuses of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, which is now echoed by ISIL militants dressing their victims in the orange, Guantanamo jumpsuits when they execute them: a disturbing element of deliberate symbolism that Americans should find upsetting not only for the barbarity of the terrorists, but for the mirror it is designed to hold up to the American government’s own behaviour.
It can also be seen on the CIA’S torture program. 30 years after the UN Convention Against Torture established measures to eradicate the practice of torture, it is in fact still going on in at least 141 countries; including countries that are signatories to the UN convention, according to Amnesty International’s annual report published last year. The 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights is unambiguous: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
In some ways what’s most disturbing was the CIA’s use – through coercion, no doubt – of foreign locations and collaborators to host the torture, as though engaging in unethical practices in someone else’s country makes it that country’s practice and not the CIA’s. The whole idea of establishing foreign locations, like Guantanamo Bay, to conduct harsh practices that are illegal on home soil stinks of tremendous hypocrisy in the first place. If it’s regarded as an un-American activity or something at odds with American principles then an American agency engaging in it is still the same moral quagmire regardless of whether it does it ‘off-shore’. It’s a child’s way of operating; Daddy says I can’t play with scissors in his house – but I’m not in the house, I’m in the yard so it’s okay.
The flourishing of systemised torture by an extraordinarily powerful American institution badly undermines America’s image and its own professed principles and ideologies; it also encourages other countries to continue engaging in immoral and cruel activities all under the banner of ‘fighting terrorism’.
This is particularly the case in the numerous countries where the CIA established its ‘Black Sites’ and in so doing clearly demonstrated to their foreign collaborators that torture is permissible and justified in America’s view.
CIA collaboration with foreign entities for the purposes of torture isn’t even just a post-9/11 issue either. Substantial cooperation between states in the methods and coordination of torture has been documented in the past. Through the CIA’s Phoenix Program, for example, the United States helped South Vietnam co-ordinate a system of detention, torture and assassination of suspected members of the Viet Cong, while during the 1980s wars in Central America, the U.S. government provided manuals and training on how to effectively use interrogation and torture.
When the more ‘enlightened’ civilisations drop their own standards or professed moral codes, they give license for everyone else to do so too – and that’s precisely what plays out. Conversely, when the developed, more ethically upright nations lead the way and set a standard for other societies to pay attention to, the cause of universal, across-the-board human rights and human dignity are best served.
The United States has pretty much lost all of its moral credibility some time ago and are thus no longer in any moral position to comment on human rights violations in Egypt, for example, or in China; and coupled with this, the work of organisations like Amnesty or Human Rights Watch becomes that much more difficult, as their credibility is undermined when they try to expose or condemn gross human rights violations in other countries and yet are unable to properly attack human rights abuses or torture being conducted by institutions of the American state.
In Libya in 2011, for example, Amnesty International publicly stated that the accusations against Gaddafi and the Libyan state were false, even as the likes of Hilary Clinton, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, William Hague, etc, were propagating all of the false stories of Gaddafi’s alleged attacks on his people. Yet Amnesty’s findings were completely cast aside by the Western governments and international media as they went ahead with their illegal war based on their false narratives. Human Rights Watch went into Libya and reported on war-crimes and extra-judicial murders and mass killings being carried out by the proxy ‘rebel’ militias that the United States, France and NATO were directly supporting. Lots of people have seen these reports, and lots of people have watched while the French, American, Saudi, NATO and other officials have walked away without official censure or investigation, all while Saif Gaddafi and other members of the old Libyan state *remain* internationally charged with War Crimes in spite of the falseness of those charges being common knowledge.
Something similar can be said for countries like the UK and France and their own moral decline during the course of ‘anti-terror’ operations or legislation. And more than this, there is the unavoidable hypocrisy in the vast sale of arms and other corporate dealings with brutal or corrupt governments or dictatorships who repress their own populations. The levels of hypocrisy are extraordinary, given the blanket support of Israel in its long-term oppression of the Palestinian people, to cite just one example.
In 2011, NATO and the international community, led by France and the United States, bombed and destroyed the nation of Libya, overthrowing its state by force and helping murder its figurehead – this being just weeks after Muammar Gaddafi had been nominated for Amnesty International’s ‘Human Rights Hero’ award and just months after the UN Human Rights Council had written up a broadly positive report on the human rights situation in Libya. Libya now is a ‘failed state’ and collapsed society where human rights abuses are rampant, with no governing bodies to properly police the country. In the very same year that the Western governments destroyed Libya (supposedly to protect the population from its own government), a little east of Libya a popular civilian uprising in Bahrain was completely ignored by Western governments even as it was being harshly cracked down on by both the Bahraini state and its Saudi Arabian backers. Thus in 2011 alone we saw the immense hypocrisy and double-standard in international relations and in the so-called ‘principles’ or ideals that the most developed and democratic governments in the world claim to cherish.
Read the full, comprehensive truth about the 2011 Libya intervention here.
The Powers That Be, in all their forms, identities and locations, are invested in industries and agendas contrary to the common good of common humanity; a world where arms deals, oil pipelines and a permanent war economy take permanent precedence and the work of humanitarianism falls on to the shoulders of beleaguered charities and agencies, donations from sympathetic average-income people and the kindness of volunteers, individuals and activists, many of whom risk (and even lose) their lives in the process. Indeed, it seems that humanitarian agencies, activists, aid workers and the like are fighting a permanent uphill struggle not just against oppressive or corrupt state elsewhere in the world, but against the shady activities and dealings of their own governments and the multi-national corporations.
Something is seriously, seriously wrong in the world.
This year in particular has exposed how even some of the so-called first-world nations have limited regard for the rights of human beings – in this case, refugees in particular. We have so-called civilised first-world nations like Denmark, Hungary, the Czech Republic and other European nations utterly withdrawing from international agreements and principles regarding treatment of refugees, and we have massive maltreatment of refugees and asylum seekers going on in various central and eastern European nations, while even high-profile American Presidential candidates openly propose mass racial/religious profiling and discrimination.
The 1951 Refugee Convention (also amended in 1967, in part to include refugees from all over the world) was signed up to by 142 nations (including now highly anti-refugee nations like Hungary, by the way); yet as events this year have shown, various governments have chosen not to abide by its responsibilities to refugees, and in many cases refugees have been grossly mistreated.
According to an Amnesty report, thousands of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants – including children – making dangerous journeys across the Balkans have been suffering violent abuse and extortion at the hands of the authorities and criminal gangs for some time. Even governments and heads of state have in recent months been adopting entirely anti-refugee positions, openly talking about setting up concentration camps.
This is the extent to which human rights and common humanity are in decline even in the developed West, where a reversion to tribalism and racial self-interest have meant a vastly diminishing concern for common human well being and dignity.
The UN’s ability, meanwhile, to hold governments or nations to account for human rights violations has waned and waned to a point of impotence. Furthermore, while some governments and states can be exposed and/or prosecuted, others are no-go areas for investigations, with various nations enjoying permanent immunity, thus undermining or invalidating the entire principle of universal human rights or accountability. Added to this is the fact that various states fund or orchestrate wars, murder and mass human suffering via proxy organisations in covert operations, and therefore are able to officially deny any wrongdoing and escape investigation or censure. Among such nations are the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, France, Qatar and others.
This double standard in international affairs was something very powerfully hit upon by the late Muammar Gaddafi in his address to the UN General Assembly in 2009. In the now-famous speech, Gaddafi lashed out at the dictatorial powers of the UN Security Council and its five permanent members with their use of vetoes to protect their own self interests. Gaddafi in fact may have gotten to the very heart of the reason for the continual hypocrisy, complaining that “the super-powers have their own interests and they use their vetoes to protect those interests”. Gaddafi had called for the UN to be made democratic by power being removed from the Security Council and distributed equally among the broader 192 member-states of the General Assembly. “How can we be happy with global security if the world is controlled by just five countries?” he asked. He was dead two years later.
We now live in a time where the ‘rulebook’ has become increasingly redundant, thrown out of the window by various states and powers. Hence a nation like Saudi Arabia can violently, almost sadistically repress or execute its own citizens and yet be invited to sit on the UN Human Rights Council. The same Saudi Arabia can wage months of destructive bombing against the small nation of Yemen, commit War Crimes, and yet have the investigation of its actions quietly scrapped and in fact be allowed to conduct it’s own investigation into its own crimes. It is a perversion that makes an utter joke of international law, the UN and so-called universal principles. At the same time we have Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu awarded a human rights prize, despite the Israeli state being virtually universally condemned for its oppression of Palestinians and illegal occupation of Palestinian land. We have the British and American arms trade fueling the Saudi destruction of Yemen and the Israeli ethnic cleansing of Palestine in the meantime, as well as various Western and Middle-Eastern states arming terrorists and militias in Syria and prolonging the violent civil war.
Corrupt or oppressive regimes have been propped up by the United States and some of its allies for decades, usually in exchange for favourable corporate dealings or the hosting of military installations, allowing corrupt dictators with the worst human rights records in the world to do as they please domestically and remain immune from condemnation.
The iconic Pakistani teenager and activist Malala Yousafsai touched upon this during her acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize last year. “The so-called world of adults may understand it, but we children don’t,” she said. “Why is it that countries which we call ‘strong’ are so powerful in creating wars but so weak in bringing peace?”
It is also curious the amount of both governmental and media coverage or ‘outrage’ focused on the abuses or crimes of criminal groups like ISIL or Boko Haram, yet the lack of comparable outrage over government/state abuses of civilian populations or violations of human rights all over the world. It’s often as if the former provides useful distraction away from the latter, even though in the broader picture and the longer run it’s the latter that is more important to address.
The more extreme, dramatic and sensationalised excesses and crimes of rag-tag, ultra-violent criminal organisations like ISIL and Boko Haram will sooner or later be brought to an end; but the crimes of actual states, governments and state institutions across the world are frequently swept aside or hidden, never to be addressed.
Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth argues that human rights violations were in fact fuelling the rise of groups like ISIL, Boko Haram and others, in the first place. The several hundred page report can be read here.
As for countries that systematically engage in state-sponsored executions of its own citizens, the United States ranks within the top five worst offending nations in the world on a yearly basis, led by the state of Texas. However, Amnesty International reports that China puts more people to death than the rest of the world combined, including even Saudi Arabia and Iran.
2014, various observers have acknowledged, was an abysmal year for human rights across the world, and 2015 has almost certainly been worse; it has, in fact, been an abyssal year for human beings and human dignity, with a perceived diminishing of compassion and brotherhood, exemplified in many ways by the very mixed response to the refugee crisis and the thousands of people who’ve drowned in the Mediterranean. As someone who grew up in the 80s and 90s, I am astonished that I have witnessed society in general go from a position of apparent progress to a post 9/11 downward spiral in which illegal wars, manufactured terrorism, and corporate excesses have wrecked several countries, caused an enormous amount of death and destruction, unleashed sectarian, ultra-violent conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, and led to a reversion to tribal, racial attitudes in Europe and the West.
And I say ‘post 9/11’, because 9/11 is where much of it seemed to have all accelerated. Illegal wars of aggression in the Middle East haven’t just destabilised that part of the world, but Europe too; and along with this, the quality of human life and dignity has diminished massively, along with a diminishing of general compassion and humanity. This is to the extent that desperate refugees drowning at sea can be openly demonised as ‘the enemy’ by many Europeans and Americans who, even 10 years ago, would’ve felt utterly ashamed to take such a position. In all of this context, it is no surprise that human rights and human quality of life are suffering in much of the world; perversely, even human rights in the civilised, developed nations of the West are in danger of being jeopardised or diminished in the coming years.
The issue, to be clear, is not that countries like the United States are among the worst human rights offenders: the opposite is the case, and the U.S, like most developed, Western nations, is nothing like the worst offender – there are far, far worse offenders all over the world, compared to whom the United States is virtually Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek Federation. The issue I’m raising is that when the U.S and other high-minded, democratic nations become dens of utter hypocrisy and dirty-dealing, the equation worsens all across the world, dragging everyone down instead of raising everyone up.
The issue, as demonstrated here, is not that the laws, precedents and ideals don’t exist in international law to protect human rights and freedoms, it’s that the hypocrisy, double standards, double dealings, secret or corporate agendas and special interests make it impossible for those laws or those ideals to be honoured or implemented fully or even effectively. When you have high-minded, sophisticated nations talking the talk on human rights and accountability in one breath and then in the other breath aiding and abetting a total dictatorship like Saudi Arabia to oppress its own people or to wage illegal war on a neighbouring population, the entire moral equation falls apart and the world begins to spiral slowly towards a Wild West type scenario where every one is out for themselves and the law of the gun replaces common law.
As far as the violation of human rights on a global scale is concerned, it seems illogical to think that these widespread abuses will ever be dealt with or eliminated until a radical change in the official world-view or mainstream narrative occurs; in other words, until the secret and unofficial operations of covert powers and agencies are formally addressed and until the truth emerges concerning double-dealings, the propping up of repressive, immoral regimes, the funding of proxy militias and terrorists, the crimes of the arms trade and military-industrial complex and so on.
The United Nations, meanwhile, has become an increasingly impotent institution, just as Gaddafi said it was and just as he quickly found out to his cost. A restructuring of the outdated UN is sorely in need. Otherwise, as Gaddafi said in 2009, “we will all become sacrifices and every year it will be the turn of someone.”
There needs to be a total shift in the official narrative and official paradigm, because those official paradigms and narratives are false and do not reflect reality.
Criminal offices and institutions need to be properly exposed and held to account for their actions: and it shouldn’t matter whether those criminals are in Beijing, Tehran, Washington or Damascus – they should all be equal before international law. Until the narrative shifts to accommodate that kind of genuine, real justice and accountability, the cause of human rights and human dignity won’t be furthered or improved.
Finally, these are some extracts from Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1948 speech in Paris, called ‘The Struggle For Human Rights’, which are as relevant now as they were decades ago. “We must not be confused about what freedom is. Basic human rights are simple and easily understood: freedom of speech and a free press; freedom of religion and worship; freedom of assembly and the right of petition; the right of men to be secure in their homes and free from unreasonable search and seizure and from arbitrary arrest and punishment. We must not be deluded by the efforts of the forces of reaction to prostitute the great words of our free tradition and thereby to confuse the struggle. Democracy, freedom, human rights have come to have a definite meaning to the people of the world which we must not allow any nation to so change that they are made synonymous with suppression and dictatorship.”
“People who continue to be denied the respect to which they are entitled as human beings will not acquiesce forever in such denial. The Charter of the United Nations is a guiding beacon along the way to the achievement of human rights and fundamental freedoms throughout the world. The immediate test is not only to the extent to which human rights and freedoms have already been achieved, but the direction in which the world is moving. Is there a faithful compliance with the objectives of the Charter if some countries continue to curtail human rights and freedoms instead of to promote the universal respect for an observance of human rights and freedoms for all as called for by the Charter?”
“The future must see the broadening of human rights throughout the world. People who have glimpsed freedom will never be content until they have secured it for themselves…”