Constructing a Global History of Human Rights and Development

The history of global human rights has been, as Joseph Slaughter puts it: “hijacked” by Euro-American narratives (Slaughter, 2018). It has been claimed, through history books and the institutional memory of bodies such as the United Nations or Amnesty International, that human rights can be traced back to documents such as the Magna Carta, that they were intellectually developed and promoted globally through the ages of Enlightenment and Imperialism, and that they were enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

Even in recent decades, attempts to frame and conceptualise the latest milestone of human rights, which took place at the height of globalisation in the 1970s, was a Western ‘revival’ or ‘rediscovery’ of human rights as a transnational tool through which states could be held accountable for their violation of rights. Crucial reference points for scholars today include the so-called ‘Human Rights Utopia’ of the 1970s (see Moyn, 2010) or the development of ‘New’ Human Rights two decades later (see Nelson & Dorsey, 2008). To reconstruct the past, scholars often seek changes in the discourse of global institutions; they analyse the most widely reported human rights movements; they call upon the emergence and establishment of organisations such as Amnesty International; they run keyword searches of major international newspapers; and they look to the political discourse of major global players, all of which are largely based in the Global North.

No wonder, then, that the major turning point of the transnational human rights movement is so precisely associated with the year of 1977, when Amnesty International won the Nobel Peace Prize and US President Jimmy Carter incorporated human rights into the country’s foreign policy. The so-called utopia that was set forth during this transformative moment in history was that human rights came to represent an alternative to anti-establishment movements against US imperialism and consumerism. It also represented an alternative to socialist states, which for many of the Left was proving to be a disappointing avenue for meaningful change. A transnational social movement of solidarity was also imagined as the key to holding states accountable for the human rights violations of their own citizens.

The result of this revisionist history is not only an incomplete picture, but what Walden Bello calls “the [structural] resubordination of the [Global] South within a US-dominated global economy” (Bello, 1994 cited in Slaughter, 2018). As the agency of Global South-identifying actors is denied, so is their role in shaping what today are known as rights of self-determination, sustainable development, peace, minority, and rights to natural resources and the environment, among other things.

Yet there exists an alternative history to human rights that has been obscured through attempts to narrate the past. This history has been prevented from entering the debate, I would argue, for three key reasons: first, dominant historical narratives emphasise actors and institutions of the Global North as the leading protagonists in the process of the construction of human rights. Second, and as a result of the first, methodological approaches have been limited by what is perceived as the spaces within and through which concepts and practices of human rights are constructed and diffused globally. Third, potential alternative sources of ideas surrounding human rights and their global diffusion are and have almost always been brushed aside as anything but potential sources of human rights: they have been labelled as socialist, anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist, and even terrorist, none of which could possibly be compatible with human rights.

But the issue does not stop at asking the right questions. The problem cannot be solved simply by asking whether and if so what Global South actors and organisations contributed to human rights norms, concepts, and practices, but also how they did so. And this requires returning to the drawing board methodologically. If potential contributions do not take place within dominant institutions, state-to-state dialogue, and major international organisations, then we need to look beyond these spheres for our evidence.

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Trade for Human Rights as a Minimum Core Obligation

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In his report on the Minimum Core Doctrine (MCD) John Tasioulas states:

“the essence of the concept will be taken to be the sub-set of obligations associated with socio-economic rights that must be immediately complied with in full (obligations of immediate effect)” (p. 3).

He contrasts these against those obligations that require significant resources and are therefore subject to ‘progressive realization’. Thus, the defining characteristic of MCD is that it differentiates obligations between those of immediate effect and those of progressive realization. And the focus is on the nature of the obligations (what the state must do when) rather than the nature of substantive rights (the condition of people’s lives).

However, the discussion about what constitutes minimum core obligations in substance focuses on the nature of rights enjoyment and a package of minimum goods and services that would be required rather than the nature of obligations. This starts with General Comment 3 that refers to ‘a minimum core obligation to ensure the satisfaction of, at the very least, minimum essential levels of each of the rights’, and to the provision of ‘essential primary health care’ (ICESCR quoted in Tasioulas p. 5). Further, human rights-based practice begins to specify specific types of diseases to be treated and goods and services that would be included in the minimum, as under the ‘selective primary health care model’ adopted by UNICEF (Tasioulas p. 5).Read More »

UN report on access to medicines is an opportunity for sustainable solutions

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September’s UN special session on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) was a vivid reminder of the shared responsibility of governments to promote research and development (R&D) combat global health threats. The complexity of the AMR threat made clear that a combination of market forces, policy incentives, and regulation, as well as norms and standards was needed to ensure innovation that would deliver accessible and affordable treatments.

The report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines offers an important opportunity for national governments, UN organizations, philanthropies, civil society, and pharmaceutical manufacturers to move forwards and address this challenge. AMR is just the latest global health priority that cannot be resolved with the current incentive system for investing in medical R&D. AMR threatens to render a whole range of treatments ineffective and reverse 20th century advances in medicine. Numerous other health priorities are neglected because they do not present a business potential for investment, and millions of people lack access to medicines and treatments that are priced out of reach.

In a world of unprecedented medical advances, these unmet needs present a moral dilemma, and one of the most critical challenges for humanity. The Panel, on which I had the privilege to serve, makes a number of concrete proposals to promote needs-driven R&D financing and to expand access to medicines for people in need. As a whole, the report makes short-term and long-term recommendations towards introducing more systematic and sustainable approaches to meeting unmet needs in innovation and access.

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Human rights are not losing traction in the global South

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An indigenous Filipino woman sells bracelets. Source: Flickr/Andy Enero

Stephen Hopgood’s The Endtimes of Human Rights and Eric Posner’s The Twilight of Human Rights Law have set off an important debate about whether human rights have run out of steam as a force for human progress. Other commentators such as Sam Moyn have argued that human rights no longer have the power to mobilize international condemnation and moral pressure against totalitarian regimes. Posner argues, for example, that the rapid expansion in the ratification of human rights treaties since the 1990s has had no impact on the respect for human rights. Further, since the end of colonization, human rights movements such as the right to self-determination, the civil rights act in the US, and overall equality in the US have run out of steam.

On closer reading and reflection, these arguments tell a very partial story about human rights.  They are limited to human rights as civil and political rights to end brutal authoritarian rule, as law in international treaties to be enforced by the UN human rights system, and as a mission of international institutions embodied in international treaties and bodies, both inter-governmental and non-governmental.  Indeed, these opinions reflect a view of human rights as a civilizing mission of the Western world by the use of law and political power—a vision of the dominant human rights scholars and organizations.

Yet there are other ways of understanding the process of human rights progress. As Michael Ignatieff forcefully argued at a recent conference at Kings College, human rights is not about international law but about politics: “moral politics expressed as or clothed in law”. And the politics is not just about foreign policy goals of powerful states.Read More »