In 2018, when marking the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Kumi Naidoo, the outgoing Secretary-General of Amnesty International, lamented that “if the leaders of the world were called upon to sign the UDHR today, they would be unable and unwilling to put human rights at the centre of global governance. Such a declaration would be impossible today”.
Naidoo made this comment because Amnesty International in well placed to see how across the world, fundamental human rights are under attack.
Jails and cemeteries are filling up with human rights activists once more.
But what’s unusual is that it’s not just happening in China, Russia or North Korea, but in countries that are outwardly democratic.
In India, described as the world’s largest democracy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is unapologetic as he propagates a hate-inciting extreme Hindu nationalism that tramples over Islam and other religions; annexes whole regions such as Kashmir and sanctions so-called “encounter killings”. At least five globally respected human rights lawyers are in prison, and more than 4,000 NGOs have had their licenses revoked.
Giving a lecture in the safety of Oxford University, veteran journalist Sagarika Ghose pointed out that the most “basic freedoms are under threat” and that “soon to be a journalist will be criminalised”. Her warnings are echoed by esteemed writers such as Arundathi Roy who in a recent article warns of a “shadow world… creeping up on us in broad daylight”.
In Turkey, President Recep Erdogan has used the “war on terror” as the pretext for a massive and globally unprecedented (at least in the democratic world) clampdown on civil society. According to Turkish activists 30,000 people are being held in pre-trial detention or have been convicted (they say 15% of all those in prison are there for offences of terrorism). A further 70,000 are on trial; 155,000 are being investigated by the police, but have not yet been prosecuted. Even the honorary Chairperson of Amnesty International in Turkey, Taner Kılıç, is on trial and seems likely to be imprisoned.
Writers such as Elif Shafak are now effectively in exile.
In Brazil, indigenous land rights activists, trying to protect the world’s treasure of the Amazon, are being murdered, adding to the toll of an estimated three land activists a day who are losing their lives somewhere in the world.
In Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi activists are under attack.
And so the story goes on… from continent to continent, from country to country. It is hard to imagine that an era that began with the Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall is ending with new walls going up all over the world.
In UN-talk what we are witnessing across the globe is politely described as “shrinking civic space”. They should be using other less euphemistic words: put another way, it’s the water-boarding of democracy.
This global clampdown on hope is sanctioned by big men with blond mops, misogynistic sexualities, guns. Truth-manglers such as Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk gently egg it on, as Sacha Baron Cohen so angrily yet elegantly pointed out recently.
Its handmaiden is the rise of extreme inequality and it is countenanced by what writer Dan Gretton, in a profoundly important new book, I You We Them , calls “the desk killers” (might you be one of them, civilised Mr multi-b/millionaire?).
Get Up! Stand up!
But we are not going down without a fight. The erosion of human rights is not going uncontested. Across the world, people are fighting back.
Young people are at the front of the climate crisis movement, but may soon have to contemplate a more profound rebellion because, as pointed out by Greta Thunberg as she arrived for COP25, they are not being listened to despite the millions of school students who have taken to the streets.
People should not underestimate angry kids, she says.
Students in Hong Kong are waging what will most likely become a life-and-death-struggle against Chinese authoritarianism. The recent Hong Kong elections show they have overwhelming support. Their brave and sustained protest is as catalytic in the global fight for democracy as the role played by the young people in South Africa in 1976. Don’t be misled by the occasional US or British flags, it’s democracy and rights — not neoliberalism and inequality, they already have that — the students want.
And then there are protests against austerity across the globe, now taking place in even the most repressive states such as Iran and Iraq (although gaining little reportage or support from those of us on the outside).
As we say this year in Sudan, the truth is that we the people still have the power of numbers — but there are powerful forces intent on destroying this power.
Which side are you on?
Human rights activists in South Africa are deeply involved in our own struggles to advance social justice and protect constitutional democracy. Maverick Citizen reports on them five days a week. Yet in this global conflagration, we are strangely silent in expressing solidarity with the struggles of our sisters and brothers elsewhere.
We protest our own oppressions, but fail to see that we occupy just one front in a relentless onslaught on people who use freedom of assembly, association and expression to rally to demand a better life for all. Our once strong traditions of solidarity, our identity with universal aspirations for rights and democracy, seem muted.
Be warned: To surrender the idea of human rights, the idea that there must be legally binding constraints on the conduct of both states and on private businesses which have grown more powerful than most states, would be a massive historical setback. It’s wrong for social justice activists on the left to ignore rights. As thousands of struggles have proved, human rights are a vital lever in the quest for equality and social justice. They exist in laws like our Constitution and that demands new and inclusive economies, action against the climate crisis, effective measures against worldwide femicide and gender-based violence.
We will be much weaker without them.
So, if governments will no longer protect human rights it will be up to us, the world’s citizens.
What will you do?
And if you choose quiescence as the lights go out for human rights in other democracies, don’t say you weren’t warned when the electricity runs out in ours. MC
Mark Heywood is the Editor of Maverick Citizen.