Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen: Human Rights Day Op-ed

Human rights and the march of history

The Sharpeville Massacre. Photo supplied

Saturday 21 March is Human Rights Day in South Africa. Although public gatherings planned to mark the day have been cancelled because of Covid-19, it does not stop us from thinking about the issues and the importance of human rights. A new human rights project is emerging. We just do not see it yet. But we should be looking for the signs.

As South Africans celebrate Human Rights Day on 21 March and commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre we may — unaware — find ourselves in a transformative period. This month — at least — we are witnessing a March of History.

March 2020 has been the month when the world realised the potentially devastating impact of Covid-19 or the coronavirus. When the world emerges from the societal vulnerabilities, the state policy failures and successes as well as the great show of humanity that the coronavirus will have revealed, it may be that people will demand more fairness and dignity from the state they live in.

A new bond between duty-bearer and rights-holders is being struck.

Last Saturday in Spain, people emerged on their balconies late at night applauding while collectively shouting “Viva los medicos! (Long live doctors!)”. In Denmark, the government has been powerful in its messaging by emphasising that their aim is to protect the most vulnerable in society and the privileged citizens will need to abide by the measures needed to achieve this.

An Italian living in the United States longed to go home to her struggling country, despite it dealing with a massive Covid-19-related death toll, because in Italy the authorities actually cared whereas — in contrast — the United States appeared:

“structurally incapable and fundamentally unwilling to put people over money, and all people over just some… This [the US] is a society that responds to poverty with police, and to healthcare needs with jail. The fundamental inequality on which everything in this country is predicated will be exacerbated by this crisis in ways we cannot fathom.”

These expressions of solidarity, gratitude and despair are both revealing and moving. They will not easily be forgotten, and our politics will need to respond to the values they embody. At the same time, populism — which seemed to be surging in Europe — has been exposed as morally bankrupt while a serious political commitment to the nexus between responsible state actions and international co-operation has scored important victories.

It is still uncertain how Covid-19 will affect South Africa. The country, however, is already too aware of the human cost and the social devastation that a virus can cause. South Africans have already shown the world — through hard-fought gains — that when a health crisis hits a country, revealing its cracks, human rights are always part of the answer. The international community may need to call on this South African experience in a renewed desire to advance international human rights in the aftermath of the coronavirus response.

This would not be new, but rather revisiting an old pattern from the 20th century. The Sharpeville Massacre represents just one example of how South Africa’s historical experience is woven into the freedoms enjoyed by people all around the world. The international community’s response to Sharpeville helped spark the breakthrough for international human rights law which happened in the early- to mid-1960s.

Before that, the passing of the 1953 Bantu Education Act by the apartheid regime helped inspire the adoption of the 1960 UNESCO flagship Convention on Discrimination in Education. Later, the historical sources show, the killing of Steve Biko in 1977 inspired the UN Commission on Human Rights to push forward its work against torture and a push for international mechanisms to investigate extrajudicial and unlawful killings worldwide despite opposition.

Such is the country’s importance that what happens in South Africa matters greatly to the rest of the world. It is both a destiny and an opportunity proving that Human Rights Day matters.

The Sharpeville demonstration was a protest against the most pernicious forms of inequalities represented by apartheid. Pernicious global inequalities — or inequalities within and between countries — is one of the most important issues today.

March 2020 has witnessed the publication of the English-language version of the world-renowned French economist Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital and Ideology — a global history of inequality and more. Piketty’s opening two sentences read:

“Every human society must justify its inequalities: unless reasons for them are found the whole political and social edifice stands in danger of collapse. Every epoch therefore develops a range of contradictory discourses and ideologies for the purpose of legitimising the inequality that already exists or that people believe should exist.”

We can no longer legitimise the vast inequalities existing around the world. They are no longer sustainable. If we ignore this fact, Piketty says, the political and social edifice of societies stands on the brink of collapse. The “contradictory discourses” that have sustained the expanding inequalities in our neoliberal age have been exposed because their hypocrisies have become too evident.

Neoliberalism was a form of state capture that hollowed out the social fabric of countries.

It is therefore little surprise that after the dramatic protests in Chile in the autumn of 2019 against the country’s vast social and economic inequalities, the attention finally turned towards transforming the 1974 constitution imposed by the military dictator Augusto Pinochet that legally entrenched the country as “the ground zero” of neoliberalism. The Director of Chile’s National Human Rights Institute stated that abandoning the 1974 Pinochet Constitution “would be like the fall of the Berlin Wall”.

Also this month, on 11 March, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to a Healthy Environment, David Boyd, called on the UN Human Rights Council to pass a resolution that secures global recognition of this right. The resolution could serve as a positive catalyst to accelerate efforts to “deliver the imperatives of cleaner air, improved access to safe water and adequate sanitation and sustainably produced food, healthy environments and safe climate”. This evidently would be of tremendous significance.

Human rights often get equated with idealism and its champions are frequently belittled as naïve. This is misleading. The truth is that human rights defenders and activists are realists. We see the world as it is. We see the suffering, the violations, the pain and the injustices all too clearly and we speak up.

We speak about reality. However, realism — given the state of the world today — can only express itself meaningfully through idealistic tropes because such is the scale of the challenges we face and the changes we need to secure justice, freedom, dignity, equality and non-discrimination. Human rights defenders show up, make themselves be counted and, depressingly often, human rights defenders are killed because of this — and civic space is closing in many places.

At the same time, human rights tackle the big issues, be it global pandemics, global inequalities, climate change or unprecedented environmental crisis and bring it to the local places close to home. All these big issues have human rights dimensions to them and in reality these issues are starting to coalesce around human rights. This is the fundamental nature of the new human rights project that is emerging which we just do not fully see yet.

Human rights helps us to survive — and the deeper meaning of these words is only about to grow bigger.

It is coming and we better prepare ourselves. We need to learn how to dream anew — not of utopias because that was never us at our best — but about the real change that we want to see, that people deserve in their lives and which is achievable and transformative. This is the lesson we can learn if we listen to the March of History, from the victims on that fateful day on 21 March 1960 all the way to the human rights champions in March 2020.

In 1962, drawing on the political momentum created by the Sharpeville Massacre and in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis when the world was on the brink of nuclear war, Jamaica elevated human rights on the international agenda at the UN. Jamaica argued that if the United Nations was to function as an organisation for collective security, it had to be based on an international legal order and that order had to be based on human rights. It was a matter of survival because as they explained:

“Often in the history of nations and civilisations a whole generation lives out its little life by the rules and standards of a bygone age, oblivious of the fact that the current of history and the march of ideas have passed it by. Let it not be said that in this generation one nation continued to dispute with the other areas of national sovereignty, about means of protecting national security, ignorant of the fact that the hydrogen bomb has eliminated the resort to force as a means of settling international disagreements.”

Substitute the reference to the “hydrogen bomb” with climate change, global inequalities or pandemics and we see clearly what is before us today. We cannot afford to live our lives as a civilisation oblivious to the state of the planet. We need to be the generation that abandons the bygone age that tolerated the arrival of an all-consuming climate crisis and extreme inequalities. Just as in the early 1960s, the time of Sharpeville, human rights is a major part of the answer. MC

Steven LB Jensen is a senior researcher at The Danish Institute for Human Rights. He is co-editor of the anthology Histories of Global Inequality. New Perspectives published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2019.


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