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Paper promises: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70

Human Rights
Eleanor Roosevelt reading the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Credit: Wikicommons

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is 70 this year. It consists of 30 articles guaranteeing everything from the rights to life and freedom from enslavement and torture, to the rights to housing, decent work and freedom of expression.

As I document in my new book, Human Wrongs, successive British governments have violated every article of the UDHR domestically: not to mention abroad. Not only that, but since 2000, the UK has been condemned on multiple occasions by the United Nations – the very agency that adopted the UDHR.

Concerns about the British state’s treatment of poor people, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and women have been raised by various UN agencies and rapporteurs. Other concerns raised by the UN include Britain’s standards on freedom of expression (particularly the right to protest), the use of torture in British territories (notably Diego Garcia) and spying on British citizens by the deep state. This is at odds with Britain’s self-image as a beacon of human rights and democracy.

As I explore in this article, the major problem is the ideological mindset in which Britain’s Conservative government is operating, namely that ‘rights’ are abstract ideas comprised of vague slogans like ‘liberty’, whereas the UDHR makes those rights more concrete in the form of social equality, the right to decent healthcare and so on.

An intriguing document

The UDHR is one of the most intriguing documents in the canon of international law. At the time of its adoption on 10 December 1948, two scholars (published much later in the American Journal of International Law in 1964) wrote: ‘It is in response to the ever increasing demands of people everywhere for greater access to, and wider sharing of, basic values, … that the United Nations program for human rights is being framed and implemented.’ So, according to them, grassroots pressure compelled the Western powers that drafted and implemented the UDHR to formalize a set of rights.

However, governments are not in the business of giving people rights. Rights are hard-won, not gifts from elites. In fact, the UDHR itself makes clear in the Preamble that it was drafted to safeguard elites from revolution by offering minimal rights to populations: ‘it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.’

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights itself makes clear in the Preamble that it was drafted to safeguard elites from revolution by offering minimal rights to populations

But here it gets strange. The UDHR clearly says that people ‘should be protected by the rule of law’. But the document itself was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations (as GA Resolution 217 A(III)), meaning that it has no enforcement mechanisms. At the time of its adoption, one of its major sponsors, Eleanor Roosevelt, said that the UDHR is ‘not a treaty; it is not an international agreement. It is not and does not purport to be a statement of law or of legal obligation. It is a declaration of basic principles of human rights and freedoms to serve as a common standard of achievement for all peoples of all nations.’ So, according to one of its main supporters, it was never intended to be an enforceable treaty.

Legal specialists of the period did not agree. Herbert Briggs writing at the time in the American Journal of International Law had a different opinion to Eleanor Roosevelt: ‘The proposed Covenant on Human Rights [as it was then called] is intended to take the form of a treaty establishing binding obligations under international law.’

Under the Labour government of Harold Wilson, Britain incorporated the UDHR, indirectly, into national law. This is important because, in principle, the ordinary people being hurt by the current Conservative government’s rollback of social and political rights could, in theory, make a legal appeal to the UDHR.

Charles Dukes, later Lord Dukeston (Labour), represented the UK as one of the nine Drafting Committee members. The members worked for two years to get the UDHR adopted. The British House of Lords says that the UDHR ‘was the first international expression of universal standards on human rights’.

According to the Lords, UDHR ‘was created in order to provide a framework through which the aims of the United Nations Charter could be realized and protected’. The UN Charter, adopted through the Security Council, has an enforcement mechanism, unlike the UDHR itself. That is another oddity.

Britain is legally bound to follow some of the articles of the UDHR because many were absorbed into the legally-binding UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) 1966, which Britain ratified in 1976. However, there is no enforcement mechanism for the UDHR, even within the ICCPR. It is as if the Western elites of the post-War period begrudgingly introduced the Universal Declaration and then used it as an ideological weapon to criticize national enemies (notably the Soviet Union, which rejected the UDHR).


Mainly ignored

The UDHR was immediately adopted by 48 nation-states. Eight abstained: the USSR (including its allies and colonies), apartheid South Africa and Saudi Arabia; the latter two being close British allies. It was drafted by statesmen (few women, notably Eleanor Roosevelt) and lawyers from the US, Britain, Canada and their allies.

In addition to the self-exemption standard (making it a non-binding treaty), another self-serving contradiction emerges. The signing into law of the UDHR, which the leading framers assured the world was not law, was given very little media and scholarly attention, a fact that continues to the present.

Antoon De Baets, Professor of history, ethics, and human rights at the University of Groningen, laments the fact ‘that historians have paid so little attention to the [UDHR]’. Likewise, David P Forsythe, Distinguished Professor of political science at the University of Nebraska, notes that ‘American political scientists seem not to have paid much attention to international human rights, for the most part.’ In journals and symposia, ‘[o]ne searches in vain for more than brief recognition of international human rights developments.’ Marjorie M Whiteman was an advisor to Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt, she says, ‘repeatedly asserted that the [UDHR] should be a “ringing declaration”, to be committed to memory with ease and recited by school children the world over as we in America recite the opening clauses of our Declaration of Independence or the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States. In this, she was disappointed.’

How Britain responded

According to the National Archives, the UDHR is important because it ‘matters not only in times of conflict and in societies suffering repression, but also in addressing social injustice and achieving human dignity in times of peace in established democracies,’ – like the social injustices we are seeing in modern Britain.

In his critique of the loss of rights under the neoliberal New Labour government (The Assault on Liberty), future Conservative MP and later short-lived Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, writes that too much political leftism and selfishness has ‘conflated’ the so-called fundamental rights – liberty, presumption of innocence, freedom of speech, protection from arbitrary detention – with so-called wants: decent education, healthcare, decent housing and functioning public services. According to this view, the expansion of fundamental rights from abstractions, such as ‘liberty’, to concrete protections provided by the state, such as adequate housing, is an assault on rights.

If the victims of social injustice have no rights because rights are limited to certain abstractions (like ‘liberty’), then there is no social injustice to violate

This kind of anti-human thinking is the core ideology of so-called New Conservatism. Raab blames the European Union and Britain’s adoption of the Human Rights Act 1998 for the ‘introduc[tion of] a socialist conception of human rights, fundamentally at odds with the British legacy of liberty’. Raab concludes that [t]he result has been to upgrade endless ordinary claims – including to social services, NHS treatment, welfare payments and even police protection – to the status of fundamental human rights.’

A lawyer, Raab conveniently omits Britain’s obligation to the socialistic principles as codified in the ICCPR.

Naturally, the New Conservatives’ view of the UDHR is at odds with the UDHR itself, but also with the National Archives’ understanding of rights. Returning to the National Archives: ‘Non-discrimination, equality and fairness – key components of justice – form the basis of the Declaration.’

The National Archives err, however, in claiming that UDHR ‘has over time been accepted as a contract between governments and their peoples. Virtually all states have accepted it.’ In reality, it is accepted only on paper: and even then, barely. ‘The Declaration has also served as the foundation for an expanding system of human rights protection that today focuses also on vulnerable groups such as disabled persons, indigenous peoples and migrant workers.’ Again, only on paper.

The British Library describes the UDHR as ‘the first global codification of rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled’. It adds that ‘British representatives’ under the Labour government of the time ‘were frustrated that it had moral but no legal obligation. It was not until 1976 that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights came into force, giving a legal status to most of the UDHR.’

Both the old Labour Party Constitution and the New Labour Constitution committed the party (and thus at times the government) to upholding United Nations’ principles. Clause IV article 7 of the old Constitution committed Labour ‘to support[ing] the United Nations and its various agencies and other international organizations for the promotion of peace, the adjustment and settlement of international disputes by conciliation or judicial arbitration, the establishment and defence of human rights, and the improvement of the social and economic standards and conditions of work of the people of the world.’

The updated version reiterated Britain’s formal commitment to UN principles. Clause IV article 3 states: ‘Labour is committed to the defence and security of the British people, and to co-operating in European institutions, the United Nations, the Commonwealth and other international bodies to secure peace, freedom, democracy, economic security and environmental protection for all.’

However, both the Blair and Thatcher government found terrorism-related excuses to derogate specific articles of the ICCPR. In Thatcher’s day, it was Northern Irish terror. In Blair’s, it was the ‘war on terror’.

Thatcher withdrew from articles of the ICCPR covering: arbitrary arrest and detention (thousands of Irish were interned), bringing swift justice (many were held without charge), the segregation of convicts from suspects (including children), freedom of movement within one’s own state (the British had every dwelling in Northern Ireland under surveillance), presumption of innocence, protection from arbitrary interference, freedom of expression (Northern Ireland voices were banned from/distorted by national media), the right to peaceful assembly and the right to associate with others (including forming trade unions).

In addition to these, Blair declared that following 9/11, a public emergency justified abrogating Article 9 (protection from arbitrary arrest).

A portrait of inequality

There are serious structural problems with British society that inevitability result in human rights abuses. By repudiating the notion that decent housing, access to healthcare and so on, are ‘rights’, successive British governments have not only put large numbers of people in desperate situations but have denied that there is anything wrong with doing that. If the victims of social injustice have no rights because rights are limited to certain abstractions (like ‘liberty’), then there is no social injustice to violate.

There are 65 million people living in the UK, about 9 million of whom were born abroad. Approximately 11.3 million families are in receipt of some kind of social security (eg, child tax credit, housing benefits). The majority of claimants are in work and receiving benefits because wages are so low. In addition, 8.7 million Britons receive a state pension. There are over 11 million disabled people in the UK, but only 3 million claim social security specifically for their disability. For over 9 million British families, social security accounts for half their income (or 30 per cent of all British families). Despite propaganda citing the ‘workshy’ or Britain’s supposed culture of entitlement and laziness, only 2 per cent of households have a person who has never worked; half of whom are people between 18-25 years old. Less than 1 per cent of welfare recipients engage in benefit fraud.

Depending on the year and method of analysis, Britain is the 5th or 6th largest economy in the world, with a GDP of $2.8 trillion. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn succeeded in making millions of Britons aware of this fact by including it in campaign speeches, while Tory rival Theresa May made every effort to conceal it. Despite this, a million Britons are dependent on food banks. This is due to a ‘cash-flow problem’, according to Dominic Raab, citing figures from the Trussell Trust, which runs food banks. Raab omitted that the Trust explained that the ‘cash-flow problem’ is because people don’t have enough money to live on. Nearly one in three Britons live in relative poverty, 60 per cent of whom are working families. Of these, one million are destitute: they are either homeless and/or have no money to keep themselves clean, fed or warm.

Of the UK’s 65 million residents, 134 are billionaires (at the time of writing). Their combined wealth equals £658bn ($837bn). Britain has only two major political parties. The dominant Tory government receives over 50 per cent of its funding from City of London Corporation-based financial institutions: asset managers, bankers, building societies, hedge funds, (re)insurers and liquidity firms.

What are the consequences of such an unequal society? The UN Economic and Social Council states: ‘The adoption of fiscal consolidation programmes may be necessary for the implementation of economic and social rights.’ But Thatcherism, New Labourism and post-financial crisis Tory-led austerity have dismantled such programmes.

‘If such programmes are not implemented with full respect for human rights standards and do not take into account the obligations of States towards the rights holders,’ says the UN body (rights’ holders meaning the public), ‘they may adversely affect a range of rights protected by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,’ of which Britain is a signatory state and which contains many provisions of the UDHR. In contrast to the Raab view explored above, the UN report concludes:

Most at risk are labour rights, including the right to work (art. 6), the right to just and favourable conditions of work, including the right to fair wages and to a minimum wage that provides workers with a decent living for themselves and their families (art. 7), the right to collective bargaining (art. 8), the right to social security, including unemployment benefits, social assistance and old-age pensions (arts. 9 and 11), the right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to food and the right to housing (art. 11), the right to health and access to adequate health care (art. 12) and the right to education (arts. 13-14). Low-income families, especially those with children, and workers with the lowest qualifications are disproportionately affected by measures such as job cuts, minimum wage freezes and cutbacks in social assistance benefits, which potentially result in discrimination on the grounds of social origin or property.

Comparing caring

British media have done a spectacular job of portraying Jeremy Corbyn and the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell as dangerous Marxist lunatics. In reality, the Labour party manifesto, if implemented, would simply bring Britain up to the standards of many Western European countries by imposing some controls over the economy. In terms of social indicators, such as life expectancy, Britain compares poorly to other, comparably ‘developed’ nations, with the notable exception of the ultra-neoliberal US.

It is worth noting that post-crash austerity is not the sole reason for Britain’s social inequality. British society has long been dominated by both intergenerational elites and nouveau riche, whose lobbying efforts, selfish ideologies and revolving-door business-to-politics modus operandi have resulted in devastating effects on poorer members of society.

Writing in the 1980s, AH Halsey found that from the end of the First World War to the 1970s, ‘slow and steady progress’ moved the UK ‘towards a more equal distribution of personal income’. By the 1970s, the top 10 per cent held a quarter of the country’s wealth; still uneven, but nothing as compared to today. Those on the bottom of the income scale also shared a quarter of the wealth. The rest was shared among the middle-classes.

Due in large measure to nationalization and the creation of a welfare state by several Labour governments (notably those of Attlee and Wilson, who served twice), many working-class people entered the middle-classes at the expense of the rich. The rich mobilized in the form of the ‘New Conservatism’ or Thatcherism, in an effort to quickly regain their wealth.

Whereas previously the wealth share of the upper 10 per cent had been falling, between 1976 and 1982, with neoliberal reforms underway, it was the bottom fifth that lost literally half its already meagre wealth. What were the effects? In 2015, the UK came second to worst in average infant mortality across 11 Western European countries, and on a par with ex-Soviet Eastern European countries. Drawing on UN data, the KidsRights Index measures child wellbeing in terms of states’ achievements versus their limitations. The 2017 index saw the UK plunge from a once-respectable 11th position to 156th.

Despite legislation to curb it, Britain is still ahead of Western European countries (except Belgium) when it comes to underage drinking and in 2016, it still had the highest rate of underage pregnancy in Western Europe. Britain also has some of the highest levels of sexual violence against women aged 18-29. The UK is not even in the top 10 global countries for human development in terms of life expectancy, income and education.

Rights denied

Successive British governments have inadvertently, and at other times quite deliberately, denied basic rights to citizens at home (not to mention abroad) by pursuing a form of institutionalized greed known as neoliberalism. In doing so, they have violated in one way or another each of the UDHR’s 30 articles: the very articles that were supposed to protect citizens. Or perhaps those articles weren’t supposed to protect citizens. As we saw at the beginning of this article, the record on the intention of the original supporters of the UDHR is mixed and contradictory, which doesn’t help to safeguard rights.

The UK could easily come up to the level of other European countries in terms of social indicators like life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality, and happiness and wellbeing, if only its rulers were compelled by grassroots struggle to adopt minimal controls over the economy. Until then, the UDHR will be little more than an inspiring piece of paper.

TJ Coles is a postdoctoral researcher at Plymouth University’s Cognition Institute, a contributor to Counterfire and the author of several books, including Human Wrongs (iff Books) and the forthcoming Privatized Planet (New Internationalist).



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