Where now for Human Rights?

Posted on René Cassin's blog on Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

David Aarononvitch‘We live in uncertain times’ is the oft-repeated refrain in these pre-Brexit post-Trump times. Human rights were one of the corner stones of the mission to rebuild an international order from the ruins of the Second World War. But, with the rise of populist nationalism, are human rights values losing traction?

In June, René Cassin brought together leading campaigners, Jewish community leaders, lawyers, academics, legal commentators and funders to discuss – under Chatham House rules – the future of human rights.

We invited Times columnist David Aaronovitch to get things underway by giving his thoughts on the issue. He has since reflected on the discussion in an article for theJewish Chronicle.

The meeting was chaired by Danny Silverstone, chair of René Cassin’s Trustee Board. We are very grateful to Berwin Leighton Paisner for hosting this important discussion.


The Future of Human Rights

Opening questions

  1. Are we at a turning points in the human rights story?
  2. How do we remake the case for human rights?
  3. How do we broker / broaden human rights discussion beyond the ‘usual suspects’?

Key points raised by participants

A change in the zeitgeist, from enthusiasm …

  • Human rights were a significant and positive movement post 1970s. They represented international commitment (eg Jimmy Carter’s declaration ‘better world beyond immediate economic benefits’)
  • Human rights were weaponised during the Cold War – and, in many ways, they won the battle, becoming the norm and lingua franca

… through indifference …

  • The human rights project was a generational thing – sacred 50 years ago, but today facing increasing questions re their absolute nature
  • Human rights started as an elite initiative and is now retreating from championing human rights for themselves and others

… to hostility

  • Pessimistic outlook – the tectonic plates have now shifted and not in a good way for human rights
  • Russia and ‘Putinism’ and its spread to other countries: nationalist, authoritarian, problematic relationship with wealth
  • Significance of Trump is not what happens in USA but what happens outside USA (eg USA State Department Human Rights Global Report – human rights of other countries no longer a priority). Not reassuring to minorities to hear the phrase ‘America first’

How should we respond?

  • We have an opportunity to challenge human rights as an elite project of west / global north with particular focus on civil and political rights and, potentially, to return to the universal principles and values of the founding human rights conventions
  • Should we be framing social and economic rights within such a universalistic approach? Bringing poverty and marginalised communities into the mainstream of human rights advocacy?

Current problems – real and perceived

  • Threat of non-state actors very pertinent – human rights used to protect citizens from state, but now are human rights preventing state from protecting citizens from non-state actors?
  • Advocates for human rights are often privileged and least likely to experience human rights violations. This is a square that needs circling – HR advocates need to be collaborative, work locally not nationally and lawyers might need to let go of some nuance
  • Concerns about knee-jerk responses to human rights protections in the wake of terrorist attacks – generally seen to be a ‘hollow threat’
  • Mixed views about the future threat to Britain’s membership of the ECHR. Most participants thought that leaving or re-patriating the Convention was unlikely in the medium term
  • Mixed views about UK’s record on human rights compliance
  • Impact of increasingly polarised societies and politics: hierarchy of rights; ‘our’ rights vs. ‘your’ rights

One enduring and unavoidable conflict?

  • Human rights stand or fall and societies stand or fall on capacity to protect minorities (including unpopular and transient ones) – ie sometimes human rights conflict with democracy

Opportunities for ‘the Jewish voice for human rights’

  • 70th anniversary of UDHR in 2018 is an opportunity to restate the case for human rights – highlighting what human rights add; that humanity must always trump nationality; and importance of equality before the law
  • Resonance with Jewish community through history of Nuremberg

Closing questions

  • Elitism of human rights movement – how to move it to a more inclusive setting?
  • Democracy – how do we protect minorities, human rights as bulwark against populism?
  • Religion – How does Jewish community fit in?
  • Poverty – what place for social and economic rights?
  • The medium term outlook for human rights – optimistic or pessimistic?(participants were equally split on this issue)

To find out more about former JHub Resident organisation and the work they do visit their website here.

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