In the first week of March 2018 China shifted from autocracy into dictatorship. President Xi Jinping, who in the absence of U.S leadership is fast becoming the world’s most powerful man, published a brief Party memo, giving notice that he will change China’s constitution, enabling him to rule as president for as long as he chooses; brushing aside the two-term rule that has maintained stability in China since the wild reign of Mao Zedong.
With a dictatorship leading the world, and ‘new normals’ rapidly being established by the likes of Putin, Trump, Erdoğan and Hungary’s President Orban, are we missing the bigger picture and drifting towards a future with less freedoms?
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, commented on February 28th on the health of human rights across the world. He said; “The most devastating wars of the last 100 years did not come from countries needing more GDP growth. They stemmed from – and I quote from the Universal Declaration – a “disregard and contempt for human rights”. They stemmed from oppression. Today oppression is fashionable again; the security state is back, and fundamental freedoms are in retreat in every region of the world. “
Not so long ago, human societies belonged to all-powerful rulers, who gave rights only to people they liked; and then only for as long as they liked them. It took a couple of thousand years, but inch by painful inch, starting with the rights of a citizen and evolving into today’s concept of the rights of a human being – independent of those authorised by the Government, we fought and won new norms and laws that protected us and gave us our freedom.
It has not been a straight or easy road. In the 20th Century all-powerful-rulers tried for a comeback, dismantling our rights at dizzying speed and dragging the planet down into the sludge of rule-by-fear. Fascism flourished. The world erupted into war. 1948, exhausted, bankrupt, blood-soaked and shell-shocked, we said a collective ‘Never Again’.
The 1948 UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights began our search as a species for a set of shared values that would protect human life and place human rights, rather than rulers, at the centre of societies.
In the 25 years that followed, decolonization and civil rights transformed the world. Giants like Gandhi and Martin Luther King were not the only ones making history. Legal and diplomatic breakthroughs were negotiated by Liberia, Ghana, the Philippines, Jamaica, Senegal and Coasta Rica. By late 1970s that human rights had become a major force in international politics, and part of everyday political and journalistic language.
On January 20, 1977, on a clear day, Jimmy Carter inaugurated his presidency from the Capitol steps with a vision for world peace; “Because we are free we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere…. Our commitment to human rights must be absolute.”
Such promise. How have we been distracted from our proud march as a species toward universal democracy, freedom and equality, to today’s world of dictatorial and legitimised China, America First, Britain First and European flirtations with authoritarian rule?
Our vision of human rights has become corrupted, diluted and incoherent. To name but a few stand-out discrepancies: neoconservatives have sought to impose human rights down the barrel of a gun. Imperialists twisted Carter’s high-minded foreign policy idea into a convenient excuse to invade and seize resources from more vulnerable nations. Governments continue to violate human rights with apparent impunity, including our own U.K and its abuses of disabled people. The majority of the 163 countries that belong to the UN engage in torture, and women remain subordinate to men in most countries of the world.
Human rights are a human construction. We imagined them into reality, there is no equivalent to be found looking to our animal past. To the contrary; the animal kingdom is ruled by the law of the jungle. But almost everything in our societies has been imagined into reality; cars, computers, money, business, the scientific method and musical symphony. It doesn’t make them any less valuable or useful to us. We could settle for less, there is nothing stopping us from letting them go; but it makes no sense for us to harm ourselves in this way.
Just as our resolve toward a untied human species has dwindled, it can be awakened again. It’s all in our hearts and our heads, not an outside force taking it away from us.