What is a human right? *

UNDHRIt is a controversial subject, this issue of what constitutes a fundamental human right. This morning I watched a debate on BBC Breakfast about whether prisoners in the UK should be allowed to vote. The discussion followed a dismissal by the Supreme Court yesterday of appeals by two prisoners for the right to vote in elections. One guest, who was an ex-prisoner himself, claimed that it was a human right to be allowed to vote. It is true that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does state, in Article 21, that ‘Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives‘. Yet, it does not specifically state that it is a human right to vote, even if you are in prison; hence, we have a grey area.

My morning TV viewing got me thinking about the sometimes vague nature of the human rights declaration. Is this what allows our society to justify the exploitation of millions of our fellow human beings? But when I consider the things I deem to be inexcusable and unjust, the declaration seems to be clear.

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms‘ (Article 4), yet there are more slaves now than ever before in human history. Men, women and children continue to be dehumanised through forced labour, trafficking, sexual abuse and violence against them. The scariest part of it all is that I unintentionally allow this denigration to continue each time I purchase something as simple as a  fast-fashion item of which I know nothing about the origin.

Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work (Article 23). Really? So the person who farmed the cocoa beans for my Snickers bar was, undoubtedly, paid a fair wage for his hard days labour? The lovely lady who picked the cotton for my jumper is happy with her monthly wages? I am afraid we have fallen well short of this one. It feels as though there is an expectation solely on national governments to ‘look after their own’ but it is not hard to see that we live in an interconnected, global society where our actions and choices affect one another quite profoundly.

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care‘ (Article 25). How I wish this were a reality. Turn on the television and it becomes blatantly obvious that the number of people who live in completely desperate circumstance is overwhelming; from Syrian refugees, to shanty towns in South Africa and slums in India, the term ‘inadequate’ hardly begins to describe their living standards. According to the World Bank, 1.2 billion people still live in extreme poverty. What this means is that these people are expected to survive on less than what you could buy here in the UK for £1 a day. Not only does this break my heart, but it is clearly in violation of of their basic human rights.

Everyone has the right to education‘ (Article 26) yet in 2010 in Nigeria, more than 10 million children were out of primary education. As you can see from this Gapminder graph, the problem of children missing out on a basic education is rife around the world. Malala Yousafzia, the inspirational young girl who survived being shot by the Taliban for advocating for the right of girls to be educated, bravely responds to her attackers, “Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are trying to do is wrong, that education is our basic right.”

In saying all this, I am optimistic about the prospects for all of us. While the above picture seems bleak I know this to be only part of the story. Thanks to the courageous and diligent work of anti-trafficking organisations such as Hope for Justice, campaigns for transparency in the fashion industry, fair trade initiatives, child sponsorship programmes, microfinance and people like you and me standing up for the rights of others, we are making a difference. The number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by more than 25% in the last 30 years. That is a phenomenal step in favour of the right to adequate living standards for all. Fair trade stipulations are making it possible for farmers around the world to earn fair pay for their produce thus leaving them and their families less vulnerable to traffickers who prey on those who are most desperate.

We may not live in a perfect world, but it does not mean we should stop trying. We know what things we need to do to make this a fairer global society for all. I feel motivated by these words from the Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, ‘For all that has been accomplished in our campaign for human rights, we still have much to do.’ We need to acknowledge that we all have our part to play, however small it may be…and then get on and do it.

*this blog post was written for Blog Action Day 2013


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