This past week marked the well documented 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom and the “I Have a Dream” speech. Despite being known as a civil rights leader, Dr. King was irrefutably a human rights activist. Human rights include the economic and civil rights, as well as social, political, and cultural rights. Human rights, Dr. King realized, we indivisible, interdependent,non-excludable / universal (human rights are for all people, and are rooted in our common humanity) and mutually reinforcing; upholding certain rights (for example freedom of assembly, speech, political rights, the right to employment, access to information) empowers people to claim other rights, while one human rights violation tends to beget others (culminating in a life of poverty and social exclusion). Today, these concepts are largely accepted by the international community and domestic development organizations–in Dr. King’s time they were pioneering concepts. Dr. King understood the difficulty of claiming rights, which involves mobilizing an oppressed group to overcome vested interests, power asymmetries, and collective action problems which sustain these human rights violations.
Furthermore, Dr. King understood the role an accountable and effective democratic government plays in upholding human rights obligations–as evidenced by the location of this historic rally. An effective democracy creates an enabling environment for people to claim their rights, which is one of the main reasons that democracy and human rights are so closely related. However, this enabling environment is only the beginning of the determination and thick-skin needed to make meaningful advances in human rights.
There is no doubt in my mind that, had Dr. King not been assassinated, he would have continued his work both for civil rights specifically and human rights more generally. Dr. King would have undoubtedly endorsed UN Human Rights Treaties enshrining the rights to development and employment, as well as other economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. As a man, Dr. King died to young; as a symbol he will live forever–I hope in some small way I am helping to further the work of this great American hero.
I would like use this blog as anopportunity to reflect on two themes I have noticed in my time as a student of the political economy of development, as a human rights worker for the UNDP, and as a generally informed global citizen:
1) You’ve got to fight for your rights:
A play on a popular Beastie Boys Song, but the message is 100% true. When I think of advances in human rights in America (the civil rights movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the gay rights movement), they all have in common a struggle to mobilize people to claim their rights. Furthermore, sacrifices must be made–Dr. King made the ultimate sacrifice for his cause. Progress will not be linear or fast, but through hard work over time meaningful progress can be made.
2) The dehumanization of minorities:
We live in the “age of human rights”. A quick historic overview: the concept of human rights in international governance and development took root in the aftermath of WWII. However, it was not until the end of the Cold War that the opportunity to champion human rights globally presented itself. Since that point, the UN and other similar government and non-governmental organizations have taken up this call. This summer, as an intern with the UNDP democratic governance group’s human rights team, I had the opportunity to participate in an event commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and
Programme of Action, which commemorated advances in human rights and mapped out future opportunities in human rights advocacy.
This “age of human rights” does not mean that human rights violations no longer occur. If anything, advances in ICTs and social media have exposed the extent to which human rights violations take place, particularly in least developed / authoritarian countries. Here at NN, I have written extensively on how human rights violations are at the heart of the majority of armed conflicts today; it is worth mentioning that development goals are rarely sustained in a conflict-affected country.
In this day and age, human rights violators justify their actions by dehumanizing the people whose rights are being violated. In Egypt and Syria, opposition groups are deemed terrorists by those in power. Just as media independence is a feature of a pluralistic democratic society, controls on media outlets–combined with propaganda campaigns–aim to drive home dehumanization in order to justify virtually any human rights violation (including murder). Racism, stereotyping and scapegoating can reinforce dehumanization campaigns.
We see dehumanization take place most often in the name of religion or “traditional values”. Any governing document, be it the Constitution of the United States, the Koran, or the Bible, interpreted too strictly, can be used to justify human rights violations; extremists may argue that if you do not subscribe to their beliefs, then you are less than human and do not deserve basic rights.
Governing documents are meant to be living, amenable to the context of the times. They are amended and reinterpreted to reflect changing societal norms; religion tends to be less adaptive, perhaps explaining part of the decline in religious observance in America. Islam’s inability to reinterpret itself for modern times is a root cause of Islamic extremism.
I too have a dream, or a normative vision, for the world. This vision depends on greater investments in human rights education and human capital at a young age, recognizing youth as an extremely important period of personal development. It depends on an understanding of the importance of sustainable human development and both domestic and extra-territorial human rights obligations. Sustainable human development cannot take place to the detriment of future generations or at the expense of the world’s most vulnerable people.
Anybody can do their part to help realize this normative vision; challenge anybody trying to sell a strict interpretation of any ideology and / or trying to dehumanize any group with stereotypes / racism. The vast (silent) majority of the global community wants peace and prosperity for all–together we can overcome this global collective action problem in the years and decades to come.