Keep in mind: The power of the people is stronger than the people in power. (Babu Owino)
Human rights embody a social learning process originating from social struggles for legal recognition
1. Human rights (HR) have to be demanded by those who are the victims of the existing unjust, discriminating structures. This is essential to ensure that HR are appropriately contextualized, are clearly linked to social mobilization, and are based on in-depth political analyses of national and global structures and policies.
2. But what we see is that people’s struggles and claims are constantly de-politicized and distorted by those in the service of the-power-of-the-day; distorting and misusing the HR vocabulary is often the cynical tactic integrated into their lingo. Consequently, in their hands, de-politization of the development agenda acts as a powerful tool to silence any dissent. The HR discourse is thus ideologically abused. Quite often too, their official references to HR principles and standards take the form of ‘soapbox oratory’ confirming there is no real intention to fulfill the realization of HR. Ultimately, therefore, HR projects are always at risk of becoming distorted-elite-driven-projects disconnected from those whose rights have been violated.
3. The conditions for the struggle for the realization of HR are thus dependent on a bottom-centered logic including the capacity of public interest civil society and social movements to organize ad-hoc campaigns at the national and transnational level. We cannot forget that the ‘political will’ of duty bearers must be pushed –and this depends on the capacity of local, national, and transnational civil society to push governments and relevant international agencies to be consequent with the HR framework –regardless of its complexities.*
*: Take an example: If the SDGs are reduced to a poverty eradication (and not a disparity reduction) program, our struggles will not really challenge existing global power imbalances; they will miss recognizing and acting upon inequality as a central aspect of human development and as the precondition for any progress towards sustainable development. The central issue of equality cannot simply be considered an indicator; it is our central and most desired outcome. What this implies is that the SDGs agreement and its implementation must be used as an opportunity for (re)politicizing global governance with special attention to the voices of the people who have been so far structurally marginalized.
Take another example: The debate over universal health coverage (UHC) is not to focus on the ratification of a particular model, but rather ought to start our struggle for a much wider discussion on the structure of global governance for health.
4. Rather than emerging from a democratic process, global development policies are too often determined by the interests of the powerful and the political elite backed by a bunch of technocratic development professionals.** There is now a generalized and justified skepticism based on the fact that those shaping the current Post-2015 Agenda are the very same groups that have for too long perpetuated problems of inequality and inequity. Therefore, in our struggle, global governance is to be introduced as an essential part of the Post-2015 Agenda.
**: Another serious issue here is that there is often a breach between the description/ analysis of the problems at hand and the solutions that are being put forward. The solutions adopted tend to be those that are always praised as being acceptable-to all-parties, but that, in reality, are being imposed by the relevant powerful interest groups.
5. Furthermore, it is no longer a secret that Private Public Partnerships (PPPs) contribute to the globalization of the neoliberal model of statehood and its social policies. As such, they hinder sustainable development by deliberately not empowering the structurally disadvantaged and disempowered. PPPs hide the fundamental conflict of interest between the profit-oriented enterprises with a transnational orientation and the societies being subjected to these partnerships. This being the prevailing fashion, foreign aid reinforces the existing power imbalances in which the rich Northern and BRIC countries act as donors.
6. In this context, the statements, lobbying, and legislative actions and struggles on the part of progressive groups and entities are of tremendous importance. But they can only be successful when, on the ground, there are strong social movements active-for-the-long-run.*** Mostly, these movements need to push a development agenda that is based on the HR framework. This implies the need to deconstructing false promises, as well as to establishing counter-hegemonic political processes and institutions. The point not to be forgotten here is that alternative development paradigms and models of governance already exist –only that now is the time to bring them into the Post-2015 agenda.
***: Never forget that social movements are such, as long as there are people who actually ‘move’ them… (all the above adapted from Nadja Meisterhans)
The activists’ role is to break the isolation of emerging grassroots struggles confronting powerful, increasingly global, interests
7. Today, people rendered poor, impacted by economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) violations, and/or threatened with losing the basis of their livelihoods, reside in every country in the world. If not explicitly united in a common struggle, these communities-upon-communities and social movements risk becoming ineffective and obsolete. No one is voiceless, but the voice of the many is louder! In fact, a united leadership of those directly impacted by dispossession, impoverishment, exploitation and environmental devastation –together with those who have made a political commitment to secure human rights– is critical if a global movement for positive social change has any prospects of succeeding.
8. What this means is that victory in the struggle for decent jobs in the Philippines will only be fulfilled when there is adequate housing in South Africa, safe and abundant water availability in the Middle East, and secure livelihoods in Sri Lanka. Otherwise, each of these victories becomes a reason for powerful economic actors to shift their operations elsewhere in the world and continue their pursuit of ever-increasing profit and growth at the expense of HR and environmental sustainability.
9. In connecting these struggles, a coherent plan for collective action (perhaps in the form of a global campaign) will reveal not only the contradictions of the current economy and related political systems, but will build the analytical capacity and a broader leadership necessary for a global movement to make HR and social justice a reality for all.
10. Given the current isolation of existing grassroots struggles, we must bring more-and-more movements, communities and public interest civil society organizations to this campaign, reinforcing the recognition that: ‘Your-problem-is-my-problem-and-your-struggle-is-my-struggle’.****
****: We also have to contend with the deepening backlash by powerful private actors and government officials against communities and individuals (HR defenders) who have mobilized to demand the respect of HR. (all the above adapted from ESCR-Net)
11. The more people hear about and make the HR discourse their own, the more their mindsets will strive to change the dominant discourse and the more they will join the struggle. This evolves over time, but there is a periodicity in this –peaks and valleys that accompany the rise and fall of the political heat. To repeat: The expansion of all HR has always been the result of pressure and struggles from the affected people. Due to these respective pressures, the language of HR is eventually being incorporated into hard law in different countries, as the rights of indigenous peoples and the right to food demonstrates.
Our struggles should not allow anyone in our respective societies to have insufficient income for a life in dignity
Economic and social rights did not fall out of the sky: they were conquered through hard social struggles in which many people lost their lives.
12. Social protection and the welfare state have a long history, not unrelated to HR. Both have been consistently eroded since the introduction of neoliberal policies. But now, capitalism does not want welfare states, because it knows they will ultimately destroy it. On the other hand, capitalism cannot exist without the welfare state, so it will try to maintain it. Seems contradictory, no? This dichotomy explains why even the World Bank today is defending social protection, even if it gives it a totally different meaning now than what it had in the past. Well, but social security was meant to be universal, wasn’t it? But it did not eradicate poverty… Some say “social security is about targeting and this is bad”. Well, I am aware of this, thank you. Be it known that I have been pleading all my professional life for universal systems, but applied with differentiated benefits –which is different. All neoliberal ideologues do want to target since they do not want public money to be spent on non-poor people: the latter ought to buy their insurances in the market. What targeting means for the World Bank is that you have to carefully look at which poor people can receive money, i.e., it is targeting and selecting the poor according to the old division between deserving and non-deserving poor: a deplorable stands… All of us have universal rights, but how these rights are to be realized depends on the different political, economic and social arrangements within countries. (Francine Mestrum)
13. In our struggles, we are invariably, and all the time, swimming upstream, always trying to push the system to address structural problems. But are we doing so within-the-way-the-system-works? If yes, this tends to make life more difficult than it ought to be for those claim holders who have been rendered vulnerable by the system. (Nancy Birsall)
Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City
-There are two special, but not rare, kinds of colleagues: those who do not take action, because they feel it threatens their position, and those who think they take action, because they perceive a threat if they do not. Many of them want to be wise, but lack political skills; want to be just, but lack wisdom and determination; want to act politically, but lack the courage. (Paulo Coelho)
-Moral absolutism applied to others, combined with moral relativism applied to our own actions is hypocritical –and this is the worse of social sins. (Mario Waissbluth)
-Of course, indifference can be tempting –actually more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude
interruptions to our work. It is, after all, troublesome to be involved in another person’s pain and despair. Indifference reduces the Other to an abstraction. (Elie Wiesel)
-Ultimately, being HR-based, being ecological, being intercultural, and emphasizing the importance of mobilization and participation of affected people, not forgetting women and children –this is what it is all about!