News | Participation / Civil Rights - Social Theory - Human Rights The Timeless Relevance of Human Rights

Although codified in the Universal Declaration in 1948, human rights must be fought for every day


Protesters chant slogans at a demonstration organized by the LGTBI associations at Puerta del Sol in Madrid, to denounce the serious setback in LGTBI rights proposed by the PP (Popular Party) of Isabel Diaz Ayuso, president of the Community of Madrid, 13 November 2023. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

“Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”, according to the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Eva Wuchold is the director of the Social Rights Programme at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Geneva Office.

The establishment of human rights for all human beings, first in the Charter of the United Nations and then in detail in the Declaration of Human Rights, sprang from the negative experience of injustice, war, violence, colonialism, racism, and social inequality. Not only for this reason, the declaration is “one of the great documents in world history”, as former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson once put it.

To this day, however, the document remains an unfulfilled promise. There are wars, people die of hunger, are racially persecuted, enslaved, expelled, live in bondage. The universal validity of their rights is questioned or denied anew every day.

Human rights are therefore anything but indivisible. Even the postulated equality of the human rights formulated in the declaration’s 30 articles is up for discussion every day. What, concretely, has the Universal Declaration of Human Rights accomplished and how can those rights be defended today? Kathrin Gerlof of maldekstra spoke with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Eva Wuchold about these questions and more.

If you start from the point in time at which people and institutions globally reached agreement on the rights that belong to our species, then the concept of human rights is a relatively recent phenomenon. What exactly qualifies as a human right?

Human rights are essentially a set of principles concerning equality and justice. By definition, they are rights that are granted to us by virtue of the fact that we are human beings. The baseline for human rights is laid out in the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Since then, human rights have been defined and enshrined in numerous international treaties. Examples of so-called civil and political human rights include the right to life and bodily integrity, freedom of speech, assembly, and association, gender equality, and protection against torture or slavery. Examples of economic, social, and cultural rights include the right to education, health, food, and social security. These are termed collective rights, and they include the right to development, peace, a clean and healthy living environment, and the right to self-determination of peoples.

The hierarchy of rights, which puts political and civil rights first, economic, social, and cultural rights second, and collective rights last, is highly controversial today as it mistakenly implies a hierarchy of values. It is better to speak of “dimensions” of human rights.

Human rights were declared 75 years ago after the devastation of World War II. In some respects, one could say the declaration is founded on the dead. Was this perhaps the beginning of a new era?

The modern struggle for human rights began shortly after the outbreak of World War II, not after its end.

In 1940, the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” appeared in the Daily Herald newspaper. It presented a plan for reordering the world in response to the increasing conflicts around the issue of race. What was truly novel about this document was that it established a framework for a new international organization which would not only protect fundamental rights, as had been the case in previous legal documents such as the Magna Carta of 1215, the US Constitution of 1787, or France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, but that these rights would form the basis of a new world order. The intention was that human rights would lay the moral foundation of a new international order after the war.

The implementation of human rights requires not only that states be reminded of their human rights obligations, but also that a vibrant civil society maintains an unrelenting commitment to human rights.

By 1 March 1945, the “Declaration of the United Nations” had been signed by 47 states, which were then considered the signatory states of the United Nations. This marked the beginning of the establishment of the United Nations and laid the foundation for a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in response to the totalitarian threat posed by Nazi Germany.

What distinguishes human rights from fundamental rights?

Human rights are enshrined in international declarations and treaties, while fundamental rights are protected by the constitutions of individual states. The most important thing about human rights is that they apply to all people irrespective of any distinctions such as race, ethnicity, gender, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status. Secondly, all people have these rights regardless of the country or state they live in; and thirdly, no one can lose their human rights, regardless of where they are or whether they have committed serious crimes. Fundamental rights, on the other hand, are basic rights that individuals have vis-à-vis a respective state.

Many states, including Germany, have incorporated human rights into their constitutions. That is to say that in some cases, fundamental rights include some of the human rights. Other rights apply exclusively to people with German citizenship. These are called civil rights, and they include, among other things, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of association, the freedom of movement, the freedom of occupation, and the right to vote.

Is there a direct link between human dignity and human rights?

Human dignity is the starting point and heart of all human rights. Article 1 of the German Basic Law states: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” But human dignity is not only the starting point of the German Basic Law. It is also the starting point of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The reason being that respect for human dignity is the indispensable prerequisite for all values, norms, and legally protected rights or entitlements. Without reference to human dignity, a proper understanding of human rights is ultimately impossible, since it represents an individual’s fundamental right to be respected as an autonomous subject. This right to respect constitutes the space of moral and legal discourse as an inclusive space which no one may be excluded from.

“Universal”, “inalienable”, and “indivisible” are the adjectives usually associated with the concept. “Universal” seems clear, “inalienable” less so, and what does “indivisible” mean?

The cornerstone of international human rights legislation is the fact that human rights are universal rights, meaning that everybody is equally entitled to them. However, this is constantly called into question due to the fact that within social and political discourse, legal demands are often made on the basis of nationality, gender, religion, status, or similar factors. Due to the fact that “universal” necessarily implies that all people, regardless of where they happen to be, are entitled to these rights, debates on how to incorporate immigrants into social security systems and the like often tend to lapse into absurdity.

We can use this latter context to clarify the criteria of “inalienable” and “indivisible”. “Inalienable” means that rights cannot be voluntarily forfeited or relinquished nor can they be taken away, except in certain situations and through due process. For example, the right to freedom can be restricted if a person is found guilty of a crime by a court of law.

On the other hand, “indivisible” means that one person’s rights cannot infringe upon another person’s rights. In other words, all human rights are interdependent. One set of rights cannot be fully realized independently of the others. For example, progress on the fronts of civil and political rights makes it easier to realize economic, social, and cultural rights. By the same token, the violation of economic, social, and cultural rights can have a negative impact on many other kinds of rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948. But it is not legally binding. If something is not binding, it cannot be enforced.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is indeed not legally binding. This is another reason why human rights were later codified in subsequent human rights conventions.

There are nine UN conventions to date: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, also known as the Civil Covenant, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, also known as the Social Covenant, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The rights enshrined in these conventions are legally binding and thus, for the states that have signed them, have legal force.

Any critical examination of human rights must deal with the prevailing double standards of the present moment.

In addition, there are regional human rights treaties in Europe, Africa, America, and the Arab states. In Europe, human rights are enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, which was signed in 1950 by the member states of the Council of Europe.

In Germany, human rights are legally enforceable simply because the Basic Law expressly acknowledges human rights. If recourse to the courts is unsuccessful in Germany, one can appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg or to one of the human rights bodies of the United Nations.

In principle, the universality of human rights forbids state legislation from violating them. However, when one considers how individual states are organized — some as democracies, others as dictatorships or autocracies — it must be assumed that such violations of human rights are bound to take place. Does it still make sense to invoke them?

Since it is states that are primarily responsible for implementing human rights, the increasing influence of populist governments, some of which take the form of dictatorial or autocratic systems that question human rights and the rule of law, obviously has a negative impact on the protection of human rights.

However, I do not believe that the denial of human rights can be primarily attributed to state legislations, as you put it. There are certainly some examples of human rights restrictions being directly mandated by law, as in the case of the Rohingya, who are stateless because a law has denied them citizenship since 1982 due to their ethnicity. In most cases, however, the restriction of human rights in a particular country is a gradual process that begins before legislative alignment takes place and is only later “legitimized” by the adoption of laws and structures.

That said, the fact that human rights are violated every day the world over has nothing to do with human rights themselves. The real issue is how they are treated. That is to say that the implementation of human rights requires not only that states be reminded of their human rights obligations, but also that a vibrant civil society maintains an unrelenting commitment to human rights.

The fact that human rights are violated on a regular basis shows how important these rights really are. When it comes to larger threats to collective existence, human rights serve as the yardstick to measure and compare the actions of different states across the globe. Without this standard, many debates, such as those on climate justice, would not be possible. The framework of human rights provides a unique set of tools that can be used not only by non-governmental organizations, but also by judges in international criminal courts and elsewhere to assess the behaviour of government leaders, ministers, or military personnel.

The very fact that a mirror can be held up to those in power on the basis of conventions signed by their countries and that they can thereby be admonished to act in accordance with human rights is, in my opinion, of great value. In order for this to remain the case, human rights must be made into a political demand, they must be lived. Any time they remain abstract, they are undermined.

Given the fact that we currently face a looming threat to our continued biophysical existence, would it make sense to expand the notion of human rights to include a universal inalienable right to an intact planet and habitats that are not harmful to humans?

At the UN General Assembly in late July 2022, the United Nations recognized that every person has the right to live in a “safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment”. Ian Fry from Tuvalu had already taken up his position as UN Special Rapporteur on the protection of human rights in relation to climate change on 1 April 2022, following a resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in October 2021. Since then, he has consistently provided comprehensive reports to sessions of the Human Rights Council on how climate change impacts human rights.

Personally, I welcomed the establishment of the Special Rapporteur position and also the fact that Ian Fry was chosen for the role. However, I think that, because both the causes and the consequences of climate change have been so clear for such a long time, it shows that it is not a lack of knowledge which explains the lack of commitment from governments, especially from those of the major consumers and producers of fossil fuels (a situation which the UN Secretary-General has also vehemently and repeatedly denounced). Rather, the sole reason must be the fact that these groups prioritize their own short-term interests.

The contrived contradiction between peace and human rights does not provide any clarity on the matter either. Rather, the recognition of human rights is a prerequisite for peace.

Any critical examination of human rights must deal with the prevailing double standards of the present moment, as well as with the question of to what extent their selective application is due to a lingering postcolonial outlook. An example of how refugees are treated aptly illustrates this: some are taken in, others drown at sea.

It is no coincidence that criticism of the prevailing human rights discourse increasingly comes from postcolonial theorists. Legal institutions have often legitimized imperialist undertakings in the truest [legal] sense of the word. The universalization of international law, for example, has served both as an instrument and as a precondition for colonial and postcolonial rule. Even though national liberation movements have invoked international law to assert their right to self-determination, the institutionalized hierarchies within international law persisted, leaving the subordination of formerly colonized countries to carry on unimpeded.

When it comes to asylum, from a human rights perspective the issue is clear: in its treaties, the EU has made commitments to comply with the Geneva Refugee Convention and the principle of non-refoulement, which is enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and numerous UN human rights treaties. It is not the interpretation of human rights that poses a challenge for establishing a common European refugee policy, but the national interests of member states.

Instead of focusing on the rights of asylum seekers and on implementing uniform standards which align with human rights when taking them in, the EU is increasingly concentrating on securing its external borders and cooperating with third countries to seal itself off from asylum seekers. The persistence of racist sentiments stemming from the colonial era undoubtedly contributes to this policy.

Time and again, Die Linke is faced with the dilemma or question of whether — and if so, when — it is legitimate to invoke the violation of human rights to justify military intervention. Where should the lines be drawn regarding discussion and debates around so-called humanitarian interventions?

The discussion within Die Linke is indeed characterized by dilemmas. Although the party programme calls for international law and human rights to be respected, and it advocates for sustainable civilian conflict resolution based on international law, there are as of yet no definitive positions on how to prevent or punish systematic human rights violations such as genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity. One example of the problems in the programme regarding the protection of human rights concerns the perspective that the prohibition of violence in the UN Charter must be prioritized over the global respect for and implementation of human rights.

However, saying “no” to humanitarian interventions rings hollow if Die Linke does not simultaneously contribute well-founded proposals to the political discourse around the protection of human rights — even without intervening in extreme cases. The contrived contradiction between peace and human rights does not provide any clarity on the matter either. Rather, the recognition of human rights is a prerequisite for peace. It is therefore imperative that Die Linke figures out how it can respond to imminent or ongoing systematic human rights abuses.

This interview first appeared in maldekstra #20. Translated by Hunter Bolin and Rowan Coupland for Gegensatz Translation Collective.