World Human Rights Day: Realising Rights on the Ground

World Human Rights Day: Realising Rights on the Ground

Ambet Yuson, BWI General Secretary

10 December 2020 03:32

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home -- so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. [...] Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world." 

-Eleanor Roosevelt, Chairperson of the drafting committee of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). 

The global community has produced an impressive body of universal human rights standards. They express and embody essential human values. Many have been further developed in other standards. For example, the International Labour Organisation, also in 1948, adopted Convention 87 on freedom of association and the right to organise and, a year later, Convention 98 on the right to organise and collective bargaining. 

BWI supports human rights Conventions and their national ratification and implementation. Those laws must be enforced, and an independent judiciary needs to be in place to hold governments to their commitments. However, as Mrs. Roosevelt said, “small places, close to home”, means that the real state of respect for human rights and of the vitality of democracy can only be judged in neighbourhoods and in places of work. 

Human rights on the ground

There are democracies that have ratified all the fundamental human rights conventions, have put their laws in conformity with them, and have labour inspection and other enforcement mechanisms. However, even there, too many workers, when they clock into work, must leave their human rights at the door and can only pick them up again when they clock out. 

That does not mean that good laws, an independent judiciary, and democratic processes are not important, but rather that they are not enough. In the words of US Judge Learned Hand, "Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it…" Men and women have to protect their rights, and they must do it together, if they are to be free. 

Through self-organisation, people can defend their own interests. They can also effectively use the laws and enforcement mechanisms. Human rights belong to everybody. They can never be the business of others any more than democracy can be the property of leaders.  

BWI fights for strong international labour standards, works with affiliates for good quality laws and enforcement, and demands that companies respect human rights regardless of whether governments force them to do so. 

Our purpose, however, is not to get States or companies to take care of workers. It is, rather, to allow workers to exercise their rights and take care of themselves. If human rights on the job are to be protected, only workers and their organisations can do it. They know what is happening and they are there every day to assert and defend their rights. 

Organisation is also about human dignity. Workers’ trade unions enable them to look their bosses squarely in the eyes. With the complicated structures of globalisation, that becomes more difficult.  That is why BWI works so hard to connect workers and their unions with their real bosses, who may be on the other side of the world.

The Pandemic and Human Rights

(Photo: Front Line Defenders)

In 2020, we have been struck by a natural disaster, COVID-19. However, it is also a human disaster. The failure of leadership to deal effectively with the health emergency and consequent social and economic crises is a “human error”. 

Multiple crises have aggravated long-standing problems, many of which affect the protection and respect of human rights. People are more mindful of the problems, but the question is whether the added awareness will lead to progress. 

We entered the pandemic with serious divisions and injustices. They have become worse. There is a pandemic of inequality. Wealth and power have become more concentrated. Inequalities of all kind are worse and endanger social stability. Signs of this trend include regression on gender equality, including a surge of violence against women, hostility to ethnic and other minorities, migrants, and refugees. We have seen, at the same time, record growth in the number of desperately poor people and billionaires. 

The pandemic and related crises have also damaged democracy. According to a recent report, Democracy under Lockdown,  by Freedom House, “since the coronavirus outbreak began, the condition of democracy and human rights has grown worse in 80 countries. Governments have responded by engaging in abuses of power, silencing their critics, and weakening or shuttering important institutions, often undermining the very systems of accountability needed to protect public health.”

Trade unionists have been among the victims of limitations on freedom of expression and association “justified” by the need to fight the virus in countries like Belarus, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. Despite the dangers, courageous trade unionists are leaders in the fight against authoritarianism. 

Workers with trade union representation have a voice on the job. During the pandemic, that means the defence of occupational health and safety, social dialogue, and engaging governments to cushion the economic blows. 

As in calmer times, trade unions also provide hope for the large and growing “underclass” of precarious workers. 

The popular roots and capacity of trade unions to take collective action make trade unions an essential element of the infrastructure of both industrial and political democracy. 

Changing the Balance of Power

The pandemic has had a profound and disruptive impact on our lives. The gross disparities and injustices are visible for many beyond our ranks, including leaders. That will mean a contest of orientations and approaches. 

In other words, the post-pandemic world will be a conflict between those who want to return to “normal” and those who want to accelerate progressive change so that the pre-pandemic normal never returns.

Power is like a magnet. Things tend to move in its direction. That means that if real and sustainable change is to take place, we need to change the balance of power. 

This is a rare moment to tip the scales towards social justice. It is a time to favour opportunity for the many who have too little over the continued accumulation of wealth by the few who have too much. We need economic growth that is green and that privileges good jobs and healthy communities. 

This is the moment to remind governments of their commitment to the sustainable development goals. It is the time to begin to globalise social justice and to breathe new life into international solidarity and global institutions. 

Making change happen entails purpose and organisation. It requires dedication and persistence. It means building alliances. 

If we are to help build change, we should never forget that there is no global force greater or more steeped in solidarity than the trade union movement. 

The colossal challenges that we face cannot and will not be met by isolated individuals. As the African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”