A New Definition of Human Rights

At the Millennium, a Broader Definition of Human Rights

Justice, Democracy, and Dignity

Published January, 2001

By Jason Mark

Organizers called the event the largest gathering of world leaders in history. In early September 2000, more than 150 heads of state converged on New York City for the United Nations’ “Millennium Summit.” During three days of meetings, the leaders tried to address the most pressing problems of the new century. At the end of the 20th century—inarguably the bloodiest in human history—the summit was remarkable in that conflict and war did not dominate center stage. Instead, the heads of state focused their rhetoric on the problems of widespread poverty, the AIDS epidemic, environmental destruction, and the lack of education for millions of the world’s children.

Talk of “globalization” dominated the discussion throughout the summit. The heads of state in New York were nearly unanimous in challenging the shape and direction globalization has taken until now. Not surprisingly, the most pointed attacks came from leaders of the Global South. But even representatives from the world’s wealthier countries sharply questioned the global economy’s benefits.

“The statistics of poverty and inequality in our world are shocking and shameful,” Prime Minister Bertie Ahern of Ireland said. “Half the world’s population struggling on less than $2 a day, over half a billion on less than $1. A quarter of a billion children of 14 and under working, sometimes in terrible conditions. Death from preventable and treatable diseases—10 people will die of malaria in the five minutes I take to address you.”

As each speaker came before the UN General Assembly, one after the other noted that the increasing interconnectedness of the world means that—questions of morality aside—the wealthy nations cannot afford to ignore the world’s deepening social injustice.

“The wishes of the developing world are simple,” Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, chairman of the Group of 77, a forum for developing nations, said. “We are all living in the same house, whether you are developed or not developed. What we are saying is that some of us in this house are living in superluxurious rooms; others are living in something not better than an unkempt kitchen where pipes are leaking and there is no toilet. We are saying, ‘Look, in the interest of all of us, let us living in the superluxurious rooms pay a bit of attention to those who are living where the pipes are leaking, or we’ll all be badly affected.’”

In the post Cold War world, the emphasis on social and wealth divisions instead of geopolitical ones makes perfect sense. War and conflict—though still a scourge of too many communities—perhaps no longer pose the greatest threat to human rights. Rather, increasing wealth inequalities within and among nations now represent the most immediate attack on human dignity.

In a world where malnutrition and preventable disease kill more people than wars and state-sponsored repression, it is clear that the concept of human rights is long overdue for a redefinition.

Social Justice Is a Human Right

In the decades since the end of World War II, the concept of human rights has gained near universal acceptance. Advocacy and research by organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been invaluable for popularizing the idea that each individual has certain inalienable rights. But these organizations, along with multilateral institutions like the UN and the Organization of American States, have for the most part limited their focus to certain kinds of abuse, those involving civil and political rights. And these same groups have looked mostly at repression directed by nation-states, leaving aside the sorts of abuses committed by multinational corporations. Issues involving economic and social rights—basic questions of equality—have been sidelined, and the role of companies given little attention until just the past few years.

The false division between political rights and economic rights arose partially from the political maneuverings of the Cold War. During that ideological conflict, the free-market democracies, always looking to delegitimize the communist nations, frequently charged those regimes with human rights violations, while at the same time ignoring the social and economic rights abuses occurring within their own borders. The communist countries would respond that political freedoms are meaningless without social equality—never mind that a healthy and well-educated population doesn’t need to be told what it can and cannot read. For decades, each side used the term “human rights” only in self-serving and limited ways.

Now, a decade after the end of the Cold War, new space exists for a fundamental redefinition of the term “human rights.” Luckily, we don’t have to go any farther than one of the UN’s founding documents to find a new interpretation.

Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is considered the foundation of modern international human rights defense and promotion. The declaration is built on the common sense idea that human rights are based on the inherent dignity of every person. This dignity, and the rights to freedom and equality that derive from it, are undeniable.

Though best known as a guarantor of basic civil liberties such as freedom from repression, freedom of expression and freedom of association, the declaration explicitly establishes economic security as central to human dignity—on equal footing with freedom of conscience and essential to human rights.

For example, the declaration says “the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment” are basic human rights. The “right to equal pay for equal work” as well as a worker’s “right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests” are considered essential liberties. Basic and free education is also established as a universal human right.

More broadly, the declaration asserts: “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, medical care, and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

Together, the economic security articles of the declaration underscore that political rights can be enjoyed only when basic human needs have been satisfied. Without economic security, freedom of conscience—the liberty to grow as an individual—is impossible. As Article 22 states: “Everyone … has the right to social security … [and] the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.”

Corporate Accountability and Human Rights Protection

In a world where multinational corporations are increasingly more powerful than the governments that are supposed to represent and protect their citizens, the argument that economic rights are also human rights must be made as urgently as ever. After all, when 51 of the 100 largest economies in the world are corporations, not countries, company managers are just as likely as any callous dictatorship to brutalize people. Human rights groups don’t just need a renewal of purpose, but also a change of direction.

The abuses taking place in low-wage factories around the world mirror the sort of repression often directed by military governments. In the Mexican city of Tehuacan, for example, jeans factories employ armed guards to keep workers in line. Local human rights groups there report that the pistoleros are paid up to 10 times as much as the employees they guard.

Then there is workers’ right to form independent unions and bargain collectively. Essentially, this right is the same as the freedom of association. Just as individuals must be allowed to gather together to create political parties or civic groups, so too should individual workers be able to come together to bargain collectively. The parallel is exact, but companies deliberately fail to recognize this.

In some countries where US companies do business, such as China and Vietnam, authoritarian regimes prohibit the formation of independent unions. But even in the growing democracies of Central America and Indonesia, independent unions are uncommon. In these places it is not state-sponsored repression that restricts freedom of association. Rather, it is intimidation by factory managers that crushes any democratic efforts to establish collective bargaining. In the political realm it’s universally agreed that governments shouldn’t use excessive force against peaceful demonstrators, but in the economic realm it happens all the time, as when company managers attack striking workers.

Multinational corporations also routinely violate communities’ basic economic rights, as when they press for lower wages or avoid paying their share of the social costs in the countries where they operate. Certainly governments, not private companies, should have the final responsibility for ensuring basic social security. But when corporations constantly seek, through tax breaks and special interest subsidies, to widen their profit margins at the expense of spending on health and education, they undermine any chance for economic justice.

By perpetuating these sorts of abuses, US-based companies are essentially profiting from repression. In the coming decades, human rights campaigns will increasingly have to be directed against companies, not countries. The demand is simple: Basic liberties must not stop at the workplace door.

Democracy Is the Keystone to Human Rights Promotion

But what ties all this together? In what ways, exactly, are political and civil rights and social and economic rights connected? The answer: Democracy.

Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.” Indeed, individuals and communities must be sovereign over their own affairs if they are to be free. In the new, globalized world this means not just genuine democracy in the political realm but also democracy in the economic one.

It is obvious that abuses against people’s political rights are, for the most part, less common in liberal democracies than in autocratic states: No society freely chooses to limit speech or the right of association. Equally, it is the authoritarianism of economic decision-making that allows for violations against individuals’ social rights. After all, no one elects to live near a toxic waste dump nor chooses a poverty wage over a living wage. In the 21st century, democracy must become the central value of the refashioned human rights movement, for only the vigilance of self-governance can ensure against abuse.

Until we bring genuine democracy to economic decision-making, we will be unable to end violations against basic economic and social rights. Unless we establish popular governance of the global economy, there is no chance of creating the sort of social justice that guarantees individuals’ basic dignity. And dignity, it must be remembered, is a human right.