28 November 2022
Our new Briefing The Universality of Human Rights: Developing Narratives to Overcome Polarization discusses the idea of universality with a twofold purpose.
On the one hand, the briefing zooms into the main challenges that the idea of universality faces nowadays, offering a typology as well as a detailed analysis thereof – backed by examples taken from the practice of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council and its surrounding institutions.
On the other hand, the briefing seeks to offer some elements on which a more consequential and effective narrative of human rights universality can be devised and put into practice – one that overcomes these challenges and is better able to persuade sceptics.
‘This revised narrative should have at its core the idea of equal human dignity. That is the notion that every human being shares the same nature and, consequently, enjoys equal moral status. Doubtlessly, this idea already lies at the heart of human rights, but its unifying potential seems to be greatly underestimated and even misused’ explains Pedro Martínez Esponda, Associate Research Fellow at the Geneva Academy and the author of the briefing.
Ours is a time of major geopolitical shifts. Human rights, a ‘truth’ that for better or for worse seemed undisputable in the decades following the end of the Cold War, is increasingly coming under pressure.
From major emerging global powers asserting the legitimacy of their ‘own version’ of human rights to the age-old attempts to limit or exclude human rights from applying to certain issues or certain people, passing by the populistic narratives denouncing human rights as a snare by global elites, human rights face unprecedented rhetoric challenges today.
‘In this context, and if it is to remain relevant, human rights universality cannot be taken for granted. The values that underlie rights – equal human dignity most of all – must be endorsed as a political choice rather than asserted as dogma’ explains Pedro Martínez Esponda.
‘Put simply: in times of intense questioning, human rights need to be able to actively persuade. Thus, it is of utmost importance to reflect on the narratives with which human rights are advocated for in international spaces such as the UN human rights system and imagine new, more compelling narratives that are capable of bridging the different gaps that underlie the politics of human rights: North/South, individual/collective, as well as civil and political rights/economic, social and cultural rights. This briefing constitutes an attempt at this’ he adds.
In discussing the main contemporary challenges to universality, the briefing zooms into six issue areas where the debates are particularly acute: freedom of expression in the context of digitalization, terrorism and other alleged threats to security, climate change, international investment law, development, and minority rights.
This zooming provides a basis on which to start thinking about a new take on human rights universality based on the idea of equal human dignity.
The briefing also addresses the critiques of critical and third-world scholars on human rights universality – critiques which need to be addressed in order to avoid repeating hegemonical practices of the past.
The Briefing discusses the main challenges to human rights universality that are visible in the current practice of the UN human rights system and groups them into three main categories:
UN Photo / Violaine Martin>
The notion of equal human dignity, because of its solid basis on different philosophical and ideological traditions across history and cultures, has the unique potential of providing a unified rhetorical justification for potentially any human right along three fundamental values or topoi: individual autonomy, democratic procedure and equal capabilities.
Thus, the briefing argues that it could serve as the base for a revisited, strengthened narrative of human rights universality, to be used transversally across all rights in the practice of the UN Human Rights Council, reinforcing the idea of indivisibility.
‘This Briefing, along with the outcomes of our Human Rights Conversation series on universality, will be the starting point for a conference in 2023 – held under the auspices of the Geneva Human Rights Platform (GHRP) – to mark the 30th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action’ says Felix Kirchmeier, Executive Director of the GHRP.
This declaration recalls that ‘recognizing and affirming that all human rights derive from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person' and reaffirmed that ‘all human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated.’
In 2022, the TBMP hosted nine informal meetings for UN TBs, with the participation of UN TBs secretariat staff from OHCHR, along with UN Special Procedures mandate holders and their respective secretariat staff in order to support OHCHR ‘all-mechanism’ approach.
Two UN treaty bodies, three UN Special Rapporteurs and the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances issued a Joint Statement on illegal intercountry adoptions.
UN Women/Ryan Brown
This Human Rights Conversation will discuss child participation in the work of UN human rights mechanisms and opportunities to move away from today’s reliance on individual organizations or UN representatives’ initiatives.
This online short course analyses the main international and regional norms governing the international protection of refugees. It notably examines the sources of international refugee law, including the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and their interaction with human rights law and international humanitarian law.
This training course will explore the major international and regional instruments for the promotion of human rights, as well as with their implementation and enforcement mechanisms; and provide practical insights into the different UN human rights mechanisms pertinent to advancing environmental issues and protecting environmental human rights defenders.
Olivier Chamard / Geneva Academy
The Treaty Body Members’ Platform connects experts in UN treaty bodies with each other as well as with Geneva-based practitioners, academics and diplomats to share expertise, exchange views on topical questions and develop synergies.
UN Photo/Violaine Martin
The IHL-EP works to strengthen the capacity of human rights mechanisms to incorporate IHL into their work in an efficacious and comprehensive manner. By so doing, it aims to address the normative and practical challenges that human rights bodies encounter when dealing with cases in which IHL applies.