Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Calling a spade a spade: Toward a more expansive condemnation of human rights violations

Worker rights are human rights. A healthy environment is a human right. Health care is a human right. Freedom from discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, or political opinion are human rights. The right to own property, to assemble peaceably, to due process, to an education, to leave the country are human rights. Freedom of expression and the right to vote are human rights. Of course, freedom from torture and arbitrary arrest are human rights.

These are individual rights that exist simply because we are human beings. They are guaranteed by a raft of UN treaties.  Yet rarely do we see this term used except in the context of genocide, slave labor, mass rape and child soldiers as weapons of war,  imprisonment of dissenters, and other violent government intervention into the lives of its citizens.  We can agree that government violence against its people deserves a higher priority of condemnation than other human rights violations.  My contention, however, is that we should begin routinely labeling as human rights violations other government deprivation of protected individual rights.

Fraudulent elections, unreasonably forceful quelling of public protests, and failure to ensure that producers do not poison our aquifers, pollute our air, or crush unions picketing for fair wages are violations of human rights that deserve to be accurately labeled as such. As Berta Hernandez-Truyol, co-author of our book on Just Trade, reminds us, "all human rights are universal, indivisible and inter-dependent and interrelated."

Condemning as human rights violations what governments that perpetrate them prefer to call "labor violations" or "environmental problems" or "discrimination situations" will help to end the fallacy that only violence by governments rises to the level of a "human rights" concern.  It would recognize that the indivisibility of human rights means that denial of free speech is closely related to arbitrary arrest, that condoning chemical dumping is closely related to denial of health care, and that failure to enforce laws against discrimination against women at work is closely related to the use of rape as a weapon of war.

Our human rights are precious, and each is inter-dependent on the others.  Let us accurately label their violation.

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