These strong-men benefit from scapegoating or stigmatising vulnerable people on the basis of ethnicity and religion, or any other characteristic, says Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.
I am very glad to have this opportunity to speak with you about the state of human rights in the Asia-Pacific region, in the light of the commitments which States made to their people, both in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the Vienna Declaration.
I want to begin with an area where rights have gone wrong.
Crisis in Myanmar
The massive outflow of people from Myanmar in recent months, and the causes of their flight, have shaken many across this region and the world.
The atrocities recounted by the refugees, who constitute well over half the Rohingya living in northern Rakhine, include brutal killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, atrocious sexual violence, and destruction of homes and livelihoods. Although any definitive finding should be made by an appropriate tribunal, my office considers that acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing may have occurred.
This latest campaign of violence is the culmination of five decades of discrimination and violence against the Rohingya. They have been progressively refused citizenship, legal status and birth certificates, and in northern Rakhine their access to education, healthcare, markets, farming land, areas for fishing, and employment of almost any kind has been increasingly and drastically curtailed.
Periodic violence has repeatedly forced many tens of thousands of people to flee to Bangladesh – and I take this occasion to again acknowledge the role of Bangladesh in hosting, currently, almost 1m refugees.
But despite this biting injustice and its manifest regional impact, the Myanmar economy was growing. From an extremely low benchmark, it rose 7.3% in 2015, and 6.5% in 2016: this was South-East Asia’s fastest-growing economy. And to some national, regional and international policy-makers, human rights – and violations of human rights – seem a lesser concern, in the face of an economic boom.
In response to the international outcry over the atrocities committed against the Rohingya, the government’s main solution was to focus on plans for socio-economic development in Rakhine – maintaining its narrative that the core issues have been underdevelopment and competition for resources, rather than official and institutionalised discrimination against an ethnic minority.
Human rights increases people’s welfare
Today, as I may not need to point out to you, Myanmar faces a very serious crisis – with a potentially severe impact on the security of the region. It is sometimes said that today’s human rights violations will become tomorrow’s conflicts. If the Rohingya crisis were to spark a broader conflict based on religious identities, the ensuing disputes could be a cause for great alarm.
We see very clearly in this case that a country’s economic development is not in itself a synonym for the fulfilment of human rights. Development can certainly bring with it access to fundamental services and goods that vastly improve many people’s wellbeing and ability to make choices about their lives. But if they cannot voice their concerns and participate in decisions, the resulting development may not increase their welfare.
What increases people’s welfare is respect for all their rights. I want to emphasise this point: respect for human rights, including minority rights, is not destructive of security. It builds stronger societies – states which are more resilient, and better able to withstand shocks, because they are fair and foster equal opportunity for all their people.
Conversely, discrimination and other human rights violations are a threat to development, and they are a threat to peace and security.
Universal Declaration – human rights for everyone
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a promise by states to uphold the equality and inherent rights of every human being. Its 30 articles were intended to be brought to life in a wide variety of ways: uniform practice was not a goal. But as principles, they are invariable and fundamental – rooted deeply in cultures and traditions from across the world.
Two of its most significant drafters were from Asia. The Indian independence activist and early feminist Hansa Mehta argued forcefully and successfully for language which would make clear that women are equal in rights and dignity to men. The Chinese author Peng-Chun Chang was profoundly influential in devising language that eliminated Western bias.
Indeed, the original push to draw up the Universal Declaration came from anti-imperialist, anti-racist movements in countries of the Global South. Western countries – including the United Kingdom, France and the United States – were initially reluctant.
It was Latin American States, with their experiences of slavery, colonialism and foreign domination, which pushed for international human rights measures even before the Second World War.
Once discussions were underway, the Philippines stood staunchly for powerful language prohibiting torture. India and Pakistan strongly backed the rights of women. China, Costa Rica, Ghana, Jamaica, Lebanon and Liberia championed language on justice and the dignity and worth of the human person.
The Universal Declaration is a statement of the fundamental values which unite all humanity, and which together make up the single most important factor in ensuring peace. Human rights are not reserved for special groups, on the basis of geography, class, skin colour or gender. They are for everyone, throughout society and across the globe.
Vienna Declaration – rights are inseparable
The Vienna Declaration took this fundamental notion of universality a step further by committing states to the inseparability of human rights by recognising the truth that they are “indivisible, interdependent and interrelated”.
Civil and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights; and the right to development build on each other and advance together. No matter how broad a person’s right to speak out and protest, she is not truly free if she is constrained by lack of education or inadequate housing. And even a wealthy person is not living well if he lives in fear of arbitrary detention by his government.
Access to fundamental social protections and to economic resources and opportunities is a powerful antidote to social fractures and the spread of extremism. The freedom to speak out – to criticise government policies and demand government accountability – accelerates innovation and economic progress.
Human rights build sustainable development – they put the “S” into the SDGs. Inclusive governance and impartial justice are fundamental to the 2030 Agenda, which is anchored in this vision of the dividends that are generated when all human rights are respected.
Economies and societies that are inclusive and participative, and where government is accountable, see better outcomes.
The Declaration on the Right to Development also recognises this inseparability of human rights, in emphasising the right of all individuals and peoples to free, active and meaningful participation.
And, importantly, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights set forth the responsibility of states and corporations to ensure that business activities, such as the extraction of natural resources, plantations and large-scale fisheries, are not carried out in violation of people’s rights.
Today, in considering the human rights situation across Asia, I commend the vast improvements which development continues to offer the region’s people. Only three out of 42 Asia-Pacific countries are still classified as low income. Lifespans have grown longer, access to education and decent standards of living have improved.
Although in some cases this overall improvement masks important areas of neglect, such as the equal rights of women, there is barely an index that has not risen, enormously, in recent decades. There has also been a rise of participatory and accountable systems of government in numerous countries, and very significant improvements in rule of law.
In other words, many states have benefited from peace and development – and have an interest in strengthening both.
Rise of nationalist strong-men
And yet many are cracking down on the freedoms of expression and assembly; instituting mass surveillance of the public space and the digital space; encroaching on the independence of the judiciary; and attacking the independence of the press – often, ironically, on the pretext of protecting public security.
I am also deeply concerned about crackdowns on civil society in many countries, and moves which in effect suspend or diminish participatory, accountable democratic governance. Jailing critics does not make society safer: it drives legitimate and constructive opinions underground, and creates deep grievances. Dismantling the rule of law, and the basis of participatory democracy, generates injustice. These are measures that undermine the basis of peace and the soundness of development.
Moreover, to varying degrees, many minorities in states across the Asia-Pacific suffer discrimination, and, in some states, this appears to be deepening.
The rise of nationalist strong-men, who benefit from scapegoating or stigmatising vulnerable people – on the basis of ethnicity and religion, or any other characteristic such as or even drug use – is a clear threat to rights. This exacerbates already existing fractures and creates new threats to peaceful coexistence – within societies, and between nations.
At the global level, it is extremely clear that respect for international law, including international human rights law, is essential for peaceful coexistence and cooperation among states – particularly smaller and less-developed ones.
A good deal more turmoil could be underway across the globe, and the way to ensure we peacefully co-exist is greater justice. We need more cooperation, not less; and better decisions, taken jointly. This, too, is true both globally and on the national level.
Governance that serves rather than silences, and economic systems rooted in dignity, are the responsibility of every government. They underpin its legitimacy. And they are also a recipe for the creation of resilient, successful societies.
I urge all government authorities to have confidence in the intelligence and energy of their people, and to employ the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – in its totality – as a guide to law and policy.
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein is the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
He delivered these remarks at the Jakarta Conversation on the 70th Year of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and 25th Year of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action.