The Problem Of Human Rights Advocacy In Developed Countries

 /  March 3, 2017, 10:48 a.m.


Imagine a country in which all human rights are granted to each and every citizen at all times, whether old or young, female or male, Muslim or Jew. Despite the desirability of this thought, it seems rather like an unrealistic thought experiment, given all the human rights violations taking place in the world at this very moment.

The fact that these rights are violated on a daily basis is somewhat incomprehensible, given their tremendous significance. In order to get a better understanding of the global human rights situation, it is useful to take a step back and ask what human rights are. The idea of human rights is as old as 539 BC, when Cyrus the Great—conqueror of the city of Babylon—crafted the first charter of human rights documented in human history. Among other achievements, it granted freedom to slaves. Over the course of time several other human rights documents were written, but there has historically been huge dispute about these rights. One commonly discussed question does not even concern the rights themselves, but asks why they should be granted to people. Is it simply in virtue of people’s humanity (Tasioulas 2012), or because we are capable of self-reflection and are ‘independent agents’ (Griffin 2008)? We have not been able to agree on the grounds of human rights, nor have we reached an agreement on which rights can actually be titled ‘human rights.’

Nevertheless, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) laid a widely accepted standard for human rights, defining thirty fundamental rights which should be granted to all human beings simply by virtue of a shared humanity. These rights were developed by the Commission on Human Rights of the United Nations back in 1947. The declaration was crafted after the horrors of World War II, with one aim in mind: that no human being should ever again experience such inhumane and ferocious crimes as the ones committed by the Nazi regime. The desire for a peaceful world was strong and the General Assembly of the United Nations seemed united to agree on a list of (basic) human rights, like the right not to be tortured and the right to life, with a majority of countries voting in favor of the declaration. Despite this groundbreaking point in human (rights) history, the declaration is not a treaty and as such is not legally binding. Several human rights treaties had to follow to convert the articles defined in the UDHR into rights and make them legally binding by signature and ratification of the member states.

The agreement on the UDHR gave momentum to human rights advocacy and numerous organizations formed to protect and promote human rights. Despite these developments, human rights continue to be violated, everywhere around the world, each and every day. The only thing that seems to have changed is the scale of violation.

A Stable State Of Human Rights In The West Might Hamper Global Human Rights Development

In most Western democracies, such as the US, Germany, and Sweden, the human rights situation is comparatively stable. While this is desirable, a relatively lasting state of peace—in which human rights are respected most of the time—might actually hamper human rights advocacy and the situation of human rights globally. I come to this conclusion not because the enjoyment of human rights by people living in Western democracies takes away from other people’s enjoyment. Human rights are in no sense a rival good, to speak in economic terms. I draw my hypothesis based on two observations: a lack of ratification of human rights treaties by several Western democracies and the fact that people are more engaged in something if it directly affects them.

The first reason for my hypothesis is the fact that although human rights have been and till today are often perceived as Western rights, many Western countries have not ratified several treaties anchoring human rights. For instance, the US did not ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In fact, it has only ratified five of the eighteen international human rights treaties (Image 1). Admittedly, the US is an outlier in the West; however, other Western countries, such as the United Kingdom, also failed to ratify all eighteen treaties (the UK signed thirteen).

[caption id="attachment_3817" align="aligncenter" width="722"] Global overview of ratification of eighteen international human rights treaties.[/caption]

Western democracies pushed for such treaties to enforce human rights in countries where the situation of such rights is worse than in their own. But not ratifying the treaties might send the wrong signal to other countries, since developed countries should lead by example. Nor does their failure to ratify enhance the understanding of human rights among their own citizens.

The second reason for my hypothesis is the fact that people naturally care more about something if it directly affects them. Despite the fact that human rights affect us all, human rights violations do not. As the temporal gap between the systematic violations of human rights of World War II and today becomes ever larger, the interest in human rights seems to be decreasing globally. New generations in Western democracies did not experience long phases of war and instability and hence forget that this stable state of peace is everything but the rule. Furthermore, witnesses who can tell stories about wartime in places such as Germany, France, and Spain, and who alert citizens of those countries that being able to enjoy human rights is an exception for which preceding generations have fought, are dying out. Most people seem to take this exceptional state for granted and seem to lose interest and appreciation for human rights. Findings of an analysis of the Google Trends search volume index could potentially illustrate this point (for an explanation on the index please, see the Appendix). While this preliminary analysis should be interpreted with caution, as data is only available from 2004 onward, the data show that the frequency of searches of the term ‘human rights’ have decreased steadily over time (from 2004 through February 2017) in a worldwide comparison (Image 2).

[caption id="attachment_3818" align="aligncenter" width="690"] Google Trends interest over time searches on Google for the search term: ‘human rights’ worldwide (see Appendix for an explanation of the adjustment of Google Trends data and the y-axis).[/caption]

The search term ‘what are human rights’ is comparably unpopular (Image 3). Certainly there are many confounding factors. These results could, for instance, indicate that people have a saturated and complete knowledge of human rights, or that they obtain their knowledge elsewhere. But given the significance of Google in our daily lives today, this is an interesting finding, which could potentially point to a general lack of interest in human rights. Even though these are global findings, the fact that the topic of human rights is not always part of the curriculum in schools in Western democracies makes it relatively unlikely that people acquire knowledge on human rights through scholarly education in such places. In most schools in Germany, for instance, students only learn about human rights when they have developed a special interest in the subject, often on their own.

While it is not necessarily a bad thing that human rights are taken for granted—as these rights should indeed be perceived as normal, in the sense that they should be enjoyed by everybody—there is a danger that a lack of knowledge and appreciation of human rights allows for unnoticed human rights violations in society. A solid understanding of human rights might enable citizens of Western democracies to improve the human rights situation in their countries further through human rights advocacy and at least prevent human rights violations, as knowledge about human rights will allow people to identify and condemn violations.

[caption id="attachment_3819" align="aligncenter" width="690"] Google Trends interest over time searches on Google for the search term: ‘human rights‘ compared to the search term ‘what are human rights’ worldwide (see Appendix for an explanation of the adjustment of Google Trends data and the y-axis).[/caption]

A factor which could explain a lack of engagement in human rights advocacy by Western democracies is the fact that human rights violations reported in the media usually happen in places that are far away from Western democracies. People hear about the horrible events in Turkey, Syria, and Nigeria, but it is difficult for them to comprehend the extent of human rights violations in places far from home. Not only can people in Western democracies hardly imagine how it feels to be deprived of human rights in such a persistent manner, the distance to these countries and the overwhelmingly negative news coverage understandably leave people with a feeling of apathy and powerlessness. It almost feels as if the frequency of human rights violations in other countries is so high that people in stable democracies resign themselves and accept this state as normal.

A comparison of the Google search volume index for a Western democracy (namely the USA) and a developing country (namely Uganda) could reveal a difference in global human rights engagement. In fact, the search volume index for the search term ‘human rights’ is ten times higher in Uganda—a country in which human rights violations were committed in the past, by the Lord’s Resistance Army among others, and are still part of the daily lives of many citizens—than it is in the USA (Image 4).

[caption id="attachment_3820" align="aligncenter" width="690"] Google Trends Interest over time searches on Google for the search term: ‘human rights’ comparing the USA and Uganda (see Appendix for an explanation of the adjustment of Google Trends data and the y-axis).[/caption]

The Responsibilities Of Being A Global Citizen

The protection of human rights is formally to be guaranteed by the state of every nation. However, despite this circumstance, states often fail to provide and guarantee equal rights to their own people and to punish human rights violations adequately. As a consequence, in many cases human rights have been granted to people only after intense human rights advocacy by citizens. Just think about Martin Luther King Jr., who marched decades after the UDHR was adopted by the UN General Assembly. While every citizen should certainly have a sense of responsibility to advocate for human rights in his or her own country, it is questionable if there is an absolute responsibility for someone living in one country, to advocate for human rights in another country where human rights are being violated. In an ever more globalized world, borders become blurry, people migrate from one country to another and it becomes almost impossible to isolate oneself from the rest of the world.

In such a world, we are not only citizens of our country of origin, but become global citizens. And since everyone has certain responsibilities and moral obligations as a global citizen, people should be aware of these responsibilities and obligations to their fellow human beings around the globe. People might feel overwhelmed and unable to act as single individuals; however, they should at least be well informed on what human rights are and appreciate the state in which one can enjoy them. There are many new methods of human rights advocacy that have been proven successful, such as online petitions. The distance to places in which violations take place is no longer a hurdle. It is easy to just accept human rights violations as a necessary evil which is taking place in the world and will continue to take place. It is more difficult to stand up and speak up for those people who cannot.

The scenario described at the beginning of this article—of a country in which all human rights are granted to all citizens at all times—might sound unachievable. If people around the world do not engage in human rights advocacy and try to understand and appreciate the subject, this scenario will become more distant than it already is. In the end, besides the relatively stable state of human rights in the West, there is still room for improvement. Certainly this article does not represent a rigorous analysis, but it should alert people of a lack of knowledge and appreciation of human rights. Such a lack of knowledge could worsen the human rights situation in the Western world, and will definitely not improve the situation elsewhere. People living in developed countries who have the privilege of enjoying almost all of their rights every day should be agents of change for the human rights situation in their own countries and in countries in which people are deprived of enjoying their rights. Knowledge is the first stepping stone for making this change happen.

Note: The conducted Google Trends analysis of the search term “human rights” was also conducted for the languages German, Spanish, and French. For German and French the same downward trend was observed in a global comparison. Interestingly, Spanish revealed a relatively stable frequency of searches over time. In a worldwide comparison, these searches were comparably high in Latin American countries.


[caption id="attachment_3821" align="aligncenter" width="764"] Adjustment of Google Trends Data, Google Inc..[/caption]

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Marie-Noelle Steinig


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