Human rights, as we know them, are dead.
Amid a climate emergency, seemingly endless conflict, and consequent refugee crises, the glaring absence of an effective global strategy to safeguard the most fundamental rights of impoverished and marginalised populations across the world has made it clear that the concept of “human rights”, as sacralised by the liberal West, has lost all meaning and purpose – for everyone, but especially for those of us in the Global South.
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According to the United Nations, as many as 828 million people – or 10 percent of the global population – go to bed hungry each night. Of those struggling with hunger, 80 percent are living in areas prone to climate change – areas that are overwhelmingly in the Global South. Wars, uprisings and coups – often tied to geopolitical skirmishes between global powers – are also disproportionately harming these very same regions.
Unable to see an end to their misery, some of those suffering from war, famine, oppression or destitution in the Global South are embarking on dangerous journeys across desert and sea to find safety and prosperity in the Global North. Rather than taking action to protect the human rights of these refugees, however, the Western states who pride themselves in being the inventors of the very concept of human rights are treating them like an enemy.
As a result, tens of thousands are languishing in inhuman migrant detention centres along the US and European Union borders, and the Mediterranean Sea is now a migrant graveyard. According to the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project, more than 28,000 drownings have been recorded there since 2014. The true number of deaths is impossible to know and likely much higher.
And drowning in the Mediterranean is only one way people in the Global South, who make up the global majority, are dying en mass because the Western-led international community does not assess their human rights as being worthy of protection. They are also dying in natural disasters aggravated by climate change, and in wars waged to further geopolitical agendas. They are being killed by drones and burned alive by settlers.
The signs of the death of human rights are omnipresent. Western governments are working hard to shield the Israeli apartheid from accountability, while criminalising Palestinians resisting Israel’s oppression and those supporting their liberation struggle. The leading social media companies of the Global North are allowing dangerous misinformation targeting already marginalised and under threat populations to fester on their platforms. European countries are still selling a toxic pesticide – banned in the EU because of its proven harms to children and unborn babies – to countries in the Global South. And the list goes on.
All the while, the West continues to try and sell itself as the one true defender of human rights.
Western nations regularly condemn and even sanction the likes of Russia, China and Iran for violating the human rights of their citizens and those living in their influence zones. They often make foreign aid conditional on recipients making improvements on human rights protections, and some have even launched military interventions under the guise of addressing human rights violations in the past.
In response to the invasion of Ukraine, a country at the very heart of Europe, for example, the Global North states not only swiftly condemned the grave human rights violations Russia committed there, but also implemented special programmes to ensure any Ukrainian civilian in need can find safety in another country without facing significant obstacles. They also put their support behind the International Criminal Court (ICC) and provided its investigators with any help necessary to try and convict the Kremlin.
Viewed in isolation, this may be seen as confirmation of the West’s adherence to the international human rights regime it helped build. But for those in the Global South, who cannot help but compare the West’s embrace of Ukraine to its treatment of their own countries, this whole episode is nothing but confirmation of the Global North’s endless hypocrisy.
Indeed, the countries that took swift action to help the Ukrainian people did not open their borders to the Sudanese in the same manner when they were facing an equally grave military threat. They never did it for the Palestinians either, many of whom are still living under the iron fist of a violent invader.
They are also very selective about when they would support the ICC. Sure they supported ICC’s prosecution of Africans when it suited their agenda, but they never let its prosecutors anywhere near their own drone wars or unlawful torture programmes – in fact, the US is not even a state party to the court.
While they are now condemning Russia and any state that continues to collaborate with it, in the Global South they themselves have long been prioritising geopolitical interests over human rights concerns, supporting oppressive regimes and undermining democratic movements. This is arguably the main reason why many Global South nations have been hesitant to support Western-backed Ukraine’s resistance against the Russian invasion.
This crisis in the global human rights regime and discourse is not new.
When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was passed by the UN in 1948, it was celebrated as a big step towards a more peaceful world. Coming on the back of the horrors of the second world war and the Holocaust, it was a ray of hope signalling that a better world, where the fundamental rights of all are respected, could be possible. Yet this dream did not last long. The very nations that developed and pushed for the new human rights regime swiftly started to violate it to further their interests, hurt their enemies and expand their interests. They even attacked several Global South nations to bring them “democracy” and protect their “human rights”.
What is new, however, is the open rejection of the Western human rights framework by the Global South populations. Those who have been suffering the worst of the Global North’s aggression and duplicity since the signing of the UDHR are no longer convinced at all that Western governments, institutions and organisations can – or more accurately want to – protect their fundamental rights. They now see them as what they are: ineffective, duplicitous, and more crucially, dangerous.
Those protesting on Arab streets, living under constant attack in the Brazilian favelas, trying to survive the open-air prison that is Gaza or looking for a way out of the sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh no longer believe or expect in any way that the Global North will come and do something to ensure their supposedly sacred “human rights” are not violated.
Human rights, as it is currently understood and applied in the Global South, must not be saved. Contrary to conventional wisdom that laments the end of the human rights era and suggests new solutions to safeguard it, it is rather long overdue to move beyond this discourse and imagine radically different egalitarian and progressive principles informed by the struggles and ethics of the people in the Global South.
The end of the human rights era should be viewed as an opportunity to forge a new path towards inclusivity and equity that puts the Global South’s, the global majority’s, demands at the forefront of constructing new, radical visions and frameworks.
Only by moving beyond the West’s hypocritical use of human rights as a discriminatory ordering principle for international politics can we create a more inclusive, diverse, and representative approach to defining and protecting everyone’s fundamental rights.
In doing so, local communities and Indigenous populations in the Global South can take an active and central role in rethinking and implementing environmental preservation and sustainable development.
As we face multiple interconnected ecological and humanitarian crises, the international community needs to urgently accept the undeniable demise of the current human rights regime and move quickly to construct a radical alternative that would truly put the fundamental rights and needs of all human beings, including those in the Global South, at its centre.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.