Jan Pronk

The Geography of Human Rights

Yap Thiam Hien Lecture, Constitutional Court, Jakarta, 22 September 2015

When in 1948 the international community accepted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, countries declared that this Declaration would function as a common standard for all member states of the United Nations. This is why the Declaration is called universal. Though the initiative came mainly, but not exclusively, from Western countries, it is not a Western standard, but a world standard. Wherever people live, they demand that their right to be, to survive and to live will be recognized by others, will not be violated, but respected.

The wordings chosen and laid down in the Declaration were the result of negotiations between all countries which at that time were member states of the United Nations. The text has been endorsed and ratified by all, including new members of the United Nations, which achieved independence after 1948. The Declaration established the norms and values which were applicable to all countries. This was a breakthrough, not because a universal declaration would guarantee universal compliance, but because from then onwards a universal yardstick had been formulated which would serve as a strong basis for an appeal to either the government of a member state or the international community in case of a violation of human rights. In the future all people, individuals as well as groups, for instance minority groups, could appeal and use the same universal values.

However, also after the ratification of the Declaration human rights have been violated, in many countries. Violations still take place, at large scale. Look at the war victims in the Middle East, the plight of refugees all over the world, undernourished children in Africa and South Asia.

So the question may arise: are human rights really universal? Is the Universal Declaration a cloak for Western values? What about the credibility of regimes of countries where human rights continue to be violated? What about the credibility of the United Nations as a whole? 


United Nations and United Peoples

These are valid questions. Let us try to address them by going back to the years preceding the adoption of the Declaration, say the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. Those were the years of colonisation and war for geopolitical reasons. International wars started in Europe, but economy and technology led to the expansion of Western wars to Asia, Africa and the Middle East. From the times of Napoleon to those of Hitler Western wars became World Wars. And the invention of nuclear arms introduced a possibility of mass annihilation. The establishment of the United Nations was meant to bring an end to all of this: an end to war, an end to genocide and mass human rights violations, an end to colonisation, an end to world poverty.  

The decisions taken ushered in a new phase of globalization: globalization not only of economic and technological opportunities, but also of values and institutions, in order to serve common global objectives. Six objectives stood out. First, peace: avoiding new world wars and major conflict escalations. Second, security: addressing international and domestic conflicts that would endanger world security. Third, stability: preventing and mitigating world economic, financial, trade and food security instabilities. Fourth, development: enabling progress, in order to improve the welfare of nations and the life conditions of their people: more food, more employment, higher income and more equal participation, it being understood that unequal access to welfare could result in conflict, violence and insecurity. Fifth, freedom, of both nations (decolonization) and citizens, by fostering processes of emancipation and democratization. And, finally, sixth: protection of human rights, initially mainly civil and political rights, for instance of minorities and people living under dictatorship, and later on also economic and social human rights.

There were more objectives, but these six were essential. They could not be accomplished separately. Right from the beginning it was understood that they were related to each other. They had to sustain each other. Violation of each individual objective would endanger also the others.

That is the reason why the new order was constructed as an integrated system. The new institutions had to belong to one and the same family: the system of the United Nations.

Establishing a world government was politically impossible, because notwithstanding their common objectives, nation states still had different interests. However, the institutions were given powers to address violations of common objectives. They got explicit mandates together with rules and procedures of decision making. They acquired operational capacities and instruments to implement decisions. A modus operandi for review, appraisal and appeal was established in order to ensure compliance. All proceedings were based on the newly agreed principles and values of the system. All agreements (Charters, Treaties, Covenants and Resolutions), reached after long negotiations, formed together a system of world governance, a body of true international law. International law became the embodiment of the global values. Looking backwards, it would be fair to say that consensus based international law was a breakthrough in international civilization.

The new world consensus was based on two main principles. First: sovereignty of the nation state. No country would have the right to intervene in other countries, invade them, impose its will on them and oppress their people. All countries were entitled to full autonomy, provided that they would not use this autonomy to violate the autonomy of other nations. Second: equal human rights for all. Within sovereign nation states all human beings, without any discrimination, would enjoy the same civil, political, social and economic rights. Individual nations, as well as the international community as a whole, would have the responsibility to uphold and protect these rights.

So, the sovereignty of the nation state was not an aim in itself. It should enable the state, in cooperation with other nations, to preserve the human rights of the citizens and improve their living conditions and welfare. This two pillar system was meant to enable the peoples of the world to address root causes of conflict, insecurity, violence and war, and, thus, to work and live together in peace.

The new system had a number of built in flaws, due to the specific way it had been established right after World War ll. All countries would be sovereign, but the construction of the Security Council did allot more powers to some of them. However, at the time it was the best attainable. And it was a sea change, unprecedented in world history. A world consensus concerning crucial values was agreed, power was shared, and common interests of humankind were recognized. That is why it is legitimate to call this a breakthrough in civilization.

Moreover: the new order and its institutions scored successes. A third World War was averted. Economic reconstruction after World War 2, together with agreed new rules in international finance and trade, made sure that the economic depression of the thirties gave way to stability and growth. Human rights were better kept after 1945. There were still many violations, but there was progress. Unmistakably, the sovereignty of nation states was met through decolonization. In no more than about three decades most former colonies became independent nations. This was a great achievement of the UN, though incomplete. Formal legal independence has to be complemented by political autonomy and economic self-reliance, promoting social development and people’s welfare. This took much more time. However, the gradual emancipation of nations in the new world system went hand in hand with a growing self-esteem of their citizens. People living in a world that Westerners had looked upon as not only different but also of lesser value, with a lower culture and backward traditions, worthy of conquest, enslavement, conversion and suppression, or, at most, benevolent uplifting from outside, those ‘other’ people were gradually getting a sense of their own dignity.

The process of growing self-esteem was steadfast and irreversible. The voices became louder and louder. They called for universal recognition of the dignity of human beings. Those were the voices of the South. They appealed to universal values, which also Western countries, for centuries having violated the rights of people in the South, should put into practice.

So, two points should be made very explicit.

Firstly: human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever their nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. All people are equally entitled to their human rights without discrimination.

Secondly: Human rights do not stand apart. They are part of a system which was built to serve in particular also the interests of the weaker countries. Guaranteeing human rights depends on the preservation of the system, not in the interests of the rich and powerful, but in particular of the poorer nations, the nations which had been made independent due to the system, their populations, in particular the classes which had been deprived from welfare and a voice in matters concerning their society and livelihoods.

But this means that once the system weakens, human rights violations will increase, appeals get weaker, and impunity will rise. That has happened.


Complex conflicts

Since the adoption of the Universal Declarations the world has changed. The end of World War 2 was not the end of atrocities and human suffering. Progress was modest, development insufficient, and cooperation meagre.  After 1945 fewer international wars have been fought than before and this trend has been confirmed with the end of the Cold War a couple of decades later. However, the number of domestic conflicts has not gone down. On the contrary, domestic conflicts increased. They have made millions of victims. Between the end of World War 2 and the end of the Cold War huge numbers of people fell victim to the liberalisation and decolonisation wars in Africa and Asia, and later on to international wars and internal conflicts in Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, Nigeria and Sudan. After 1989 huge numbers of victims were counted in Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Congo, Darfur, Gaza and recently Syria.

The end of the Cold War meant the end to an ideological struggle between East and West, an end to the confrontation between communism and capitalism, an end to the threat of war, in particular a new world war. However, developments since 1989 not only resulted in more countries accepting democratic political systems, but also in more wars within countries and in new authoritarian regimes. In those internal violent conflicts, the so called New Wars, more complex and lasting longer than traditional wars which could be won or lost, violating human rights of everyone who is considered an opponent, whether combatant or civilian, has become an instrument of war. Al parties are culpable, regimes as well as insurgents. Such wars develop into wars against people, indiscriminately, using terror against people in order to control their minds, when it is difficult to control terrain. Young boys, including babies, are seen as potential enemies, who should be killed before they reach the age of a potential fighter. Women and girls are seen as their breeders and nurses, deserving to be punished, abducted and raped. People of a different creed are considered inferior for that reason only, not worthy of any right as long as they do not convert.

There is a thin line between such movements, using power and violence to terrorize human beings, and authoritarian regimes, not the traditional dictators, but present day power machines, using modern technology and weaponry, secret services, the police, the military, militia, paramilitary groups and Special Forces against their own citizens. In those countries human rights are being violated at large scale, partly with brute force, partly subtly, using sophisticated information technology in order to limit people’s freedoms. Also less authoritarian regimes feel inclined to do so, for instance when such regimes came to power after a harsh struggle against external colonizers or previous dictators, or after having countered genocide against a minority.  In such cases a new regime may have a legitimate reason to fear that former atrocities may happen again and a credible argumentation in favour of some limitation in order to avoid such recurrence, but soon such an approach can lead to putting universally applicable human rights aside in order to serve a greater goal.

Present day conflicts are extremely complex. Human rights are being violated not only by evil regimes, such as in Syria, but also by their opponents, (such as IS) and by rebels (such as in Darfur), tribally inspired oppositions (such as in the new South Sudan), religious movements who consider the human rights of other people as fully subjugated to their own beliefs (such as Boko Haram and El Qaida), democratic governments violating international law in the name of national security (such as Israel and the US), movements who appeal to  international law, but have come to the conclusion that this is of no avail (such as the Palestinians), warlords who are more interested in the struggle than in the result (such as the Lord’s Army in Uganda) or in personal economic gains (such as the criminal gangs in Mexico), or new regimes which themselves are the result of a struggle against violations of human rights (such as in Rwanda). The struggle for justice, freedom and identity which itself can result in new violations of human rights is often supported by forces from outside, not only foreign regimes, but also transnational forces, such as a diaspora, the international weapons- and drugs mafia, or multinational companies, eager for stability, working together with oppressive powers. And the new economic challenges (scarcity of raw materials, demographic pressure and financial instability) incite some nation states for reasons of perceived home security and national interests to support regimes that do not at all care for their people. Present relations between Russia and Syria as well as between the US and Saudi Arabia, just to mention a few examples, demonstrate that the big powers in both East and West are again applying such strategies, disregarding once agreed principles of human rights.


Globalisation of violence

Also economic human rights continued to be violated. Persistent poverty is a clear example of human rights violations, as are widening inequalities, ongoing mass unemployment, and failing access to basic education and primary health care.

New world problems such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and the introduction of sophisticated technologies which can be used to kill people at large distance result in new sources of human rights violations. Globalisation in its present form has served the interests of two third of world population, say four billion people, while one third of the world’s people, say two billion people, have been put at a greater distance than before.

Human rights violations are still widespread, everywhere, ongoing. They are no exceptions to an otherwise positive trend. They are the trend. Human rights violations are not incidents, but structural. They are the result of structural inequalities in the present world system. We talk about ‘sustainable development’, but we live in a time of sustained injustice, serious and ongoing. Development, instead of becoming sustainable, is being eroded by a perpetuation of inequalities, poverty and violence. Since the beginning of the present Millennium violence has increased further, new wars are being fought, many people have been deprived of their land, their house, their property and their habitat. Many have lost everything. They are uprooted, displaced, in search of protection, safety, refuge and asylum. In several wars (Syria, Yemen, Central African Republic) mass killings are taking place, close to genocide. Rape of women and ethnic cleansing is no exception.

Many regimes are less inclined to serve the interests of the whole population for which they are responsible and accountable, and serve those of a part of their population only. That is the part which provides the regime with political legitimacy. In less democratic regimes this is a small constituency, a powerful elite. In more democratic regimes it will be a larger part of the population, but here too rights and responsibilities are often parcelled out in such a way that many people will not benefit. In democracies this is not the result of oppression, but by exclusion. The power basis of the political elite is generally with the middle class. On the global market the middle classes of different countries do not try to strengthen their  position by competing with each other - on the contrary: those middle classes depend on each other - but by denying underclass people access to scarce resources, political decision power and possession of basic rights.

All these phenomena are features of structural inequality and injustice in a global system. These features result in perpetuation of conflicts and violence, and thus in violations of human rights. This leads to pressure on the concept of human rights itself, and on the capability of the international community to ensure that these rights will be protected in practice.


In this new Millennium two factors are putting particular pressure on the preservation of human rights. The first of these is a lack of credibility of the champions. The character of human rights has for long been disputed because of polarisation between different cultural and religious ideologies and philosophies of life and between different ethnic and tribal traditions. However, this pressure has been increased because many people experience that Western countries are using a double standard. People observe that Western countries demand rights for themselves, which are not being allotted to other countries and populations abroad. To a certain extent former colonial practices continue. Western countries, for instance, allot absolute value to the principles of the so-called free market, irrespective of consequences for vulnerable people. The legal rights of financial institutions, capital and knowledge intensive enterprises, mining industries and plantation companies are being protected, while the rights of indigenous people and small farmers are being shoved aside. Moreover, developing countries observe that that CO2 emissions and climate change have resulted in unequal opportunities over time and a factual curtailment of the right to develop, with consequences for economic and social human rights of their population. These and other phenomena give cause to reproach the West about hypocrisy, a blame difficult to ward off.


Universal and absolute?

So, despite the earlier consensus reached regarding the concept of human rights, and despite regular reconfirmations at high political levels, disputes continue, and that today human rights still are far from guaranteed. Since decolonisation, and again after the end of the Cold War and after 9/11, the world has become not only more global, but also more differentiated, and world conflicts have become more complex. So, the question may rise whether human rights, because of this development, are less universal and less absolute than at the times of writing of the Universal Declaration.

After the genocide on the Tutsi’s in Rwanda, 1994, Philip Gourevitch wrote a book under the title: We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. It is an agonizing witness report, which does not leave doubt about who were the perpetrators, who were responsible. Several years later a new regime had gained a strong position in Rwanda. It declared any distinctive reference to Tutsi’s or Hutu’s illegal. The new regime wanted to bring an end to impunity, through mechanisms of traditional justice, aiming at the healing of society, renewal and reunion, reconciliation and even forgiveness. Given the fact that around one million of people, one seventh of the whole population, had been slaughtered, this was a tall order. However, the new regime felt that there was no other way. It demanded that all people, including the survivors and the families of those who had been killed, would follow instructions which were meant to prevent recurrence of genocide. For Rwanda this was crucial, but following those instructions is not easy for survivors of death squads. Instructions not to take revenge are justified, as well as instructions not to discriminate, and to live in peace with each other. However, instructions to forgive may fall beyond the comprehension of many. Moreover, to obey instructions not to take the law in one’s own hands will necessitate the state to put in practice a credible system of justice and law. The new regime made a serious effort to install such a system, which was difficult, because as a result of the genocide all judges and barristers had been killed. The prisons were full with people suspected of complicity with genocide, but trials had to be postponed. Criticisms were raised, in particular by human rights activists from abroad, who claimed that so-called Western standards were not met and feared a loss of democratic values. Gourevitch criticised the critics. In his view they wanted too much, and too fast.  He wrote that we should distance ourselves from the “simplistic absolutism of those who speak of human rights and democracy as if they must be arrived at overnight. Human rights absolutists hate to compare atrocities”. So, in his view human rights violations by the regime restoring law and order and going after the perpetrators of the genocide were negligible in comparison with the genocide itself.

There are many similar situations and possible comparisons. Human rights violations by rebel movements in Darfur may seem to be minor in comparison with the mass killings of Darfurians by the regime in Khartoum. The killing of innocent civilians in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan is being called road kill, or collateral damage, unavoidable and there for justified by the endeavour to bring an end to dictatorial regime of Gaddafi or the atrocities of the Taliban, El Qaeda or even the IS. However, such comparisons and calculations easily result in explanations which get the shape of understanding, and even extenuation and excuse.

In Rwanda a trial according to Western procedures of two hundred thousand people, accused of the killing of one million people, would last until the year 2100. Human rights organisations which had advocated Western legal procedures had only one option to offer: set everybody free. This would have been a licence to kill out of revenge. The government instead installed procedures on the basis of traditional justice and communal law, which for ages had been applied by local communities. They were not Western, but African. They may not have given satisfaction to Western feelings of righteousness, but they brought a fair degree of justice to people in Rwanda and did contribute to the healing of society. 

From his side, Gourevitch does have a point. Human rights activists often do not like nuances. Their findings are absolute, their statements straightforward. And that is how it ought to be, not regarding the way justice should be done - that is up to the people within the particular society itself - but with regard to the facts, the analysis and the reports. Comparisons, nuances, understandings and extenuations too easily lead to excuses and remission, and even self-forgivingness or concealment and cover up. Understanding everything may easily lead to forgiving everything.

Covering up is not a justifiable approach while building new nations and new states, such as, after decolonisation, India, Pakistan and Indonesia, and later on Eritrea, Rwanda, Kosovo and South Sudan. Covering up is never justifiable, neither in new nation states, nor in Western countries. Western countries, that set great store by credibility, must open the files regarding colonial crimes and war crimes for which they were responsible during decolonisation. For this it is never too late. It is not up to me, as a Dutchman, to judge the felonies in Indonesia in 1967. That is the responsibility of Indonesian people themselves, still today. But today it is my responsibility, as a Dutchman, to plead for justice, though retroactively, by demonstrating accountability for the war crimes and human rights violations carried out under the responsibility of the Netherlands government during the colonial period – such as the massacres on the Banda Islands in the seventeenth century and the killings during the wars on Java and in Aceh in the nineteenth century – as well as those in the war against the Indonesian nationalists, following the proclamation of independence of the Republic of Indonesia on 17 August 1945. The Dutch, speaking about human rights violations in other countries, should be aware of their own history and be very modest. Atrocities carried out more than a century ago cannot be made undone, but it is still possible to demonstrate readiness to accept responsibility and to help rectifying present consequences of misdeeds of the past.  

‘Human rights must be arrived overnight’ would be my response, paraphrasing Gourevitch. We cannot do or live with less than an absolute and universal yardstick. Any new violation of human rights is one too many. But when it is not possible to enforce those rights at the very moment that their violation is imminent, it will remain our duty not to forget, but to do justice later on, in order to demonstrate that we aim to end impunity. This would not only to do justice to both victims and perpetrators, but also help deterring recurrence, and facilitate the healing of the society. So, we can applaud people in Argentina, still seeking justice for the extrajudicial killings of citizens by the Videla regime, more than three decades ago. This being done by the country itself, though late, is preferable to a trial abroad, in the aftermath directly following the atrocities. However, when a regime is steadily lacking the political will or the capacity to do justice, an international trial, for instance by the International Criminal Court, basing itself on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, can serve as a credible option, in order to prepare the ground for peace and reconciliation.    



So, indeed, human rights are universal and absolute. They should be arrived overnight. Democracy, however, is neither universal, nor absolute, nor can it be arrived overnight.  How to do justice is a question which has to be answered within different contexts. New legal systems, new nation states, let alone democracy, cannot be wrought overnight. They deserve continuous renewal. Democracy does not have the same form and content in all times and places.  Democracy is a process. The process goes with trial and error, gradually succeeding by dogged perseverance. Steady democratisation is more important than trying to reach the ultimate goal of absolute democracy, because such an ideal does not exist, it is a mirage. Democratisation means proceeding on the road towards a complete upholding of the rights of all citizens, equally, universally and absolutely, an ordering of the state in which violations of human rights cannot go unpunished, and in which such violations ultimately are inconceivable, beyond comprehension.

Progress on the road towards further democratisation cannot be measured by comparing countries with each other, for instance comparing democracies in Asia and Africa with those in the West. Countries should be compared not with each other, but with themselves in different periods. The overriding criterion to be used by measuring progress towards democratisation is whether human rights violations are decreasing, and whether such violations will be countered and checked by the institutions of the state, indiscriminately.  The yardstick for democracy is whether the life of each individual human being is considered more valuable than the power of the state. So: the power of the state should serve life of and within a nation and its communities.


The right to life

In the end there is only one human right: the right to life. This is more than a right to survive. The right to exist and to live implies a right to live a decent life, beyond mere subsistence, a meaningful life. It also implies the right of each individual person to decide himself or herself what is the meaning of life, and what is its purpose. Every individual should have the right to strive at a meaningful life for oneself. However, because all people have an equal right to do so, similar rights of other people, neighbours or people living far away, must be respected. Nobody has the right trying to achieve a comfortable and meaningful life for him or herself by jeopardizing the same right of other persons. Everybody has the right to try achieving this without their rights being violated by others, with a different purpose in mind. All people are different, but al people do have equal human rights.

For society this is crucial: ‘I respect your right. You respect mine. Your right is my right. My right is yours. Full justice is not done to our rights, mine neither, as long as your rights are being violated.’ This principle goes beyond mutual tolerance, whereby everybody goes his own way. Living up to this principle requires a common struggle in order to share rights. In other words: ‘A violation of your rights is a threat to mine, because I consider this a violation of the meaning which I want to give to my life within the society’. Indeed, when people cannot give meaning to their life, society suffers.

Warranting the human right to live a meaningful life calls for an integration of political and civil human rights together with social-economic rights and cultural rights. However, such an integration requires more than parallel fulfilment. The various categories of human rights condition each other:  for a person to enjoy the right to be free, it is essential that he is able to meet basic needs for survival. Death and freedom do not go together. So, enjoying essential economic rights is a crucial precondition for the fulfilment of political rights. On the other hand, the certification of political rights is a precondition for the sharing of economic rights, without excluding particular groups. For a society as a whole, more than for an individual person, freedom should come first, not because freedom is more important than economic welfare - some may say that this is the case, but that is a subjective choice - but because freedom is a precondition for giving all members of that society access to welfare, whatever the level of welfare of the country as a whole. Authorities curtailing political freedoms of their citizens with the argument that economic growth should come first, and that a more equal sharing of the fruits of growth as well as a general enjoyment of freedom rights should wait till tomorrow, when growth will have resulted in higher welfare for the nation, so that there is more to share, those authorities are either mistaken or malevolent. Tomorrow they will be inclined to say the same: the time is not yet ripe, wait until the day after tomorrow. Such authorities will use their power to grant access to rights, economic as well as political rights, only to a part of their population, their own constituency, cultural, religious, ethnic, tribal, political or whatsoever. They will postpone allocating political rights and a more fair distribution of welfare.  Only when all people in a society are free, people will be able to speak out and confront authorities which favour only themselves or their own class.

This applies both to richer and poorer countries. It is a matter of both ethics and rationality. Ethics, because all people have equal rights. Rationality, because the society in a country characterized by structural inequalities and power abuse by elites claiming the right to rule, will come under great pressure. At a certain moment people will not accept this anymore. It will result in violence, civil war and mass violation of human rights. Fulfilling equal human rights within in a society, right at the beginning of a process of development and nation building, is a rational choice in order to keep society together and sustainable. Not only from an ethical point of view, but also rationally, this is preferable to the achievement of maximum economic growth at the shortest possible time. 


Exploitation, exclusion and expulsion

So, I conclude. What is necessary in order to enhance the preservation of human rights in present world circumstances?

Firstly: Adding a human face, or a social dimension, to the ongoing globalisation of world markets. Globalisation may seem inevitable, it also may not be perceived as an evil force per se, but in its present form globalisation results in a combination of exploitation, exclusion and expulsion. Exploitation, by not rewarding people’s labour with a decent remuneration, enabling them to survive and to invest in their own capacities, enhancing their potential and their prospects. Exclusion, by denying people access to scarce but essential assets, such as land, water, forests, fishing grounds, natural resources and others, depriving them from the possibility to participate in the economy, and thus also in decisions concerning the future of their society. Expulsion, by throwing people out of their land, their houses, their villages and habitat, or by taking away their access to social and public services, so that they fall beneath any poverty line or safety net.

To a certain extent this violation of social and economic human rights is the result of economic growth itself. Maximization of economic growth at all costs will lead to perverse development, whereby the benefits of so-called progress are being appropriated by some, while the costs are being rolled off on the plates of others. Those others are the weaker ones, more vulnerable, with less access to welfare, power and the systems which were established to guarantee their rights. Predatory capitalism makes many victims.

The mechanisms of exploitation, exclusion and expulsion are affecting not only economic classes, which throughout history always had been poor, or because they were living in a bad habitat or because they were caught in a negative spiral of deprivation of access to capital, knowledge and technology. These mechanisms affect in particular also groups which are not only poor, but also ‘different’: cultural minorities, religious denominations and tribal groups. This smells of discrimination.

All three mechanisms - exploitation, exclusion and expulsion - are the result of the workings of economic systems: neo-liberal, predatory, and inhuman. People’s connection with nature is getting lost, or is purposely cut loose. The natural environment (climate, fresh water resources, fertile arable land, and biodiversity) will lose its capacity to sustain meaningful life of future generations.


Turning the Tide

However, there is a possibility to turn the tide. This week the Heads of State and Government come together in New York at the Summit Meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations, in order to adopt a strategy for the next fifteen years.  It is called: Transforming Our World: The 2030 Strategy for Sustainable Development. In this strategy the 8 Millennium Development Goals of the period 2000 to 2015 will be further elaborated and extended into 17 Sustainable Development Goals. If governments take those goals seriously, which all of them should do, having signed the pledge at the highest possible political level, there is a real opportunity for in particular the economic and social human rights to come closer to realization. The UN Summit on Sustainable Development is a Summit on Human Rights. It is a unique opportunity to turn the tide.

What about political and civil human rights? Their realisation in the coming decade would first and foremost call for policies to prevent conflict escalation. Conflicts exist and they cannot easily be solved. However, a violation of human rights is not a direct result of a conflict as such. Violations take place when conflicts escalate into violence and get out of control.  In the present world system a conflict is put on the agenda after it has escalated in such a way that it is being perceived as a threat to security. Then it is too late. We need international consultative mechanisms dealing with possible political as well as social and economic causes of future escalation. 

Both approaches  - the Agenda for Global Sustainable Development, and the prevention of conflict escalation - will only work out when we are willing to strengthen and reform the international system.  Reform of the system, which had been designed in the 1940s, is necessary in order to strengthen its capacity to monitor and foster human rights. The UN system itself should be made more equitable and also more capable to counter regimes violating the human rights of people within and across their national frontiers. 

All this will require a greater emphasis on credibility. Globalisation of the world’s civil society could be an important step into that direction. Ngo’s grassroots movements, civil society groups and human rights lawyers and activists in different countries, communicating with each other across national borders, publishing information, using social media and developing common strategies would together be a strong countervailing power confronting the powers that violate human rights. Many of such groups have understood this already. Many have also understood that credibility requires that they should first and foremost address human rights violations within their own societies and by their own regimes. This has made them more vulnerable to oppression by their own regimes. This is another reason to work together and to show solidarity with human rights activists abroad. Yap Thiam Hien has been one of them. For me and many others he was a role model. Many human rights activists consider themselves tributary to him. They are essential catalysts in a process which should enable us to live up to the pledge contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.   


Jan Pronk

Yap Thiam Hien Lecture, Constitutional Court, Jakarta, Indonesia, 22 September 2015



Gourevitch, Philip (1998), We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Idem, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

Idem, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Sassen, Saskia (2014), Expulsions, Harvard University Press