December 10, 2022

Fighting for Our Rights: RLS and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung - New York

What are human rights? This is a loaded question. It is a loaded question now, and it was a loaded question in 1947, when the newly formed Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations established the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Drafting Committee. Chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the committee spent nearly two years debating the nature of human rights and drafting the 30 articles that comprise the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

A rather progressive document for the time, the UDHR remains a cornerstone document in the ongoing fight for human rights around the world. A secular document that was agreed to at the multilateral level, the Universal Declaration acknowledges that all humans are born free and equal regardless of their “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” Many states have since gone on to codify the rights contained within the Universal Declaration into their constitutions. 

A Look at Our Work

Thinking about the work of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung – New York Office, all of our work is influenced, either directly or indirectly, by the Universal Declaration. And while it is a groundbreaking document, it is also important to acknowledge that the UN’s human rights framework was born out of a system inextricably linked to the 20th century colonial project. Today, the UN has begun to do the work to resist and repair the damage caused by colonialism, and we at RLS-NYC are working to hold the UN to account and influence key international processes to be more equitable and ensure the decolonization work happens. 

The fight for Indigenous Peoples’ rights has been fundamental in challenging the colonial and neo-colonial understandings of human rights that guided the UN’s responses to rights violations worldwide. Indigenous organizations working to dismantle colonial paradigms have brought to light issues such as the relationship between individual and collective rights (e.g., collective land rights, cultural rights) and people’s sovereignty (e.g., self-determination, plurinationalism). These movements have led to a further deepening of our understanding of formal human rights as applied distinctly to indigenous communities beyond the foundations of the UDHR. This can be seen in the subsequent development of legal instruments addressing gaps in the UDHR, for instance the 1989 International Labour Organization (ILO) Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (ILO 169) and the landmark UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) passed in 2007. These iterations are key to building a just and universal human rights framework that responds to a more pluralistic definition of rights that is not limited by the norms of systems defined by the colonial order and reflects the realities of a broader range of peoples. Our partnership with MADRE, which is entering its 10th year, embodies the fight to force the UN to build a decolonial human rights system that centers the rights of Indigenous peoples, especially Indigenous women. 

International human rights law has also been instrumental in interpreting values and norms around the issues of the climate and environment. Over the last century we have seen the progressive degradation of the earth’s ecosystems, biodiversity, physical environment and climate as a result of industrialization and increasingly monopolistic and capitalistic patterns of natural resource exploitation. The UDHR’s language on protecting the right to life and the right to an adequate standard of living for health and well-being can be seen as a starting point in this debate, however these clauses weren’t drafted with environmental crises in mind. Global governance debates on the state of the environment only started in earnest in 1972 with the United Nations Conference on the Environment, the world’s first UN gathering on the topic, and its resultant Stockholm Declaration and Action Plan for the Human Environment

The Stockholm Declaration was the precursor to both concepts of sustainable development and what is now an expansive field of international environmental and climate law that has drawn heavily from rights-based discourse and thinking. Since the first Stockholm meeting, the UDHR’s framework of the right to health and well-being has been further developed towards an understanding that a safe and healthy environment is required for the full enjoyment of human rights. This is now a right that is more widely accepted. In 2021 the UN Human Rights Council declared access to a “clean, healthy and sustainable environment” a human right and the UN General Assembly in July 2022 called on states to ensure people have access to a “clean, healthy and sustainable environment.”

Legal arguments around fundamental rights are increasingly being leveraged to push for climate and environmental action. In 2021 the committee tasked with overseeing the Convention on the Rights of the Child ruled that countries party to the convention can be held responsible for the negative impacts of carbon emissions on the rights of children, both within and outside their borders. This legally-binding convention, which is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history, is currently drafting a “general comment on children’s rights and the environment with a special focus on climate change” which will strengthen its functions on addressing the abuse of rights related to climate change further. There are associated dialogues on intergenerational rights in the context of climate change, including the rights of future human generations, that are currently finding traction in national legal systems that are likely to continue shaping the debate.

The links between human rights and the environment and climate are now reflected in a raft of multilateral environmental agreements from the UN Framework Convention on Climate change, to the Convention on Biological Diversity, to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, among others. There have also been a number of promising developments to expand our understanding of rights in the context of the environment via regional treaties and initiatives. For instance, the Escazú Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean strongly brings together environmental protection and the implementation of human rights, including protecting the rights of environmental defenders. Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung New York Office’s work on climate justice is informed greatly by this rights-based tradition. 

Workers’ rights are a central tenet of political and human rights struggles, and are enshrined in Article 23 of the UDHR, which states that everyone has the right to form and to join a trade union. The International Labour Organization (ILO), a key body of the UN system, exists in part to protect workers and incorporates a human-rights approach to labor rights into its work. The ILO Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers (Convention 189), Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (C169) and the Migration for Employment Convention (C97) are some of the legal documents that exist to protect the human rights of workers globally. Our projects with labor organizers and migrant workers have highlighted these international legal tools as means to build up transnational solidarity. Because all workers’ struggles share structural threats, we support activities that look at a body of rights as inevitably linked to all the others and facilitate the exchanges. Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), for instance, bridges the issues of labor rights and climate justice.

RLS-NYC is involved in disarmament and non-proliferation efforts that emphasize upholding human rights above all. As stated in Article 3 of the UDHR, “everyone has the right to life,” which is challenged by the threat of nuclear war. Furthermore, we acknowledge that armed conflict is rooted in socio-economic inequality that creates multiple forms of human insecurity. This framing guides our approach to multilateral peace-building and disarmament processes, as well as the partnerships we establish with experienced organizations with extensive expertise regarding the debates going on at the UN around nuclear abolition. We support the international peace movement and work to connect it with other global struggles.

Our work on fighting for racial justice, touches on multiples articles from the Universal Declaration, including, but not limited, to: Article 4, no one shall be held in slavery; Article 7, all are equal before the law; Article 9, no one shall be subject to arbitrary arrest; Article 20, the right to peacefully assembly. Though it bears mentioning that many countries around the world had blatantly racist laws on the books at the time of the signing of the UDHR, such as the Jim Crow laws in the United States. More recently, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), has issued a report on racial justice and equality, and the Permanent Forum on People of African Decent met for the first time this week. In our racial justice work, we partner with people and organizations who understand the depth and complexity of these human rights issues on local and multilateral levels.

Another key pillar of our work is countering the far right. Reading the UDHR rights again while drafting this piece, reminded us how many Articles are relevant to our work on this issue. These include: Article 13, the right to freedom of movement; Article 18, freedom of thought, conscience and religion; Article 19, freedom of expression; Article 21, equal access to public services; Article 22, the right of social security. In some cases, these ideas have even been co-opted and weaponized by the right. Our work with our partners on understanding and developing strategies for countering the far right interrogates these issues and connects them to other human rights concerns.

Furthermore, the UNDHR has been instrumental in the struggle against the discrimination of other traditionally marginalized groups, such as the LGBT+ community, by formulating and underpinning their rights as human beings, through the Yogyakarta Principles. Intended to serve as an interpretation framing for the human rights system to center on issues of sexual and gender identity, the principles are not part of a legally-binding treaty but provide guiding for implementing a rights-based approach to voice the demands of justice for LGBT+ communities worldwide.

A Look at Where We Do Our Work

We, as the RLS-NYC office, are in a privileged position. We are part of a German political foundation and operate in the United States. The US played a key role in the drafting and ratification of the Declaration. Germany’s constitution, the Grundgesetz, states that “human dignity is inviolable.” We have the freedom to exist and work with diverse partners whose missions and ideologies are not necessarily in line with the leadership of our funders or hosts.

Part of this privilege, though, is calling out these countries when they fall short of upholding the fundamental human rights that they loudly proclaim to defend at home and abroad. In the United States, for instance, women’s rights and bodily autonomy and under attack, as are the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, refugee and asylum seeks are not having their claims heard, 35 men are being held at the US military detention center in Guantanamo Bay; in the wake of protests over racial and environmental justices, several states passed laws limiting the freedom to assemble; police kill more than 1,000 civilians a year; the death penalty is still legal in 27 states. This is in addition to the government’s continued use of armed drones abroad, which routinely kill civilians. And the US – as well as Germany – has yet to sign several international treaties on human rights, despite hailing itself as a beacon of democracy and human rights on the international stage.

Our organization also carries the responsibility of holding Germany, its home base, accountable for its own human rights violations. The large waves of asylum seekers that arrived to Europe running away from the wars and the famines caused by the big powers of the Global North have been used as scapegoats to radicalize reactionaries and islamophobes. The government’s shifts and failure in delivering full access to human rights and a path to citizenship for refugees have created an ongoing crisis of intersecting levels that Germans, as well as other European countries, should work to stop and revert its effects as well as to reform the entire international migration rights system. 

Germany also has to respond for its role in global arms trade. Its involvement in weapons exports to unstable regions and authoritarian regimes and their complicity with German companies’ maneuvers to circumvent international law violate several international treaties ratified by the country and fuel socio-economic and environmental injustice worldwide.

Looking ahead, the UDHR will continue to guide the work of RLS-NYC. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be exactly that – universal. But unfortunately, it isn’t – neither in the United States nor in Germany nor many of the countries where our partners are from. Beyond that, the Universal Declaration is now about to turn 75 years old and clearly of a different time. The rights we consider universal need to be re-examined and expanded. We at RLS need to push for an expanded view of universal human rights and fight to make sure all human rights are respected worldwide. The legacy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not yet complete. 

This post is part of a joint project by RLS NYC and RLS Geneva during 2023 in which our offices will look at the 75th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and how it can feed our work for Global Social Rights and Socio-Ecological Transformation.

Read RLS Geneva’s post “As Important as Ever: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” by Eva Wuchold here.