‘Human rights’ has become a much-misunderstood or maligned term since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed by all 56 UN members on 10 December 1948. Rooted especially in the parallel emergence of the bills of rights and responsibilities which formed part of the French and American revolutions of the late 18th century, the rights of man were often only the rights of men, and only some men, not yet the rights of humanity more broadly. This shifted during the horrors of the Second World War, with speeches such as FDR’s famous defence in 1941 of four essential freedoms: freedom from fear and from want, freedom of speech and of belief. These four freedoms are key to how we assess the sustainability of development and peace anywhere in the world. It sounds obvious, but it is also so much more liberating to think in terms of freedom!
We talk – and South Sudan is an example of this – of the differences between negative peace (the absence of violence) and positive peace (the presence of institutional and social constructs which preserve and promote the fundamental freedoms in which peace and wholeness are rooted). I wonder if we could also consider human rights in the same vein. They are not only ‘negative’, such as the absence of abuse or violation, but ‘positive’, requiring a political and social environment in which no-one is excluded because of fear or religious belief, or because of poverty or because their voices are silenced. This would be a world in which, to quote the Sustainable Development Goals, no-one is left behind.
In this world, human rights would no longer be seen as a peculiarly Western or Northern construct designed to leave behind those with different religious and cultural perspectives, or a stick with which to beat countries in which people are badly treated. Instead, we would all recognise that whatever our state of development or our legal frameworks we all treat people unfairly because we do not yet have societies which embed equality rather than inequality. It is our inherent equality which is the bedrock of our human rights.
In one small school in South Sudan we are trying to change this. We are protecting the right to education, free from harm. We are protecting the rights of girls not to be forced into pregnancy and marriage. We are building institutions which foster and embed dignity, confidence, protection, and good governance. In short, we are promoting the rights of girls to expect and demand a different future.
To achieve this requires a huge shift in political and personal will, as do other crises which we face in our world. But not to do so carries an even greater cost. Standing by, while the girls of South Sudan – and the marginalised in each of our communities wherever we are – are left to fester, exposes us all to the charge that human rights are not universal but available to a privileged few. And that leaves us all behind.
Mark Simmons, FIGS CEO, 10/12/19