International Human Rights Day, marking the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, comes at a dark moment. People, the planet, and polls are in jeopardy.
The world watches in shock and horror, the relentless, disproportionate, indiscriminate killing by Israel of Palestinian children, women, the elderly, and the vulnerable in Gaza—unable to stop the carnage in the face of US support and veto power in the UN Security Council. Russia’s audacious invasion of and attacks on Ukraine also continue unabated, buttressed by the former’s veto power.
While these crises dominate international media, other entrenched and emerging conflicts that have become invisible to it are still visibly crushing human rights in many places around the world.
Turning from conflicts to climate, COP28 is coming to a close, hosted by a globally leading oil-producing nation, chaired by the chief executive of its largest oil company, and allegedly promoting fossil fuel deals on the sidelines. Under these circumstances, it takes foolhardy optimism to expect meaningful action on the climate crisis and the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.
In September this year, the UN Sustainable Development Goals Summit papered over the lack of commitment and resources to achieve the global goals which governments themselves adopted in 2015. Digital technology and artificial intelligence have opened up new opportunities but also introduced new forms of inequality and risks, which neither businesses nor governments are tackling. Youth unemployment, rising food prices, increasing environmental disasters, and households struggling to survive are some signs of bad times ahead.
Democracy is in distress. More than half of the world’s population live in countries that will go to the polls next year. That includes the United States, the world’s oldest democracy, and India, the world’s largest democracy—as well as Bangladesh. The Economist predicts that “many elections will entrench illiberal rulers” or “reward the corrupt and the incompetent.”
Backsliding on human rights by liberal democracies across the world casts a dark shadow that we are ignoring at our peril.
In recent months, we have seen in Bangladesh a severe crackdown on ready-made garment industry workers demanding a living wage, and mass arrests of political activists calling for free and fair elections.
Threats, attacks, surveillance, intimidation, and legal harassment of journalists and media workers in recent years have led most editors and broadcasters to self-censor in order to keep their outlets functioning. Those who still dare to print without fear believe that they will be brought to heel by the authorities soon.
The government’s claim of upholding the rule of law belies reality. Police detain the teenage son or the elderly father when they cannot find the political activist they want to arrest. A teenage girl is imprisoned for over a year for organising a webinar in which a participant criticised the government. The prosecution admits in open court that it cannot find evidence against a journalist and the judge orders them to continue investigating until they do find something.
These are not isolated incidents but a pattern of creeping authoritarianism.
What does equal protection under the law—a fundamental principle of human rights—mean when parents have the legal right to consent to the marriage of a minor girl to her rapist? Or when developers are free to grab arable land and dispossess farmers, with impunity?
Whether you need to renew a driving licence, set up a small business, report a serious crime to the police, or seek admission of your child to the local school, as an ordinary citizen you are acutely aware of the daily failure of the State to protect your rights.
Vested political and economic interests have captured almost every institution of the State. Gagging the free press, locking up critics, delegitimising human rights defenders, and restricting civil society will strangle the remaining avenues for holding the government to account.
Can democracy and development survive this onslaught on human rights and the rule of law?
I applaud the significant progress that Bangladesh has made on many fronts under this government—including the empowerment of women and girls, eradication of extreme poverty, and the expansion of basic services and infrastructure. But I despair of their sustainability and continued progress if they are not bolstered by respect for human rights.
Development is sustainable not only when it incorporates economic, social, and environmental dimensions, but because respect for human rights makes it just, inclusive, and transformational. That is clearly acknowledged in the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development, which Bangladesh has enthusiastically endorsed.
The prime minister showed leadership, foresight, and commitment to her people’s struggle for freedom when she signed up to the key international human rights instruments in 2000. People are looking to her to preserve that legacy by upholding their rights.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains as valid today as the day when it was adopted three quarters of a century ago.
Author is UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression.