A system of universal values, applicable to all human beings
Universality is the idea that universal facts exist and can be progressively discovered, whereas relativism denies the existence of universal facts. It follows that universality presupposes a system of universal values applicable to all human beings, which is denied by relativism.
In my opinion, human rights today represent the only universally recognised system of values, which no religion or philosophy can claim. At the same time, the very idea of human rights is increasingly put in question, and multilateralism is replaced by nationalism and unilateralism.
The United Nations, founded in 1945 in reaction to two World Wars, the great depression and the rise of fascism which resulted in the Holocaust, is the first international organization with true universal membership. Its principles, such as sovereign equality of all member states, peaceful settlement of international disputes and, for the first time in human history, the prohibition of the threat or use of military force, already assumed the universality of the United Nations when it was founded. The process of decolonization as one of the major achievements of the world organization during the Cold War was of critical importance for achieving a genuine universality of international law.
In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations” with the aim of securing the “universal and effective recognition and observance” of all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights contained therein. The universality of this most important human rights document derives from the equal dignity of all human beings, based on the universalistic philosophy of Immanuel Kant. These philosophical roots are clearly spelled out in the Preamble: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Article 1 adds that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
Customary international law, ius cogens and erga omnes obligations symbolize the major sources of universal international law. In addition, some international treaties, such as the UN Charter, the four Geneva Conventions on international humanitarian law, the Convention on the Rights of the Child or the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women are ratified today by almost all sovereign states. Certain crimes, such as piracy, terrorism, torture, genocide and crimes against humanity are subject to universal criminal jurisdiction, as perpetrators of such serious crimes are considered as “hostis humanis generis”, i.e. as enemies of humankind for whom there shall be no “safe heaven” on earth.
1989 was a historic year of two antagonistic paradigm shifts. The “velvet revolutions” and the collapse of Communism in Europe lead to a window of opportunity for a “New World Order” based on universal human rights, pluralist democracy and the rule of law. In the same year the “Washington Consensus” replaced the “Keynesian Consensus” and lead to a dynamic of globalization driven by neoliberal market forces. Despite certain trends towards universality during the 1990s, above all the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights 1993, which in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action explicitly recognized that “all human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated”, the International Criminal Court and the Millennium Development Goals, the West missed this historic window of opportunity by focussing primarily on the final victory of capitalism over communism.
In my opinion, the economic growth driven by global neoliberal policies and the innovations in the information and communication technology led to a certain level of prosperity and reduction of global poverty, above all in China and other Asian countries. At the same time, radical neoliberal policies of privatization, deregulation and minimizing the role of the state also led to an enormous and largely uncontrolled power of transnational corporations and global financial markets. We increasingly witness that the economy controls politics rather than vice versa. This uncontrolled power of the private sector not only fosters tax evasion, corruption and organized crime, it also led to a variety of global economic, financial, food, water and ecological crises, including a dangerous level of climate change. Undermining and minimizing the role of states further resulted in many failed and fragile states, where powerful non-state actors, including warlords, armed and terrorist groups could gain influence and control.
Most importantly, neoliberal economic policies have led to unprecedented economic inequality between and within states which is undermining the social contract and coherence of societies and the values of democratic governance. The ideology of egoism and ruthless competition aimed at maximizing profits has infiltrated all areas of life, including politics, and left behind all those who are not able or willing to adapt to these new rules of behaviour, above all the poor, weak, marginalised and discriminated sectors of our societies. The rapid disappearance of social safety nets, both in traditional societies and in highly developed social welfare states, leads to a feeling of insecurity, fears and frustration with the ruling elites which is a fertile breeding ground for nationalism, populism, radicalization, extremism, terrorism and new authoritarianism. Fake news spread rapidly by social media strengthen the belief in relativism and thereby undermine the universal values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Nationalism, “illiberal democracy” and new authoritarian leaders also openly challenge the achievements of multilateralism and the value of international organizations, including the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the European Union.
What needs to be done?
We cannot turn back the clock and should also not forget the many positive achievements of the last decades. We should move beyond deploring the current interrelated crises of our times and also move beyond mere crisis management by only treating the obvious symptoms of ecological and humanitarian disasters, of failed states and failed banks, of global economic and financial crises, of unprecedented migration and refugee flows. We need to address the root causes of these interrelated crises and phenomena, namely the global neoliberal economic policies. The Agenda 2030 with its 17 sustainable development goals, the targets of the Paris Climate Summit, the global migration and refugee compacts as well as the universal, legally binding human rights treaties provide an excellent normative framework for action. But we need to realize that we can only reach these goals and targets if we radically change our current global economic policies and our reckless consumption behaviour. The recent global demonstrations of our children against the irresponsible way in which we continue to ignore the anthropogenic causes of climate change and the urgent need to act swiftly in order to save our planet also for the next generations are a very promising sign that our children are willing to stand up for their human right to a dignified existence. We need to empower our children by means of comprehensive human rights and global citizenship education to oust the current generation of irresponsible, authoritarian, nationalistic and egoistic political leaders and to introduce again more empathy, solidarity, economic equality, global justice and peace into world politics.
Written by Manfred Nowak for the Maastricht Centre for Human Rights - More blogs on Law Blogs Maastricht. This contribution is a summary of the key note speech of the Universality Seminar of the Maastricht Centre for Human Rights, 15 February 2019.