The freshly concluded 2023 marked the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has great significance in human history and has had a profound impact on the cause of human rights development. Since the Declaration was adopted, progress has been made to protect and promote human rights. The Declaration serves as a reminder for mankind to fulfill its commitment to the fundamental rights of human beings.
However, even with sound systems to protect human rights in place within the United Nations as well as in various countries and regions, human rights tragedies are still happening. Palestinian people in Gaza are dying from bombardment or starvation. People in some African countries are deprived of the right to security due to constant local conflict or crossfire. People at the southern border of the United States are striving for their next meal or next lodge … It seems that they have been excluded from the mechanism of human rights protection. Sadly, they are intentionally neglected by some self-styled “human rights guardians.”
As we usher in the new year of 2024, it is necessary to revisit the evolution of human rights and stay alert to those who are always trying to misinterpret this concept and use it as a profit-making tool.
BORN WITH DISCRIMINATION
Going back to the origins, the concept of “human rights” has been largely shaped by Western capitalism, which has developed based on the blood and tears of the people in the world over a long period of time. During the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, in order to overthrow the feudal autocratic system and hierarchical privileges, the Western bourgeoisie put forward the theory of “natural human rights.” The U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789 both declared in the form of political programs that “all men are created equal” and advocated the sacrosanct rights of citizens.
However, the reality is not quite as rosy as the Declarations suggest because here “people” only refer to “citizens.” The relevant expressions of the Declaration of Independence applied merely to white men who owned certain property, while slaves, women, colored people, and white people who did not own property were unable to obtain the corresponding rights. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen refers to “citizens” only as male citizens.
After the Western bourgeoisie overthrew the feudal autocracy and established the capitalist system, the dazzling slogans of “natural human rights” and “all men are created equal” gradually revealed their true face. When capitalism entered the colonial phase, Western countries turned to cruel colonial plunder and slave trade and completed the primitive accumulation of wealth by trampling on the human rights of native people in their colonies. For example, since the end of the 16th century, white colonists sold more than 22 million African slaves to South America, forcing them to plant and pick cotton day and night. During the American Revolutionary War and the American Civil War, white people launched thousands of attacks on Indian tribes in an attempt to seize their land, and encouraged the massacre of Indians by “offering a bounty” on their scalps.
GOING THE WRONG WAY
Although the era of colonial expansion has passed, some Western countries still use the concept of “human rights” selectively. This phrase has become a banner of pretense under which too many flagrant violations of other countries’ sovereignty and interference in other countries’ internal affairs are committed.
In the name of protecting the Croats from the Serbs, the U.S.-led NATO forces launched the Kosovo War and dropped large quantities of toxic and radioactive depleted uranium bombs on Yugoslavia, a land where people are still suffering from leukemia and other after-effects many years later. In the name of fighting terrorism, the United States launched its longest war in Afghanistan, leaving a shattered country behind after twenty years of military control, wanton killings and negligence of management. According to a survey from Brown University, since the beginning of the 21st century, the United States has carried out military operations in 85 countries in the name of “counter-terrorism” or “protecting human rights,” which directly claimed at least 929,000 civilian lives and displaced 38 million people.
The latest example is what happened in the Middle East. More than 20,000 Palestinian civilians, including more than 8,000 children, were killed during the current round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The United States has provided Israel with 14,000 bombs at a total value of 110 million U.S. dollars, constantly vetoed UN draft humanitarian resolutions on the conflict, and obstructed the efforts of the international community to promote a ceasefire, without any concern for the Palestinian people’s basic right to existence and reasonable demand for an independent state, as if “human rights” were something only enjoyed by those who sided with the United States.
There are still some who use “human rights” as an excuse to slander and smear others. In recent years, some Western countries fabricated “genocide” and “forced labor” in China’s Xinjiang, and imposed illegal sanctions on Chinese companies and individuals without any basis, in an attempt to hinder China’s development. Yet they choose to turn a blind eye to the fact that over the past 60 years and more, the total population of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang has increased from 2.2 million to about 12 million, the average life expectancy has increased from 30 years to 75 years, and the comprehensive mechanization level of crop planting and harvesting has reached over 87.6 percent.
Even within Western countries, there are double standards on human rights. For example, people of African origin are the main victims of gun violence or police violence, and the elderly were the first to be given up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Minority groups are easily attacked or discriminated against in the Western world. Muslims, Asians, and Latinos are often victims of racial discrimination. Youngsters are forced to work and women are subject to sex discrimination in their education or employment. These are not old stories in the 19th or 20th century but what is taking place in many Western countries today.
All human beings are born free and equal with dignity and rights, irrespective of their race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Their universal human rights are enshrined in the many conventions and treaties that govern the behavior of states, institutions and individuals. Those are not just letters on the pages but need to be put into practice every day and in every corner of the world.
The original definition of human rights should not be forgotten. Human rights should no longer be used as a nasty means to make profits, both political and monetary. They should no longer belong to only white people, to “winners” and their sidekicks, to the strong who prey on the weak, but should also belong to the weak, the minorities and those from under-developed countries. Only in this way can global human rights governance get back to the fair, just, reasonable and inclusive path.