Slider schmal Frau (Key Sujet)

Food for Thought – Human Rights Day, 10 December 2018

You and human rights

by Peter Wismer, public international lawyer, Denmark

It is easy to talk about human rights. As long as we can talk in abstract about the inalienable rights of every human being there is a high degree of consensus. Even those who favour the Fortress Europe approach to refugees will agree that there is an inalienable right to human life.

The problem comes when we shift the focus from broader notions of entitlements to human rights to specific human rights obligations – and in particular to whose responsibility it is that human rights are respected. Suddenly we find that human rights are not as absolute as we would like to think. Every human being may have a set of human rights, but not every human being is obligated to respect the human rights of fellow human beings, it is frequently argued. In fact, prevailing opinion holds that respect for human rights is a relationship only between a citizen and her home or host state. Other states find that they have no human rights obligations towards human beings not belonging to them or being within their jurisdiction. Hence it is so important to let refugees drown in the Mediterranean rather than having them set foot on our soil.

To be fair, it is hard to imagine that other states can be responsible for most civil and political rights, since such rights are intertwined so deeply with the jurisdiction of states. But the same is not true for economic rights, and not even for social and cultural rights (since they often depend on money), and obligations to assist through international assistance and cooperation do exist, see, for instance, Arts 55 and 56 of the UN Charter and Art 2 of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. How our rejection of refugees and immigrants can be argued to be in line with the obligation to promote ‘universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion’ is hard to understand. And even more so the proactive steps of governments to deregister Aquarius, so as to stop it from fulfilling its humanitarian tasks.

Without lessening legal obligations on states, it is important to remember that the human rights idea in origin and supremacy is a moral norm! We make it far too easy on ourselves when we wash our hands of responsibility with the waters of ‘another state is responsible’. And it is escapist to do the Pontius Pilate and make our own state the only one responsible for our collective moral bankruptcy. Just as there is an inalienable right for us to enjoy the full range of human rights, there is a moral imperative for us to do whatever we can in order to ensure that others can equally enjoy their human rights.

With John Donne: Each man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee!