By Ben Phillips
Human rights are under global assault. In 2021, the escalation of the worldwide siege on human rights included clampdowns on civil society organisations, attacks on minorities, the undermining of democratic institutions, and violence against journalists.
Human rights came under attack not only from coups, from Myanmar to Sudan, but also from strong men in democracies, from Brazil to the Philippines. The 6 January attack on the Capitol in the US exemplified the fragility of human rights worldwide.
2021 saw the conservative think tank Freedom House raise the alarm about what it calls one of the biggest worldwide declines in democracy “we’ve ever recorded”. But to protect human rights, it is vital to understand why they are under threat.
Crucially, it is not a coincidence that humanity has been simultaneously hit by a crushing of human rights and ever-increasing inequality; they are mutually causal. There is no winning strategy to be found in the approach followed by institutions like Freedom House which cleaves civil and political rights from economic and social rights, and has no answer to the inequality crisis.
Impact of ultra-capitalism
Organisations rooted in civil society organising have set out powerfully the interconnectedness of the human rights crisis and the inequality crisis.
Civicus’s 2021 State of Civil Society report notes how “economic inequality has become ever more marked, precarious employment is being normalized [and] big business is a key source of attacks on civic space and human rights violations.”
So too, Global Witness’s 2021 Last Line of Defence report notes that “unaccountable corporate power is the underlying force which has continued to perpetuate the killing of [land and environmental] defenders.”
As human rights scholars Radhika Balakrishnan and James Heintz have noted, “when the political power of the elites expands as the income and wealth distribution becomes more polarized, this compromises the entire range of human rights.” Civicus terms the assault on human rights as one of “ultra-capitalism’s impacts”.
The World Inequality Report records how “in 2021, after three decades of trade and financial globalization, global inequalities are about as great today as they were at the peak of Western imperialism in the early 20th century.
Plutocrats find collaborators
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated even more global inequalities. The top 1 per cent took 38 per cent of all additional wealth accumulated since the mid-1990s, with an acceleration since 2020.
Societies that are more unequal are more violent. As collective institutions like trade unions are weakened, ordinary people become increasingly atomized. As social cohesiveness is pulled apart by inequality, tensions rise.
It is in such contexts that far right movements thrive, and whilst such movements claim to be anti-elite, they soon find common cause with plutocrats in directing anger away from those who have taken away the most and onto those who can be targeted for the difference in how they look, speak, pray or love.
Human rights can only be protected in their fullness
Yet, as writer Michael Massing put it, “many members of the liberal establishment dismiss populism as a sort of exogenous disease to be cured by appeals to reason and facts rather than recognize it as a darkly symptomatic response to a system that has failed so spectacularly to meet the basic needs of so many.”
Human rights can only be protected in their fullness – civil, political, economic and social. As Lena Simet, Komala Ramachandra and Sarah Saadoun note in Human Rights Watch’s 2021 World Report: “A rights-based recovery means governments provide access to healthcare, [and] protect labor rights, gender equality, and everyone’s access to housing, water and sanitation.
It means investing in public services and social protection, and strengthening progressive fiscal policies to fund programs so everyone can fulfill their right to a decent standard of living. It means investing in neglected communities and avoiding harmful fiscal austerity, like cutting social protection programs.”
Only determined organising connecting the inseparable struggles for human rights and a more equal society will be powerful enough to win.
Ben Phillips is the author of How to Fight Inequality and an advisor to the UN, governments and civil society organisations.
This opinion piece has been sourced from Inter Press Service