Ahead of the Future Leaders Connect programme, we were asked to consider the following question: It’s 70 years since the universal declaration of human rights was proclaimed by the United Nations, but are our human rights better protected today than in 1948? It is a good question, with no easy answer.
While there is plenty to be optimistic about, I believe our human rights remain precarious, for three key reasons:
- Today’s public has an increasingly fragile conception of ’norms’. Rights are only respected as long as their legitimacy, and the legitimacy of the institutions that set and govern them, is understood. As we see institutions like the UN maligned, and populations looking elsewhere for guidance and governance, the system of rules and norms that help to uphold human rights is weakened.
- Leaders are embracing – and in many cases, inflaming – this public reaction. Many governments, and particularly those who could be previously relied upon to uphold the international rules-based system, such as the United States, are turning away from multilateral cooperation. This makes the global cooperation needed to uphold human rights even more fragile
- At the same time, the very body that exists to hold states accountable for their human rights obligations also has the unenviable task of building consensus amongst these same states. The UN Security Council is bound by this realpolitik of its members, which makes enacting meaningful sanctions for human rights abuses near impossible.
The Rohingya crisis is an extreme example of this. There is little doubt that the Myanmar military has committed war crimes. But because consensus is impossible, the UN Security Council cannot refer them to the International Criminal Court. So the very institutions created to prevent these atrocities, enable perpetrators to act with impunity.
At Save the Children, this is something we are deeply concerned about. Over the past 20 years, we have witnessed persistent and widespread violations of children’s rights in conflict – fuelled by the growing fragility of the rules-based international system that is meant to uphold our human rights.
Next year is the 30th anniversary of the convention on the rights of the child and Save the Children’s centenary. This is a critical moment to reinforce children’s rights as human rights.
If we can encourage both leaders and individuals to view human rights through our children – and the duty we owe these children to safeguard their future – they become less abstract and more urgent.
To do this effectively, we must put children’s voices first.
While the contemporary challenges described above make human rights precarious, there is a huge amount to celebrate about the modern world – in particular, the capacity of new technology to connect us with our fellow humans.
At Save the Children, we used this technology to connect Rohingya child refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh with school children here in the UK.
These children in the UK heard the appalling stories of Rohingya children and contacted their local MPs, demanding justice. We then shared this action – and the promises made by MPs – with the Rohingya children in our programmes.
This extraordinary connection galvanised children on opposite sides of the world. Rohingya children were told their rights matter and were given a platform to share their stories. Children in the UK saw that they had the power to make a difference and were compelled to champion the rights of their fellow children, which – hopefully – they now recognise as precious and universal.
This new connection between children and populations can reinvigorate our collective commitment to human rights – and help to overcome the cracks in the current institution-led system.