Solidarity Language of Rights Cultures of Respect 39December 20, 2023

39. UDHR@75: Can our human rights system ever fulfil its promise?

Hosted by Akwe Amosu
Produced by Peter Coccoma

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) turned 75 on the 10 December 2023. Passed by the UN General Assembly in the wake of two brutal world wars, it expresses an aspiration for a new world. Disregard and contempt for human rights, it says, have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind. If people are not to be forced to rebel against tyranny and oppression, human rights have to be protected by the rule of law.  That vision is as powerful today as it was then and it has sometimes, and in some places, been realized. But the failures are many. Despite their pledge, governments have repeatedly abandoned principle to pursue their own interests, leaving ordinary people – sometimes an individual, sometimes millions – without protection from cruel mistreatment or immiseration, and lacking any recourse. So why does the global human rights system fail this way? And can it be made to work? A group of moderators from the Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights sit down together to argue it out.     

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The Interview

‘Human rights instruments work but they aren’t working for us. They’re working for states.’

For Symposium moderator Emilie Palamy Pradichit, something has to change: Yes, the UDHR was beautiful when it came out it was about peace, it was about no more genocide. But look at what we’re experiencing, 75 years later! States have failed. They came up with a system that they’re not even using, while we human rights practitioners are trying to use it, and there’s real fatigue. So I feel there’s a need to shift the power. 


Akwe Amosu: Hello and welcome to Strength and Solidarity. I’m Akwe Amosu, here with episode 39 of our podcast about the tools, tactics and strategies being used to defend human rights. And this time – can we still count on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

AA: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights just had a birthday – it turned 75 on the 10th of December 2023. It’s a remarkable document passed in the UN General Assembly in 1948 just three years after the formation of the UN itself. It starts by insisting that human rights are the foundation for freedom, peace and justice; disregard and contempt for human rights, it says, have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind. If people are not to be forced to rebel against tyranny and oppression, human rights have to be protected by the rule of law. States had already pledged in the charter of the new United Nations to promote universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. And now the Universal Declaration spelled out 30 articles as a common standard and promised to, quote, “secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of member states and the people of territories under their jurisdiction.” Although the declaration was not binding, it was to provide the foundation for nine key treaties that were, and as a standard it is supposed to apply to every human being. But is that credible? In the current world where human rights are so flagrantly abused or disregarded, does the UDHR still have meaning, let alone power? To reflect on those questions, I called on some close colleagues. This podcast is the product of a project called the Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights, that hosts conversations between human rights activists and leaders from all over the world. I’m one of the Symposium’s six moderators so I invited the other five into the studio to share their views about the UDHR’s continued relevance.

AA: Welcome everybody.

All: Thank you. Thank you, Thank you. Nice to be here. Great to be here. Great to be here.

AA: Let’s introduce you. Uh, you can each do it yourselves. Nani, let me start with you. Tell me who you are, where do you work?

Nani Jansen Reventlow: My name is Nani Jansen Reventlow. I’m one of the moderators at the Symposium and also the founder of Systemic Justice. Our organization works across Europe and I am currently working from Denmark.

AA: And what does Systemic Justice do?

NJR: Systemic justice works to change how the law works for communities fighting for racial, social, and economic justice.

AA:: Thank you. Samson?

Samson Itodo: So, my name is Samson Itodo and I am the executive director at Yiaga Africa, and also a moderator of the Symposium. Yiaga Africa works in Africa, and we work to promote democracy and human rights and citizens’ participation.

AA: Emilie.

Emilie Palamy Pradichit: Hi, I am Emilie Palamy Pradichit. I’m the founder and executive director of the Manushya Foundation. I’m also one of the moderators of the Symposium. So Manushya means ‘human being’ and we work in Southeast Asia with feminist and youth movements and local communities, in particular indigenous people, and for indigenous communities to seek justice and to ensure that we can have true democracy, equality, and justice in the region.

AA: Thank you. Alberto.

Alberto Vasquez: I’m Alberto Vazquez. I’m a disability rights activist, a mad activist, and I am co-director of the Center for Inclusive Policy. I’m also a moderator of the Symposium, and I work in different roles trying to advance rights of people with disabilities and people with psychosocial disabilities.

AA: Thank you. And Chris.

Chris Stone: Hi, I’m Chris Stone. I’m a Professor of the Practice of Public Integrity at Oxford School of Government and a moderator in the Symposium.

AA: Great crew of colleagues. And you are just the right group for me to ask these questions. We have this anniversary, this 75th anniversary of the launch of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nani, let’s start with you. Why does this matter? Who cares?

NJR: Why do we care about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Uh, great question! I won’t go into the historical setting that much, even though it obviously matters, right? It was formed at a time when we’re just coming out of World War two. League of Nations had failed. United Nations was like the, the next better iteration of that. I guess that why we’re still looking at the declaration, 75 years on, is because it set in motion a lot of other declarations as well, and a lot of other human rights frameworks. The Universal Declaration was definitely not the first human rights statement or declaration. Many others preceded it. But it was one of the first attempts to kind of really look at it, in a global sense, like for everyone. There’s a huge question, obviously – who is that ‘everyone’ and who decided who that ‘everyone’ was, because we should acknowledge that it was only a handful of states, relatively speaking, that were involved in drafting the Declaration. But it set in motion also the formation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, um, on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and many other treaties that were formed afterwards, which are really tangible tools for accountability when it comes to human rights.

AA: And I think, actually reflecting on it, that the historical context probably is quite important. So maybe it’s a good idea to just say a little bit about the moment in which this effort began. Chris, do you want to just add thoughts on that?

CS: Well, sure. You read it today, it’s still inspiring. You can still feel the power it gives, especially for people living under regimes that don’t recognize these rights. It gives a language and an authority encouraging people to assert their rights despite their own government, perhaps not recognizing them or even abusing them. At the same time, as Nani was saying, it’s a very narrow authorship. There are only four African countries that signed it in 1948, because so much of the African continent was still carved up and ruled by various imperial powers around the world. It’s a document that sits at this moment of potential transition. And in some ways, it’s wonderful to see the potential that was captured in the document, and it’s really distressing to see how little of that potential has actually been recognized.

AA: But why 1948? What was the critical moment that gave birth to that document? What, what motivated those who drafted it to do so? Why did it matter to generate this document then?

CS: Well, in some ways, the countries that had bonded together to fight Germany, Japan, Italy, during World War II had promised during the war that this war was about something more than just competition between states. It was a war for fundamental rights, and against the abuse of those rights. Though that was wartime talk and it was designed to mobilize people and make them willing to bear tremendous sacrifices for the sake of the war. Afterwards, there was an expectation that that wartime talk was gonna be made real and so the Declaration was, in some ways, a way of completing a promise through the Declaration, and doing so in a way that sort of discharged the obligation, not promised further action. I think it was a real ambivalence between the big powerful states that had come out of the war with a lot of power and a lot of authority, that didn’t need that anymore, and other states and people who were really expecting something real to have come from that. But I do think for some of the states that signed it, it was a way of discharging their obligation, not taking it up.

AA: Nani has talked about how important it was in generating a bunch of treaty law that was signed very widely, that in some instances was binding. That’s obviously at the level of the state and the formal system; Emilie, you’re a human rights lawyer, you work in Thailand and in the Southeast Asian region – if you think about the constituency of people that you are supporting who are trying to see their rights vindicated, how meaningful or relevant is the Declaration to them?

EPP: Thank you, Akwe. You know, in Southeast Asia, we don’t have anything. We do have the ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights, but we don’t have a human rights court. And we are under very authoritarian regime. If you look at the freedom of the world index, you see that southeast Asian countries, the 10 of them, are under either semi-authoritarian government or authoritarian government. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is really the document that youth movements, that indigenous people are using, because we have nothing else. And the UDHR is really the foundation of international human rights law. And because we’re under authoritarian regimes, the language that is in it is very important to us. So it’s the language of rights, right? And we don’t need to bring up any other convention, and we don’t need people to know about any other human rights treaties. If they are not human rights lawyers or human rights practitioners, they don’t need to. But people will always use the UDHR to call on the governments because that’s the foundation. People don’t know if it’s binding, not legally binding, they know that governments have committed to it. They know that governments are part of the UN and they have to commit to it. So that’s what they are using. Because we have nothing else, really.

AA: And that’s true right down to the grassroots level?

EPP: Yeah, because, you know, when the grassroots level want to claim their rights, when they’re looking at the constitution, there are rights in the constitution but those rights are not working, again, because we are under authoritarian regime. So what we use then, what they use then, is the UDHR. It’s a simple document, 30 articles. It’s short, it’s to the point, the rights are in there, and the rights should be upheld by the governments who are part of the UN.

AA: And there’s something in the fact that they’re pointing to something that is above the heads of their government, that is beyond their immediate borders.

EPP: Yeah, it’s universal. That’s the point. It’s a universal declaration of human rights. It’s meant to cover the whole world so it’s meant to cover them as well.

AA: Samson, you do lots of work in, in different African countries, although you are originally Nigerian and based there, and engaging with civil society groups all over the continent. Does what Emilie says hold true in Africa too?

SI: In Africa, we do have a charter. We have the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. There are other regional and sub-regional instruments and norms and standards that exist. There are also institutions, so you have the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights that sits in Banjul. You have the Court that sits in Tanzania. We’ve got all of these instruments. But in terms of the socialization of the existence of this Declaration, I would say across the continent, it’s very low. So there are a lot of people who don’t know that the UDHR exists, especially even within the civil society space but it’s more reference to things like the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Even the awareness of those instruments are still very, very low. But then if you look at the practice, and if we go beyond the text of these declaratory instruments, the situation of human rights across the region leaves so much to be desired. Discussions around, um, human dignity, um, the rights of human rights defenders, um, access to information, um, digital rights. To a very large extent, the continent is home to all forms of violations of human rights despite there’s this declaration. But then you’ve also seen an abdication of this responsibility to hold institutions to account for rights violation. You’ll see cases where human rights commissions – because you have human rights commissions that exist to protect and promote human rights – abdicate their responsibility to defend human rights to either civil society or human rights groups. And so you have a very overstretched human rights sector within Africa because states, you know, have failed in that responsibility to protect and promote human rights.

AA: But do people, in your assessment – you say the awareness of the instrument is very low, but is the language of rights being widely used? Is the expectation of that rights need to be vindicated, something that you’d say is ubiquitous?

SI: I’d say it’s a mixed bag but across the continent, there’s also a, a determination on the part of people to claim their rights, from South Africa, you know, to Togo, to Senegal, um, to Nigeria – if you use the #EndSARS protest as a classic example, you can see citizens actually rising up to say, ‘Hey, we are rising against police brutality and we are calling on the state to reform, you know, our criminal justice system, to reform the police,’ and it’s not just Nigeria. So, so citizens are making that demand. But the response from the state, um, it’s quite different. And states have also cultivated the habit, you know, of relegating or trading human rights for this notion of national security.

AA: So, Alberto, we’ve had an Asian example and some African examples. You’re Peruvian, you’ve worked in a broad Latin American coalition of organizations. What are your reflections for that region?

AV: I’m not sure if I have reflections for the region itself, but from the disability community, at least, I think we had a more complicated relationship with the Declaration. It’s interesting because the Declaration is, is aimed to be universal, and you can read it with intersectional lens and see disability all around. But in practice, we were not there. And, and it took many years of many efforts to get those rights being spelled out. And finally, that’s why for the disability community, it has been so important to have the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, because it fulfill the visibility, at least the visibility, of the human rights discourse in the disability sector. And, and it’s interesting because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is actually one of the few instruments, at that time – And we had to wait until the Convention of the Rights of the Child that actually mentions disability in the text but because it mentioned it around Article 25 on adequate standard of living also meant the disability was framed from a protective, more assistance perspective rather than from a non-discrimination perspective, no? And so I think it has been, I think, a complicated relationship. But at the same time, there is a lot of awareness, and I think that’s very different from other groups, that you have high awareness around the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability. But the language is not so far away from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because it’s really about a comprehensive treaty aiming to give responses to people’s demands of rights.

AA: Was the omission of the disability lens or the lack of a presence of the disability community in that document just a historical fact, I mean, a consequence of the moment in history that it was written?

AV: I mean, I think that’s where we were at that moment. Um, I mean, you had high level authorities, including those involved in, in, in drafting, that they basically aimed to hide their disability, because that was something at that moment that you didn’t want to talk about and despite being surrounded by war, despite being surrounded by thousands of people with disabilities just emerging from war, uh, disabilities was still something that we were hidden.

CS: What’s so interesting is that it wasn’t just people with disability that were missing, people were missing. That is, the document purports to be speaking about human rights, people’s rights, but it was really just a conversation among states. It wasn’t just the disability community that was missing, the human community was missing. This is a document that can be used and has been taken up by people in struggle all over the world since then. But the Declaration itself was the product of a conversation among states. One of the very first things that happened after the Declaration is the NAACP in the United States petitions the UN about the condition of black Americans, and the human rights body refuses even to accept the petition, because this is not gonna be a conversation between people and states. It’s gonna be a conversation among states. And so right from the birth, it’s not just, it’s not just one group or a historical group that was less visible to the political class at the time. It was the people, people as a constituency in some sense, were themselves invisible to the political class.

NJR: I guess that touches upon one of the biggest points of skepticism, right, that people have towards the Declaration, and generally, I think human rights frameworks. Also, to bring in the European perspective, we, we did an extensive community consultation last year where we connected with hundreds of organizations, movements and collectives that are fighting for racial, social, and economic justice, across the region. And what is really clear from those conversations on this, on this topic, is that there’s a really clear awareness of the fact that there are many human rights frameworks. That there are, in principle, these standards that are supposed to protect and support people, but that the systems to actually enforce that are just not working for marginalized communities. There was a lot of frustration, uh, quite frankly, there are these systems, there are these norms, there are these rules such as the Universal Declaration in Europe, obviously also the European Convention. And we’re just not able to make them work for us.

AA: Yes, I mean, natural skepticism, and given what you say, Chris, about the origins, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that this is the case. You’ve talked about the Declaration as a contract. Could you say something about what you think was being crafted into that document? What was its purpose? If it was primarily a conversation between states, what were they trying to get done?

CS: Well, in some ways, human rights, the language of rights, the assertion of human rights, is most important when a people are protesting against their government’s denial of their rights and appealing to something larger. And it’s called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, deliberately following and taking up the historical examples of the French declaration, um, and the American declaration of the 18th century. It’s deliberately putting itself in this line of assertions of rights at moments of rebellion. Except this one is different. This one, the states have come together and they’ve promised you won’t need to rebel in your individual countries anymore because when your government is oppressing you, instead of having to declare your own rights and take up arms, you can count on the international community to use law to put pressure on your own state, international law to right the wrong. And from then on, it’s this promise that somehow the states, the community of states will take care of what in previous centuries had required peoples to take up arms against their own governments. So it was a hope that that wouldn’t be necessary anymore, and a promise that the states would get the job done.

AA: And out of that comes the creation of the Office of the High Commission of Human Rights, the ICC, the Human Rights Council in Geneva. There’s a, there’s a whole you could say industry, certainly an infrastructure that gets set up, in which these promises can be made real.

EPP: There’s a whole UN human rights system that has been created, right? You have the UDHR as the foundation, and then everything else, the treaty bodies, the conventions, and everything else. And as human rights practitioners, we are all using it, right? And as I think Nani already expressed it, there’s a fatigue of communities and human rights practitioners trying to use the UN human rights system that is not working; and why it’s not working? We’re going back to the point of Chris, and also to the point of Alberto – it’s like, the people were not involved in the creation of all of that. It’s being decided by powerful states. And it was often decided by the Western governments. And then it’s up to you to know how to use it, and then it’s up to you to make the best use of it. But we are always in a power imbalance position because states can do whatever they want. They created that system. If they don’t want to engage in the UN system, they can decide to not engage. Some states don’t wanna go through treaty bodies reviews. Some states ignore the UPR process. Some states put vetoes at the UN Security Council on very, very problematic human rights issues. But when it comes to us, what options do we have? We are obliged to learn to use those UN human rights systems that don’t even work well, that are not really effective. And most democracies ignore any human rights reviews or recommendations that they receive from those reviews. So really, there’s a fatigue within the human rights field 75 years later. Yes, the UDHR was beautiful when it came out, right, it was about peace. It was about no more genocide. But look at what we’re experiencing, 75 years later. States have failed. They came up with the system that they’re not even using, or they’re not even making it effective. It’s just a fake exercise, you know? And here we’re all human rights practitioners trying to use it, and there’s a real fatigue. So I really feel that there’s, there’s this need of, you know, shifting the power. There’s this need of coming up with something else. Because really the UDHR was beautiful, but it’s written by the states for the states. Like we need to come up to something written by the people, for the people.

AV: It made me think about who is in the room, because the process of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was a very highly participatory process. You had different groups showing solidarity – because there is nothing really we have in common, in, in reality between people with psychosocial disabilities and the deaf community and the blind – but we, we worked together, we got a Convention. We, we even reinforce some of the mechanisms. And still, there is the fatigue, still there is the fatigue, because at the end, the power doesn’t remain in the people. The power is still a power that we need to fight to get enforced, and the mechanisms won’t deliver. And, and I wonder if it’s just being in the room, but also it’s having the right tool to achieve what we want to achieve.

AA: I mean, there’s a power imbalance. States have power and people don’t have power. And if they want to make something happen, they have to figure out either how to get the state to do it or to force the state to do it. And, I think, that fatigue cannot be removed from the equation. It is an inevitable fact of our world. But I, I’m curious, you know, whether any of you think that contract, that deal, the promise ever worked? There’s a lot of skepticism around the table, but we are now in a, in a pretty tough moment in the world, and there’s been a lot of deterioration. So I’m just wondering, if you go back 50 years, you know, did the Declaration look more effective then? Did it look as though it was working more effectively then to help people vindicate their rights?

SI: Well, I’m struggling because, yeah, I wasn’t there 75 years ago. And I’m just thinking perhaps honestly from my generation, we just see the evolution of an industry, and it’s just an industry that has created jobs for people, it’s an industry that has empowered people economically, it’s an industry that has empowered states. In fact, it’s legitimized some of the action states have taken, you know, against the will of the people. So if we say these institutions and these instruments are not working, I think they’re working, it’s just that they’re not working for us. They’re working for the states. Um, because the states continually leverage their monopoly of violence, um, to restrict, you know, the civic and the political space for citizens. So personally, from where I see it, I don’t see, I don’t see how it’s really worked. The folks, the LGBT community in Uganda, you know, are facing death penalty because a legislation was just passed and introduced by the government criminalizing, um, same sex. What do you have to say about the people in Ethiopia, you know, who also grappling with these issues, where was the human rights system in those places? Even in Gambia in Africa, where you have the Africa Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, we also know the history.

AA: Lots of people don’t know the history. You’d better just say what you mean by that.

SI: Oh, oh. Gambia had just come out of, you know, an authoritarian, dictatorial leadership of Yahya Jammeh, who perpetuated himself in, in office and did consider a lot of human rights activists persona non grata because of the long history of killings and, and human rights violations. If you also look across Africa, you look at Cameroon, you look at Gabon, you look at most of this sort of resurgence of, of coups on the continent. So personally, I don’t think, um, it’s actually delivered on its promise.

AA: I’m just looking back to the anti-apartheid movement, for example. And the role of the UN. It hosted the liberation movements. It passed multiple resolutions and set expectations and standards for that system to end. And yes, of course, those who were invested in that system, those who supported the apartheid state, were very powerful. They had vetoes in the Security Council. And, you know, you can say the system failed, but if you were in the anti-Apartheid movement, you saw it as very important that the UN was repeatedly signaling and figuring out how to advance the anti-apartheid cause. So I wonder whether the standard that you are trying to set is too high. The Declaration can’t replace human effort.

CS: I think the Declaration has served many purposes, and there have been many states that have found it in their interest to support the claims of rights of certain people from time to time. But it’s not the claim of rights that’s been paramount. It’s been the interest of the state in that moment. I mean, when George W. Bush invaded Iraq, he did it in the name of human rights, but he ignored the fact that the, that the UN vote had gone against invasion. The very, the very phrase, ‘coalition of the willing’ is a replacement for the coalition of the international community in the UN, in support of that illegal war, at least illegal in international law terms. So the law that the Declaration promises in its preamble, the rule of law, the international law that’s meant to constrain states in their violation of rights hasn’t become real. That doesn’t mean powerful states haven’t, from time to time, been willing to support individual struggles because it’s in their interest. But it is state interest that has governed, not international law in the sense that the, the Declaration promised.

AA: So I find, myself in this role of trying to present some kind of a defense, so this conversation won’t sound completely one-sided! Yes, I think the critique is fully well taken but clearly from what Emilie said right at the beginning, it is not purposeless. It is providing some sense of a reference point, an inspiration for people who need to get their rights vindicated. What needs to happen in order to make the vision or the aspiration real? How can it be done?

CS: I mean, in some ways, the, the language that’s evolved with the declaration, the language of the Declaration, um, still provides the clues about that. Because the words of the Declaration, if one actually goes back and reads it, it remains today an incredibly impressive aspiration and articulation of, of a world where rights are real. And those rights are very broadly framed – the assertion of legal personhood for all people in the Declaration, presages the claim and the fight for legal personhood among people with disabilities today. So there’s still a huge amount to draw from, but the people, the people whose rights are at stake need to come out of the shadows. The very fact we call civil society reports that go to these UN bodies “shadow reports,” the shadow, the people are, are sitting in the shadows officially in the UN structure. And the people need to come out of the shadows and claim the rights that have been so powerfully articulated for 75 years,

AA: Alberto.

AV: But it’s also the fact that I think there is a lot of people in the system trying to do what they think is gonna be effective. And I think that’s also, there is a need of an acknowledgement of many of us coming from civil society thinking, okay, we should try to capture this treaty body. We should try to capture this mandate. We should try to work with this. And then realizing years later, well, that didn’t pay. And, and I think it’s a, it’s a very hard realization for many of us, at least for me, has been a journey, even supporting a mandate for many years and realizing change at the end is not happening. And, and, and of course you see change, but to the extent that the states allow that change to happen. So how do we claim back that power, the collective power, and, and how do we build broader power across different movements and, and, and sectors?

AA: Nani, you’re nodding

NJR: Yes, because I, I think the key word in there is, is, is indeed power and, and building power collectively, because we were just talking about the power of states. We also have seen many regimes, fall, right? And that’s because people organize, because they rose up and because they persisted. And similarly, I think there is some really critical reflection that we need to do as civil society about like how we, we legitimize systems that are actually not working for us. Because we also have power in that context. Because the moment that we stop writing all those shadow reports and, fueling all of those mandates and whatever, essentially doing a lot of the work for them, and then to be, you know, not actually get proper results from that, um, that’s going to cause a lot of trouble. Uh, so maybe we should be making a bit more trouble in those arenas and actually, yeah, start pushing for those mechanisms that are there to work in the way that they should, which means that in the end, actual individual’s rights, get respected and, and enforced.

AA: So where does the power to do that, to resist in that way come from? How does that, how does an alternative source of power get mobilized in order to help people make those demands?

EPP: The notion of power is really empowering here. Because many of us are coming to the field and many of us dreamed, you know, of bringing change. Many of us are human rights lawyers, many of us dreamed of the UN, right? When we are studying, and then we all get very, like, this is a huge disillusion for us. And as Nani said, like, how do we build that power? Are we going to stop engaging in those, in those treaties? Are you going to stop writing shadow reports? Is it even an option for us? Like, I’m just looking at the work that we do in Laos, in Thailand. If we don’t use those system, sometimes we don’t get people out of jail. If we don’t use those system, if we don’t submit our reports, nobody knows what really truly what’s happening in Laos. But for me, what shocked me the most, engaging in that system, is the power of the people within the system, but also power of the people within the civil society field, right? We need to build collective power. But how that collective power was built over years for the past 75 years. It was built by Western NGOs coming all around the world and telling others the work that they need to do. It was built by people in power within the UN and working within the UN system, coming from very privileged background. And so when we talk about human rights, we tend to forget that the people who have been able to exercise those rights, or who have been able to engage in the system, the people who are already very privileged, are coming from very high caste system. Especially when I’m looking at, at Asia, if I’m looking at the UN and people working at the UN in Asia, most of the people there are coming from high caste, you know, but the people who need the power and the people who need to assert their rights are coming from lower caste. And so there’s a real need to also look at, okay, 75 years later, it did not work. We, we feel fatigue. There’s this need to recognize the fact that people from lived experience and people from the ground are not necessarily leading the human rights work and not necessarily leading the change because it has been coming from, you know, INGOs or international actors. So when we are talking about the need to change and the need to power, I think we also need to have a discussion of the need to decolonize the field and also the need to de-caste as well.

SI: Well, I, I think in addition to what my colleagues have said is solidarity, solidarity, solidarity. That’s how you build power. And the world is in dire need of greater, or what we call in the symposium, rigorous solidarity. And it begins with building power from within. And, as a human rights community, we need a deep introspection about how we are showing up for people whose rights, you know, are being violated. Um, and I, I can’t overstate the fact that human rights defenders are in dire need of support; um, human rights NGOs are also in dire needs of support. And frontline activists are also in dire need of support. We, we need to show up because when we build that solidarity, we build the power, and it’s power that still raises the demand, places demand on the state to perform its own duty and its responsibility because the state needs to perform its duty. We can’t, we, we’re not trying to replace the state. It’s just calling the state to, to perform the duty that it has committed to doing, including the reason why the state was first created or instituted. So I think we need that, that level of solidarity and it’s solidarity across regions, across demography. Um, that’s the kind of solidarity, I think that, that we need.

AA: So the call to show up in solidarity, in itself is not new. But you also said, we need to think about how we do it. And I think there, there may be some new things to say.

CS: Well, it’s also just… I, I love the way Samson describes this. There’s a self-criticism we need to engage. It’s not just states that have failed. In, in many ways much of civil society is failing to show up in that, in that rigorous solidarity that, that that Samson just described. And I think we have to – it’s easy to point fingers at the signatories to the Declaration and states that weren’t even signatories in 1948. Yes, there have been betrayals and there have been failures. But the solution isn’t just to point fingers at them. The solution is to change how we take up our responsibilities for each other and how we show up for each other. And that, that isn’t just, just joining in a celebration. That’s some self-criticism and some reassessment of how we’ve built our organizations, how we think of our own responsibility as people and as organizations, as organized people.

AA: Well, we could do that self-criticism. Where does it lead?

EPP: I think I, I was trying to talk about it when I talked about decolonization and decaste-ing the field, because there’s this resistance, you know, coming from within the civil society movement. When we need to stand in solidarity, who are the first people who stand in solidarity? Look at the situation in Palestine, the genocide that is happening right now. Who are the first people in the field that are showing up right away without questioning one second whether they’re gonna lose funding? The oppressed. So the most oppressed people are the ones who are showing up right away. And those who are questioning and doubting whether they should show solidarity on social media, on a statement, they might be losing funding, are the people who are sitting on privileges, are scared of losing their privileges. So I think when we’re building solidarity and with what is happening right now, we can look at the situation right now, because it gives a real reflection of the human rights field as well. Are you standing in solidarity? And when you’re standing in solidarity, are you standing for the rights that are actually in the UDHR for the Palestinian people? So for me, I saw so many organization and people who have not showed solidarity right away because of this fear of losing the privilege. When if you are truly standing by the UDHR and standing with people, that question should not even – you shouldn’t even question yourself. But the people who show solidarity right away, were always the people from the ground and the most oppressed.

AA: So the, the idea is, as people come out in solidarity, in large numbers, stay in solidarity over time, they build power and are able to use that mass solidarity to put pressure on states to change their positions, and that without that kind of mobilization, there’s nothing to stop states doing what they want. Have I understood the essential message here?

SI: No, that’s, that’s, that’s right. Because solidarity’s our moments of, of strength. Um, you build, you build strength because, we can’t just keep up believing that states are going to act. We just can’t, because our experience, you know, has really shown that you actually do need a great amount of, of, of pressure. Um, but in cases where states decide to proactively act, we would also be humble to acknowledge, to acknowledge that.

AA: I mean, I, you know, I think a cynic listening to us might just say, you know, yeah, great, that’s terrific; we just had, you know, a decade of mass protest all over the world. Uh, the Tahrir Square, the Occupy movements. Look at where those countries that had those movements – huge numbers of people coming out on the street – look at where they are now. What’s happening in Egypt right now? What’s happening in Syria right now? What’s happening in Bahrain right now? This is not to say that people power doesn’t work, but I guess I, I feel bound to ask you, is that enough? Is this the sole response that we have, to, you know, how to do a better job of vindicating people’s rights? Or is there something more to it?

CS: Well, I would not downplay what was achieved in a lot of those movements that you described, a lot of those governments are more scared today of the mobilization of their own people than they are of the disapproval of other states. They’ve actually figured out how to keep the other states on board, how to keep the money flowing, how to keep their diplomatic support. What they’re scared of is a resurgence of that organizing among their own people. And I think that’s a clue about where power lies here. Human rights are not gonna be vindicated by people on their own, but they’re, they’re certainly not gonna be protected by states operating internationally. It’s going to take, it’s gonna take public mobilization, and then some states will come along if there’s enough in it. But without a big transformation of international law, and the, the contract as we were calling it earlier, isn’t gonna do the job. It’s going to be, it’s gonna be the strength of people that mobilize the real change,

NJR: I agree with looking at the impact in a different way. If you look at most liberation movements, the pushes in the end that were successful, usually built on many attempts, uh, failures, et cetera. But it was the fact that people started seeing that it was possible to organize in such a way and to have collective power and have impact that encouraged them to continue it, even if sometimes that trajectory took over hundreds of years. Right? So, I think that that is an important thing to keep in mind, that the, the impact of some of these quote unquote failed movements is yet to be seen perhaps. The other thing I think is that keeping that in mind is a good incentive to question what we focus our energy on. So again, like not saying that you shouldn’t be writing the reports if that is the avenue that you have, but there are those amongst us who have the choice, who have the luxury of choice to direct our energy in different directions. And, that is where I would say like, you need to look really critically at yourself, at your organization, if you’re actually keeping a fiction in place, which is a beautiful spotlight for you to maybe kind of like launch a new campaign and be visible for your donors and all the other things, or are you really directing energy towards making change? Because quite often the energy that’s put in change-making is the not-so-glamorous, the not-attractive and tweetable work. And this is where I think a lot of the organizations that are part allegedly of a human rights movement should be asking really tough questions.

AA: Alberto? I mean, listening to Nani, I’m saying to myself, okay, she’s saying back away from this bureaucratic system that’s maintaining this, as she calls it, fiction and go somewhere else. Where does she want us to go?

AV: I think there is an opportunity here. I mean, the example you were describing, I think the question is not if there were power in the people because the power was there. I think it’s how do we keep the momentum and how we keep change happening? And, and I think that means questioning ourselves and thinking together; OK – what’s the best way we can organize to do the work we wanna do and to achieve the change we wanna achieve? And that means also how do we deal with the machinery that is around the way we work? Because it’s not just about us, it’s about donors, it’s about reporting, it’s about accountability. There are so many things we need to think about to actually change the way we work. And I think that’s an important question we need to, we need to, we need to answer to.

AA: I mean, I feel like what Nani is saying is, to put it plainly, look at activism, think about whether you are deploying your energy in the right way, and are you supporting the people who really are active and building power in the street in as opposed to in Geneva. Emilie?

EPP: Thank you. I think as Alberto and Nani said, this is an opportunity time. We need a mini revolution. Like we need our own revolution in the human rights field because we can see that this is not working. We need a revolution. Because Audre Lord said, even before many of us were, were born, right, that the master’s tool will never dismantle the master’s house. And here we are complaining about the master’s tools not working in the master’s house, right? So it’s like we need a revolution. And this is the opportunity, especially 75 years later, especially what we are seeing now with the genocide in Palestine, I think it’s, it is a call for all of us to create that revolution. How do we want to do it? What new alternative are we going to build? But we have been working in the field, we see that is not working, so we need to build something else. It’s in our hands actually to make that revolution happen.

AA: That seems like a very good place to end. Thank you all.

AV: Wow.

All: Thank you. Thank You. Thank you. Thank you. Thank You. Great conversation. Wow.

AA: Thanks to my fellow moderators in the Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights. They are Nani Jansen Reventlow, Samson Itodo, Emilie Palamy Pradichit, Alberto Vasquez and Chris Stone. You will find their bios on our website,, as well as a transcript of our discussion, and suggestions for further reading.

AA: That’s it for Episode 39. If you’d like to know more about the Symposium, check out the website, and as always, if you have feedback or suggestions, we really want to hear from you, you can write to For now though, from producer Peter Coccoma and me, Akwe Amosu, thanks for listening and wherever you are, whether you are celebrating a festival or not, we wish you peace and rest as 2023 comes to a close, and all good wishes for the new year.