On the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it seems inevitable that we ask ourselves whether in the ensuing time we have succeeded in advancing its goals, or whether those principles have ended up being nothing more than a well-intentioned, but ultimately futile statement of a humanistic dream — or worse yet, a mere rhetorical façade that belies the inescapable reality of inequality and oppression in contemporary society.
Of course, things are never that clear-cut, and the real results are still up for debate. On the one hand, it is clear that many countries have not adopted these standards, and the vast majority of the world’s population still lacks these rights; on the other hand, over the years, many countries have recognised these and other additional rights within their own legislation and sometimes public policies as well. Furthermore, the international system as a whole has continued to incorporate declarations of second-, third- and even fourth-generation human rights. Thus, a normative consensus has begun to form, and while it promises a broader range of established principles including personal and collective rights, it appears increasingly weak in the face of the real powers that colonise the political spaces belonging to the democratic state with growing impunity, dominating international relations and imposing conditions that threaten national sovereignty. By asking ourselves what human rights mean to us today, as well as from a historical perspective, we can better comprehend their pivotal place in a conception of democracy viewed as the subject of an on-going, relentless struggle, one in which organisations representing the working class play a key role.
Human rights are a contemporary expression of the ethical foundations established during the “democratic revolution”, based on the acknowledgement that people do not fall under inherent hierarchies; therefore, the only source of legitimacy for any political system lies in the will of the those who both consent and submit themselves to the norms that govern life within a community that is therefore self-governing. No political system can be classed as eternal and indisputable, nor can it seek to legitimise its own power via any means other than the power vested in it by its own people, as acknowledged in key historical moments. As the democratic order is defined by its inherently disputable and incomplete nature, human rights are likewise open to debate and re-working, subject to the transformations brought about by the powerful political struggles between those of us who understand that the equal dignity of people must be guaranteed under all circumstances and protected against all forms of oppression, and those who seek to maintain a privileged status that relegates “the rest” of the population to exactly that subservient position: “the rest” of them, the ones left over, those who do not deserve consideration. Human rights were not handed to us on a platter; they are the result of diligent efforts to comprehend and articulate this idea of the equal dignity of people that lies at the heart of the democratic struggle. It is through these efforts that we build a notion of humanity. And they must be reconsidered, challenged, defended again and again; as conditions of human life continue to transform, new possibilities arise to rethink what it means to maintain well-being, and above all, new obstacles emerge, new threats, new forms of violence, oppression and denial of humanity within social relations.
From this perspective, in which the struggle for the recognition and realisation of human rights is inseparable from the struggle for democracy, we must highlight the role of the trade union movement and the mobilisation and political participation of the working class, whose ability to inspire social change even within the framework of a system predominantly run by capital we owe in large part not only to the Universal Declaration of 1948, but also to the prior and subsequent development of mechanisms at both an international level and within specific countries that have established the regulatory frameworks upon which our demands for liberty and equality are based today. Labour and trade unions themselves serve this process of constructing democracy as a fundamental element in determining the conditions necessary to ensure the dignity of all people, as well as by guaranteeing the same collective action that serves as the source of the recognition and protection of rights.
Recent and current events within my country clearly demonstrate this link: every time that economic interests have attempted to expand their room for manoeuvre in order to continue accumulating wealth, they have done so by violating democratic institutions and curtailing rights. Union organisations, leadership and members have always remained in the cross-hairs of those who seek to advance their own agendas by punishing the working class and dismantling any possibility of civilian resistance. This was exactly the intention of the state-sponsored terrorism suffered here in Argentina during the last dictatorship. Today we see the continued participation of large enterprises, many of them multinational corporations, in the oppressive regime that resulted in disappearances and deaths throughout those years, while the terrorism and persecution aimed at any form of union activism enabled the implementation of an economic plan that only served to bring misery to the majority of the population.
As exemplified by the permanent presence of the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, it is no coincidence that the defence of human rights has remained at the centre of the reconstruction of democracy after seven years of the most brutal dictatorship our country has ever faced. The reclamation of human rights has also been accompanied and defined by the articulation of our struggles in the face of post-dictatorial neo-liberalism: our struggles for education, health, housing, work, culture, memory, justice. And then, the restitution of violated rights, along with the recognition of new rights and increased equality within our societies, has been the hallmark of the popular democratic processes in Argentina and many other Latin American countries that ushered in the first decade and a half of this century with a renewed hope that another world was possible, and it was being created here in South America.
Today, local oligarchies and transnational economic powers have joined forces to once again attempt to subdue the egalitarian “irreverence” of those communities in which the democratic process has been succeeding in reversing a long history of inequality and marginalisation. But the advance of the right wing is in no way a peripheral problem. A dangerous process of authoritarian takeover is unfolding all over the world, placing democracy at risk to its very core, encouraging the repudiation of politics in those for whom politics are the only avenue to bettering their living conditions, discrediting trade unions, and inciting the most primitively antisocial and petty behaviours against the “Other”. This instilling of fear is deliberately aimed at eliciting the suicidal legitimation of a repressive power. The language of rights is replaced by the brutal imposition of unequal privileges. We are faced with a strategy for ideological domination that renders common sense a crucial domain in the battle for democracy. Within this battlefield, the reclamation of education as a fundamental right and as a crucial and emancipatory power becomes a matter of utmost importance.
Under these circumstances, we, as unions, have a duty to assume our role in the struggle for democracy. The reclamation of human rights is not and shall not, be a mere rhetorical declamation. It remains today, as it has always been, a banner of struggle for humanity.
10 December 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The Declaration remains a relevant inspiration for educators and trade unionists worldwide, as it guarantees the right to form unions, freedom of expression and the right of all to quality education. Human rights requires an informed and continued demand by people for their protection. For this special occasion, Education International is releasing a series of blogs bringing voices and thoughts of unionists reflecting on struggles and accomplishments in this domain. The blogs reflect the continued commitment of education unionists, in every part of the world, in every community, to promote, defend and advance human rights and freedoms for the benefit of all.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.