Before World War II, raising human rights concerns about another nation was considered as 'meddling' in the nation's domestic affairs. In the name of 'cultural relativism', world leaders turned a blind eye to how people were treated by their governments.
The three principles - the Magna Carta Libertatum (1215), the Habeas Corpus Act (1679), and the Bill of Rights (1689) - were important human rights milestones. Nevertheless, only a few people, mainly aristocrats and a small group of wealthy citizens, were beneficiaries of them.
In 1948, the world was recovering from the destruction of World War II - the most devastating conflict in human history. To make sure such atrocities would not arise again, the UN General Assembly drafted and adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that laid down the basis for modern international human rights laws.
The declaration states that all human beings are born free, equal and entitled to human rights regardless of their "nationality, place of residence, gender, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status".
It lists 30 articles recognising civil rights and political liberties such as the right to life, the right to vote, the right to protest, the freedom of expression or the prohibition of slavery, forced labour and torture. The declaration also recognises economical, social and cultural rights as universal, inalienable and indivisible.
Unfortunately, human rights have been under constant assault in recent times, despite having well-developed guidelines. This raises a serious question: why do still atrocities such as active wars, brutal regimes, extra-judicial killings, ethnic cleansing, migrant-workers abuse, human trafficking, etc. persist?
The incorporation of the idea of human rights into international law is indisputably one of the greatest moral achievements of human history. It raised the standard by which governments are judged by one another as well as they are judged by their people and the international community.
However, the UN charter did not grant the General Assembly the power to make international law. The universal declaration, despite being widely respected and highly authoritative, was not a treaty in the formal sense.
As it was not a legislative text, it did not create legally binding obligations. It was only approved by the General Assembly, not ratified.
The leading bodies within the UN in charge of safeguarding human rights can only monitor and investigate violations but cannot force governments to change any state policy. The incorporation of treaty norms into domestic legislation varies widely around the globe. Therefore, when individual nations infringe the human rights of their citizens, the mechanisms to address those offences are ineffective.
The human rights treaties do little to curb the repressive practices of a government. Systematic heterogeneity across ratifiers and non-ratifiers makes it difficult to infer the influence of these treaties on governmental behaviour.
In 2007, Saudi Arabia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women deterring gender discrimination. Yet, they legally subordinate women to men in all spheres of life.
Nations that ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child still practise child labour. The United States and other Western leaders still engage in business with grave human rights violators.
Another problem with human rights law is its ambiguity. The sheer quantity and variety of poorly defined obligations end up giving governments enormous discretion and the chance to rationalise almost anything they do.
Human rights become prone to misinterpretation and a pawn for furthering political interests. The Russian government cited "the rights of ethnic minorities" and justified their military intervention in Ukraine. The United States built support for the Iraq war by citing Saddam Hussein's suppression of human rights.
The lack of witness from world leaders to preserve human rights is staggering. If human rights infringements are not curtailed, they might eventually turn into conflict. Hence, former US President Barack Obama rightly said, "when governments do not lift up their citizens, it's a recipe for instability and strife."
An empirical approach to ensure the well-being of all human lives is long overdue. We as a society must promote human rights, and provide training and education to protect those rights.
Several national and international non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, etc. devote their labours to defending human rights.
Organisations like Ain o Salish Kendra, Odhikar are working in Bangladesh to help the victims of human rights abuses to join forces and better protect their interests.
We can help the organisations to track and investigate human rights offences and protest in an organised campaign to draw attention to the violations. Empowering the victims of human rights abuse, ensuring the accountability of the violations, and building a community that respects human rights are integral to form a secure, stable and functioning society.
Ekramul A Fahim is a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) student at the Department of Law of University of Chittagong
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.