Speech at the 17th Annual Civil Society Forum on Human Rights
The Mansion House, Dublin, Monday, 10th December, 2018
I am honoured to address so many distinguished representatives from our national and international public services, from the trade union movement, and from national and global civil society who are making a reflection on the significance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its contemporary resonance and relevance. May I thank Martina Feeney for that kind introduction and may I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for organising this forum today.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed on this day 70 years ago by the United Nations General Assembly is correctly regarded as one of the great moral achievements of the 20th century.
Yet, we meet today not only to celebrate, but to reflect at a time increasingly marked by cynicism and fear, discord and distemper, a time in which the according of fundamental rights, or their vindication by law and practice, of people across our planet – economic rights, social rights, political rights, civil rights – are being denied, ignored or under threat as never before.
As to the challenges that confronted the world in 1948, it was a world in the aftermath of war but one that had yet to experience the complex process of decolonisation. These challenges still abide with us – indeed, they have grown in scale and scope - the imperative to confront the great inequalities that divide our societies; the persistence of racism and imperialism; and the urgent need to welcome all those fleeing war, persecution and famine, the need to offer a hospitality such as would acknowledge the migrant, the stranger, what perceived as different.
In the twenty-first century, our planet and its people now face new dangers, the products of a distorted vision of the connection between economy and nature. What began as domination of nature – one thinks of Francis Bacon ‘I lead to you Nature and in bondage her children for your use’ – has led to the disastrous loss of biodiversity, the unpredictable consequences of alterations to the nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur cycles; and the potentially catastrophic effects of the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Amidst these new perils and ancient struggles, it is thrilling to read again the preamble of the Universal Declaration in its affirmation that ‘recognition of the inherent dignity, and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’. That fundamental idea – the inviolability of human dignity – had much earlier animated the great movements of thought and action that shook the Atlantic world in the eighteenth century, from the infant United States to Jacobin France, from the United Irishmen to the Haitian Revolution.
It is an idea that was given expression in 1785 by Immanuel Kant in his great ethical imperative that we should seek to ‘treat humanity, whether in our own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end in itself’.
And it is an idea that witnessed a revival in Christian thought during the Second World War. On the Christmas Day of 1942, Pope Pius XII spoke of the dignity of the human person and the dignity of labour as milestones chiselled on the path to peace, pointing to what he referred to as the ‘post-war renovation of society’.
In the same year, William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury outlined a vision of society dedicated to human dignity in his best-selling book, Christianity and the Social Order. Temple advocated nothing less than the universal provision of healthcare, education, decent housing, and decent work, inspiring his friend William Beveridge and spurring a new ambition in the British Labour Party.
The temper of the times, the shared anxieties and hopes seemed to be ones that filled with the affirmations of the Preamble. This ethical inheritance, drawing from the very best instincts of both secular republicanism and religious thought, was certainly one that informed the drafting committee of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, who prepared the text of the Universal Declaration.
When I delivered the Human Rights Commission’s Annual Lecture in 2012 – the last hosted by the Commission before its merger with the Equality Authority – I reflected on the curious background to the drafting process itself.
The newly established United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation had been tasked with seeking statements from academic, cultural and artistic institutions that were regarded as reflective of the diversity of world opinion.
In an age still dominated by imperialism, such diversity was, of necessity, relatively narrow in scope, but it did represent, nonetheless, an attempt to discover a consensus on international human rights.
The legal scholar and anthropologist, Mark Goodale, has provided a fascinating account of the position of the American Anthropological Association, who, though not formally consulted by UNESCO, prepared their own ‘Statement on Human Rights’.
In an era in which the application of human rights, particularly within cultural or religious contexts, has become fraught, even contested, the anthropologists posed what we might consider today as a mildly prophetic question:
‘How can the proposed Declaration be applicable to all human beings, and not be a statement of rights conceived only in terms of the values prevalent in the countries of Western Europe and America?’
As practitioners who had lived with and observed many human cultures, anthropologists were more aware than most of the diversity of human experience and manifold definitions of what constitutes ‘the good life’.
The very universality invoked in the language of the Declaration was awe-inspiring, and perhaps, hubristic. Even though the French Revolutionaries may have, at the height of their courage and élan, sought to apply the Declaration of the Rights of Man to the peoples of Europe, but it had been intended to apply to the French citizens alone.
To avoid the danger of any perceived Western-centrist thought, the anthropologists proposed that the draft Universal Declaration might rely on three propositions, the most important of which was the first – that it be accepted that the individual realises their personality through their culture, hence respect for individual differences entails a respect for cultural differences. When I quoted this six years ago I hastened to add that I was referring to the context being taken into account for application. It was not to be interpreted as any acknowledgement of a cultural condition that could be used, indeed abused, to obstruct a fundamental right.
Such a perspective can also be found, perhaps ironically, in the writings of Immanuel Kant. In his book Enlightenment against Empire, a study of those exceptional Enlightenment thinkers who opposed imperialism, philosopher Sankar Muthu has emphasised the passionate anti-imperialism of Kant, who wrote, two centuries ago, that the ‘innate right to freedom’ of all people derives from our humanity itself, from our capacity to create, to invent, to educate desire, our use of the powers of imagination and reason, and our capacity to recall the past and anticipate the future, and, above all, our universal feelings of sympathy.
Thus I suggest that in advancing the principles of the Universal Declaration a leap beyond reason is required. In different cultures it may receive different titles, spirit, heart, empathy, decency.
After so many long and unceasing struggles for national independence in so many nations, the United Nations, in the composition of its membership is now far more reflective of world opinion than it was in 1948.
We must bear in mind, too, that the Universal Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations. The General Assembly carried an authority that would increase with membership through decolonisation and achievement of independence. Today its normative statements have sadly lost influence and struggle to gain the interest of the global media.
The General Assembly has lost heavily to the Security Council in terms of responding to conflict and, in economic terms, to institutions originally accountable but now trapped within an unaccountable and ever more destructive version of global economics, judged in terms of its separation from ecological or social responsibility.
Is it now possible to discern a commitment to the universalism of the Declaration on the part of U.N. Members? I believe it may be more fruitful to ask the more fundamental question as to whether it is possible to derive universal moral principles within a version of global economy where the speculative forces of capital are eight times the scale of the patient or productive capital that previously prevailed. The widening gap between post-war and current forms of capital answers that question for us. The normative order of a rights discourse does not easily fit with unregulated capital flows.
As to the source of the rights discourse, when Pius XII addressed the faithful and called for the recognition of universal human dignity, he did so by drawing on the Thomist tradition which has been a powerful intellectual force within Christianity – the ‘Perennial Philosophy’ as the Second Vatican Council termed it. It was a force that suggests a marriage of faith and reason. William Temple was the leading Anglican theologian of his time, presenting a remarkable philosophic defence of revelation as a source of knowledge, a faith that he believed demanded a just social order.
Today, many of our fellow global citizens locate their impulse towards human rights as revealed systems of faith, many of them outside the Christian and Jewish traditions familiar to citizens in Europe and the Americas. Our success and failure in defending human rights in this century may well be defined, I suggest, by the capacity for dialogue between the invoked different sources of rights. In doing so, we should never give ground to those who approach the discourse in bad faith, or indeedwith malign intent, for we can never, of course, yield any ground to those who would violate the rights, for example, of LGBT people, religious minorities or women and girls, of migrants, of the most vulnerable.
It is important not only to recall the rationalist intellectual wellsprings of the Universal Declaration but also the institutional setting in which it was promulgated, borne as it was of the terrible experience of the Second World War and of the promises made by and to the citizens of the victorious nations, whose leaders had brought their people to war or responded to it. A feeling of the importance of collective action had been made manifest in the atmosphere that succeeded the war.
In his genealogy of the idea of human rights, the legal scholar and historian Samuel Moyn, has reminded us that post-war context was also the moment in which governments were constructing national welfare states, whether through the continuation of the New Deal in the United States, the dirigisme of the Resistance-led Fourth French Republic, or the ‘revolution by consent’ in Britain, as Harold Laski so memorably described it. Human rights were something to be achieved within the nation-state – to act as, in the words of the Universal Declaration, ‘a common standard and achievement for all peoples and nations’.
In practice, these rights and freedoms – and let us recall the Universal Declaration speaks of rights and freedoms – were secured, yes against the State but also by the agency of the State. The personal rights to life, liberty, security, freedom of speech and freedom of conscience, require at once a check on the potential tyranny of the State, but the society within which they are sought also requires positive action by the State and agents of the State, many of whom have joined us here today.
It would be disingenuous, in 2018, to avoid acknowledging the fact that since the end of the 1980s the role of the State in terms of its role in achieving collective welfare has been eroded. In recent decades the realm of what has been ceded to unaccountable market forces has immensely increased – realms previously publicly accountable. These realms include health, housing, education, employment.
The economic and social rights enumerated in Articles 22 to 27 of the Universal Declaration – the right to work, to protection against unemployment, to join trade unions, to holidays and leisure, and most radically, to an adequate standard of living – all demand collective action, and a role for the State, to be both secured and provided.
In the late 1940s, despite all the damage and destruction caused by the war, nation-states were determined to put in place institutions capable of vindicating those rights, not only at home but, through international co-operation, across the globe.
The Swedish political scientist Gosta Esping-Andersen wrote of these new welfare States as reducing the citizens’ dependency on that most nineteenth-century of institutions, the market economy. In other words, the welfare State de-commodified and removed from the vicarious uncertainty of the market many of the utilities required to live a full and free life.
In the 1940s, the international economic order, embodied in the Bretton Woods regime and its institutions, most notably the International Monetary Fund, was reconstructed, drawing on the same liberal spirit that informed the Universal Declaration.
The new institutional arrangements were designed in way that would allow nation-states with the domestic autonomy to pursue their national goals – full employment, expanding social protection, universal services – without the kind of sudden adjustment shocks that had characterised the era of the gold standard of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The international relations scholar John Ruggie has termed this new compromise ‘embedded liberalism’.
At its heart, the new order relied on a dramatic suppression – compared to what had gone before – of the role of financial companies in the allocation of investment and resources in both the national and international economy.
One the architects of the Bretton Woods system, John Maynard Keynes, was blunt in asserting the role and responsibility of the State for controlling movements of capital, stating that under the new regime capital controls were to be ‘a permanent arrangement’. The new plan, he said, ‘accords to every member government the explicit right to control all capital movements. What used to be a heresy is now endorsed as orthodox’.
The false freedom of capital, yielded, at that moment, to the accomplishment of other freedoms, and other rights.
When we speak then of the interdependence of rights, of the indivisibility of rights, and of the universality of rights, we must ask ourselves whether fundamental personal rights can truly be exercised without the provision of basic human needs, and the fulfilment of economic and social rights, to all people, as a matter of course?
There is no linear relationship, of course, between the international institutions of the post-war world, between the framers of Universal Declaration or the drafters of Bretton Woods. They were rather part of the same impulse, evident not only in socialist movements across the world, who sought an even more ambitious vision of world order founded on an expansive definition of social justice, but in the New Deal in the United States and new Christian Democratic parties in Europe.
The new moment was not without its contradictions, even betrayals. The old empires of Europe, desperate to cling to the power and resources endowed upon them by their colonial possessions and the labour of their subjects, simply ignored declarations regarding the right of self-determination of peoples, such as was contained in the Atlantic Charter, and they denied, by their actions, any notion of the universality of human rights by enforcing quite different standards of law and practice in their colonies and protectorates.
A dramatic example, perhaps, of this is provided by French practice where there was a very limited extension of rights from the mother country to the territories overseas.
Yet, the very act of giving utterance to the human rights plea and discourse, and, separately, the right to self-determination, was itself a catalyst for a new wave of struggles for self-determination. They were at times, bitterly resisted and contested by the old empires, often under the cloak of anti-communism. Within the Soviet Union, centralised Statist logic was defining communism in a manner that suppressed personal freedoms.
History suggests the power to the act of proclamation. We should never underestimate the revolutionary power of proclamations of universal rights. After all, when the National Assembly of France ratified the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 they, perhaps unknown to themselves, were initiating a concatenation of explosive revolutions – the most emancipatory of which occurred in the slave plantations of Haiti, a story marvellously told by C.L.R. James in his 1938 book, Black Jacobins.
Although it is true that the Haitian slaves were given fleeting assistance by the Committee of Public Safety, conservative forces soon sought to reimpose slavery on the island. C.L.R. James famously wrote that French politicians never really understood the effect of the ideals of the French Revolution on the Haitian slaves, which ‘meant far more to them than to any Frenchman’. So too did the United Nations and its institutions mean far more to the successors of Toussaint Louverture in the twentieth century than to the established nations of the world, among some of which the mind of empire and privilege was holding an obdurate force.
I recognise something similar, the same call for authenticity that comes now in our times from those directly affected by the consequences of climate change, rising sea levels, desertification, new violences including gender-based violence, violence against refugees, migrants, the poor.
The Universal Declaration gifted a magnificent moment to humanity, one that would be given form in time through national Human Rights institutions and regional human rights accords – some of which have, through the agreement of the states involved, created justiciable rights – and through what can now be considered an international human rights system, a system that is complex, multi-layered, heavily dependent on the capacity to access legal resources.
That contemporary system is founded upon the Universal Declaration and the nine international treaties agreed in the succeeding years, from the 1966 International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights, to the conventions on the elimination of racial discrimination and of discrimination against women, on torture, on the rights of the child, on the rights of those with disability, for the protection of migrant workers and their families, and against forced disappearances.
The treaty rights bodies now in place do, and have done, important and vital work in monitoring the degree to which parties have fulfilled their obligations.
We in Ireland need only think of the observations of the Committee against Torture on the State’s second periodic report to the Committee. Yet in speaking of that, let us also acknowledge, that States frequently ignore such observations, however damaging that may be to their own people and to the consequences for the legitimacy of the international human rights system itself.
Human rights must ultimately, after all, be vindicated and protected by nation-states. Article 1 of the United Nations charter recognises that the nation-state, based on the principle of self-determination, as the fundamental political community within the global order. States have been unwilling to resile from that principle, in many cases less out of adherence to abstract ideals of absolute territorial sovereignty and more out of self-interest.
The 1998 Rome Statute and the establishment of the International Criminal Court in 2002 together represent important milestones in progress towards the recognition that those who perpetrate crimes against humanity should face justice, though, as we are all aware, three of the five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council, the body charged with maintaining international peace and security, have refused to join or recognise the Court’s jurisdiction.
The end of the Cold War brought with it an opportunity of renewed international co-operation, shorn of the bifurcated rivalries that so often inhibited concerted action on a global level. I can vividly recall attending the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, a moment of hope and expectancy, yes, but it was also a moment that left one with a concern.
The Vienna Conference was swiftly followed by the establishment of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, a duty performed with distinction by one of my predecessors as President, Mary Robinson. The OHCHR has played a vital and important role in supporting and promoting human rights, and I am so pleased that Fionnuala Ní Aoláin and Peggy Hicks could join us here today. As President of Ireland, in the twenty-fifth year of the OHCHR, may I salute and acknowledge the work you and your colleagues undertake.
In 2006, the OHCHR assumed new responsibilities supporting the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is an important complement to the 10 treaty rights bodies now in place, and, at its best, the Universal Periodic Review provides a mechanism to address the totality of a country’s compliance with their obligations.
Despite the importance of all the institutional innovations since the 1990s, I cannot help but think that the ‘moment of Vienna’ in 1993 was also a missed opportunity, a moment of elision, even evasion, of a fundamental reality. It did not take account of what was spinning away from accountability – a new form of global economy.
Why do I say this? It seems to me an undeniable historical fact that the institutional underpinnings of the post-war economies of the industrialised world – full employment, the welfare state, capital controls – had long before begun to unravel amidst the recession of 1974-1975, the first recession since the Second World War.
That recession was, however, only the proximate cause of a greater unravelling. Most influential was a new vision of political economy, and of the relationship between society, the State and the economy. I refer to the ideology that dares not speak its name, the political theory of economic governance we know as neoliberalism.
Though given a diverse political and institutional expression, the neoliberals of the 1970s and 1980s shared a number of foundational beliefs: that the market and movement in relative prices could and should allocate resources in society; that the pursuit of individual self-interest would have an aggregate outcome that was preferable in terms of its individual private benefit to any collective shared benefit; that such an individualised understanding of what is good should guide public policy; that the privileging of the public realm and public purpose should be suspect, even disdained.
The neoliberal concept of rights descends, we should consider, not from any appeal to the dignity of man, but from the Hobbesian conception of constraining the war of all against all. The laws of the market, even as they were redrafted and reconceptualised by the State, were elevated to the position of a natural law. It was not necessary for them to be justified in terms of assumptions. Now a taken for granted version of the market had become the sole informing source of policy.
As 2008 followed 1974 in terms of crisis it became clear that the capacity to engage, in any dialectical way, with the contradiction that a new form of capital was creating was being lost even in the academy. This would later result in concerned students demanding the right to a pluralism in the syllabus of economics courses – a mild protest in comparison to 1968 but a necessary one.
The hegemony of extreme market thinking had a profound effect on the possibility of realising the promises of the Universal Declaration.
In policy and in practice, States increasingly felt confident in resiling from efforts to progressively realise economic and social rights, and successive programmes of neoliberal restructuring were sometimes accompanied by outright suppression of political and civil rights.
In policy terms, those programmes were characterised by the removal of constraints on flows of capital and the concentration of wealth, privatisation, redistribution of income upwards through reductions in the taxation of capital, and the suppression of collective bargaining and trade unions. Both their outcome and their processes have been documented by many scholars, including Thomas Piketty.
Amidst the early signs of the unravelling there had been a moment of hope. The newly free nations of the world who had overthrown colonialism and joined the United Nations in the 1960s had brought with them a new vision for the realisation of rights of all people, and all peoples – rights as individuals and rights in common. In April 1974, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration for the Establishment of a New International Economic Order.
Its programme was not revolutionary, but reformist, yet its ambitions and programme offered a capacity equal to the great task of ensuring, or even attempting, progressive global development, based on economic co-operation between North and South, East and West. It foresaw and demanded the regulation and control of activities of multinational corporations; the freedom to nationalise foreign property; the sharing of economic and technical expertise; the transfer of vital technology on an equitable basis; and international trade order managed by countries working together, based on stable prices for the raw materials sourced from the developing countries.
Can global leaders, some might ask, have the imagination or daring today to dream of such a world, a world in which collective rights were recognised as the necessary foundation for individual rights? Publics, in politics and civil society, must gain a new confidence to say yes, a sustainable world is possible, that they will seek to bring that quality of leadership forward. The future, intergenerational justice, surely requires it.
A collective right to development had been proclaimed in December 1986 by the General Assembly, in recognition that ‘all human rights and fundamental freedoms are indivisible and interdependent’. That right was re-affirmed at Vienna in 1993. Yet, by then the structure of the international economy was entirely insufficient, even hostile, to realisation of any right to development.
That new post-war orthodoxy so carefully crafted by Maynard Keynes had itself been reversed and overturned – financial deregulation and international capital mobility were the unquestioned instruments of a set of newly emboldened financial markets which were encouraged and enabled to discipline governments through changes in the price of government debt or threats of capital flight.
Nowhere was that more evident than in the marginalisation of the most enduring international Human Rights institution, the International Labour Organisation, which has, for nearly a century, dedicated its efforts to creating a more just and equal economic order, built not only on the dignity of humanity but upon the dignity of labour and a commitment to the common good.
The ILO has been at the centre of attempts – not always successful – to transform what is a globalisation of capital and wealth into a globalisation of interdependent peoples. It has sought to overturn the now-discredited Washington Consensus, offering instead a vision based on decent work for all, a globalisation of the social floor rather than an imposition of a social ceiling, a globalisation based on human rights, social protection, and social dialogue.
Could all this change in the infrastructure of economy, finance and life change leave the human rights discourse unaffected?
The danger, as many scholars such as Stephen Hapgood and Samuel Moyn have seen it, has been that the discourse of human rights – more particularly the language of individual political and civil rights – has been used by some to obscure what has been a very real transformation in political economy, one that threatens the universality, interdependence and indivisibility of rights, and that it was used so easily to mask a very specific set of political beliefs and practices that, in effect, ignore and even militate against economic, social and cultural rights.
As I look back on the World Conference at Vienna I ask was it a success or did it, perhaps inadvertedly, offer a mask that would cover for a lost egalitarianism, humanism, emancipation? This is made most acute when we look at the text in the re-affirmation of the Universal Right to Development. Was it not an intellectual capitulation to a form of globalisation that would, just as natural law had done, become regarded as inevitable, be a globalisation informed not just by neoliberalism but animated, in cultural policy terms, by a version of modernity that derided tradition, ignored the diversity of human culture, and one that, without reservation, allowed the fruits of science and technology, most often sourced in State expenditure, flow to private benefit, even be available for the arms industry.
As all of the practitioners and advocates here today know and understand, human rights as they might be experienced do not and never will drop from the sky, nor were they ever simply conceded. They were won, often through demanding and difficult struggles, struggles marked by setbacks and even defeats, battles that sometimes occurred in the courtroom, yes, but more often than not struggles that were decided on the protest and picket line, and in parliaments and legislatures.
In A Man for all Seasons, Thomas More seeks to avoid the great moral question of his day with the famous phrase, ‘But in the thickets of the law, oh, there I am a forester’.
Governments in so many nations have been taking refuge in the thickets of the law for some time now, and they will continue to do so unless they are contested. Yes, there is much that can be accomplished through legal processes, and many of the most redoubtable champions of Human Rights have come from the legal profession, but for us to succeed, the philosophy of human rights must reach the publics. The future of human rights must be secured in public consciousness and not as an alternative to progressive or radical political, economic or social policies. These struggles, discourses, belong together.
We must never forget that unaccountable private power, can afford to hire brilliant, gifted members of the legal profession. Think of those peasants in Ecuador who, having won their case at national level, were told by a multinational company that ‘we will fight you till hell freezes over, and then on the ice’.
Yet creating a popular culture of human rights has never been more urgent than it is today. We are now witnessing political forces who do not even attempt to wear the mask of human rights – there are those who now openly deny rights won through long and difficult struggles and who glory in discrimination, racism and a crude, xenophobic form of nationalism, and it is, we must remember, a distortion of nationalism that builds on fear of the other, the stranger.
The danger is not only the direct political power they wield, but in the poisonous influence that they now exert on those who, for reasons of short-term political gain and in the name of a false consensus, would seek to concede to their demands. That danger is most acute, and most present, in the attacks on Article 14 of the Universal Declaration, the right to seek and enjoy asylum, and on the Refugee Conventions.
The threats to human rights emanate not only from States, but from unaccountable agglomerations of private power. I have spoken of the economic and largely non-transparent power and authority of multinational corporations, an influence that is being felt unequally across the world, but that is being felt nonetheless. So often when we speak of the market, we are really speaking of large individual firms, some exercising extreme power, far greater and more extensive than that of the State.
There is now, and we so need it, and I welcome it, a return to the debate on the role of the State. In works such as The Entrepreneurial State and The Value of Everything Mariana Mazzucato has, among others, offered an influential scholarly resource to those who retain belief in the recovery of political economy as a subject and source of policy which can accommodate the Human Rights discourse.
We are already witnessing too a welcome re-discovery of the role of the State in regulating that power in the technology sector. It is a debate that has been too long delayed. May I caution that the terms of that debate should be grounded not only in the individual right to privacy, but also the vindication of the right to information and the right to communicate.
These are not novel questions. In 1981, UNESCO assembled an International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, chaired by the champion of Human Rights, Seán MacBride. In the context of the rise of global commercial communications network, that Commission recognised that the cultural rights of peoples, and the rights of the individual to contribute to their culture required a right to participate in the production of information, the guarantee of a diversity of voices and opinion, a strong public service media, the restriction of private media monopolies, the guarantee of the freedom of the press, and reciprocity in the flow of information between the North and South.
In the twenty-first century, the single, greatest, overwhelming challenge will be overcoming what threatens to be an ecological collapse and doing so in a manner that can fulfil the needs of all of the people of the planet in a just and sustainable way, thus realising the rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration.
Three years ago, the members of the United Nations met in New York and Paris to conclude two remarkable demonstrations of global solidarity: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Climate Accord. These agreements have the potential to be the means by which we organise and measure our success or failure in this century.
Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals within the context of the Paris Climate Accords will be profoundly difficult without a radical change to the manner in which we produce, consume and live. In short, it will require a re-conceptualisation of our idea of the economy no less radical than that which occurred after the Second World War, or during the neoliberal turn in the 1980s and 1990s. It requires a paradigm shift for our very survival.
None of us who seek to realise the full promise of the Universal Declaration can be neutral in this endeavour. The scholar Ian Gough, in his recent book Heat, Greed and Human Need, has suggested that we begin with eco-social policies that start from addressing human need. If we acknowledge that the vast majority of historical greenhouse gas emissions were, and are, produced by the Global North – indeed, by a small number of large corporations – and that today the richest 10% of the world’s population are responsible for the half of total lifestyle consumption emissions, the moral case becomes incontestable.
In these conditions, realisation of the principles of the Universal Declaration in a manner that recognises the interdependence, universality and indivisibility of human rights will require a renewed engagement with fundamental questions of redistribution, social consumption, social investment and eco-social policies, one that acknowledges, too, a role for the State.
This is necessary, but I acknowledge it will be difficult. There is an intolerance amongst those who want to keep the familiar model going in a version of intellectual authoritarianism that is comparable to the medieval church in its day in relation to physics.
Those you will hear from later today are speaking from the front line of experience. They will rightly speak of the necessities of freedom of speech, belief, access to healthcare and housing, or the rights of those with a disability. But if they are to make progress in vindicating those rights, the recovered role of the State in the discourse is essential.
In Ireland today, the question of a right to security of shelter and a home is most pressing for those of our people who are left out of the housing system and forced into homelessness. There is not, as yet, a justiciable right to home or housing in either legislation or our Constitution, although the Convention on the Constitution had an important discussion on social and economic rights, which I would hope will be continued. I wish it well. Article 27 of the Universal Declaration does, of course, contain such a right.
Vindicating that right will not, and cannot, be a matter soley for courts or lawyers alone, but will fundamentally be a question of how we wish our housing system to be structured. It will be, and we cannot avoid it, a question of politics. In what areas will markets be the appropriate mechanism? If they are, how and to what degree should they be regulated?
More fundamentally, we should ask to what degree do we as a society wish to ‘commodify’ housing and treat the home as an economic good, to be supplied for, and by, the market. As Professor P.J. Drudy and Dr. Michael Punch have outlined, these decisions have deep implications for the distribution of housing, financing and supply, and the creation or suppression of speculative markets in housing.
In a society in which housing is heavily commodified – and one with a history of speculative market bubbles in residential and commercial property – this will no doubt provoke contentious debates. But they are necessary debates that we must have. We would do well to heed the words of the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Raquel Rolnik, who wrote in October 2008, amidst the global financial crisis, that, in her words:
‘The belief that markets will provide housing for all has failed. The current crisis is a stark reminder of this reality. A home is not a commodity – four walls and a roof. It is a place to live in security, peace and dignity, and a right for every human being.’
If we are unable to reconcile our professed adherence to human rights and some conception of the home as a property or commodity, will we not find it also difficult, even impossible, to engage with other very practical issues of policy on health, sustainability, and climate change? Can we begin to muster the courage to engage in the task of rebalancing the relationship between markets, the State, ecology and civil society?
Can we rediscover even the same type of moral courage that informed the Universal Declaration seventy years ago, the same vision that sustained those who imagined a New International Economic Order? I believe that we can. I believe that we must. Despair, as Immanuel Kant suggested, is unthinkable, and cynicism is being rejected by those whose imagination being infinite, are full of hope.
We are now seeing new movements across the world who approach the challenges of our collective future with neither apathy nor with cynicism but with determination to recover, together collectively, ground lost or conceded, movements and a politics that will question and overturn failed orthodoxies and that are determined to advance still further and to vindicate new rights in our century.
So, as we celebrate the 70 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, let us re-dedicate ourselves to the pursuit, with hand and brain, of the building of a society and a republic of social justice, equality, freedom and rights, not only for ourselves but for all the people of our vulnerable planet.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh agus beir beannacht.