By David Gallup
“Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of humankind.”
Although this statement appears in the Preamble of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), it could easily apply to the current plight of the people in Syria, the terrorist acts of heavily armed fundamentalists against civilian populations, the drug cartel wars, and other ongoing acts of violence.
As we approach the anniversary of the UDHR on 10 December 2015, are we any closer to the promise of a universal respect for human rights than we were 67 years ago? Was World War II the height of human violence, or has violence, in all its forms, continued unabated?(1) What effect has the UDHR and implementation of human rights in other declarations and treaties had on violence?
Violence in All Its Forms
Adherence to the human rights enumerated in the UDHR and various treaties has reduced large-scale armed conflict. Yet violence continues. The international conflicts in Russia/Ukraine, Israel/Palestine, and Syria seem to be reigniting the Cold War. Civil war and internal conflicts in Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo and among religious and ethnic groups in Afghanistan and Iraq threaten regional stability. And supranational terrorist violence has overtaken state upon state violence as a threat to global stability. The threat of violence by nuclear devices still looms large. It is actually more alarming now because the iron fist of control over nuclear weapons and material and nuclear power plants has diminished.
Because the media focuses on large-scale international and regional aggression, violent acts of armed militias, insurgents, local gangs, street crime, gun violence, and mental, physical, and economic abuse tend to be downplayed. Even as traditional warfare wanes, this day-to-day violence takes a great toll on many people’s lives, yet national governments have not prioritized dealing with these human rights violations in their political agendas.
Underlying Causes of Violence
What is causing all of this violence despite the enumeration of human rights in the Declaration and international treaties such as the Covenants on Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights?
Although inter-state wars may have reduced(2), the root causes of violence remain due to the disparity in social, political and economic conditions that nation-states perpetuate. Because of advances in technology, the ability to wage violence has been democratized. Now anyone with a cell phone and a social media account can find recruits for their violent cause. The rise in individual violence has coincided with the ease of communication and technological tools that transcend borders.
The nation-state system perpetuates aggression, entrenching structural violence, by separating us into competing groups. We compete for resources and advantages over one another rather than work together and share knowledge. When we cannot fulfill our rights and needs, this leads to humiliation and deprivation which then leads to violence.
In the past hundred years, humans have made great strides in the access to and administration of justice around the world. Properly functioning legal systems allow for individual participation in the government and for redress when the government fails to respect our rights. In places where people have no say in their government or face daily oppression and fear, the likelihood of violent actions dramatically increases.(3)
We must remember that all forms of violence are illegal under local, national and international law. Violence by citizens against citizens, by “civilians” against “civilians,” and by “combatants” against “civilians” are prohibited by local criminal laws, by national statutes, and by international humanitarian laws, such as the Geneva Conventions.
Dealing with the Root Causes of Violence
How can respect for human rights reduce violence? What engenders peace?
We need to deal with the root causes of violence(4) by affirming human rights for everyone, everywhere.
We need to understand that exploitation can be eliminated by establishing rules of engagement in corporations, governments, commerce and economics with equality and fair labor practices.
We need to understand that in an interdependent world, attempting to achieve dominance will only harm all of us in the long run. We need to understand how to use land, resources and the power to control both in indigenous and sustainable ways. If one region of the world is doing poorly, then it will affect another region.
We need to understand that we have alternatives to revenge. People will less feel the need to take violent action when there are legal forms of redress available to everyone locally, regionally and globally.
We need to understand that our ideology impacts our way of life. We need to move toward an earth and human-centered understanding.
The UDHR and the Stemming of Violence
What does the UDHR say about violence? Can law counter violence?
Article 3 of the UDHR states “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person.” All of our other rights depend upon us being alive, free and safe.
Building capacity in legal institutions, the access to justice, and participation in government, sharing economic prosperity through equality of opportunity and outcome in standards of living, and educating about world citizenship and cultural awareness can reduce and prevent violence in all communities, local and global. Although the Internet and technology have democratized violence, they have also democratized peace, providing individuals and communities with the power to create livingry(5), instead of weaponry.
As we celebrate this anniversary of the Declaration, let us reconsider the importance of fully implementing the UDHR to deal with sources of violence. The Declaration’s Preamble confirms that “it is essential, if (humans are) not be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.” Aggression and war should no longer be tools of human interaction, even as “a last resort.” Violence must no longer be considered useful or even tolerable. To reduce or eliminate violence as ongoing and acceptable choice, global institutions of law creation, adjudication and implementation are required. We need a fully-functioning World Court of Human Rights and regional human rights systems. We need a World Police Force that can intervene everywhere in the world regardless of human-made borders.
Article 28 of the UDHR confirms that “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” That social and international order requires global institutions of law, which will provide systems and procedures to deal with violence in all its forms and at every level of human interaction.
The final Article of the Declaration (Article 30), confirms that no “State, group or person (has) any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms” enumerated in the Declaration. We have a legal obligation to interact peacefully with everyone else, to recognize that violence only destroys our rights and freedoms.
To achieve a non-violent world, we must consider our self-perception through the lens of world citizenship and outward action through the process of world law and government.
Statistics about violence, however, do not account for everyday unreported violence nor do they adequately account for non-lethal violence.
(2) Gleditsch, K. S. and Pickering, S. (2014), Wars are becoming less frequent: a response to Harrison and Wolf. The Economic History Review, 67: 214–230