“Can rights and values be universal if they seem, even after lengthy explanations of the communitarian case, to be rationed by a subset of rules about sovereign boundaries? Perhaps we should agree to think of rights and values as limited resources…” — Jeremy Harding, “Europe at Bay,” London Review of Books 34(3), 2012

The above quote was from an essay written in 2012, a year when migration “crises” were being debated worldwide. The right of asylum was being delegitimized by global right-wing propaganda claiming such asylum policies are being exploited. This tore at the heart of a presumed consensus: that which says that nations must extend aid and mercy to people fleeing violence and oppressive governments.

Many governments failed to defend this principle. Four years later, 2016, saw the catapulting of authoritarians and demagogues trading on “populist” rhetoric to high offices worldwide — our own current President included.

It might be odd to open a column in this pessimistic way — especially as today is International Human Rights Day. The day commemorates the United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): a document detailing the inalienable rights of all human beings, exhorting the nations of the world to adopt such standards in their government policies. The document has held up to scrutiny and valuation for the past 71 years. Nearly all global governance institutions and democratic movements worldwide stand by it, invoking its contents and guidance in crafting their agendas and advocacies.

Yet the existence of the Declaration also belies a bitter truth. It has not wholly guaranteed the protection, enactment and actualization of such rights in all countries. The institutions supposed to promulgate its contents, sovereign-nation states, keep invoking national sovereignty to continue repressive internal security policies. This, ultimately, is at the heart of the crises denying and violating peoples’ basic rights to live.

Many nation-states, especially ones under the sway of personalistic and patronage-led regimes, ignore, dismiss or wilfully violate international human rights. They rely on their party and personal machineries to spin and delude their populations towards ignoring, dismissing, or fully antagonizing the entire discourse that seeks to protect them and their quality of life.

Southeast Asian nations continue to garner criticism specifically for being guilty of this. It was once hoped that the regional platform of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) would open more opportunities for cross-cultural and cross-country empowerment and advocacy. This was the premise of ASEAN’s Vision 2020 Charter, promoting the formation of a single ASEAN Community that would promote closer and interlinked governance standards along political-security, economic, and socio-cultural lines.

Yet its long-critiqued “non-intervention” principle continues to maintain the status quo of preventing cross-country accountability, as well as regional opportunities to address human rights violations. It probably does not help that nearly all ASEAN member-states have been guilty of human rights violations under the guise of promoting social and ethnic cohesion, “discipline” and crackdowns on political dissent/opinion. In his combative 2004 essay “Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man?,” the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere criticized contemporary attitudes on human rights discourse, which assumed that the presence of international standards guaranteed their adoption. In his view, this has led to the neutralization of human rights discourse, rendered impotent as “the rights of those who cannot enact them, of victims whose rights are totally denied.” Ranciere argues that only peoples and communities who dare “use,” invoke, and fight for these rights — even in direct opposition to political authority — could be expected to enjoy them.

This is easier said than done, especially if one lives in a country where spaces for freedom of movement, speech, and opinion have been stymied. Yet the reality of globalization and an interconnected world has not only allowed for the spread of news coverage and ideas. It has allowed for collective global realization, as well as coordination of global common agendas.

What could be done to address this backlash against the extending and expanding human rights worldwide?

The past holds lessons in how to achieve these. This year, 2019, is also the 20th anniversary of the “Battle of Seattle.” Protest actions by movements in Seattle against the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference were followed by solidarity demonstrations worldwide, leading to the collapse of trade negotiations. It spirit still seems to be alive today, if the growing worldwide protests and advocacy by the youth against climate change are any indication. Last Friday, Dec. 6, famed Swedish youth activist Greta Thunberg led nearly half a million people on the streets of Madrid.

Such movements and actions are only possible when there are enough infrastructure, institutions, environments, and cultural development to support them. Civil society organizations should be allowed to grow organically via community organizing and empowerment — not imposed, sanctioned, or mobilized by state fiat. Resources and public funding for such should not be withheld, and people should be educated towards their purpose (that they may make the choice of funding and supporting them themselves).

International support and funding, for that matter, must be made available and easier to mobilize and access. At the same time, such organizations, movements, and advocacy groups must continue to maintain the highest of standards, transparency, and accountability. In these times of crises, they cannot afford to lose credibility — not when governments are pouncing at every opportunity to delegitimize them.

No people kept their rights and way of life without fighting to protect them. No society should be consigned to such misery and deprivation that they cannot even stand up for themselves. No more should we allow human rights to be treated as scarce, exclusive and limited resources — if we are to give substance to our dreams of global progress.


Hansley A. Juliano serves as Lecturer to the Department of Political Science, School of Social Sciences, Ateneo de Manila University. He teaches and writes research on democratization, Southeast Asian politics and social movement issues. He is also engaged in research and advocacy for key sectoral issues (such as labor rights and agrarian reform).