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The silent amputation of human rights in Europe



Otto Kölbl

The horrors of the Second World War have certainly pushed the Western governments and media to put the Human rights very high on their agenda. However, in this undertaking, they have always oscillated between a global approach within the framework of the UN and an approach centered on the Western culture and history.

In the case of Western Europe, the latter has been realized on the institutional level essentially within the framework of the Council of Europe, where right from the start everything was done in order to amputate the Human rights of an important part, namely the economic, social and cultural rights. Since the beginning of the new millenary, some voices try to correct this questionable approach, but in such a timid way that even some otherwise well informed journalists did not even realize it. It is time that the West speaks on this topic with a coherent voice, otherwise it will discredit itself in the eyes of a major part of the world public opinion.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been adopted December 10 1948 by the General Assembly of the UN. It lists a certain number of rights which can be divided into two categories. The civil and political human rights are mentioned in paragraphs 3 to 21. They relate among other things to the right to a fair trail, the protection against arbitrary detention and torture, freedom of speech and religion, the right to asylum and to democracy.

The economic, social and cultural rights make up the second group and are mentioned in the paragraphs 22 to 27. They contain the right to food and shelter, to work, to education, to health care, to a certain social protection and to join cultural life.

This declaration has not been elaborated to be enforced as such, it just lists some general principles. Almost all these rights have then been made more concrete in the Covenants, namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (called CP Covenant in this text) and the International Covenant  on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (called ESC Covenant). Neither of these covenants, which put both groups of rights on the same footing, is ever mentioned in the Western media, even though they are the only basis on which you can hold a government outside Europe accountable for Human Rights violations.

Instead, our journalists and reporters seem to work with an outdated version of one of the texts elaborated by the Council of Europe (CoE). In 1950, just two years after the adoption of the Declaration by the UN, the Council of Europe adopts the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms , which is also called the European Convention on Human Rights (called Convention). In opposition to what you might think when you read this title, it deals only with the civil and political rights.

The ESC rights (economic, social and cultural rights) are dealt with in the European Social Charta (called Charta), adopted in 1961 (eleven years after the Convention). Unlike the latter, the ratification of the Charta is not compulsory for the members of the Council of Europe, and members who accept to ratify it do not have to accept the whole of its content: they can also just pick a selection of them and continue to ignore the rest.

In the first version of the Charta , the term "Human Rights" was used only in relation to the Convention, as if the latter were the only text talking about Human rights. In a revised version of 1996 , a new paragraph was added to the preamble of the Charta:

Recalling that the Ministerial Conference on Human Rights held in Rome on 5 November 1990 stressed the need, on the one hand, to preserve the indivisible nature of all human rights, be they civil, political, economic, social or cultural and, on the other hand, to give the European Social Charter fresh impetus;

However, this new direction was not really publicised, for a reason: it is not easy to admit that during 46 years, we tried to amputate the human rights by half…
However, even in this new version, the Charta refuses to mention an essential attribute to the ESC rights. All the text relating to Human Rights, no matter whether they were elaborated within the framework of the UN or of the CoE, contain a paragraph against discrimination. Here is the corresponding excerpt from the Declaration:

Article 2.
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

The Convention contains a very similar article:

Article 14 – Prohibition of discrimination
The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.

In the new version of the Charta, we also find a list of different forms of discrimination, but there is no mention of a possible discrimination based on "property":

Part V
Article E – Non-discrimination
The enjoyment of the rights set forth in this Charter shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national extraction or social origin, health, association with a national minority, birth or other status.

Already in the ancient version of 1961, this term was absent:

Considering that the enjoyment of social rights should be secured without discrimination on grounds of race, colour, sex, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin;

Could it be that it was simply "forgotten"? We can exclude this hypothesis with certainty. These international treaties are elaborated with utmost care, where each word is the object of an embittered fight. Therefore, in 1961 as well as in 1996, there was a political will among many influential members of the CoE not to stigmatize those of its members who do not make the necessary efforts to grant the benefit of these rights to everybody, no matter how much money they have got.

The fact is that in the world we live in, in the huge majority cases where somebody does not have adequate access to education and health care, this is due to his or her financial situation. Excluding this criterion from a Human Rights text, through the deletion of a single word, is therefore a very efficient means to sabotage the rights in question.

You just need to read the texts published by the so-called "Human Rights NGOs" in order to realize that they are perfectly at ease with this amputation. After their foundation, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International initially only defended the civil and political rights.

In 2001, both organizations declared that they would defend all the human rights, including the ESC rights. However, instead of adopting the UN concept of human rights, they largely stick to the concept of the new version of the Charta, which implies that discrimination based on race, gender, sexual preference etc. are unacceptable, but that if a person is not able to benefit from one of their rights because they can not afford it, this is not really a problem.

Human Rights Watch is certainly the one which refuses most systematically to deal with the so-called "positive rights", term which designates the rights implying necessarily an active role of the authorities to provide certain services to the population. On its website, their attitude is explained by the following FAQ answer:

Does Human Rights Watch address social, cultural, and economic rights?
While Human Rights Watch and most other international human rights organizations have historically focused on civil and political rights, we have increasingly taken on social, cultural, and economic rights in our research and reporting. We have given particular attention to health, education, and housing. As our strength lies in pressuring policymakers to change their practices, our approach has been to target arbitrary or discriminatory government policies that result in the violation of economic, social, or cultural rights.

Here, "arbitrary or discriminatory government policies" only targets active discrimination against certain groups, ignoring discrimination for financial reasons, despite the fact that these are for example mentioned in the Declaration and the ESC Covenant.

This first impression is confirmed if we look at the list of documents published by the organization. If we take the publications about the access to health care, most of them are related to discrimination towards prisoners. Others target discrimination against HIV carriers, the obligation to offer palliative care, taking care of drug addicts, the access to health care for migrant people, etc.

An analysis of their World Report 2010 reveals a similar trend. The ESC rights and infant mortality are mentioned only for one country, Equatorial Guinea, which got very wealthy within the last 15 years and where social development could not keep pace with the sudden oil wealth. The access to health care is mentioned only for two countries, for that country and for the prisoners in the USA, as if in all other countries in the world, this right were granted to everybody.

The access to health care for prisoners and other specific groups is certainly important, but how can you justify the total neglect of the right to healthcare for the population in general and the obligation for the governments to take the necessary measures to get a drop in infant mortality, which are explicitly mentioned in the ESC Covenant?

Amnesty International brings up the topic of the ESC rights much more frequently, but their general report 2010 is based in part on figures which are totally outdated or which seem to be outright inventions, and these figures are interpreted in a way which shows total incompetence in the work with quantitative data. In particular, none of the two organisations tries to come up with figures which allow the evaluation of the performance of the different governments according to the requirements of the ESC Covenant.

The Western media are at the end of this chain of transmission and are exposed to contradictory information about the Human Rights and about the extent to which they are realized in the different parts of the world. But instead of trying to find out about the origin of this confusion, they just reproduce in in their articles and footages. If you analyze the discourse of many journalists and reporters working for many influential media (BBC, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, RTSR), you immediately realize that they have got no idea about the content of the Declaration, even though everybody pretends to defend it, not even to mention the two Covenants which are the only legitimate bases to hold non-European governments accountable.

In this way, the West manoeuvres itself even deeper into a situation where it defends an amputated version of the Human rights, which only discredits not only us, but also the concept of Human Rights itself. In China in particular, this attitude has hugely damaged our reputation and at the same time offers China an occasion to profile itself in the eyes of the world as a country which defends a concept of Human Rights which is conform to the texts elaborated at the UN and closer to the daily preoccupations of the huge majority of the world population than our concept.

We can only blame ourselves for the quagmire into which we got ourselves, and it will take time to repair the damage. The only way out is certainly to shed an inquisitive light on our past and present discourse about Human Rights and to do better in the future.