By- PAOLOREGEL B. Samonte (UNU-IAS M.Sc Student)
TOKYO, Japan—With the theme “Human Rights at a Crossroads: Navigating New Challenges and Sustaining Past Successes”, the United Nations University (UNU) hosted a conversation with Andrew Gilmour, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, last June 5 at the UNU Headquarters. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) turn 70 this year, the event spotlighted the UDHR’s incredible achievements over the years and tackled ways to deal with contemporary challenges hindering its progress.
Mr. Gilmour began by acknowledging the UDHR’s past successes, and how it was able to cover a whole spectrum of human rights issues. Holding a world record as the most translated text, the UDHR triumphed in making economic, cultural, civil, and political rights, as well as the right to development, a right of each and every individual regardless of race and gender.
However, the world has seen a human rights backlash in recent years. Mr. Gilmour cited how the September 9/11 incident in the US relegated other human rights issues to the sidelines, and shifted human rights focus towards fighting terrorism. He then mentioned how civil wars and conflicts in the Middle East has led to mass migration to Europe, and how such movement posed huge challenges in upholding the rights of refugees. He added that xenophobia—as well as LGBTI discrimination—likewise became more and more rampant recently. Further complicating the matters is the rise of “fake news” and the growing distrust of the general public to journalists and news media outlets, with many easily dismissing anything that go against their beliefs as “fake news”.
Political figures in some countries only made the whole situation worse. For instance, he mentioned the Philippine President Duterte’s highly-controversial statement allowing Philippine soldiers to rape up to a maximum of three women. He went on with the same president’s war on drugs, with the statesman even boasting about the number of people he killed personally. In line with this, Mr. Gilmour likewise pointed out how civilians are being more and more systematically targeted in civil wars, with the ratio of soldier-civilian deaths rising from 50:50 to 10:90 in recent years.
From such gloomy picture, Mr. Gilmour then emphasized some global movements that aim to resist the current trend. One such movement is led by the private sector, who is increasingly recognizing the criticality of incorporating human rights aspects in business. This acknowledgement has led more businesses to adopt standards advocating for LGBTI rights and develop mechanisms to reduce racial and gender discrimination in the workplace. He commented that while Japan continues to struggle on these aspects, he hopes that the 2020 Olympics to be held in the country would serve as a catalyst for change.
Finally, he called out for the public to resist the human rights rollback. He underscored how essential it is for ordinary people to stand up for human rights, citing how the abolition of slavery in the 19th century was the result of such people power.
Facilitated by Mr. Adam Day, Senior Policy Adviser at the UNU Center for Policy Research, the event was part of UNU’s Conversation Series, an initiative that provides a venue for experts, world leaders, and renowned scholars to discuss various global issues in a manner that engages the general public.