Seventy-five years ago, on December 12th 1948, the General Assembly of the newly created United Nations adopted a ‘Universal Declaration on Human Rights’. Of the 58 Member States, 48 voted in favour, 2 did not participate in the vote and 8 abstained (South Africa, Saudi Arabia and six East European countries). The UDHR was a non-binding document but has since been the basis of tens of international conventions and treaties on human rights. It has now been adopted by all member States of the U.N. The most important consequence of this landmark document was the adoption, almost twenty years later, in 1966, of two international Conventions, one on political and civil rights and one on economic, social and cultural rights.

Other important resolutions have been adopted since concerning the rights of women, of children and of indigenous people. There is also a ‘right to development’ that is now used again to adjust thinking on human rights, equality and mainly social development.

This human rights thinking has always been seen in a very paradoxical way.

On the one hand, many social movements in the South have used them to legitimize and strengthen their national demands. When governments resisted to give in to demands of women or indigenous communities, these demands were taken to New York or Geneva and more often than not were considered relevant. In that same logic, several world conferences were organized, the results of which were then used at the national level. In this way an interesting reciprocal cooperation between the local, national and global level came about.

On specific issues, such as food, poverty, housing, ageing, freedom of expression and many other topics, the Human Rights Council can nominate special rapporteurs to examine the global, regional or national situation in terms of fulfilment and respect of human rights. This is a very useful special procedure to focus on some of the world’s most urgent problems.

On the other hand, many social movements in the South have rejected the focus on human rights because the Universal Declaration, so they say, is a ‘Western’ product and does not take into account the specific needs and most of all the different cosmovisions of peoples in the South. This argument has, in my view, only a very limited relevance, since, as was stated above, indigenous people did use the human rights philosophy to promote and defend their rights. Also, in the drafting of the text of the Universal Declaration, several representatives of the South participated even if, true, they were educated in the North and shared its philosophy.

Apart from these problems, there still are serious differences in the monitoring and complaints procedures for civil and political rights and for the economic, social and cultural rights. Even if in the past years some progress has been made, it is still much more difficult to legally claim the stated economic and social rights than it is for political and civil rights.


A more serious argument against the human rights philosophy concerns the selectivity with which it is used by Western powers. Socialist countries such as the Soviet Union and East European countries during the Cold War, or China, Cuba and Venezuela more recently have been accused of serious violations of human rights. What happened in allied countries such as Saudi Arabia or Latin American countries with right-wing governments - think of the military dictatorships of the 1980s – was condoned.

At this level, serious problems arise.

In the first place, Western and often hegemonic powers have always focused on civil and political rights. Human rights however are not only universal but also indivisible. You cannot respect civil and political rights if the population is hungry and extremely poor. A right to education or to housing cannot be respected in a country if international financial institutions put a cap on social expenditures. Also, a democratic right to vote is meaningless if people cannot read or write, or if rights to participate in public and political debates are limited.

This hypocrisy and selectivity is particularly strong in the regular country reports on human rights published by the United States. They strongly condemn China for its policies in Xinjiang against Muslim Uyghurs, they strongly condemn Iran for the repression of social protests by the ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ movement. The style is very different when they talk about Israel, Saudi Arabia or Guatemala, mentioning ‘reports’ or ‘credible reports’ of violations, but without a blanket rejection of their policies.

This selectivity seriously undermines the credibility of Western countries who will keep their eyes shut for serious violations in some countries and go quibbling over others. As for the violators, it allows them to totally ignore the complaints by their citizens and movements.

North and South

A rift between the North and South has also been developing in the last decades. It first of all had to do with the unkept promises of development and the persisting domination of international financial institutions, imposing their neoliberal dogmas on countries that were said to be sovereign and independent. Today, there are more ‘least developed countries’ than there were when UNCTAD started its categorisation. Promises of aid were never kept.

A second wave of despair soon emerged after countries in development, as well as socialist countries in Eastern Europe adopted democracy and capitalist and/or neoliberal economies. These obviously did not spontaneously lead to more welfare, in spite of all the promises, on the contrary. Even if democracy is far more attractive than authoritarian regimes, if the rules of the economy and of geopolitical power relations do not change, countries and peoples will continue to be oppressed and kept poor. No wonder that in many cases, people will try and seek refuge with right-wing populist parties that now promise order, stability and welfare.

The Swiss author Jean Ziegler already spoke fifteen years ago of ’the hatred’ of Southern countries for the West. This was then thought to be an exaggeration, though it is not sure it still is today. It is a fact that countries of the South are no longer willingly accepting all the political and economic recipes that are imposed on them. Their interest in alternative alliances such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South-Africa) is evidence of it.

The current wave of distrust came about with the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. It had to be condemned, obviously, but the way in which Western countries refused to look at the context and the past events in the region, helpful to explain - and not justify – the invasion was the reason why many countries refused to join the Western sanctions. The U.S., claiming to be the ‘leader of the free world’, had to admit that a large number of countries did not follow.

But the most disastrous event, in all possible meanings, was the attack of Hamas on Israel and the subsequent war against the Gaza strip and the Palestinian population. Once again, this horrendous attack has to be condemned and there is no reason at all to justify Hamas’ authoritarian regime in Gaza. This being said, it is obvious the context has to be taken into account and the ensuing war against the Palestinian population has to be as vehemently condemned. Palestine is an occupied territory with ensuing obligations for the occupying power. If the Hamas attack can be considered a war crime, it does not mean legal impunity for Israel. As Richard Falk states: “just as Hamas had no authority to commit war crimes because intensely provoked by decades of Israeli criminal provocations, neither does Israel when acting in a retaliatory mode have authority to suspend the relevance of international criminal law and act without the constraints of law.”

In the past, Israel has repeatedly been condemned for its actions in Palestine. Who still remembers and dares to mention resolutions 242 of 1967 and 338 of 1973, adopted by the Security Council of the UN, asking Israel to withdraw behind the borders of 1967?

In a famous declaration of the then European Community, the right of Palestinians to self-determination was confirmed in Venice, 1973. It even says force can be used to implement the Declaration. In its resolutions of 1974 and 1982, the General Assembly of the UN confirmed the right to resistance of the Palestinians, including armed struggle. In 1988, Yasser Arafat of the PLO was officially invited by the socialist group in the European Parliament.

It goes beyond any doubt that current actions of Israel in Gaza are a violation of humanitarian law. The unconditional support the country receives from the US and other Western powers can only widen the divide between North and South. Also, humanitarian aid while the Gaza strip is being bombed, borders are kept closed and fuel cannot enter the territory, is a cynical joke.

An immediate cease fire is the first step to be taken, full humanitarian aid is needed but most of all a permanent, sustainable and just solution has to be found for the Palestinian population. Israelis cannot be free as long as the Palestinians are not free. No people can live with permanent fear and daily humiliations. Respect for human rights, all over, respect for international law and respect for the wonderful but to be improved multilateral set-up the world was able to create after the second world war is urgently needed if we want to avoid a third world war. Multilateralism is now in danger, some Western powers now start to reject the powerless UN … At a moment when technically, economically and even socially the world is one, politics is dividing and destroying it. We should not let it happen.