Universalizing Human Rights

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Nils Muižnieks, Director, Amnesty International Europe Regional Office

Human rights education (HRE) is something I keep coming back to over and over again in my career. When I embarked in human rights 27 years ago, my colleagues and I wanted to feel and understand the values we were seeking to promote, which is why we organized practical activities for human rights for ourselves and teachers from the United Nations ABC’s of human rights [1] and Council of Europe materials [2]. Now, as I work for Amnesty International, HRE is an integral part of our country and thematic work and an important tool to reach out to young people, build membership and complement our research and campaigning.

The old story of human rights goes something like this: human rights were born out of the ashes of World War II to prevent war, genocide and dictatorship. Unfortunately, for many this story no longer has any traction, as World War II is considered to be ancient history, something largely irrelevant to contemporary concerns. In many countries, especially in Europe, people no longer fear war, genocide or dictatorship.  More often, they fear economic uncertainty, bad health care, migration, terrorism, and increasingly, climate change. We need a new story that addresses the yearning for social and economic rights, for predictability in an age of rapid change. We need a story that is not so intertwined with World War II.

Many are trying to weave this new story, but it remains an ongoing challenge. My take at the moment is as follows: human rights guarantee that you can be you, they shield the weak from the strong; they are an insurance policy against having the rug pulled out from under us by globalization, bad government or greedy corporations. I encourage you all to try to retell the story of human rights in ways that are relevant in your local context.  

We need to retell the story and link it to broader regional and global concerns. In other words, we need to localize, nationalize, regionalize and universalize human rights. Regarding localization, nobody said it better than Eleanor Roosevelt: 

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.[3]

I have sought to localize human rights at various points in my career. I remember organizing a human rights seminar with educators in a small village in Latvia. We talked about who were the most vulnerable – lone pensioners, women and kids subject to domestic violence by drunk fathers, persons with disabilities, but we also touched on regional and global concerns. I remember when I was Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights from 2012 to 2018. Every week I travelled to one of the 47 member states. At a certain point, I remember talking to my team, and asking “what about human rights in Strasbourg?” So we visited a migrant detention centre, met with local NGOs, then met with the local government prefect. We visited Roma squats on the outskirts of town and a municipal facility. My point is that it is important to look around you, not just to faraway places.

I have been most comfortable not at the local, national or global level, but at the regional level. My work as member and chair of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, as Commissioner, and as director of the Europe Regional Office at Amnesty all attest to this. I get a bit bored working only in one country, I am interested in regional trends and believe that regional human rights mechanisms can be put to good work. Moreover, the regional level is manageable in terms of knowledge and understanding the landscape, whereas I find the global level a bit daunting.  

However, we in Europe have a special responsibility globally – because of the history of colonialism, because of our wealth, because of our interconnectedness with the rest of the world through climate change, migration and other processes. Colleagues in Amnesty push me to look beyond Europe almost every day. When I joined Amnesty I was told by colleagues from the global South that one of my tasks was to continue the decolonization of the organization with regard to North-South funding, decision-making, etc. But Europe’s externalization of migration to neighbouring countries and vaccine nationalism also require us to look to the effects of our actions beyond the continent. Our past involvement in Afghanistan implicates us heavily in the current woes of this country and its people.

When trying to work globally, however, we face many risks, including that of facilitating homogenization and replicating old patterns of paternalism. In a book on Amnesty’s history, I found a harsh quote attributed to an Indian human rights activist who told a senior Amnesty staffer:

You, Amnesty, you are the McDonalds of human rights. You are the face of globalization in human rights terms. You come in here, you build your prefabricated restaurants, you displace local cuisine and local activism.[4]

While being sensitive to the risks, we need to universalize human rights to cover all people, because there are many who are ignored by the mainstream. I encourage you to ask yourself who lacks legitimacy in your space? Who is it socially acceptable to discriminate against?  Is it indigenous people? Persons with intellectual and psycho-social disabilities? Ethnic and/or religious minorities? LGBTI persons?

In the European space it is first and foremost migrants – otherwise the mainstream would never tolerate the mass scale and violent nature of pushbacks all around the European Union’s external border. It is also Muslims, especially Muslim women, who are the only religious minority that has been targeted numerous times by specific legislation in a number of European countries. And in many parts of Europe it is Roma, Europe’s most marginalized, excluded minority.  

We need to keep retelling the story of human rights. We need to move back and forth between local, regional and global levels. We need to actively search for those who are invisible, those whom it is socially acceptable to ostracize and to discriminate against. And we need to fight back.  HRE is an excellent weapon in our arsenal.


[1] See, e.g., OHCHR, ABC: Teaching Human Rights – Practical Activities for primary and secondary schools (United Nations: New York and Geneva, 2004).

[2] See, e.g., Rui Gomes, ed., Compass: Manual for Human Rights Education with Young People (Council of Europe: Strasbourg, 2012).

[3] https://unfoundation.org/blog/post/10-inspiring-eleanor-roosevelt-quotes/.

[4] Stephen Hopgood, Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International (Cornell University Press: Ithaca and London, 2006), pp. 174-5.

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