Museologia Social e Urbanismo XXII

Human rights and justice

The concept of Human Rights and Human Development are intrinsically linked and in this particular chapter, we’re going to look at how it impacts life in the city. To be able to take you through this short journey, I want to say a little bit about what Human Rights are, what the conceptual underpinnings are.

I want to refer to a very fundamental document called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. I want to then, from that perspective identify a set of Rights and I want to highlight the socio-economic dimension that has its fundamental to understanding how life in the city works, how it ties into Human Rights and how it impinges on Human Development. Much of the content in this particular chapter will focus on material that’s relevant to Goal 16 on ‘building just institutions’ but also of course in looking at Goal 11 on ‘Sustainable Cities’. So when we think about Human Rights itself, the fundamental aspect to bear in mind, is that this is a series of concepts that are designed to promote the inherent dignity and worth of every individual.

It’s really important to understand that these are inherent dignities i.e., they are not dignities that are earned in any way, they are dignities by virtue of being human and a fundamental aspect to that is, it’s based on the equal inherent dignity and worth of every individual; not just individuals we like, not just individuals we think deserve it but every individual, irrespective of who they may be and where they are.

This concept is fundamental to understanding development, primarily because if we understand what sustainability means, we need to understand that as a sustainable future that includes everybody irrespective of gender, ethnicity, caste, class or any other distinguishing feature.

Now, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights actually set out this vision and in setting out this vision, it brought together states from all around the world to express this in what has become a very famous and foundational document called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the time it was passed in 1948 the world was just emerging from the Second World War, the United Nations had still been formed and of course vast parts of the globe was still under colonial rule but, in articulating that vision it was decided that if we wanted to prevent World War III and the kinds of atrocities that had become normal in that particular period, the only way to do it was in building a society where every single individual’s rights were respected.

In articulating those rights the Universal Declaration for Human Rights talked about what can broadly be defined as five types of Rights: so we have Civil Rights, we have Political Rights, we have Economic Rights, we have Social Rights and we have Cultural Rights. The Universal Declaration for Human Rights deemed these rights to be ‘indivisible’ that means you could not divide them, that you had to look at all of the rights in conjunction with each other to be able to achieve that goal of creating societies where equality was valued.

However, the problem became that immediately in it’s aftermath we got into East-West debates and laissez-faire politics where states in the West believed much along the lines of economics based on Adam Smith, that ultimately the state needed to only provide enough room for enterprise to flourish and that somehow economic, social and cultural rights would be sorted out by the market. This was already at odds with the vision of many developing countries who argued that the Right to Food for instance was far more important than the Right to Vote.

The fact is you can’t prioritise one over the other, you need to have them all together, functioning in a robust manner to be able to create and construct the kind of societies we aspire for. Now in the context of how Human Rights had developed itself, the vast majority of it developed through the ambit of Law; so the idea is that you articulate a Right of some kind, you enshrine it in Law, you put into documents and then lawyers can argue those documents in front of a court of law.

Now there’s a fundamental problem with this model: it assumes people have access to lawyers, it assumes people know what their Rights are. And as we know from inequality across the world that actually one of the biggest problems of being unequal is not knowing that you actually have a Right to be equal and that you actually have a right and a redress for the violations that you face.

So this has been a challenge that has really dogged the world of Human Rights, even organisations like Amnesty International for instance always emphasised Civil and Political Rights and didn’t emphasise enough Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In the context of Sustainable Development Goals, we have a chance once again now, to reknit those concepts together: there’s far greater emphasis these days in any case on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights but to be able to knit them together into a whole narrative that worries about the entirety of the human condition, is the only way of understanding how we can build societies that believe in the inherent equal dignity and worth of every individual.

This agenda comes to the fore in cities. Cities have often been considered to be the places, the central places that will generate wealth and that will move societies forward, but in fact what we see in the reality of many cities is a great disparity and emerging inequalities. In a famous city of London for instance, if you are trying to get a tube they often say ‘Mind the Gap’ tbecause there’s a gap between the Tube and the platform, that gap is more like a chasm.

You have,you have an aspiration of equality, you have Rights in books that talk about these equalities but there’s a chasm between how you can get from where you are, to where you want to be; and you see that chasm dramatically in cities, you see it in the way communities that are further away from sites of power are excluded from power, you see it in the way that they have no access to institutions, you see it in differential health conditions, you see it in differential educational conditions and the inevitable impact is you see it in employment and unemployment. So what we often see in the context of cities and Human Development and Human Rights is that particular groups tend to be further away from the wealth generating capacities of cities. These groups are usually definable based on gender; women are never in the same parameter in terms of any of these indicators as men are. You see dramatically in terms of ethnicity, you see it dramatically in terms of religion and all of these identifying tags are then used to differentiate the haves from the have-nots. It’s much more stark in cities, because in cities you get now increasingly the great big wealthy compound right beside the slum.

Now in a situation like that, we need to just think of, think of this pragmatically: if you are building and if you have a fantastic, great, big glass house you don’t want to put it in a slum, because if you put in the slum you’re going to have to invest a lot of money protecting your investment from the rest of the slum. And I’m going to take you back to to even ancient Greece which is celebrated so much and had a photograph of that original Athenian democracy, imagine you could see it in some shape or form, you would find that all the individuals there had two things in common: they were all rich, landowners and they were all men. And essentially their first quest in making law was, to make law to protect their wealth from that of others. So actually law has been used historically as an instrument of the powerful, framed by the powerful, to protect the interests of the powerful and that challenge then sits very uneasily against the equality agenda. And in cities which are often the places where these ideas get generated you live with that contradiction far more than you can, if you are further away from a central place where people agglomerate. The real challenge that we face then in terms of cities, is how do we ensure that cities are allowed the space to generate the wealth for the rest of society, that cities are the engines, the power houses to be able to create that wealth – but how do we also ensure that, that wealth creation process involves people, because if you create wealth without creating employment, you’re not really going to solve the problem because then the wealth has to be used to give handouts and again there’s a lot of disparaging comments made about the extent to which people live on handouts. People don’t particularly want to live on handouts, they want to participate fully and robustly in every element of society and they want to do that irrespective of their gender and irrespective of their caste or class or ethnicity or any other factor or facet that you can imagine to differentiate them. And that’s the real challenge: being able to create enough wherewithal, for enterprise to flourish while doing so in providing enough for the people who are involved in the creation, distribution and reorientation of that enterprise.

So at the very least, Human Rights are fundamental to cities in ensuring adequate health systems, adequate educational systems and adequate criminal justice mechanisms to provide the order that exists there. A central part then to moving this particular agenda forward is to look at the institutions that are charged with creating this kind of an environment. If we look at the institutions as currently exists across the world, you will find that they are largely homogeneous and they’re largely male dominated. And that in itself is a problem. That means that you have institutions that are run from a particular caste, or class, or gendered perspective claiming to create the conditions for the rest of society. So instead of a society that’s firing on all its cylinders, benefiting from all its diversity, benefiting from all its richness, benefiting from all its experiences, you have by and large the 1% who are creating and generating the mechanisms allegedly for the  99%. Even if this 1% were the most fair, liberal-minded individuals there is inevitably a bias in how they construct these services, inevitably a bias in how they value human life.

The consequence is stark. And you see that in the differential treatment available for patients based on their ethnicity, gender, class, religion or any other element, you see that in educational attainments. So you often find that people from particular backgrounds somehow tend to end up in the best universities, they somehow tend to end up in the best businesses, they somehow tend to end up creating clubs and those clubs promote the interests of the people in that club. Does it sound familiar?

Perhaps back to the Athenian democracy there? So we cities need to understand that despite the rhetoric of Human Rights and despite the rhetoric of Human Development, we still remain a long way, further away from the aspiration of equality that we commence this journey from and actually we remain closer to the idea that cities like Athenian democracy were created by the powerful, for the interest of the powerful, to promote those interests and make sure that those interests are sustained.

Essentially what lies at the heart of this is a very 18th-19th century idea that somehow, if I have more you need to have less and actually none of human history bears that out. What we do see is that Human Development is not a finite pie that has to be carved among you and your friends. That actually getting a greater number of people to construct that particular pie is much more likely to end up generating the kind of wealth that can flow across boundaries.

This is not advocacy by the way for equality per se in every rung. We need to understand that essentially equality as a concept is about equal opportunities, and the extent to which people can chart their life trajectories irrespective of who they are. That’s the principle here. We don’t want to say, for instance, have a situation where you say ‘Well I want to be a brain surgeon – Why are you preventing me from being a brain surgeon?’ You can’t say ‘I haven’t done medicine therefore I can’t be a brain surgeon.’ That’s not discriminatory, that’s acceptable because we understand that we want our brain surgeons to be well-trained and we want the brain surgeon in front of us to be the best possible brain surgeon – because after all they’re going to be operating on our brain. What we don’t want necessarily is that that brain surgeon job or profession is only restricted to people who come from  1% of society. That’s a problem.

How do we know that the 1% has all the talent possible to solve all the possible problems that exist? And increasingly we seem to rely on the 1% to solve the problems of the 99% and then we are surprised when the 99% have an objection to it. The way forward is to understand the extent to which Equality and Human Rights can be knitted in to development, and cities are the best possible petri-dish to try this because in a city you have people who are committed to a place, and in that commitment to a place, you can then commence and make real – this idea of creating a system which protects the inherent dignity and worth of every individual. If we do that, we will have taken a giant step towards Human Development, if we do that we will have taken a giant step towards ensuring that our cities are safe and sustainable


Sobre Pedro Pereira Leite

Investigador do Centro de Estudos Sociais da Universidade de Coimbra onde desenvolve o projeto de investigação "Heranças Globais: a inclusão dos saberes das comunidades como instrumento de desenvolvimento integrado dos território".(2012-2107) . O projeto tem como objetivo observar a relevâncias no uso da memória social em quatro territórios ligados por processos sociais comuns. A investigação desenvolve-se em Portugal e Espanha, na zona da Fronteira; em Moçambique e no Brasil. (FCT:SHRH/BPD/76601/2011). É diretor de Casa Muss-amb-iki - espaço de Memórias. Intervém no âmbito de pesquisa de redes sociais de memoria.
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