As of this year, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been in force for 72 years. And yet, recent violations of fundamental rights such as freedom of opinion and expression, the prohibition of torture, and the right to “periodic and genuine” elections remind us that human rights still cannot be taken for granted.
Whether in Belarus, in Zimbabwe, or elsewhere in the world, ongoing human rights violations raise important questions that are also directly linked to the UN’s Global Goals.
Belarus: Violence against demonstrators
Shocking scenes are currently taking place in the heart of Europe, with a series of political demonstrations against the government and president.
The demonstrations follow an announcement that President Alexander Lukashenko — who has been in office for 26 years, and is Europe’s longest-serving ruler — had won the Aug. 9 presidential election against opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya with over 80% of the vote, while Tikhanovskaya had received about 10%.
The opposition, however, reportedly says that where votes were properly counted, Tikhanovskaya had polled about 60-70%.
Large numbers of people have since taken to the streets in Belarus in weeks of protest, calling for democratic leadership and economic reform, and demonstrating against corruption and poverty, lack of economic opportunities, and low pay, according to the BBC.
Authorities have responded to the protests and riots with full force. The night after the election saw violent clashes, with security forces reportedly using tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades on protesters.
Meanwhile, details have emerged of police brutality, with thousands of people having been arrested. Cases of violence by authorities have since been reported, and photos and videos of people released from jail showing their injuries have been shared around the world.
Both the European Union (EU) and the United States have announced that they will not recognize the election results, with the EU saying that Lukashenko’s victory was neither free nor fair.
Following an emergency summit on Aug. 19, EU Council President Charles Michel told the people of Belarus that the EU stood “by your side.”
#ZimbabweanLivesMatter: Movement for Human Rights in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe, too, has been in the headlines in recent weeks connected to human rights violations. People are marching to protest a number of issues, including corruption, unemployment, inflation, food shortages, and, last but not least, the deterioration of the health system.
The protests in the country, which is also experiencing its worst economic crisis in 10 years, were further fuelled by the revelations of prominent journalist Hopewell Chin’ono.
Chin’ono published a series of investigations that made allegations of government corruption in the procurement of COVID-19 personal protective equipment. Chin’ono was immediately arrested, for “inciting public violence” and was held for six weeks before being released on bail on Sept. 2
The government reacted to the demonstrations by launching a “wave of arrests”, according to widespread media reports.
A number of independent reports, including from human rights organisation Amnesty International, have revealed gross human rights violations, such as restrictions on the freedom of the press and freedom of opinion, via the threat of violence, arrest and abduction, and torture of human rights defenders, writers, opposition party officials, and journalists.
Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Southern Africa, said: “This latest witch-hunt and repression of peaceful dissent is a continuation of what we have seen in the country in recent years, including the abductions and arbitrary arrests of those who are critical of the government, in an attempt to muzzle differing views.”
“Zimbabweans must be allowed to freely exercise their human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” she added. “The authorities must stop harassing, intimidating, and arresting people who have done nothing more than peacefully express their opinions.”
Using the hashtag #ZimbabweanLivesMatter, thousands of people have been sharing images of protests and police violence. They are calling on the international community to take action against the government’s excessive violence in reaction to the peaceful protests.
Human Rights and the Global Goals
What, however, do these recent and ongoing events in Belarus and Zimbabwe have to do with the Global Goals, the United Nations’ 17 goals for sustainable development?
These goals were created to work together towards ending extreme poverty by 2030, through addressing the systemic causes of extreme poverty. The goals work to achieve progress such as ensuring education and health care access for all, ending gender inequality, making sure that everyone has access to enough healthy and nutritious food, and more.
Human rights violations such as those in Belarus and Zimbabwe actually have a great deal to do with the Global Goals.
That’s because the Global Goals, which were adopted in 2015 by all 193 UN member states, are based on the goals and principles of the United Nations Charter, in particular, on full respect for international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The United Nations Charter is the founding treaty of the UN, and was signed in San Francisco in June 1945, immediately after the Second World War. This year, the Charter celebrates its 75th anniversary.
The goal of the Charter and the founding of the United Nations, following two world wars, was to establish principles that prevented future wars and promoted cooperation among all nations of the world.
Human rights play a fundamental role in the Charter. For example, in Article 1, it says: “The purposes of the United Nations are: to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character; and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms of all, without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted in Paris three years later, in 1948, sets out political, economic, social, and cultural rights, as well as civil rights in its 30 articles.
These articles range from the right to equality before the law, to protection against arrest and expulsion, to the prohibition of discrimination, torture, and slavery.
Article 1 states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience, and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
While the Declaration is not binding under international law, it has nevertheless found its way into many national constitutions.
Global Goal 16: Peace, justice, and strong institutions
In the context of the Global Goals, one particularly important question arises: how can the world achieve sustainable development and enable people to lift themselves out of extreme poverty, if fundamental human rights continue to be violated?
It’s clear that true sustainable development, and an end to extreme poverty, cannot happen without democratic, just institutions and the rule of law.
That’s why Global Goal 16, for peace, justice, and strong institutions is so important, because sustainable development and prosperity can’t work without peace, physical integrity, and protection by a stable legal system.
Among other targets, Global Goal 16 aims to “promote the rule of law at national and international levels and ensure equal access to justice for all” as well as to “ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory, and representative decision-making at all levels.”
In their progress towards Global Goal 16, it’s striking that Belarus and Zimbabwe were found to have “significant challenges remaining” and “major challenges remaining”, respectively, in the 2020 Sustainable Development Report published in June.
All this means no less than, the Global Goals and human rights go hand in hand. Without the observance of human rights standards, we will not achieve the Global Goals.