President Higgins warns of increasing threats to human rights

‘There are those who now openly deny rights won through long and difficult struggles and who glory in discrimination, racism and a crude, xenophobic form of nationalism’


President Michael D Higgins has said creating a “popular culture of human rights” has never been more urgent than it is today.

Mr Higgins said the future of human rights must be secured in public consciousness and not “as an alternative to progressive or radical economic or social policies”.

President Higgins was speaking at the Annual Civil Society forum in Dublin on Monday, which coincided with the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

“We are now witnessing political forces who do not even attempt to wear the mask of human rights – there are those who now openly deny rights won through long and difficult struggles and who glory in discrimination, racism and a crude, xenophobic form of nationalism and, it is, we must remember, a distortion of nationalism that builds on fear of the other, the stronger,” President Higgins said.

“The danger is not only the direct political power they wield, but in the poisonous influence that they now exert on those who, for reasons of short-term political gain and in the name of a false consensus, would seek to concede their demands.”

He said threats to human rights originate not only from states but from “unaccountable agglomerations of private power”.

“I have spoken of the economic and largely non-transparent power and authority of multinational corporations, an influence that is being felt unequally across the world, but that is being felt nonetheless. So often when we speak of the market, we are really speaking of large individual firms, some exercising extreme power, far greater and more extensive than that of the state,” he said.

President Higgins said the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris in December 1948, is one of the great moral achievements of the 20th century.

“Yet, we meet today not only to celebrate, but to reflect at a time increasingly marked by cynicism and fear, discord and distemper, a time in which the according of fundamental rights, or their vindication of law and practice, of people across our planet – economic rights, social rights, political rights, civil rights – are denied, ignored or under threat as never before,” he added.

President Higgins said the challenges that confronted the world in 1948 “still abide with us” and they have “grown in scale and scope”.

He also said it would be “disingenuous” to avoid acknowledging that since the end of the 1980s the role of the state in terms of achieving collective welfare has been “eroded”.

“In recent decades the realm of what has been ceded to unaccountable market forces has immensely increased – realms previously publicly accountable. These realms include health, housing education, employment,” he said.

President Higgins also said achieving the Sustainable Development Goals within the context of the Paris Climate Agreement will be “profoundly difficult” without a “radical change to the manner in which we produce, consume and live”.

“In short, it will require a re-conceptualisation of our idea of the economy no less radical than that which occurred after the second World War, or during the neoliberal turn in the 1980s and 1990s. It requires a paradigm shift for our very survival,” he said.