Volume 6, No. 2, February 2024
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The notion of human rights, which is essentially a European concept, is relatively new. The idea of common people’s rights against the rulers and privileged classes emerged in 18th century Europe with the rising capitalist class challenging the absolute powers of the monarchy and privileged classes. The UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. In the words of the UN, “It represents the universal recognition that basic rights and fundamental freedoms are inherent to all human beings, inalienable and equally applicable to everyone, and that every one of us is born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The term Human Rights also replaced the 1789 French declaration on “The Rights of Man”, which at the time did not include the rights of women. Although it came into common usage after World War II, it gained a higher profile and popularity at the international level since 1970. During the 1970s, human rights took front stage in international relations, as the US government’s commitment to human rights emerged in the 1970s, fuelling political debates, social activism and a reconceptualising of both East-West and North-South relations.
Today, human rights belong to individuals or a group of individuals for being human. These are considered as an essential prerequisite for the achievement of human dignity and to build a just society. The theoretical justification of human rights is based on a wide range of values that enhance human agency and protect human interests. Human rights are possessed by all human beings everywhere, including in certain instances even the unborn.
The Indian Constitution, which came into force from January 26, 1950, incorporates several provisions of the UDHR. The provisions of Part III of the Constitution, which stands for Fundamental Rights, and Part IV for Directive Principles of State Policy, bear a close resemblance to the UDHR. These rights are incorporated in Part III of the Constitution. Fundamental Rights are legally enforceable.
 The Foundation of International Human Rights Law, https://www.un.org/en/about-us/udhr/foundation-of-international-human-rights-law
 Declaration of The Rights of Man, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/rightsof.asp
 For an account of this period see Barbara Keys: Reclaiming American Virtue: The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2014).
This paper is not an attempt to evaluate global human rights in the context of its practice, achievements and limitations. Neither is it an enquiry into the theoretical or philosophical foundation of human rights. There is a school of thought that maintains it is possible to promote a theory of justice founded on fairness and impartiality without invoking philosophical or metaphysical claims to “universal truth, or claims about the essential nature and identity of persons” (John Rawls 1985). I will discuss the historical context of the inception of the concept of human rights, its evolution over centuries and its relationship with capitalism. I will also examine the status and the role of human rights in the changing global context of neoliberalism and recent institutional responses, particularly some of the main contradictions of contemporary societies and new paths that would lead to a more just and fraternal world.
Human rights are one of the most contentious issues of national and international politics. Since the UN General Assembly adopted the UDHR in 1948, all states claim to respect the human rights of their citizens. And all states violate the human rights of their citizens. In the international arena, powerful states, which violate the human rights of their own people, often accuse others, particularly less powerful states in the Global South, of violating the human rights of their own citizens and threaten to impose economic sanctions and undertake military interventions in the name of protecting the human rights of citizens of another state with or without UN approval.
In the recent past, military interventions by powerful western powers were carried out under UN resolutions on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Military interventions in Libya, Ivory Coast and Sudan were undertaken by NATO and the US. The outcome of these foreign interventions shows the ineffectiveness of such efforts in protecting civilians in situations of armed conflict. This is evident in the way and manner the Libyan, Mali and Cote d’Ivoire interventions played out: in fact these interventions led to more deaths of civilians than expected. These results contradict the fundamental argument used to justify military interventions: to protect civilian life. The Libyan debacle underscores how the NATO-led intervention was used only as a fig leaf by western powers to achieve their objective of regime change. Similarly, as we know, the military intervention in Afghanistan has failed not only in creating a liberal democratic polity, it has completely failed to protect Afghan women, children and men. It will perhaps not be wrong to say that these foreign military interventions led to greater violations of human rights as well as the deaths of thousands of civilians. In fact these military interventions have been carried out in violation of the UN Charter, which allows military intervention only in a situation of a threat to global peace. It also usurps the right of the citizens of the states in question to themselves change their regime.
 Responsibility to Protect, https://www.globalr2p.org/what-is-r2p/
 Responsibility to Protect at a Crossroads: The Crisis in Libya https://www.humanityinaction.org/knowledge_detail/responsibility-to-protect-at-a-crossroads-the-crisis-in-libya/
 John Rawls: “Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical” (Philosophy and Public Affairs 14 (3): 145–173, 1985).
Human rights are essentially a European phenomenon. The discourse of human rights is closely linked with liberalism, which is the ideological superstructure of capitalism today. In other words, its origin is embedded in the European history of transformation from feudalism to capitalism.
My aim in this section is to present a critical evaluation of the progress of human rights as a norm and its development and evolution from the 17th/18th century. I am going to examine the changing conceptualisation of human rights by connecting it to the changes in the structures of society, formation of classes, and its journey through the struggles of peasants and workers against monarchic and capitalist exploitation in 18th century Europe, the defeat of the early struggles for an egalitarian social order, and the rise of liberalism as the ideological superstructure of capitalism. The entry of democracy, republicanism, the return of socialism after the Soviet revolution and the resurgence of socialism as the ideology of the working class, the creation of the socialist bloc, the antagonism between the socialist bloc and the capitalist west, the Cold War, and finally, the collapse of the socialist bloc and the end of the Cold War, the so-called ‘end of history’, ‘end of ideology’ and up to the present: the global order of neoliberalism. In conclusion, I will focus on the historical relationship of human rights with capitalism and its association with the political ideas and notions of the dominant social order. I will also examine the relationship between human rights and the neoliberal global order, which often speaks in the language of human rights while promoting ‘private’ capitalism with its now familiar policy prescription of privatisation, deregulation and state retreat from social provision.
It is said that human rights mainly represent the aspirations of oppressed people and is an outcome of their struggles against the oppressors. In my opinion such a lean account of its history is incorrect. All normative traditions are the products of their time. They evolve and transform with the changes in society. The human rights tradition is a product of the socio-economic conditions at different times. Its scope, contents and legitimacy have evolved over time. Dominant social classes and hegemonic ideologies have tried to control and reject what was perceived as being against the interests of the ruling classes.
After the French Revolution of 1789, there was a rise of peasants’ and workers’ organisations and their struggles. Historians have defined this period as the “Age of Revolution.” These struggles continued for nearly eight decades after the French revolution. They attempted to establish what may be called early socialist societies based on the values of social good. These were defeated by the combination of the waning forces of monarchy and rising capitalism. The struggles for the right to work, right to fair wages, right to education, and right to healthcare were replaced by the individual-centric right to freedom of speech, freedom of movement and right to private property. This shows how the norms of human rights were divided during its early inception.
 Sammuel Moyan: A powerless companion: Human Rights in the age of Neoliberalism, Law and Contemporary Problems (Vol. 77:147).
 For a detailed account of this period please see Eric Hobsbawm’s classic account: The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 (Vintage Books, New York, 1996). It may be downloaded from http://www.andallthat.co.uk/uploads/2/3/8/9/2389220/eric_hobsbawm_-_age_of_revolution_1789_-1848.pdf
Following the French revolution of 1789, similar revolts took place across the European continent; in Vienna, Warsaw, Rome and Berlin, people took to the streets in protest against poor wages, ruthless exploitation and unhealthy housing. However, the democratic revolution in France and in other places was defeated in a matter of months by the armies of the states that were supported by the combined forces of the privileged classes and the capitalists. Despite this, throughout the late 18th century and till the mid-19th century, peasants and workers continued their struggle. In France this led to the emergence of an autonomous French workers’ movement, which operated independently of the mainstream bourgeois political parties. After supressing the uprising in France, the military handed over the reins of the government to Napoleon III. As Marx wrote, the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew did not represent a triumph of capitalist hegemony, but rather the establishment of an authoritarian regime aimed at suppressing a working class that was growing in strength .
The combined forces of the workers, peasants and common people with massive participation of women were able to establish a ‘Workers Republic’, also known as the Paris Commune, in 1871. The Paris Commune survived 72 days. During these short 72 days, the Commune had adopted a policy of providing free education, creating parity of wages between civil servants and factory workers, taking over of abandoned factories by worker-controlled cooperatives and several other pro-people measures for creating a better world. The Paris Commune was defeated by French government forces. On April 21, 1871, troops from Versailles made their decisive strike on Paris. Over the next seven days, the troops battled the Communard resistance, street by street, barricade by barricade.
Prosper Lissagaray, an eye witness, described the actions of the victorious army as an abominable slaughter, one which exceeded the scope of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in a matter of hours. About 30,000 active members of the Commune were killed. Lissagaray also recorded how the rich people of Paris followed the gendarmes who conducted the attacks on the Communards to reclaim their control over the city and elegantly dressed ladies with their parasols followed the vans full of bleeding dead bodies of the Communards in joyous processions . On the 10th anniversary of the defeat of the Paris Commune, the German magazine Der Sozialdemokrat wrote: “A sea of blood separating two worlds; on the one side, those who struggled for a different and better world, and on the other, those who sought to preserve the old order.”
 Karl Marx: The Civil War in France https://books.google.ae/books/about/The_Civil_War_in_France.html?id=rwBzEAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button&hl=en&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false, accessed on 03/07/22
 Prosper Olivier Lissagarray (Author), Eleanor Marx (Translator): History of the Paris Commune of 1871, Kindle Edition, 2009, https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B0034O0ACC?_encoding=UTF8&node=618073011&offset=0&pageSize=12&searchAlias=stripbooks&sort=author-sidecar-rank&page=1&langFilter=default#formatSelectorHeader
 “Gedenktage des Proletariats: Die blutige Maiwoche”, in Der Sozialdemokrat, Issue 21, May 22, 1881, p.1. Quoted in Florian Grams: A Short History of the Paris Commune (Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Berlin, 2021).
The origins of the modern conception of human rights should be traced back to Europe’s era of the Enlightenment. The break from Catholicism led to the emergence of Protestantism, where every individual was pursuing God directly. This gave rise to individualism, the secular conception of morality, and universal humanism.
The concept of rights of the people that emerged as a theory during the period of the Enlightenment was based mostly on the political concerns of the emerging class of burghers and merchants who felt constricted by the control of the feudal class and the church. Several philosophers had begun to question the divine right of the all-powerful sovereigns. The two central ideas that emerged from this period were those of personal liberty and the protection of the individual against violations by the state. Liberalism became the dominant ideology and the pre-eminent reform movement in Europe during the 19th century.
Liberals struggled for freedom from the authority of the monarchs and bureaucrats and the maximisation of individual freedom. With the rise of a property owning ‘capitalist class’ and the establishment of industries and factories, new gaps opened up in social life between the pushy capitalist class (the owners of wealth) and a massive and entirely new social formation: workers, wage-labourers, or ‘the proletariat’. These were the new commoners, who were uprooted from old regime feudal agrarian traditions and now had only their labour to sell. They hungered for equality.
The powerful capitalist class needed the state to facilitate opportunities to maximise profit but they did not want the state to become too powerful when it promoted the interests of other classes, particularly the labourers. They were willing to strengthen state power that protected their interests: for example, official protections from disorderly wage-labourers. However, as the wealthy and powerful bourgeois industrialists and financiers required the state to protect their interests, they were willing to sacrifice a few civil liberties in exchange for governmentally enforced security. Consequently, the two central ideas that emerged during this era were those of defence of personal liberty, and protection of the individual against violations by the state. This included the right to life, right to freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of conscience and right to property. Clearly the social conflict had changed from one between the monarch, the church and the privileged class on the one hand and the commoners on the other. It now emerged as a conflict between two sets of commoners: one that owned property and the means of production and the other that had no property and survived by selling its labour. Under these conditions there was no place for the concept of equality; rather denial of equality was the norm.
It was not until the end of World War II that the core of the modern conception of human rights, ‘equality for all’, was accepted as the foundational principle of the doctrine of human rights. The horrors of World War II had reinforced the demands to establish a global bill of human rights that would obligate “every state to recognize the equal right of every individual on its territory to life, liberty and property, religious freedom and the use of his own language.” This idea was echoed in the stated aims of the newly formed UN in 1945: the UDHR, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948.
The preamble and Article 1 of UDHR proclaims the inherent rights of all human beings: “Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people…All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
The member states of the UN pledged to work together to promote the 30 Articles of human rights that, for the first time in history, had been assembled and codified into a single document. In consequence, many of these rights, in various forms, are today part of the constitutional laws of democratic nations. The UN has also established mechanisms to promote and protect these rights and to assist states in carrying out their responsibilities.
In the 1970s Professor Karel Vasak divided the evolution of human rights into ‘three generations’. The first was Civil and Political rights. The second was Economic, Social and Cultural rights. And the third was Solidarity or Group rights. This model is a simplified expression of an extremely complex historical record. This is not to suggest that each generation gave birth to the next generation and then withered away. Nor is it that one generation of rights is more important than the other. The three generations of human rights are regarded as a cumulative body. It needs to be emphasised that these generations overlap each other and are indivisible, interdependent and interpenetrating.
The political upheavals and the social revolutions of the 17th and 18th century created the awareness of civil and political rights such as the right to freedom of speech and expression, the right to vote and contest elections, freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination. These are called the first generation rights. These were influenced by the idea that political sovereignty belongs to the people and not to the monarch and that the government is representative rather than unilateral and absolute. The idea of power itself was re-conceptualised. The Divine Rights theory that propagated the monarch’s absolute control over state power was challenged and rejected. It was established that state power or sovereignty was vested in the people. These are known as ‘negative rights’, rights that restrain governments or other persons by limiting their actions toward or against the right holder. Civil and political rights are today detailed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1966). These are known as the First Generation of rights. These rights are enshrined in the Constitutions of many countries, including in the Fundamental Rights chapter of the Indian Constitution. Historically speaking, the global human rights movement, led by western INGOs, has been the most vocal defenders of these rights that are mainly focused on the individual.
The second generation of human rights encompasses socio-economic rights. These rights are based on establishing equal conditions for all. The UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 16, 1966. The state parties to this Covenant are required to ensure that all their citizens, without any hindrance, are able to enjoy economic, social and cultural rights, including the rights to education, fair and just conditions of work, and an adequate standard of living. These are also known as the ‘positive rights’. These rights require the government to take a proactive attitude to ensure that guaranteed positive rights are accessible to all rights-holders, such as healthcare, education, nutrition, fair wages and a standard of living sufficient to make possible a life of dignity. Positive rights therefore place a burden on the governments by requiring that resources be allocated in specific ways, and with limited flexibility. Second generation human rights were viewed as being a ‘positive obligation’, which means that they place a responsibility on governments to actively ensure that those rights are in fact fulfilled. However, even when states accepted the second generation of rights, they made them non-enforceable: for example, the rights enumerated in Part IV of the Indian Constitution, the Directive Principles of State Policy, which contain the second generation of rights, unlike the Fundamental Rights, are not legally enforceable.
The third generation of human rights encompasses broad class rights. Third generation rights can be divided into sub-categories. The first sub-category relates to ‘the self-determination of peoples’ and includes different aspects of community development and political status. The second sub-category is related to the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. These are not legally binding like treaty law or UN conventions. For example, the UDHR and the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development are general agreements between states, and not backed by treaties, which would make them legally enforceable. Although this group of rights is challenged more often than the first and second generations, currently these rights, particularly environmental rights, are being increasingly acknowledged on an international level. These rights started gaining acknowledgement recognition as a result of ‘growing globalisation’.
These rights are also known as solidarity rights, rights which are wielded only collectively. For example: 1. the right of people to self-determination; 2. the right to peace; 3. the right to development; 4. the right to humanitarian assistance; 5. environmental law; 6. the rights of ethnic, religious, linguistic and sexual minorities. States are obliged to create institutional support through ‘positive discrimination’ or affirmative action in favour of historically discriminated groups like the Dalits and Adivasis in India, Blacks in the US and women all over the world. There is an ongoing debate about the nature and content of human rights. The debate reflects the struggle for power between economic and social classes on the conceptions of what is ‘the good society’. At one end it is largely the capitalist class seeking to exclude second and third-generation rights from their definition of human rights altogether. At the other end, the middle classes, the workers and the peasants often look upon first-generation rights as inadequate and insufficient for fulfilling the material — especially ‘basic’ — human needs. For them the second- and third-generation rights are essential for creating a just social order.
 A brief History of Human Rights; https://www.unitedforhumanrights.in/what-are-human-rights/brief-history/the-united-nations.html
 Karel Vasak: Generation of Rights and the contemporary Human Rights Discourse https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12142-019-00565-x
This liberty-equality and individualist-collectivist debate has been going on since the end of World War II when the international community was divided between the socialist and capitalist blocs. During the reconstruction of post-war society and the comity of nations, when ideas of socialism were spreading across Europe under the influence of the Soviet Union, the US was worried that even the western European states might come under the influence of socialism. In the UK, the Labour government nationalised the Bank of England, transportation and railways, steel industry and coal mines. It subsequently established a national healthcare system and public control of major industries and utilities. The socialists in Scandinavia set the example of ‘mixed economies’ with private sector and state sector working under the government’s control over the direction of the economy. They established substantial welfare programmes. Other socialist parties followed suit. Even the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) committed itself to a planned economy.
Under US pressure and guidance, in July 1947, representatives of 16 western European nations and the UK met in Paris. They set up a temporary Committee of European Economic Cooperation under Sir Oliver Franks. By September it had produced a draft four-year recovery plan. Under powerful US pressure, the Europeans reluctantly agreed to establish a permanent body in place of the temporary committee. It was finally inaugurated as the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC) on April 16, 1948. It was claimed that the timely generosity of the US saved Europe from imminent economic ruin and laid the firm foundations for later economic growth. But the actual truth is that the US government and the powerful US corporations poured in enormous amounts of resources in the form of grants under the Marshall Plan and private investment to re-establish capitalism in Europe.
However, ideas of socialism had spread across western European countries, influencing large sections of the working class and intelligentsia. The ideas of Social Democracy associated with Keynesian economics supported state interventionism and the welfare state as a way to avoid capitalism’s typical crises and to avert or prevent mass unemployment. However, it did not abolish the free market, private property and wage labour. It recognised that states should provide education, health services, employment guarantee or unemployment allowance as well as housing. The second generation of rights that is the UN Convention of Social, Economic and Cultural rights was a product of that era.
Things changed with the collapse of the socialist bloc, which was described as the ‘end of history’ and the ‘end of ideology’. It was also a celebration of the victory of capitalism over socialism. The neoliberal triumphalists had established ‘Democracy’ in almost all the former socialist countries. Human rights language was now used to globally disseminate neoliberal economic policies. Democracy was recognised as the ideal form of political life. However, in this form of democracy, political disagreement was replaced by a consensus that accepted the neoliberal capitalist system as the most efficient form of management of society under the guidance of a market-based configuration of production and distribution. Some academics have described this reduction of political disagreements to problems of ‘governance’ as a “post-political” era. While neoliberalism has been successful in reinvigorating economic development in some countries, it has also led to widening of inequality leading to disastrous instability in some countries, as evidenced in the East Asian financial crisis of 1997 and the western financial crisis of 2008.
Under the guidance of neo-liberal corporate leaders, the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO, the state withdrew from all social sectors like education, healthcare, housing, transportation and communications, as a result of which the second and the third generation of rights are no longer protected by states. States are selling off public assets such as public sector industries and mines. Under pressure from the neo-liberal elite armed with corporate power and control of financial markets, all political parties embraced market-oriented financial reforms and all economies were opened to the global market. It enormously increased the wealth of the bankers and corporate elite leading to a manifold increase in economic and social inequality. Governments refrained from intervening to prevent people from losing their homes, jobs, and seeing their pensions disappear. Facing a future of uncertainty, there was an unprecedented rise of economic anxiety, existential insecurity and a growing culture of fear.
This is not the place to go into a deeper analysis of the neoliberal economic system. We are concerned with the political power of neoliberal overlords on global financial institutions and governments to make them submit to their diktats to withdraw funds from the social sector and privatise all basic public goods, including social protections, education, pensions and criminal justice, with often disastrous impacts on the human rights of the extremely poor. We now live in ‘post-political’ times of free market democracy. The common spaces of public discourse have been usurped through high powered propaganda and oversaturation of social media, encouraging people to participate in impotent debate and discussions on ‘good governance’, ensuring that the debate does not question the neoliberal political-economic configuration.
In all democracies, laws, regulations and institutions are influenced by economic and other related forms of power. It is not just the market forces that create economic inequalities; the political forces that affect laws, regulations and institutions are also equally responsible. The big corporations and the rich influence the decisions of the politicians and bureaucrats all over the world, and India is no exception. The rich are often able to escape punishment for serious financial crimes. In India, as we know, several rich businessmen who broke many laws and looted the resources of business houses were allowed to escape to foreign countries.
In almost all countries of the world the financially powerful groups have captured the political process through financing of election campaigns and using the mass media organisations controlled by them to promote the party of their choice. They are able to get laws and regulations enacted that favour them and exclude others. Economic inequality has led to political inequality; not all citizens are able to equally exercise their democratic rights. According to Oxfam, many people around the world believe that laws and regulations are designed to benefit the rich. Inequalities, political capture and the exercise of civil and political rights are closely connected. According to the World Bank: “Unequal distributions of control…of political influence perpetuate institutions that protect the interests of the most powerful, sometimes to the detriment of the personal and property rights of others”. Studies have demonstrated the negative effect of income inequality upon the right to education. As Joseph Stiglitz puts it, the ideal of equal opportunity is increasingly a myth in many countries and that the decline in opportunity has gone hand in hand with growing inequality.
 Japhy Wilson and Erik Swyngedouw (Eds): The Post-Political and Its Discontents (Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 2014)
 The financial crisis of 2007-08, also called the subprime mortgage crisis, severe contraction of liquidity in global financial markets that originated in the US as a result of the collapse of the US housing market. It threatened to destroy the international financial system; caused the failure (or near-failure) of several major investment and commercial banks, mortgage lenders, insurance companies and savings and loan associations; and precipitated the Great Recession (2007–09), the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression (1929–c. 1939). https://www.britannica.com/event/financial-crisis-of-2007-2008
See Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy of the American Political Science Association: American democracy in an age of rising inequality (2004, p. 4).
 “Only some Americans fully exercise their rights as citizens, and they usually come from the more advantaged segments of society. Those who enjoy higher incomes, more occupational success, and the highest levels of formal education, are the ones most likely to participate in politics and make their needs and values known to government officials.” See Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy: American democracy, p. 5.
“A survey in six countries (Spain, Brazil, India, South Africa, the UK and the US) showed that a majority of people believe that laws are skewed in favour of the rich – in Spain eight out of 10 people agreed with this statement. Another recent Oxfam poll of low-wage earners in the US reveals that 65 percent believe that Congress passes laws that predominantly benefit the wealthy.” See Oxfam: Working for the few: political capture and economic inequality (briefing paper, January 20, 2014, p. 3).
 See World Bank: World Development Report 2006: Equity and Development (2005, p. 22).
 See, for example, Melamed and Samman: Equity (p. 6).
 See Joseph E. Stiglitz: The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future (New York, W. W. Norton and Company, 2012, p. 18).
President Barack Obama called inequality “the defining challenge of our time” and “the root of all social evil”. Inequality increases the gap between groups, crumbles social interconnection and trust. It also increases intolerance for others, particularly minorities. It increases the perceptions of threat and anxiety among all, particularly the working class and sections of the middle classes, which in turn drive people to support leaders they view as capable of maintaining the social order that would protect them.
The question arises: under these circumstances, do human rights have the potential to challenge neo-liberalism?
The discourse of human rights today is different from the conceptualisation that grew out of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution to the end of World War II and the UDHR. The current concept of human rights was shaped in the 1970s by the US, as a part of its foreign policy. After the end of the Cold War, the US has become the global promoter and protector of ‘free market democracy’.
Whether human rights could or should attempt to respond to economic inequality increasingly has become a matter of discussion and debate among human rights scholars and practitioners. Samuel Moyn in his book The Last Utopia claims that human rights are only addressing issues of personal liberty and state intervention, thereby distracting or displacing attention from more important issues of structural injustice, thereby legitimating global neo-liberalism. For Moyn, human rights today offer very impoverished utopian ideas, moral rather than political, that do not challenge the status quo. It is the ‘last utopia’ largely because of the collapse of socialism and social democracy, and as such it is the tool of the powerful, not the powerless. As a result of his analyses in The Last Utopia and in Not Enough, Moyn calls for a revolution in ideas, to move past human rights to clear the ground to “relearn the older and grander choice between socialism or barbarism” (Moyn, 2018: 220).
Long-time human rights scholar and international human rights lawyer Susan Marks argued that human rights law and discourses were complicit in the rise of neoliberalism. Jessica Whyte examined the use of human rights language by international humanitarian organisations to contest the Third World project for substantive equality, and concluded that human rights “were not powerless companions to the rising neoliberals but active, enthusiastic and influential fellow travellers.” While both Marks and Whyte are Marxists, Professor Upendra Baxi, a poststructuralist, critiqued the increasing compatibility of globalised markets with the emerging paradigm of “trade-related, market-friendly human rights.” Baxi argued that the human rights focus has shifted from human suffering to enabling the market. According to him, human rights have turned to the “promotion and protection of the collective human rights of global capital in ways that ‘justify’ corporate wellbeing and dignity even when it entails the gross and flagrant violations of human rights of actually existing human beings and communities.”
The scholars referred to above are all critical of the human rights movement’s treatment of economic inequality. Marks, Moyn, Whyte and Baxi represent a wide range of critiques. They have pointed out how human rights have been partly responsible for inequality, rendered powerless in the face of inequality, and how the emergent human rights paradigm risks foregrounding the human rights of global capital. Yet while critiquing the human rights discourse today, these activists and dissenting academics have also focused on advancing peoples’ struggles and the “voices of suffering”, which has the potential to reclaim human rights futures, possibly transforming human rights into an effective arena of struggle against economic inequality.25
By the end of 2000, in the west people had started rebelling. Movements and mobilisations exploded in 2011, and have continued to smoulder and flare: Syntagma Square, Puerta Del Sol, Zuccotti Park, Paternoster Square, Taksim Square, Tahrir Square, Sao Paulo, Oakland and Montreal and the year-long Indian Farmers agitation against laws that would have put them at the mercy of big corporations. These are just a few of the more reminiscent names that have become associated with new forms of politicisation. Organised under the banner of ‘Real Democracy Now!’ the assembled protesters expressed an extraordinary antagonism to the privatisation of almost all social sectors. These protests are the expression of outrage at the indignity and suffering caused by increasing inequality and the scandalous collaboration between corporate houses, international financial institutions and national governments in our historical moment. These protests represent a commitment to imagining paths toward a more egalitarian and just world.
Perhaps I have projected a rather pessimistic view. No matter how difficult the state of affairs is, it is necessary to remain optimistic. As Mao Zedong once said: “Everything under the heavens is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.” Antonio Gramsci, during his long incarceration in Mussolini’s prison, never gave up his optimism. True: the UDHR was created after World War II when war-ravaged countries wanted peace and under the influence of the socialist bloc, equal rights and opportunities for all. We have explored the convergences between the discourses of human rights and capitalism. We have also seen the relationship between capitalism and human rights, the divergence between the dominant discourse of capitalism and human rights, particularly in the formulation of the social, economic and cultural rights during the Cold War period when ideologies of socialism and capitalism clashed for control over global politics. The middle ground was occupied by social democracy. Under the influence of Keynesian economics, European states had followed the policy of state-controlled capitalism that had set up the agenda of social democracy. The global context is very different now.
Today, the global economy and politics are controlled by neoliberalism. Neoliberalism no longer represents just a liberalised market economy, but rather an ideological, global, and political movement. Demands that people who are vulnerable should be protected by the state are antithetical to the dominant ideas of neoliberalism. The core features of neoliberalism are founded on laissez-faire economics. It promotes the principle of the survival of the fittest – those who fail, do not matter. On the other hand, the demand for the state’s protection against structural and systemic violence rightly belongs in an environment of social democracy.
Looking at the success of the human rights movement in dealing with political repression and state violence and its growing concern for protection of the environment and community rights, I am hopeful that the human rights movement may even transform itself into a movement for social democracy. We need to imagine a return to a more equitable, regulated, peaceful arrangement of capitalist social and economic relations, looking beyond the rule of capital and reinventing a new social cosmology. However, the emergence of an age of global social democracy will depend on the emergence of a coalition of the different constituencies of social democracy.
 Samuel Moyn: The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge, 2010).
 Susan Marks: “Four Human Rights Myths”, “Human Rights and Root Causes” (The Modern Law Review 74, no. 1, January 2011, 57-78).
 Jessica Whyte: “Powerless Companions or Fellow Travellers? Human Rights and the Neoliberal Assault on Post-Colonial Economic Justice” (Radical Philosophy 2, no. 2, 2018, 26).
 Upendra Baxi: The Future of Human Rights (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002, 132).
 Antonio Gramsci: Letters from Prison (Ed. Frank Rosengarten, New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).
The writer is a filmmaker-cum-human rights activist. He actively writes articles for magazines in Nepal, India, and Pakistan. He has a website called ‘Academia’. He released a film in 1982 titled ‘An Indian Story’. The film was first banned but then cleared by the High Court in Bombay. It won the Critic’s Choice Award at the London Film Festival in 1983 and the National Award for Best Documentary in the same year. He then released the film ‘Beyond Genocide: Bhopal Gas Tragedy’ in 1986, which the Censor Board banned.
The Bombay High Court cleared the film, and it went on to win the Best Non-Fiction Film Award at Golden Lotus in 1986. His other films included ‘Semurg’ in 1978, ‘Jadu ki Kitab’ in 1979, ‘Scientific Attitude’ in 1980, ‘Behind the Barricades – Punjab’ in 1983, ‘Alternative Technology’ in 1985, ‘The Vulnerable Road User’ in 1999, ‘Expendable People’ and ‘Jharkhand – The Struggle of the Indian Indigenous people’ in 2003. He has had many of his films banned for many years.
He was the Secretary General of the South Asia Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR) till 2014. He is an active member of various groups and committees like Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, Emeritus, Mahanirvan Calcutta Research Group, Equal Rights Trust in London, Other Media in New Delhi, South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre in New Delhi, and Citizens’ Initiative on Kashmir.