60+ Years Later: Human Rights as a Discourse

EDITORIAL, 17 Jun 2024

#853 | Prof. Johan Galtung - TRANSCEND Media Service

Originally published by TMS on 15 Dec 2008 – #40


A meeting honoring the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 10 December 1948 was just concluded in Paris: the 9th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, dedicated to “Human Rights and a World without Violence”. An impressive parade of 50 statements, half by Nobel peace laureates and half by “invited guests”. So, how do human rights stand up as an approach to the human, social and world condition, as a discourse?

The human rights, incorporated in the French constitution of 1789 and reformulated as the Universal Declaration, is a major human achievement, close to a world constitution. The Universal Declaration is not international law, but the Covenants of 16 December 1966 — civil-political, economic-social-cultural — are. But the latter is not ratified by the USA, and the United States still benefit from some residual hegemony so the non-ratification serves as a signal to some of semi-validity. Like Article 1,2 that states clearly that the proceeds from the resources of a country shall accrue to the people of that country — not to foreigners, nor to elites only. Highly meaningful in Nigeria, Sudan, Congo, etc.

And that brings us straight to the point: the human rights discourse states moral values derived from a human rights culture favoring those with a human rights deficit. A value may translate into a claim and become a social force, and where there is a force there is usually also a counter-force if not necessarily of the same size. Maybe stronger, hopefully balanced by the legitimacy of universal human rights goals, attributed to everyone. There is much moral strength to draw upon, and a very rich tradition.

But the conflict discourse contributes something that often makes the human rights discourse look like naive moralism designed to lift the speaker rather than those in human rights deficit.

Basic to the conflict discourse is the idea that there is more than one goal, human rights, to any issue. We may sympathize with the underdogs with an unfulfilled human rights catalogue not only defining their goals but also endowing them with a legitimacy making them non-negotiable. But what happened to the other party or parties, and their goals? Are we to assume that there is nobody whose goals may differ from human rights to the point of being incompatible with them? Has the high moral ground of human rights made incompatible goals not only illegitimate, but also as invisible and unmentionable as the goals held by “terrorists”?

A human rights discourse is essentially moralistic, and establishes goal legitimacy. A conflict discourse is essentially discursive, analytical, identifies the parties and their goals and then moves on to discuss the legitimacy of those goals, and how to bridge the gaps between all legitimate goals held by the parties.

The legitimacy given to human rights tends by implication to make the goals of anyone seen as standing in the way illegitimate. The USA does not ratify, but does that automatically make the US position illegitimate? In the sense of “investments legitimizing  repatriation of profits for eternity”, yes. But there is some legitimacy to compensation, payment, for initial R&D-research and development, of the means of production. A well-known debate.

Let us proceed to a less well-known debate. The Millennium Development Goals rights, like water, food, housing, literacy-education, health, energy, are all easily satisfied if the will is there. But the will is very often not there. There is heavy inaction, even heavy contra-action. Why, and what can be done?

, because of a strong interest in maintaining structural violence, keeping people in abject misery, highly exploitable and clinging to the smallest possibility for a little piece of work.

Any education will make them more costly, so keep them where they are, using the “beauty” of a capitalism that generates wealth for the few, but also poverty for the many, thus reproducing the structural violence. “Free market” it is called, even “freedom”.

Second, because of a strong fear of direct violence if people low down should come out misery-apathy capable of treating people high up the same way they were treated by them. An existential anxiety. Think of Chinese frightened by people in the countryside suppressed for millennia, rising in a Cultural Revolution, about 1966-73. Think of upper caste Hindus frightened by the casteless, the dalits. Think of whites in the US South knowing very well what they did to the slaves. Think of landowners-military-clergy in the Iberian poderes fácticos and their common people victims in a Colombia fighting FARC but not the conditions creating FARC.

But, are “interest in exploitation” and “fear of revenge” legitimate goals? Reformulate them as “interest in livelihood” and “love for survival” and they sound even very legitimate, giving rise to a conclusion: there will be no satisfaction of the basic human rights of the underdogs unless these basic goals of the topdogs are also met. But, how do we meet those goals?

Not that difficult. Education, with literacy and life-long education to everybody, is basic. A guaranteed minimum, as living income or as welfare state measures, would help. By making work more horizontal and labor intensive to guarantee equity and space for everybody. “Cooperative” is one formula. As to fear: by acts of conciliation, so beautifully done by a Kevin Rudd toward the aborigines of Australia or a Silvio Berlusconi toward Libya.

There is much work to do. But, and that is basic: however much we favor the human rights they may come to naught if the conflict and the forces against are left unattended.


Johan Galtung (24 Oct 1930 – 17 Feb 2024), a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, was the founder of TRANSCEND International, TRANSCEND Media Service, and rector of TRANSCEND Peace University. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize numerous times and was awarded among others the 1987 Right Livelihood Award, known as the Alternative NPP. Galtung has mediated in over 150 conflicts in more than 150 countries, and written more than 170 books on peace and related issues, 96 as the sole author. More than 40 have been translated to other languages, including 50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives published by TRANSCEND University Press. His book, Transcend and Transform, was translated to 25 languages. He has published more than 1700 articles and book chapters and over 500 Editorials for TRANSCEND Media Service. More information about Prof. Galtung and all of his publications can be found at transcend.org/galtung

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 17 Jun 2024.

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One Response to “60+ Years Later: Human Rights as a Discourse”

  1. True, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not international law, but the Covenants of 16 December 1966 — civil-political, economic-social-cultural — are. The problem is: even if the UNUDHR was Law, we would still be living in a world of wars, violence and destruction, because Militarism is LEGAL.

    Militarism means the legality of the Armed Forces. Militarism means the legality of the war industry. Militarism means we can train young men in the Art of fighting to kill, to torture, to destroy buildings, families, societies, Nature and the economy.

    In other words, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Covenants of 16 December 1966 exist to increase the power and wealth of the few and to keep the masses working for the Elites.

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