Access to justice When the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs launched this online edition, I suggested that it address “human rights and human dignity.” Why dignity? As Anthony Clark Arend and I explore in a forthcoming 2014 Georgetown University Press book, Human Dignity and the Future of Global Institutions, governments and global institutions such as the United Nations have done a great job articulating norms for human rights. There are many resolutions, treaties, and laws on paper, but capacity and will to implement these is lagging. Too many marginalized people—from bonded laborers in India to those without land rights in Africa—have no access to justice in practice.

To advance human rights, we need to reach back to a broader concept of human dignity—enshrined in the UN Charter’s first 45 words and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights—with the potential to build global consensus on (1) what dignity is; (2) how to make it a reality programmatically; and (3) how to resolve priorities and tradeoffs, such as those between the political and economic rights that “human dignity” conceptually bridges.

A variety of global institutions could play a particularly valuable role in a global dialogue in all three dimensions. First, beyond regional organizations primarily comprised of democracies—such as the EU, NATO, and the Organization of American States—other regional organizations could serve as better building blocks of dialogue among traditional intergovernmental organizations than universal membership bodies such as the UN.

The Arab League, for example, has proven a strong advocate for action in recent humanitarian crises in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere. Perhaps individual Arab states will follow suit and use the Arab League as a forum to address issues such as achieving governance reform, diversifying their economic and political bases from petroleum, and tapping the squandered social and economic asset of women. Just as governance accountability and dispatching peacekeepers on each other’s soil became more palatable topics in the African Union, so too the Arab League shows that progress to engage human dignity is possible.

Meanwhile, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has an opportunity to evolve from its emphasis on economic coordination and deference to sovereignty on political matters. Since 2011, ASEAN avoided candidly confronting the government of Myanmar before its recent reforms, save for circumstances when Myanmar was to assume the body’s rotating chair.  However, now ASEAN has an opportunity to simultaneously assist Myanmar’s reentry into the regional and world economy and highlight how transparency and free flow of information serve the goals of dignity. Perhaps the occasion of Myanmar’s reform might prompt ASEAN to find its voice for opportunity and dignity, too.

Finally, there might be a heightened role for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on dignity, beyond its current work on election-monitoring, conflict resolution, and combatting human trafficking. After all, the OSCE is based upon the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 that provided a framework for the East and West to dialogue on security, economic issues, and human rights. The dialogue on human rights in particular helped create benchmarks for Eastern Europeans to demand basic freedoms from their governments. Again, dialogue on dignity involves bridging the false dichotomy of civil-political and socio-economic rights, respectively championed by the Global North and the Global South. The OSCE encompasses the nations of the Global North, which would need to engage the Global South in discourse about these two realms of rights being inextricably tied together. The Global North could “caucus” within the OSCE with the purpose of pursuing that North-South dialogue.

Another possible advocate for human dignity is the G-20. Unlike treaty-based or highly formal IGOs, the G-20 offers a more flexible potential for dialoguing on and applying the idea of human dignity. As a body whose membership comprises over 80 percent of the world’s combined GDP and population, which has only 20 members, and is flexible in character, the G-20 offers an opportunity to go beyond financial policy coordination to facilitate a dialogue to help more people realize their dignity.

Additionally, emerging multi-stakeholder institutions and partnerships could play a special role. As Anthony Arend recommends in our book, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) could play a role in advancing dialogue and practice at the nexus of security, counter-terrorism, and humanitarian protection of civilians. In particular, the ICRC can seek to draft a new Geneva Convention to address the gaps in the existing agreements in an effort to assure that detainees other than prisoners of war are treated with dignity.

There is also an opportunity for emerging partnerships to address the nexus of health, development, and human rights. Mark Dybul, Peter Piot, and Julio Frenk have proposed something akin to a new Bretton Woods agreement on global health. While according a central role to the World Health Organization as a traditional institution to convene and sustain the effort, they observe that:

Governments, civil society organizations, and the private sector all have a key role to play in designing a new global health architecture and sustainable financing…A focus on the health of a person could provide insights for a posts-MDG era that focuses on creating the opportunities needed for every human being to realize his or her full potential.

This hybrid effort would draw lessons from partnerships narrowly aimed at combatting HIV/AIDS—such as UNAIDS and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria—which explicitly sought to advance national ownership of strategies; accountable governance; mobilization of resources from public, private, and philanthropic actors; and a premise of investing in individual people’s productive and prosperous futures.

Human dignity offers a broader galvanizing concept to take a human rights agenda to a new level of actual implementation. It can encompass both political and civil freedoms on the one hand and socio-economic prosperity on the other. Some new and even surprising global institutions other than the UN, World Bank, and IMF offer a chance for dialogue on dignity and programmatic work allowing marginalized populations to enjoy it daily. 

Human Rights and Dignity