What is (are) human rights?
1. Human rights is a way of saying each of us deserves to be treated with respect and dignity and to get our basic needs met.
In this way of looking at human rights, doing human rights work would mean paying attention to how we treat each other and to making sure everyone can get their needs met. It is a principle more than a set of rules.
2. Human rights refers to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and human rights advocacy is essentially advocacy for social justice.
In the survivor movement, human rights work in this sense can be advocacy to prevent outpatient commitment laws, promoting alternatives to the medical model, raising awareness about abuses in the mental health system, advocating for individuals to get out of psychiatric lockup or off an outpatient commitment order. The idea is that when we fight back against systemic abuse of any kind, we are fighting for our human rights. Human rights advocacy is then about refusing to be a compliant mental patient, learning about our rights and teaching others, and fighting to enforce them.
3. Human rights is all that and more, and in particular it refers to a body of international law and standards, which is continually evolving and is open to being shaped by the demands of social justice movements.
You may guess that this last approach to human rights is what I am passionate about and how I would characterize the work I do. So I see human rights work as including: – influencing/shaping the standards of international law, – raising awareness about the existence of those standards and their value for the survivor movement, – using international human rights mechanisms to advocate for those standards to be put into practice in my own country and supporting colleagues in other countries to do the same, – figuring out how the standards can be legally enforced in my own country, and supporting law reform efforts in other countries, – using international human rights mechanisms to bring pressure to bear on individual cases and countries.
This approach to human rights is technical and legal but it is also a highly creative space to develop consensus around where we want to go as a global community. It can be powerful as a set of ideas that, since it is continually evolving, everyone can contribute to. Many people contributed to the development of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and most of them were not lawyers, we were all thinking together about how to frame an issue in a way that would satisfy aspirations and that could also be accepted by the governments who would need to ratify in order for the treaty to become a binding legal instrument. As hard as it is to imagine, even for me, this was a cooperative, win-win process with governments and civil society (everyone who is not government or UN personnel).
Putting the standards into practice, though it is a lot harder than it was to develop them, in many ways requires the same kind of thinking. We have the power of our own voices, the power to say how we think the treaty should be interpreted. If there is a new issue that hasn’t come up before, survivors can look into the CRPD or another treaty and argue how and why it should be linked to a particular right or a particular obligation of governments.
So human rights, as law, is a tool by which civil society, and especially people who have been disenfranchised and marginalized, can exercise a degree of power in relation to their own governments. Civil society – especially the people directly affected by a particular issue – has a voice in human rights – quite often a very influential voice. There are certain fundamental principles that survivors can get to know, and can also get to know which treaties, and which human rights mechanisms, are the most useful for the issues they’re working on and which may not be receptive to the arguments.
And human rights law gives us access to an international community of people working on the same issues. That can give us hope when we see the challenges in our own country to putting the standards into practice.
I believe that all the ways of looking at human rights are valid – and at the same time I want people to understand and appreciate what I mean in particular when I talk about human rights or present a workshop or training. If you haven’t looked into it yet, this is a good time. The CRPD standards are getting clearer as a result of interpretations being made by its committee of experts – the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – and this helps in any advocacy, since there can no longer be any argument for instance about whether forced treatment or commitment is allowed under the treaty. Forced treatment and commitment are absolutely prohibited. Also, the advocacy community is getting more familiar with how different human rights mechanisms work, and learning more about what is effective. So I would say that there is real value for people everywhere, including in my own country the U.S., to invest the time and attention in understanding human rights in the technical sense and what we can do with it. I think it is a very beautiful thing as well as a tool that can change the balance of power.