The post WWII architecture is a strong and decisive reaction to the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust. The United Nations, created in San Francisco on 26 June 1945, are built on three main pillars: Freedom from fear and violence, freedom from want and poverty, human rights and respect for human dignity. For the first time in human history, war has been prohibited in international law with only minor exceptions, namely the right of States to self-defence and the collective security system under the guidance of the UN Security Council.
For the first time in human history, the promotion and protection of human rights were acknowledged as a legitimate goal of the international community and international law. For the first time in human history, the main perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity had been brought to justice before international military tribunals in Nuremberg and Tokyo. And for the first time in human history, economic and social development, prosperity and the eradication of poverty have been defined as goals of a new world order.
These ambitious aims and objectives were only possible thanks to the antifascist consensus among the allies, which at that time seemed to be even stronger than the differences between capitalism and communism. When the UN Human Rights Commission, the predecessor of the current Human Rights Council, drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights between 1946 and 1948, this antifascist consensus was still strong enough to achieve a synthesis between the Western and the Socialist concepts of human rights.
The Universal Declaration, solemnly adopted in Paris on 10 December 1948, contains civil and political rights together with economic, social and cultural rights and with the vision of a new “social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized” (Article 28).
As soon as the Human Rights Commission started to transfer this historic compromise between liberal freedoms and social security into a legally binding universal convention on human rights, the United States and its allies in 1951 forced a decision in the UN General Assembly to split human rights again into two categories, which dominated the ideological debates during the time of the Cold War.
The International Bill of Rights, which was finally adopted after long negotiations in 1966, was divided into the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, favoured by the West, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, favoured by the Soviet Union and its allies. Civil and political rights and freedoms were conceived as immediately binding State obligations to respect and ensure the rights to life, personal liberty, privacy, security and integrity, freedom of expression, religion, assembly and association and the right to participate in democratic decision making processes.
Economic, social and cultural rights to work, fair, equal and healthy working conditions, social security, the rights to food, housing, health, education and an adequate standard of living, on the other hand, were conceived as mere “programme rights” to be achieved step by step through progressive implementation.
As WWII had started as a European war between fascist and democratic States, Europe felt a particular responsibility to prevent another war and catastrophe like the Holocaust through economic and political cooperation and the protection of human rights. While the European Communities of the 1950s aimed at preventing another war through economic integration, the Council of Europe was established already in 1949 as a political organization based upon human rights, pluralistic democracy and the rule of law.
The Council of Europe was a Western European organization, which defended these “European values” against any form of totalitarianism, whether fascism (as practiced at that time in Spain and Portugal) or communism (as practiced in a growing number of Central and Eastern European States). By adopting the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in 1950, which only contained civil and political rights, the Council of Europe left no doubt that it was a Western organization, which did not feel bound by the indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights, as expressed in the Universal Declaration. Economic, social and cultural rights played and unfortunately still play in the Council of Europe a subordinate role.
The European Convention with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which decides in a legally binding manner on tens of thousands of individual applications per year, is the light-tower of human rights protection in Europe, while the European Social Charter of 1961 and its monitoring system is much weaker and very little known to the public.
Nevertheless, this is the time when the social welfare state, based on the economic policies of John Maynard Keynes, was developed in Western Europe, North America and other industrialized nations. The architects of the social welfare state or a market economy with a human face were, however, not even aware that they were implementing economic, social and cultural rights, as these rights were primarily associated with the Soviet Union and its allies.
During the Cold War, human rights were the subject of fierce ideological battles between Western and Communist States, and to a lesser degree, the newly independent States of the Global South. Nevertheless, this was the time when human rights were codified at the universal and regional level. In addition of the two Covenants of 1966, the United Nations adopted a number of universal human rights treaties, such as the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination of 1965, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women of 1979, the Convention against Torture of 1984 or the Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989.
These core human rights treaties are today almost universally ratified. On the regional level, the two most important treaties, which were largely based on the European Convention, are the American Convention on Human Rights of 1969 and the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights of 1981.
With the implosion of the Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe and the velvet revolutions of 1989, which quickly led to the fall of the iron curtain and the end of the Cold War, a historic window of opportunity opened for a new world order based upon human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights and the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action promised a new era, based upon the equality, universality, indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights, spear-headed by the newly created Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
For the first time, the collective security system of the UN Charter was applied in practice and led to new generations of peace-building missions with human rights components and peace-enforcement actions, which also tackled some of the worst human rights violations.
Two ad-hoc international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda were established by the UN Security Council as the first ones after the Nuremberg and Tokyo military tribunals and led to the creation of a permanent International Criminal Court in 1998. In the same year, the 11th Additional Protocol to the ECHR entered into force and transformed the European Court of Human Rights into a full-time court which since then has delivered thousands of judgments every year, most of them in relation to the newly admitted former Communist States in Central and Eastern Europe.
In 2000, the EU adopted a Charter on Fundamental Rights, and the United Nations adopted Millennium Development Goals, which promised a better future, above all for the poor and marginalized communities in the Global South. Despite the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which happened before the eyes of UN peacekeepers, one can conclude that never before were human rights advanced in such a quick, innovative and forceful manner than during the 1990s.
Let’s go back to 1989, which was a truly remarkable year in human history. In addition to the velvet revolutions, the world wide web was created, and with the “Washington Consensus”, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund agreed to adopt the neoliberal economic policies of privatization, deregulation and minimizing the role of the State, which had been advocated for many years by the Chicago School of Economics, thereby replacing the more interventionist economic policies of John Maynard Keynes.
This meant that the rapid digitalization and globalization of our world were driven by neoliberal economic and financial policies. As a consequence, the historic opportunity of implementing a new world order inspired by universal human rights, democracy and the rule of law was soon replaced by a new world order driven by transnational corporations and global financial markets.
On the one hand, these policies led to an unprecedented economic growth and global digitalization, which contributed to more prosperity and a significant reduction of poverty, above all in China, India and other Asian States.
On the other hand, these policies led to a dramatic increase of economic inequality, which is undermining the social coherence and democratic values of our societies. Radical policies of privatization, which had started already in the US and the UK during the 1980s, include even core State functions, such as the military, intelligence, police, justice and prisons (rise of private military and security companies), as well as providing social security, pensions, health care and education.
The policy of minimizing the role of the State, which is often imposed on governments by the international financial institutions, result in drastic reductions in social security and social welfare and undermine the obligation of States to protect and fulfil economic, social and cultural rights, but also civil and political rights. In this context, we observe the rising phenomenon of failed and fragile states, which lead to insecurity, armed conflicts, the rise of organized crime and terrorism.
Finally, the deregulation of global financial markets led to unprecedented speculations, tax evasion, money laundering, corruption and the undermining of the banking system, which directly resulted in the global financial and economic crisis of 2008.
There can also be no doubt that the neoliberal economic policies contributed significantly to the current climate crisis, the ruthless exploitation of nature, deforestation and the destruction of our environment. The slim neoliberal state has no longer the power and the political will to regulate and control transnational corporations and global financial markets, and international organizations, such as the United Nations, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization or the European Union, which would have the power by concerted efforts to regain political control over global markets, are either at the forefront of neoliberal economic policies themselves or are increasingly undermined by nationalistic and populistic politicians.
The Brexit, attacks by the Russian Federation against the Council of Europe, the sidelining of the United Nations in relation to the armed conflicts in Syria, Libya and other regions, and open attacks by the United States against the United Nations, its specialized agencies, such as the World Health Organization, or against the International Criminal Court are only a few symptoms of the current crisis of multilateralism.
The world was in disarray when the Corona virus appeared on the global agenda at the beginning of a new decade, and when the COVID-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented lockdown of the global economy, a fundamental restructuring of our daily life and drastic restrictions of our most cherished human rights.
Our world was certainly not well prepared to deal with this pandemic, which has caused already more deaths worldwide than the tsunami as the worst disaster of the 21st century. The most neoliberal States, such as the US, the UK and Brazil, which happen to be governed by politicians, who are used to “solve” crisis situations by spreading fake news and searching for scapegoats, seem to be hit most severely.
In Europe, States which had cut down their public health and social security systems most radically, such as the UK, Italy and Spain, encountered much more serious problems to contain the spread of the virus than States, where the public health and social security systems had somehow survived neoliberal policies. Even politicians, who for many years had preached that free markets are much better equipped to solve problems than governments, realized that we need strong and well-functioning States to take the necessary measures and that we should listen to experts rather than populists, fake news and social media in order to cope effectively with this pandemic.
It is too early to draw far-reaching conclusions since we are still in the middle of this health crisis and do not know how the coming months will develop. Nevertheless, there is a growing awareness among the people, irrespective of their political opinions and political party alliances, that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way how we are living and that we need to drastically change our economic, political and social world order if we wish to ensure the survival of our planet and a healthy and satisfactory life for our children and future generations.
Where does this leave us with respect to the topic of this conference? What can we learn from this short historical overview for a pan-European future, built upon antifascism as a European confidence building block, mutual trust and good neighbourly relations?
One conclusion is obvious: In order to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and other global challenges, such as the global climate crisis, growing economic inequality or global migration, we need to strengthen, rather than weaken, the regulatory functions of States and of international organizations, both at the global and regional (European) level.
Secondly, we need to replace the neoliberal economic politics by a new and more social market economy “with a human face”, which is more responsible towards nature, towards economic equality and solidarity with the poor and marginalized sectors of our societies, at the national, regional (European) and global level. This also means that politics need to regain its power to control and regulate the economy, as has been well illustrated during the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to use this new confidence in a responsible regulatory power of politics to also tackle other global threats, such as the climate crisis.
At the same time, we need to strengthen the EU by transferring certain powers in the field of social justice, public health, environmental protection, asylum and migration policies from the member States to the EU institutions. The EU, which, despite the Brexit, is still a major global economic and political player, shall further be entrusted by its member States to pursue and strengthen these socially and ecologically sustainable politics also at the global level, above all in the international financial institutions and the WTO.
With respect to the Council of Europe, which is a truly pan-European organization with currently 47 member States and a pioneer in international human rights protection, we need to introduce economic, social and cultural rights on an equal level with civil and political rights and try to overcome the deep distrust between the Russian Federation and Western European States.
This requires confidence-building from both sides. The Council of Europe, as a Western European organization, had quickly opened its doors after 1989 and invited the former Communist States to join. Many States used the Council of Europe as an entry door for quick EU and/or NATO membership, which was not always properly coordinated with Moscow and led even to armed conflicts in Georgia and the Ukraine. Many “frozen conflicts” in Europe, such as Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Tansnistria, Eastern Ukraine, Kosovo and the Republika Srpska, can only be solved if the Russian Federation is again better integrated into European politics.
The Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), provide the necessary diplomatic platforms, but the political will for mutual confidence-building is still lacking. Antifascism is no longer a meaningful basis for a pan-European confidence block, and in fact it had played this role only for a few years immediately after WWII. If the Council of Europe, with the active support of the EU, would be able to build a pan-European social welfare system, which is based on the indivisibility of all human rights rather than on neoliberal economic policies, then it would resume its pioneering role as a political organization that is uniting Europe on the basis of common European values.
Speech presented at the Conference at the “From the Victory Day to Corona Disarray: 75 years of Europe’s Collective Security and Human Rights System – Legacy of Antifascism for the Common Pan-European Future”, DAW, Vienna, 1 July 2020
* About the author: Manfred Nowak is Professor of Human Rights at Vienna University and Secretary General of the Global Campus of Human Rights, a network of 100 universities in all world regions, based in Venice. He founded and was the first director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Human Rights (BIM) in Vienna. In the past, Manfred Nowak has also carried out various expert functions for the United Nations, the Council of Europe (CoE), the European Union (EU) and other inter-governmental organizations including the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA).