70 years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. This declaration established indisputable rights entitled to all human beings – no matter of their sex, race, colour, religion, gender, political affiliation, class, or another status, these rights exist for everyone. This day was a milestone for the protection of all peoples from all nations, in which its core values of equality and justice are recognised internationally.
The establishment of human rights has been significant for accountability, consolidating the role of the state to protect the welfare of its citizens and to not abuse power over their citizens. In 1972 the United Nations Stockholm Conference declared that every human being has a human right to adequate conditions of life. This recognition has been key to tackling the evermore pressing global issues of the 21st century, notably climate change. The warming climate has, and will, affect the world’s most vulnerable communities, not only through the increasing regularity of natural disasters but also in damage to natural environments and agriculture that has huge ramifications for food security and a source of livelihood for many. Climate change has been increasingly recognised as a human rights issue, which for many has been adopted as a way of bolstering the global action against it and to hold the states with the largest emissions accountable.
Nevertheless, the bleak reality is that there is far more to be done for human rights to be fully protected. Climate change is worsening rapidly and action has been slow. Another reason to be concerned over the protection of human rights can be found when looking at the UK’s domestic policies. I am sure that I am not the only one who found the recent report, published by the United Nations on the UK’s austerity measures extremely shocking. According to the homelessness charity St Mungo’s, homelessness has increased by 170% since 2010. Statistics as such epitomise the findings of the recent report, which is that austerity measures have had a more severe impact on the most vulnerable, including those living on the streets or receiving state benefits.
The co-author of the report, Jonathan Portes, has argued that austerity’s disproportionate effect on the UK’s poorest is by no means inevitable and is at fault of governmental policy. Not only has the government failed to protect those most at risk of the economic hardship subsequent to the global financial crash, but the policies implemented have actually had an outright detrimental impact on their conditions of living. The report found that the poorest 20% of England’s population lost around 11% of their income because of austerity measures, whereas the top fifth of households lost zero of their income. Further to this, households containing a member that has a disability, single mother households and black households lost out the most from austerity cuts.
This lopsided impact of the UK’s austerity cuts is argued in the report to have violated the non-discrimination principles that the UK is legally obliged to adhere to. Whilst the government claims that the increase in benefits in the form of universal credit represent a rebuke of this report’s analysis, there has been severe criticism of this new benefits system which has already let down those most vulnerable with delayed payments and has been predicted to leave some families worse off.
70 years on and I find it rather ironic that a country such as the UK that has historically belittled other countries for their ‘lack of’ development and heralded the progressive politics of the West has shown a complete lack of support and blatant discrimination of those most vulnerable.
Protecting human rights highlights the intersectional nature of social issues such as climate change and poverty. Both of these issues are underpinned by a lack of accountability and policies that have failed to tackle injustice, with human rights abuses disproportionately affecting the most marginalised. As the globe gets warmer and extreme weather conditions are heightened, the vulnerability of homeless people in and outside the UK will become more severe. This day is a reminder of the need to further integrate the inclusion of human rights principles when designing domestic economic and social policies, principles that have the capacity to fight against all social injustices.
Words by Edie Marriner, Charityworks trainee working in Development at Network Homes.