Since the founding of the ultimately ill-fated League of Nations in 1920, global governance has been dominated by a succession of supranational bodies, culminating in the foundation of the United Nations and the diverse Bretton Woods institutions at the end of the Second World War. These organisations have largely worked to ensure peace between the Western powers in the security sphere but also in finance and trade. In a changing world, however, with the rise of new powers, it is imperative that the voices and needs of emerging nations are also adequately reflected. Given that 21st century global concerns focus far more than ever before on hybrid threats, human rights and the environment, is it time to draw a line under the past 99 years of global governance and look to re-evaluate and reform our established systems?
“Global problems need global solutions” is a phrase so often used in policymaking circles that it has now become its own mantra. But how far are our ‘global solutions’ helping to address the defining issues of our times? Global inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, as systems remain fully in-tact. Are supra-national institutions equipped to deal with them?
This concern comes from a place of genuine uncertainty about the capacity of global institutions to truly represent the needs of the world’s most marginalised people. There is still widespread scepticism about this.
Activists and human rights defenders have advocated in these spaces for decades. But – when people still fear violence on the basis of their background, sexuality, or skin colour, when they worry about getting a job, when they can’t access services because they expect deportation – the fatigue and frustration is very real.
There has been no shortage of global initiatives – from fully fledged conventions, covenants, international fora and conferences – dedicated to safeguarding human rights. Fora exist already at the United Nations level to discuss issues related to ‘the rights of minorities’, such as the UN Forum on Minority Issues.
The main shortcoming of global governance today when it comes to tackling issues impacting ‘minorities’ is that it does not address power structures
In terms of racism, the UN World Conference Against Racism in 2001 sought to explore solutions to rising racist violence, structural racism and wide socio-economic inequalities aligned to race and ethnicity in countries across the world. The Durban Declaration that followed was an impressive, comprehensive document outlining the concrete measures governments should implement to combat structural racism.
And yet, we see across the world – in Brazil, in India, in France – that ‘minorities’ are still not safe, nor are they treated as equal. Whether the perpetrator are extremists or the state, our institutions have not achieved their noble aim of ‘ensuring human rights’.
Why is this? The main shortcoming of global governance today when it comes to tackling issues impacting ‘minorities’ is that it does not address power structures. Most attempts at global governance in the field of economic and social justice fail because they do not accurately address power.
This is evident in the framing of ‘minority’ rights at a global level – it is entirely disempowering. At national level, members of racialised communities in Europe may accurately be characterised as minorities – but globally, they are a majority. This is the case for many marginalised groups, including women and people of non-European descent.
The ease with which individual human rights can be overlooked shows the need for a re-think
When focusing on the ‘minority’ element, the focus is placed on minorities as individuals or groups, rather than the processes and actors that make them minorities. Therefore, the problem with the framing of ‘minority rights’ – like the human rights discourse more generally – is that it is devoid of power analysis. What forces marginalise? Which actors exclude? These questions take us closer to addressing the root of the issue.
There is a dilemma at hand between safeguarding rights and dismantling structures. While individualism is inherent in global human rights framework – which is centred on aspirational rights for individuals – it fails to acknowledge collective liberation from oppressive structures.
The ease with which individual human rights can be overlooked shows the need for a re-think. Supranational governance structures focused on human or minority rights have failed to ensure protection on the ground because as always, the safeguarding of the ‘rights’ – or rather the realisation of the material needs – of minorities, remains subject to political and economic pressure.
Whilst supranational bodies might provide a platform for exchange on these issues, or attempt to push human rights higher up the political agenda, they ultimately cannot guarantee that those in power will, or can, respect these rights.
Our global institutions have a duty to raise awareness of structural inequality in our world and to call for the dismantling of oppressive structures
They can also not guarantee that we address rights abuses in different states equally. Whilst the human rights community is quick to disavow human rights abuses in the global south, and support sanctions, there is very little scope for such impactful accountability mechanisms when the rights abuses originate from European, North American, or even those of growing economic powers such as China and India.
Minority and human rights cannot be guaranteed by global governance structures which are ultimately dominated by geopolitics. Without drastic restructuring, they cannot truly reflect the interests of the most marginalised.
What they can do is offer a critical voice. Our global institutions have a duty to raise awareness of structural inequality in our world and to call for the dismantling of oppressive structures. They must be unconstrained and unafraid of the political consequences of standing up for the world’s most marginalised people.
One shining light in this regard is Professor Tendayi Achiume, recently appointed UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial, Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance. Achiume provides an unapologetic, principled analysis of the root causes of racial inequality in our world – and is willing to call out governments for their role in perpetrating it. Maybe there is some hope yet.