Human rights as a basic framework of progressive politics have been increasingly heavily criticised in the past years. Historically, the discourse of human rights has primarily been used to protect the rights of the individual from abuse by authority of the state. Let’s think of Charter 77, which set the socialist Czechoslovakian state against breaches of freedom of expression, right to a fair trial and freedom of assembly. Let’s think of humanitarian interventions in Balkan countries in the 1990s.
In those moments, in the name of protecting human rights, it was possible to create great coalitions, where persons holding very different ideologies agreed that no matter the other differences between them they can all agree on unfairness of torture, unfair trials and political repressions.
Although the human rights framework has proved itself to be the rhetorical and institutional weapon with which to prevent most horrible cruelty and guarantee order, which the philosopher Judith Shklar has called “liberalism of fear”, the challenges of the 21st century seem to be made from a different stuff. Estonia has independent judiciary, people are not repressed here for their political views, here human dignity isn’t degraded. These generally recognised fundamental rights are protected.
And yet for many people the formal guarantee of human rights does not mean that they can fully enjoy their individual freedoms in the society to the full extent. Even though we declare that genders are treated equally in Estonia we continue to have one of the greatest gender pay gaps in Europe. Many institutions monitoring equal treatment are funded by Norwegian project funds or by EU’s structural funds and them continuing on after three or four years is increasingly unsure. Legal counselling is accessible for weakened groups only to a limited extent. At an age of increasing inequality, it is increasingly clear that not only the formal inequality in the eyes of the law needs to be addressed, but also new ways of empowering people so that they can actually use their rights needs to be figured out. But here the consensus on universality of human rights disappears. In the world of politics, a situation, which seems to be a breach of a social right for one person may seem to be a restriction on freedom to conduct business or freedom to dispose of private property for another.
In opposition to the critics who think that human rights’ discourse that centres on legislation and state institutions does not have anything to say about the increasing inequality in the real world, the “Human Rights in Estonia 2016–2017” points out a series of shortcomings which have to do with applying active activities to formal rights. Guaranteeing human dignity of psychiatric patients in observation rooms, guaranteeing legal counselling for vulnerable groups, issues of data protection on the level of the state as well as private companies (Facebook and other social networks), open governance turning from a declaration into an activity with substance – these are all topics that need positive, active action, not just restriction of the authority of the state in order to be solved.
The report also prescribes steps, which do set new obligations for the society as a whole, but for this price empower the vulnerable individuals. An example of this is establishment of the state-funded maintenance allowance fund, which makes it possible to pay allowance also to those single parents who for some reason cannot retrieve maintenance from the other parent. Turning the focus of their activities to these topics would mean greater politization from human rights activist and redefining the market fundamentalist liberalism dominating the Estonian society as something more social and crowdsourced. This would be a very welcome change.