Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

Human rights are at a crossroads – but accountability and activism can inspire change

Written by Irene Khan


ODI’s Global Reset Dialogue invited leaders from around the world to share their visions for building a more equal, resilient and sustainable future beyond the coronavirus. Our trustee Iren Khan, one of the moderators of the Dialogue, shares her response to ideas put forward for advancing human rights and peace.

In contributing to ODI’s Global Reset dialogue, leaders conveyed three key messages.

1. Human rights are under intense pressure

Seventy-five years after the UN was established, the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains largely unfulfilled for most people in the world (Pillay), including millions of women and girls (Yousafzai). An unjust economic and social order has led to gross inequities and inequalities. Progress on economic, social and cultural rights has been set back severely by austerity measures over the past decade, undermining the health and social protection systems needed for an effective response to the pandemic (Saiz).

Ethno-nationalism, populism and authoritarianism threaten fundamental freedoms and the rule of law (Pillay), even in well-established liberal democracies. At the same time, a polarised political climate feeds a culture of “us versus them”, legitimising the denial of human rights to those who do not “belong” (Daccord).

2. Respecting human rights creates value

Human rights, peace and sustainable development are mutually reinforcing (Pillay). The universal and unifying principles of human rights and human dignity offer a powerful alternative to a divisive political agenda (Daccord). It is only by addressing human rights deficits that problems of inequality, exclusion, fragility and environmental destruction can be resolved (Heyzer).

The pandemic has shown that societies which have invested in social protection, healthcare and other human rights have tended to achieve better results. While investing in economic and social rights helps to build resilience, respect for civil and political rights strengthens the social contract. Together they ensure public trust and unlock agency (Heyzer).

International cooperation is the key to resolving global problems (Ebadi), but solidarity has been in short supply in the response to Covid-19 (Karman). International human rights law provides a good basis for revitalising multilateral cooperation by placing a duty on all countries to respect, protect and fulfil human rights beyond their borders (Saiz).

3. Accountability and activism can bring change

Holding institutions to account is key to ensuring respect for human rights and the rule of law. But the commitment to accountability and mechanisms for it are often weak and ineffective where they are most needed. Reversing the trend of impunity and erosion of human rights will require strengthening judicial and political accountability and ensuring access to justice for all (Saiz). In conflict-affected countries it will require developing peace strategies supported by international law to identify and bring to account those who undermine the peace process (Karman).

The pandemic has laid bare the gross inequities and inequalities of our economic and social order, rousing public anger and growing demands for a fairer system (Saiz). Civil society, which has historically been the main driver behind the human rights system, is mobilising people around the world to protest against inequality, injustice and the roll back of rights (Pillay). Individuals and communities are crafting a roadmap for change which leaders must heed (Yousafzai).

New forms of multilateralism are emerging

Human rights are at a crossroads. A perfect storm of pandemic, global economic crises, climate change and rise of authoritarian governments has put them under existential threat. On the other hand, massive social protests have opened a window of opportunity for the full integration of a rights-based approach in the peace, development and sustainability agenda. Which path will prevail will depend on the ability of the multilateral system, particularly the UN, to garner a unity of purpose by reforming its decision-making structures. It will also depend on the ability of civil society to mobilise ordinary citizens and sustain the pressure for change.

The UN’s crisis of legitimacy has left in its wake a crisis of accountability, marked by a culture of impunity and double standards in holding states to account. Furthermore, the human rights responsibilities of non-state actors, including corporate entities, customary leaders and armed groups, are not in sync with the power they exercise, leaving critical accountability gaps. New forms of multilateralism are emerging that tend to favour voluntary pledges over binding obligations. Going forward, it will be important to assess whether they dilute the legal basis of human rights and with what consequences for rights holders.

At national and local levels, advancing accountability in the digital age will require effective institution-building and combining traditional forms of judicial, administrative and political accountability with more novel forms of social accountability. Covid-19 has shown the importance of protecting the right to information, scrutiny by independent media and the participatory rights of citizens and civil society to shape and challenge policies and institutions.

Ultimately, we need to strengthen grassroots democracy and re-imagine multilateralism to gain ground on human rights.