Social Rights and Civil Wrongs


Cover photo: ©Maryam Ashrafi

Cover photo

© Maryam Ashrafi

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The unfolding destruction of Gaza has brought European foreign policy under intense critique; centering questions of human rights in political debate and rallying cries. The EU’s combined inability and unwillingness to stop one of their key allies from perpetrating a genocide in plain sight has re-fueled global resentments toward the hypocritical West. The double standards at play cast a new light on the cold responses of non-Western countries to the European establishments effort to rally the world in defense of Ukraine: The European “resoluteness” to defend “inalienable” human rights seems, on closer inspection, to be a selective extension of its financial and geopolitical interests.

While the EU has attempted to make human and civil rights its international trademark, the truth is that these ideas have a relatively short, troubled, and fragile history. Civil and human rights emerged as partly academic, partly legal concepts to institutionalize the ethical notion that every human has inherent value and rights. In dominant European political thought, the notion of humans possessing any sort of value or rights appeared as a novel, controversial idea only some 300 years ago. After centuries of absolutism and monarchy, Western philosophers believed they were the first ones in the world to “develop” the idea of essential rights.

Liberalism was born in the context of this Western exceptionalism.  Arrogantly believing that other societies lacked the capacity to sufficiently understand the value of human life and therefore evaluate what could be considered a violation of it. At the same time, it took liberalism up to three centuries to recognize workers, women, BIPOC people, and countless others as fully human—even in a legal sense—and struggles for social equality continue unabated.

It is a legacy of exactly these struggles that civil and human rights have come to correlate positively with social rights and the idea of the inherent value of every living being. Worker, women, and black movements have articulated their ambitions both in their own language— socialism, feminism, and black power—but also in the language of civil rights. States and laws (civil rights) mirrored these rapidly transforming social struggles and realities that shaped political consciousness around social rights. Besides mid-20th century fascism and military regimes, the period roughly from 1848 onwards marked a general expansion of civil rights; simultaneously deepening an ethical commitment to equality, freedom, and rights among different social strata.

While people fighting for their rights, equality, and freedom have given substance to human rights, law guaranteeing social rights, freedom, or equality appears more fragile; lacking a solid historical track record.

While addressing the apparent hypocrisy in the EU’s human rights and foreign policies, this moment serves a critical juncture for deeper reflection on the question of rights: Has it not always been so that the substance of rights came mainly, if not solely, from the protesting masses? The Palestinian people’s right to life and self-determination, women’s right to vote, gay couples’ right to marry, or workers’ right to organize themselves are all examples of long, popular struggles that continue today. While people fighting for their rights, equality, and freedom have given substance to human rights, law guaranteeing social rights, freedom, or equality appears more fragile; lacking a solid historical track record.

Turning our eyes to Europe, the question of rights is not only a foreign policy crisis, but also a domestic and social crisis. Years of aggressive austerity policies since 2008 have maintained a steady pressure to turn social rights into a topic of “realpolitik.” The notion of inalienable, non-negotiable rights has weakened across the political party spectrum. Housing, food, livelihood, water, education, health, and sanitation are debated and addressed as questions of fiscal policy: There may or may not be a budget to guarantee the necessities of dignified life for everyone.

In March 2024, Liberties, the pan-European “civil rights watchdog” network summarized its annual Rule of Law report with a chilling conclusion: The rule of law is declining across the EU with also “the most resilient established democracies show[ing] some blatant violations.” The report raises warnings of increased restrictions and outright bans on the rights to free association and to protest. It lists “media freedom and pluralism in peril”; “authorities stifling civil society and the voice of the people”; “marginalized groups actively attacked for political gain”, and “unfair justice systems” among its key findings.

In the following four weeks, Turning Point publishes a series of articles exploring questions regarding struggles and rights. Many of the rights we have grown up with are now re-negotiated, restricted, and threatened. From a historical perspective, expecting laws or the ones in charge to guarantee them seems baseless. However, the deepening hypocrisy and fragility of the dominant order opens up questions about what can fill its place. In any political system, social rights are a key to articulate the values and identity of a society and the role of the individual in it. 

Our first article is from Sweden, where a small group of workers has taken on the multinational car manufacturer Tesla. Their struggle for the right to a collective agreement has already extended to become Sweden’s longest labor dispute in the past 80 years. Gabriel Kuhn, the General Secretary of SAC Syndikalisterna, a syndicalist trade union federation, updates us on the strike’s developments. The sympathy strikes witnessed during the winter remind us of the power of the working class, when they are united: “The country’s two main transport unions refused to unload Tesla cars in Swedish ports—a measure later replicated by transport unions in Norway, Denmark, and Finland.” 

The case of the Budapest trial shows the deterioration of not only social but also civil rights in Europe. The Hungarian state is prosecuting several European citizens for antifascist activities in 2023 related to The Day of Honor rally in Budapest—one of the most significant events for the far-right in Eastern Europe. While the Italian state decided not to extradite one of the accused to Hungary, where his rights were likely to be violated, others are still waiting for trials in prison or home arrest in several European countries. Particularly known is the case of Ilaria Salis, whose right to humane prison conditions and a fair trial are being violated. Henri Sulku explores what this means for both those involved and for all of us in the future. 

If the far-right could decide, there would be no such thing as civil or social rights, and it is not only in Hungary that their ideology flourishes. Leonardo Bianchi takes us on a journey of rising fascism all over Europe. While history books remind us that fascist leaders and dictators can also come to power through democratic elections, Bianchi’s work highlights a crucial insight ahead of the European Elections: “The boundaries that once separated right-wing extremism from traditional conservatism are no longer there—they are gone for good.”

In many countries around the world, May 1 is a day to recognize the struggles of workers and honor their achievements. Known as May Day or International Workers’ Day, this holiday has a long history, and to this day, many continue to fight for better, safer, fairer labor protections and conditions. Turning Point Magazine publishes a photo essay that documents aspects of this ongoing struggle: visuals that depict labor realities, protests for safer labor conditions, and hard-won workforce wins. The images will be accompanied by a text by Lauren Walsh.

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