We, the undersigned feminists and our allies, friends and fellow activists from all regions of the world and from multiple movements hereby individually and collectively assert our determination to participate fully and meaningfully within the international human rights system with the goal of attaining social justice for all. Through this Manifesto we organise our ideas about human rights and mobilise our energies and efforts to bring into being our vision for a People’s Council where diverse ideas are welcomed, debate and dissent encouraged and meaningful participation of activists ensured:
1. Asserting the right of all people everywhere to have the full range of their needs met and their freedoms and rights fully realised now. The time of waiting, hoping, demanding, negotiating and pleading is over. The time has come. The world has the means to meet these needs and realise these rights and the choice to do so is ours. The obligation to ensure this is achieved lies with states who must deliver on this obligation now.
2. Remembering that we, the people of the world have, over time, proven our capability to co-create our realities, seek social justice and love, inspire, care for and heal each other and the earth. We have done this in ways that express and affirm our humanity, our being, our agency, our interdependence and our connection to each other and the earth. We have fought for social justice and against oppressions and exclusions of all kinds. And today we fight. Still.
Remembering also that it is we, as human beings, who have harmed each other repeatedly over time, making choices and taking action to create situations where our fellow human beings do not have the full range of their needs met and do not fully realise their human rights. We have treated the earth and other species in the same way.
3. Outraged that, within this state of harm and destruction, powerful actors motivated by greed have colluded to take and retain political and economic power, persistently serving their own needs and interests. These elites have abandoned the people and turned their backs on a true, consistent and lasting commitment to the people’s needs and rights. And done this in the name of the people. To enforce their oppressive power over society and particularly over activists, militants and revolutionaries, political elites constrain, silence, threaten, police, punish, disappear and kill those who dissent and challenge their power, their decisions, choices and practices. This backlash is particularly harsh for feminists who are consistently undermined and subjected to a particular kind of silencing and policing.
Outraged also at the reality that these elites have so thoroughly failed to ensure the realisation of the infinite possibilities for a world where all people everywhere have their needs met and enjoy the full range of their rights.
4. Mourning the pervasive and deep loss that we have suffered these last decades as a result of the persistent greed and abuse of power by political and economic elites. We mourn the impacts of these oppressions on people’s health, well-being and lives. We mourn the loss of the land and of territories, the destruction of the environment, other species and ecosystems. And we mourn the loss of knowledge and of communities and of homes, livelihoods, security and safety. We grieve for the loss of freedoms and autonomy over our own lives and bodies and spaces.
5. Recognising that the COVID-19 pandemic was completely unnecessary and was provoked by political failure - a lack of political commitment in decades before to ensuring that the resources of the world are shared and distributed fairly and that the earth and other species are protected and respected. That poor people in general and women and gender non-conforming people in particular have been disproportionately impacted. Recognising with outrage, a lack of access to vaccines by countries in the global south as the latest symptom of the web and system of accumulation, greed and extractivism on the part of the states in the global north.
Recognising also that the pandemic both accelerated and deepened pre-existing crises in the quality of life of the majority of the world’s people, whilst the few enjoyed undeserved and unsustainable levels of wealth and privilege. Further, recognising that the political and leadership failures in relation to the pandemic have compounded the impacts on ordinary people everywhere, particularly those who have been forced to the margins of society. And recognising that these impacts will multiply the effects and impacts of future crises, emergencies and shocks on the lives of the most oppressed and marginalised, particularly poor people, women and gender non-conforming people and persons with disabilities.
6. Celebrating ourselves as the people, as feminists, activists, revolutionaries and militants. Celebrating also our work and efforts. Celebrating our multiple uprisings, organising and mobilisations inspired and provoked by a relentless spirit of hope, resistance and imagination. Even in the midst of the global pandemic. Celebrating also the changes that we have advanced and created, gently and forcefully. We celebrate the wisdom and the love, friendship, solidarity and collective action of our movements across geographies, issues, contexts and cultures.
Celebrating and affirming those who have gone before us, their knowledge, wisdom and efforts to shape a just society and who have paved the way for and advanced the rights of all people everywhere to have all their needs met and their rights fully realised. We affirm their work to foreground and centre women and all those who are more deeply oppressed and forced to the margins of society. We commit to honour, and through our actions, express our respect for those who will come and follow after us.
7. Acknowledging the many ordinary people across the world, both in and out of sight of the powerful, those who are at the forefront, delivering essential services, helping to ensure our survival, doing unpaid, uncounted and/or invisibilised work in the household and elsewhere and all those in precarious livelihoods.
Acknowledging also those who have in multiple ways exercised resistance and imagination in their own contexts, contributing in often unrecognised ways to subverting oppressive systems of power and advancing, over time, social justice.
8. Naming and denouncing the systems of oppression that are the root causes of the oppressions that lead to marginalisation, exclusion, discrimination and the consequent inequalities: Capitalism and the neoliberal economic order, the engine that fuels militarisation and conflict, the crises in democracy and ecological degradation, colonialism and imperialism, patriarchy, homophobia and transphobia, ableism, racism and occupation and other oppressions. We denounce the escalation in the attacks on human rights, on the international human rights system and on human rights defenders, activists and other actors in movements and civil society.
9. Unshakeable and steadfast in our determination to continue to work in solidarity, community and friendship within and across our movements to escalate, expand and deepen our activism, organising and work. We will actively advance a feminist agenda, insisting that the world - through states - already have the means, resources and the power to ensure that all people everywhere have all their needs met and their rights fully realised.
Steadfast also in our determination to exercise our power to demand or force and ensure accountability of states to transform the interpretation of human rights from a neoliberal to an equitable and just approach; ensure meaningful participation and leadership in the human rights system by activists and revolutionaries; ensure that the needs of all people everywhere, especially those forced to the margins of society, are met and their rights fully realised.
II. THE #EMPTYCHAIRS DECLARATION
1. The Inevitability of a Socially Just World
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to expose to us all, in undeniable ways, deep, entrenched global inequalities.
We are clear that this shocking and unacceptable state of inequality is created and sustained by a system of oppression, exploitation and exclusion. The interests of elites are served by this system. These elites are actors within states and in the private sector – corporations in the main. COVID-19 has exacerbated these inequalities and unfreedoms, whilst also renewing our determination to achieve equality, freedom and dignity for all. The assault on our dignity and freedoms has not bowed or broken us. The pandemic has shown that when states choose to, they can and do ensure that the needs of those who have been forced to the margins are met and their rights fully realised.
As we move into this new era, we have renewed hope. We will end inequalities and injustice.
We are spurred and buoyed by new clarity about the inevitability of equality and social justice.
2. A New Era of Hope and Renewal
Feminists are fired up, leading and organising. We have surfaced, named, exposed and confronted oppressive power both before and most certainly during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have resisted in multiple ways, oppression, exploitation, exclusion and marginalisation inherent in unjust economic and political systems that govern our societies. We are as determined and ready as ever to advance in new ways the ideal of all people everywhere having all their needs met and their rights fully realised. We are as clear as ever of the imperative to ensure that the poor, particularly women and gender non-conforming people who have been forced to the margins of society are prioritised in this new push for social justice through rights.
We are fired up and provoked by the hardship we have experienced and the grief we carry and inspired by the glimpses we have had of states making choices and decisions in the interests of the wellbeing of the people. Our own strength and power fuels our hope and determination.
We are not going back.
3. An Acceleration of Feminist Resistance and Imagination
Despite experiencing loss, grief and oppression, we will never give up. We will care for each other, provide space for restoration, renewal and care and we will persist. Withdrawing and giving up is simply not and never will be an option. Our lives and our autonomy and agency is at stake. In the face of the hostility by states and corporations as well as segments of civil society which seek to control our freedom, we keep mounting individual and collective resistance. We refuse to be bowed and broken by the onslaught, by the failures and neglect of states and the exploitation by corporations. We refuse to be intimidated by conservative and reactionary factions in civil society. We will live and we will die resisting all forms of oppression expressed through ideas, institutions, systems or individual actors. This Manifesto is itself our disagreement with what is, with the deficient human rights system. The world is capable of better. We will resist the inadequate and we will imagine what is possible, bringing this into being through collective action. Our resistance is to the ideas, actions, omissions and decisions of unaccountable states and exploitative institutions such as corporations.
We insist on dreaming, on imagining and on generating ideas for and living a feminist present and future. We will continue and escalate our work to create and expand the spaces, community and processes that demonstrate in practice the world we want based on fairness, equity and justice. Where all people everywhere have all of their needs met, and their human rights fully realised. And within this, to prioritise those who are most excluded and oppressed and who have been forced to the margins of society.
We insist on hope in ourselves and each other and on the possibilities for a different world in the present and in this decade.
4. Human Rights as a Foundation for Social Justice
We view human rights as one of the foundations and tools for social justice and social transformation, and recognize that it is also possible to speak of social justice outside of rights talk. Human rights language and frameworks have evolved and must continue to evolve significantly so that their liberatory potential is realised. Many activists view human rights talk as a capitalist construct and believe that, for the human rights themselves to make sense within a transformatory agenda, the interpretation of the codified version of human rights has to be transformed. This process is underway with the evolution, interpretation and reinterpretation of human rights norms and standards, which offers an opportunity and hope that human rights can, in practice, be viewed as foundational to and for social justice and truly act as a framework that cuts across multiple issues, struggles and concerns. A human rights framework offers a way to think about what is not negotiable and to think expansively about our aspirations: buen vivir (good living) within the fundamentals of human dignity and freedom. As such, our organising is to transform the understanding, elaboration and interpretation and the articulation of human rights. It is also, as importantly, to transform the process to engage in this discourse and the decisions related to it so that it is accountable, transparent and rooted in meaningful participation.
We therefore declare our intention to fully transform the international human rights system in service of this agenda of transformation.
5. A People’s Council
A People’s Council means that the international human rights system actively and consistently demonstrates that activists, including feminist-activists, from movements and other actors from civil society are at the centre of all processes and decision making. This is both between and at sessions and events. We are regarded as equals, capable of contributing in meaningful ways to sound decisions and decision making processes. Our role and contribution is sought, welcomed and recognised and any decision-making in their absence is regarded by states themselves as illegitimate. We are able to express ourselves freely and with directness and boldness in the complete absence of fear, intimidation and threat of negative consequences. This, especially when challenging, confronting and exposing state failure to promote, defend and advance human rights for all people everywhere. In such a Council, ideas are sought out and welcome, accessibility is centred, and there is an openness and quest for the range of ideas on the agenda of the human rights institutions to expand and encompass the full range of realities and aspirations of people and their communities for good living. We are not subjected to tokenism, paternalism and condescension. The obligation for ensuring this lies with states. The human rights institutions themselves with the staff and other technical actors actively ensure that the people actually do participate in these ways and prioritise service to activists, human rights defenders and other actors from movements and civil society. In doing so, they also prioritise accessibility for persons with disabilities. They do not pander to state agendas that collide with such meaningful participation nor do they hide behind claims of powerlessness.
A People’s Council is one where people everywhere understand and experience the human rights system as their own and where it makes sense for ordinary people to be keenly interested and engaged in the conversation, work and decisions of the actors and institutions within this system.
III. PRINCIPLES OF A DEMOCRATIC HUMAN RIGHTS SYSTEM
A human rights system which is based on democratic practices of meaningful participation, accountability and transparency will recognise and respect, in practice, the following principles:
All people everywhere have their needs met and their rights are fully realised
- The world has an obligation to share its resources to ensure all people everywhere have all their needs met and their rights fully realised
- Actors in human rights spaces must consistently practice a consciousness of power
- Actors in human rights spaces must ensure meaningful participation by feminists, activists and other actors from movements and civil society
- Actors in human rights spaces must ensure feminists, activists and other actors from movements and civil society can exercise their freedom to think, speak, including the freedom to dissent
- Safety in all respects is essential for meaningful participation
- States must demonstrate integrity and democratic principles and practices at all times and in all spaces within the human rights system
1. All people everywhere have their needs met and their rights are fully realised
Every single human being has the same rights. To ensure that everyone realises the full range of their rights, those who have been most oppressed, excluded and marginalised must be prioritised and our needs fully met. We cannot tolerate and normalise for one more day, a society where some have their needs met and their rights realised and some don’t.
Clean, fresh water and air; Nutritious food, safe and free of harmful chemicals and genetic modification; Decent shelter; Space and opportunities to exercise and move, enjoy the outdoors, have abundant nature in our environment; live alongside other species; physical health and strength; Being in our own bodies and lives as we see fit, enjoying autonomy and freedom; Living full and meaningful lives, without fear of violence, hunger, thirst and disease or of anything else; Opportunities and the choice to connect, socialise, develop relationships and develop a sense of belonging and community. or not; Shaping, contributing to and co-creating community and society; Respecting and taking care of the earth and all other species; having our ‘territorios’ respected so that we may inhabit them in the ways we see fit. To learn and use a mother tongue; to transmit and preserve one's culture. or not; to have a history, to memory of it, to know it and tell it, or not; Freedom to express emotions - love, hope and joy as well as anger, pain and sadness, amongst others as we see fit; Space and freedom to think, to participate, to speak and to be heard. To be silent; having access to information about decisions and actions taken in our names; Confidence that those who re-present us will consult with and actually listen, be transparent and account to us; Confidence that we are expected to think for ourselves.
These are our rights. Rights also evolve, grow and allow us to have the full range of our human needs met so that we experience and enjoy buen vivir.
2. The world has an obligation to share its resources to ensure all people everywhere have all their needs met and their rights fully realised
As a society, we have every capability, all the means – the economic, relational, social, personal and political, to meet the basic needs - material or otherwise - of every person everywhere and therefore to achieve "buen vivir". If we, the people, with determined leadership from governments committed to the idea of "buen gobierno", that is, governments acting in service of the people, choose to make this a priority, a matter of urgency, an imperative, we will achieve this. Accumulation, greed and extractive practices will need to stop, end, so that this achievable goal becomes a reality. It is important for governments individually and collectively across geographies to make this a global priority. It will then be done.
3. Actors in human rights spaces must consistently practice a consciousness of power
In order for rights practice to destabilise and uproot the systemic, root causes of oppressions and injustice, the centring of an analysis of power is critical. The ways in which power is shared and not shared, the ways in which elites and “the other” are created and sustained through the use and abuse of power must be considered as human rights-related decisions are made. This applies both to the standards and norms of the system as well as the relational aspects between states and feminists, activists and other actors from movements and civil society. It is this analysis of power within the human rights discourse which will best contribute to transformation of economic, social and political realities. Social justice is not possible in the absence of shifting power relations. Power must therefore be a central lens in human rights thinking, dialogue negotiations and decisions.
4. Actors in human rights spaces must ensure meaningful participation by feminists, activists and other actors from movements and civil society
Feminists and activists from social justice movements have worked for decades alongside, and oftentimes against, states to establish, popularise and evolve the human rights discourse, concepts, culture, practice and system. It belongs to us all. Human rights are fluid, and movements help evolve and advance the understandings of rights and rights concerns. We will continue this work. If the human rights system is a collective achievement and belongs to us all, we have to have a say in how it is shaped and formed and how it evolves as well as the pace at which it does so. We have to be able to assert rights and elaborate, interpret and express them, and to do so also in a human rights system that accommodates new issues and interests and that appreciates the fluidity, growth and breadth of human rights concerns and those advocating for them. Meaningful participation is never tokenistic, condescending, paternalistic or performative. We must be guaranteed status as equal participants in all our diversity, without impediments or barriers of any kind in all human rights spaces and conversations including and especially those which are ”high level”. We will set the agenda with other actors for these spaces and offer leadership throughout all processes as we build democratic human rights practice in our international, regional and national human rights institutions.
5. Actors in human rights spaces must ensure feminists, activists and other actors from movements and civil society can exercise their freedom to think, speak, including the freedom to dissent
The human rights system is intended to be democratic space. Meaningful participation requires visibility and voice of feminists, activists and other actors in society who must be free to be unapologetic in articulating their ideas and positions. They must be and feel free to speak with boldness across the international human rights system - without exception. This, therefore, includes all spaces where governments gather to deliberate both multi- and bi-lateral within the global governance system. Debate, dissent, dialogue and accessibility are critical to democratic process and the expression of freedom. These are sacred tools in our human rights system. Protest, direct action and civil disobedience should also be welcomed and enabled by states within the human rights system as valid and critical contributions to democratic practice, human rights discourse and socially-just outcomes. States and the human rights institutions themselves have to pay attention to comprehensive resourcing of participation of feminists, activists and other actors. This includes their getting with ease into spaces, accessing technology, having fully functional and accessible points of entry for activists within the various human rights institutions and sessions, spaces where freedom to speak and to otherwise participate and for user friendliness of all spaces, tools and technologies.
6. Safety in all respects is essential for meaningful participation
The risks and threats faced by those of us who are visible, speak, express, act and the general attitude of states to those who dissent means that truly meaningful participation by activists, revolutionaries and human rights defenders in the human rights system is often not possible. These spaces reproduce and reinforce the oppressions imposed in “the outside world” so that activists and other actors experience hostility, racism, sexism, ableism, amongst others. The sense and reality of threat and risk is compounded for those who are non-conforming in their self-expression. This is aggravated by those actors – state and non-state – who have fear of those who are nonconforming and who seek to constrain their right to express this.
The threat to the holistic safety and security of feminists, activists and actors both pre, during and post engagement in sessions and spaces to dissent, debate and dialogue too often has negative consequences on them and on their significant others and loved ones. These include smear campaigns, travel bans, threats, fines, detention, arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment, torture, disappearances and death. It also includes surveillance, violations of privacy, threats and attacks – both virtual and in-person. The level of threat and risk is reduced or increased, depending on measures in place to secure participants in online or in-person contexts. States and the human rights institutions must take measures to guarantee the safety of activists and human rights defenders since they claim that these spaces enable civil society participation. Such guarantees are particularly important for those whose social location places them at increased disadvantage and risk based on their gender and gender expression, class, race, ability and other factors.
7. States must demonstrate integrity and democratic principles and practices at all times and in all spaces within the human rights system
The role, responsibility and obligation of states both individually and in and through multilateral institutions and spaces is to serve the interests of the people. Actors from corporations and their interests have no place in these spaces and institutions. States, as those committed to serving the people must seek proactively to engage feminists, activists and other actors from movements and civil society. They must also be consistent in responding to engagement by these actors. Such engagement and relationships are founded on deep and sustained, authentic respect for feminists, activists and other actors and for ideas. States must cease and desist from distorting and manipulating the human rights discourse, processes and mechanisms to service the interests of or to act as proxy for corporations and political elites. States must demonstrate commitment to being friendly to all rights for all and to accelerating the commitment to the idea that all people everywhere have all their needs met and their rights fully realised within this decade. This is the obligation of accountable and transparent states and each individual actor who represent these states. Equally, it is the obligation of the staff and technical experts from the human rights institutions themselves as well as by these institutions as a whole. There are no exceptions to meaningful participation by feminists, activists and other actors from movements and civil society.
States must decide to remain seized of this matter.
IV. CALL TO ACTION
The #EmptyChairs Campaign Collective commits to making a collective contribution towards mobilising rights in service of the agenda to ensure that all people everywhere have their needs met and their rights fully realised within this decade.
Illustrations by Medhavini Yadav