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LONDON — Following weeks of financial and economic turmoil, public debate has finally turned to the horrific potential human ramifications of the collapse of the global financial system.

Comparisons and contrasts with the Great Depression of the 1930s have inevitably become a central part of that discourse — and rightly so. There is much that the world can and must learn now from the lowest point of the 20th century.

Above all, we must heed the proven need for applying social — as well as economic — interventions in a time of economic crisis. Recession and depression can lead to exclusion and, at worst, persecution of societies’ most vulnerable groups.

That’s why the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights was adopted in 1948, and why we need, more urgently than ever, to establish universal equality for all human beings.

Nations must act now to ensure that everyone — regardless of wealth, ethnicity, sex or religion — has the same rights, and that these rights are enshrined in laws at the time they are enacted.

In October, 128 leading experts in the fields of human rights and equality from 44 countries launched a landmark attempt to build on the epochal 1948 U.N. declaration to establish universal human equality. We did so by launching a “Declaration on Principles of Equality” — a declaration that builds on its historical precursor to establish, for the first time ever, general legal principles that define equality as a basic human right.

Based on a total of 27 principles, the declaration reflects a moral and professional consensus among human rights and equality experts and is the product of more than a year’s work led by the United Kingdom-based Equal Rights Trust. Needless to say, reaching a consensus among such a diverse group of people from around the world was not easy.

Equality means different things to different people — and at different times. Interpretations largely depend on the practical realities of the social, cultural and political environment in which the principles of equality operate.

All signatories to our new declaration agreed that incitement to violence that is motivated by race or gender or sexual orientation constitutes a serious violation of the right to equality. Some American civil rights lawyers, out of natural deference to the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment were, however, reluctant to sign up to this principle unless it was qualified by a reference to the threat of “imminent” violence.

Some participants from the developing countries wanted poverty to be declared a proscribed basis of discrimination, while others argued that poverty is far too vague a concept to be the subject of legal rights and duties. Some contended that absolute poverty differs from relative poverty, or asked what responsibility individuals have to raise themselves out of poverty through education and work?

These participants argued that specific legal duties, such as the right to a minimum wage and the right to vocational training, are more effective than the vague extension of anti-discrimination law to cover poverty as such. The result was a compromise between these two groups.

For all these differences of opinion, we are unanimous in the belief that, if the Principles of Equality are to be effective in our age, they have to go well beyond the negative anti-discrimination model that was adopted in the United States and Europe in the second half of the 20th century. They must, instead, encourage nations positively to promote the principle of equal rights in keeping with current interpretations of international obligation.

The declaration that we have developed regards equality as a “free-standing right.” In other words, it exists as a separate right, and is not dependent on the violation of some other legal right, such as the right to education. It follows, then, that the right to equality could be violated even where another legal right — say, housing or employment — does not exist.

The right to equality would exist in all areas of activity regulated by domestic, international or regional law. It would apply to everyone, regardless of nationality or statelessness, including refugees and asylum seekers, and it would place a positive obligation on states to “promote and fulfill” the right to equality.

A new declaration was badly needed when we began work on it one year ago. Today, it is crucial if we are to prevent an even greater chasm from dividing the world’s haves and have-nots.

Sir Bob Hepple is chair of the Equal Rights Trust. © 2008 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)

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