Human rights: Food for a non-celebratory thought

Human Rights Reader 460

-We rather ought to look with serious concern on the more immediate future of human rights (HR).

1. Very few leaders stand ready to champion HR and provide ethical and political leadership on this in the world. Respect for established ethical norms is ebbing away ever more quickly. It is a good moment for us to take stock and ask the fundamental questions: Why do we need HR? What are they really for?

2. The fact is that HR often mean different things to different people. And they do not mean anything at all for another good number of people in both the developed and developing world. I see HR as embodying the struggles of ordinary people to hold those in power to account –particularly power that is abused by those in government or corporations.

3. These days, we have become more conscious of abuses of power by non-state actors as well. This is why we need some rules in the game, i.e., why we need HR! The essence of HR and of decolonization is basically the same, i.e., the struggle for freedom against the abuses of power. The modern HR framework was born in the crucible of decolonization. It is a historical context we would do well to remember. Human rights themselves have always been subject to efforts at colonization in the form of misappropriation and manipulation for political ends. We need to recognize this for what it is and, in this sense, the fight to decolonize HR is a permanent one.

To be true to the character of human rights, we need to, over and over, reconnect with the struggles of ordinary people against abusive power

4. It is clear that the early symbiotic relationship between colonialism and HR still casts a long shadow over the current understandings of HR. That is clear when we hear governing elites resisting international justice. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not extol the freedom and equality of all men, but of all human beings! Or, in other words: it is universal! Fundamentally, then, HR arise from the experience of people’s struggles against injustice, against oppression, and against the abusive use of power.

5. Human rights –as a fundamental set of tools for all social struggles– are conceived as a set of state obligations, consensual and binding, but without sufficiently effective means for enforcement. They are eminently prone to capture, to instrumentalization and to distortion. For HR to work, another period of decolonization is needed so as to put the HR tools in the hands of people to stand up against oppressive power, with the genuinely HR-sanctioned right to counter-power.

The emphasis on human rights law, and armchair debates about South versus North, have done little to place human rights tools into the hands of those who need them most

6. Civil and political rights, be reminded, became associated with the dominant political and economic models promoted by powerful northern countries –blending electoral democracy and market economy principles. Evidence of that hypocrisy and selectiveness is today seen in the brazen violation of the rights of refugees, and in rampant islamophobia. For too long, many of us have had an over-reliance on the purported American and European guardianship of HR. When our power, money and decision-making come from the North, we send a message about the moral authority of the North, and we lose our organic connection with struggles in other parts of the world. This problem has long afflicted NGOs and the UN system* –that is regarded by some as ‘the guardian of HR’. There is no shortage of new initiatives to recast or reframe HR in a way that suits powerful countries and leaders –a practice that neutralizes HR.
*: While the traditional United Nations HR mechanisms have a mandate to promote and protect human rights, they do not have the exclusive institutional competence, expertise, or capacity to ensure the implementation of human rights. States, together with UN and other international organizations, are the ones called to push and advance the HR agenda. We thus need to shift from promoting HR using international law to implementing HR through combined organizational actions. Global and national institutions have joint responsibility for implementing HR –in both the mission they pursue and the ways in which that mission is carried out. They are called to insist that states address the progressive realization of HR by providing states with the international standards, the technical assistance and the accountability mechanisms to assure this realization. Beyond supporting state duty-bearers (in enforcing) and claim holders (in organizing around HR), these institutions have independent responsibilities to implement HR actions through their institutional policies, programs, and practices. This requires them to translate international legal obligations into rights-based organizational actions necessitating a wholesale repurposing of institutional operations so as to change the ways in which the organization engages the state vis-a-vis its HR obligations. Unfortunately, only some UN agencies and other institutions have committed to HR as central to their mission. Only changing institutional operations in this direction will eventually transform HR from a process of bureaucratization to the language of a revolution in development governance. (adapted from Benjamin Mason and Lawrence Gostin)

Unenforceable human rights treaties are indeed causing system failures in international human rights

-Charles de Gaulle said: “Treaties, like virginity and flowers, last what they last”. But I do not think this is the case of HR covenants.
-But are all HR treaties failing, and are they failing in the same way? Some treaties have indeed been effective!

7. If HR are the vehicle for our utopian dreams, we have to set out a more compelling vision for humanity that better resonates with ordinary people and that makes HR a truly powerful vehicle for their struggles.

8. We cannot take it for granted that people will articulate their utopias in HR terms. Part of the answer is to go back to basics of why HR-For-All matters. A big push is needed to ensure access to HR Learning. It is very important to go beyond talking about indivisibility of rights to fundamentally challenging the distinction between civil and political rights on the one hand, and economic and social rights on the other. People do not experience their lives in these terms. What is political is economic, what is civil is social.

9. Those who have no voice are poor and those who are poor have no voice. Governments are more interested in keeping problems hidden away than in confronting them. Those who believe in human rights need to connect and reconnect with the struggles at the local level. At the heart of the HR ‘project’ is the importance of power and the initiative remains in the hands of those who are suffering oppression and injustice. This idea was perfectly captured in the slogan of the disabilities rights movement: “nothing about us without us”. Seen through this lens, HR are about the struggles of affected people and communities, and the solidarity that these struggles seek to garner.

10. While in the past we saw the abuse of power through a colonial domination lens, now instead we see how the-human-instinct-to-dominate is taking different forms. But the same dynamic holds true: those who wield power carry out abuses for which the rest pay. Our quest to find the answers does not begin in the rarefied air of the UN buildings; it does not lie in the university lecture halls, or in courtrooms. It does not lie in the offices of Amnesty International or any other international NGO. All of those are important places for HR –do not take me wrong– but our quest to decolonize HR begins with the struggles and the gatherings of people challenging oppression on the ground.

Today, the beating heart of human rights is in the growing number of people’s movements across the world, many of them powered by young people who are outraged by the abuses of power

11. Dismantling patriarchy is perhaps the oldest struggle of them all and, of course, it is not an isolated one. Women’s rights movements have for many years shown us the importance of the interconnected nature of struggles: black women, dalit women, women with disabilities, and women with diverse sexualities are all fighting multi-layered battles. But, at the end, it comes back to their pursuit of dignity and equality in the face of historic oppression and injustice. And that, really, is where HR begin and end. (All the above adapted from Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International)

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City
Your comments are welcome at schuftan@gmail.com

-There are people that say they love humanity; others correctly correct them saying one can only love in singular, that is, concrete persons. (Milan Kundera)
-Language shapes how we see the world. If we dilute the words that express the greatest crimes against humanity –rape, slavery, child labor… — we dilute our ability to be properly outraged by those atrocities.
-Repression, political persecution, human rights violations and discrimination have not ‘returned’ because, in reality, they never left us; they stayed as a permanent feature thanks to the impunity of the crimes against humanity (being) committed. (Louis Casado)
-If lecturing about moral obligations made an enormous difference, the world would already look much better. Instead, those who care about HR need to take seriously the forces that lead so many people to vote-in majoritarian, HR-insensitive strongmen in the first place. (N. Y. Times)
-Respect and live by the existing order (…) and you will eternally be slaves! (Práxedis Guerrero)
-According to Pope Francis, we need politics, economics, and technology to serve a far greater purpose than power, wealth, or economic growth. We need them to promote human wellbeing today and for future generations.

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