473. WE ARE NOT BORN FREE AND EQUAL AS OUR CONSTITUTIONS SAY; WE EVENTUALLY MAKE OURSELVES EQUAL. (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451)

Human rights: Food for an indeed reachable thought ‘We are not born equal; we make ourselves equal’.

Human Rights Reader 473

By their very definition, human rights are needed when things are bad (Kathryn Sikkink)

1. There is an epidemic of pessimism surrounding human rights (HR). The fact that the fight for HR has always faced significant opposition should not discourage us. However, the idea of peril and crisis in HR points, not only to the present moment, but also implies some knowledge about trends and changes over time; it suggests that HR were not effectively challenged before, but the situation has now worsened. I am afraid that the state of HR globally is now worse than it was a couple decades earlier.

2. Historically, HR progress has occurred as a result of struggle –and has most often been spearheaded by oppressed groups. Where it has occurred, HR progress has not been at all inevitable, but rather contingent on continued commitment and effort! Some activists and scholars fear that if they admit there has been progress, people will grow complacent and disengaged.

3. One of the most difficult parts of being a HR activist is the doubt about whether you are contributing to positive change. But HR activists have never been popular in the countries where they work. Repressive governments have a long history of attacking and vilifying HR groups and leaders through smear campaigns and, for that, they use repressive tactics. Keep in mind that HR organizations often defend the rights of unpopular minorities such as political leftists in Latin America, the Roma people in Europe, the Rohinja people in Myanmar, and transgender people in the USA.

4. So, is it justified that so many people believe HR violations in the world are getting worse rather than better? The short answer is that we think the world is worse off, because we know and care more about HR than ever before. The media and HR organizations have drawn our attention to an increasingly wide range of HR violations around the world. Their success in doing so sometimes inadvertently causes people to think that no HR progress is happening.

5. I mainly want to remind readers that HR defenders have long been on the front line, and we should be cautious in suggesting that there was a better period for HR in the second half of the twentieth century that has now been eroded in the twenty-first. The stakes in this HR debate are high. Anger, hope, and the knowledge that you can make a difference in the world give people the energy to keep working. Knowing more specifically how HR groups have made a difference can teach us more about effective strategies and tactics to use in the future. (K. Sikkink) This Reader is in that struggle…

6. As professionals, we start with the assumption that ‘the normal way of doing things’ is the way things should be done.* But… normal is not always the best. We are too often on autopilot and need to be more mindful of this. (We need to catch ourselves before we become robots…). Actually, many of our peers are not interested in hearing about new solutions –or for that matter about the HR-based approach– and there is resistance to change. The HR alternative though does not have to be seen as totally new, but it always has to be intentionally searched so as to understand its immense potential.**
*: The true professional ethics is not lived with words, but with work serving your community, your country. A community is an indispensible institution for normal human behavior. Ethics based on the imposition of a strong human will is coercion. True professionals integrate their work with their life in society since they ought to constantly intervene to protect their rights and the rights of their community members –including when this demands going against their own interests. It is not simply an option; it is a matter of civic conscience. (Donald de Raadt)
**: Asking the right questions is always crucial: What promotes HR? What empowers people the most? What challenges the current broken system? What holds people to account? What solves the problem best? What does the least harm? What is most sustainable? What is most environmentally sound? What leads most to people’s ownership? (adapted from Daniel Bevan, United Edge)

Even if human rights actually exploded as such after decolonization, we can be happy and are proud to report that human rights have become a global lingua franca

-In the last 50 years, HR have become the privileged language of the struggle for a better, more just, more peaceful and less unequal, less excluding, society. (Boaventura de Sousa Santos)

7. Today, HR are almost a synonym for the true, the good, and the beautiful. Very few historians have adopted a celebratory attitude towards the emergence and progress of HR though. But let us state emphatically: Even since they were ‘invented’, HR are still only one appealing ideology among others struggling for center stage… (Samuel Moyn) This, despite the fact that we would think that “when you state a moral principle as powerful as that of HR, you ought to stick with it”. (Elizabeth Borgwardt)

Strong questions for which we only, so far, have weak answers (B. de Sousa Santos)

8. With a bunch of encouraging new added commitments, existing international HR treaties and conventions have actually slowly been getting stronger. In a short time, the language of HR has become the hegemonic language of dignity despite the efforts by the enemies of HR capturing, hijacking and transforming HR covenants into much more docile and arbitrary documents of social domination.

9. We find so much inhumanity and chauvinism in those only purporting to defend HR. But this tortuous evil-intentioned approach does not have to be forever inevitable. The purposeful confusion that it tries to bring about only serves the interests of those who benefit from it by disguising in wolves’ clothes. Such manipulation of HR has consistently tried to restrict the HR struggle by focusing it just around sectoral issues leaving the capitalist and patriarchal dominance at the core of the problem simply intact. These days, this ploy only escapes the hypocrites among us. Is it not thus time to debunk the ploy by denouncing who these false prophets of HR are –and who those are who are being cheated of their HR?

The way forward requires that, as a community of human rights workers/activists in the North, they identify where they lost their way (Mona Younis)

10. Obligating governments universally to respect, protect and fulfill HR must be front-and-center in all that these Northern workers do. Without it, they remain unable to reach (and fail) people everywhere to realize the HR promise that is inalienably theirs.

11. Regrettably, failing to pursue the full spectrum of what are indivisible rights, HR fail to achieve either civil/political and economic/social/cultural rights) fully –anywhere. Have it clear in your mind: Only those whose economic, social and cultural rights are fulfilled can fully expect to exercise their civil and political rights!

12. Somewhere in the process, Northern activists undermined what should have been their principles all along, i.e., the full realization of all human rights. By dividing the indivisible, particularly the Northern HR community fell into another mistake: privileging one set of states over another. They anointed those that upheld the civil and political rights (which they considered synonymous with all HR) as their permanent friends, and those that did not (who favored the other set of rights instead) they considered their permanent enemies.

13. As said, HR were wielded inconsistently with friends and foes. But, as it happens, ‘friend states’ were only receptive when it suited them. So this past Northern attitude of many can actually only be called liberalism, not HR. (M. Younis)

14. On the more general front, trying to advance a progressive HR agenda cannot idly wait for some future undefined electoral turn to push ahead.*** The urgent work is to build a powerful multi-centric coalition –including unions, racial justice groups and many other grassroots activist organizations. At the same time, political actors and parties need to be, prodded and supported.**** If this development sounds unlikely, I would counter that any other dynamic will, slowly but surely, creep-in in the coming years, namely the continued rise of inequalities to untenable levels. (Adam Gaffney, Howard Waitzkin)
***: The future is not in front of us; it is inside of us. (Human Rights Watch)
****: This will mean transforming political parties so they become credible and effective forces that can achieve the fundamental changes our ailing capitalist societies badly need.

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City
Your comments are welcome at schuftan@gmail.com
All previous 470+ Readers can be found in www.claudioschuftan.com

Postscript/Marginalia
-Now I understand that my personal wellbeing is only possible if I recognize my unity with all the peoples of the world, without any exception. (Leo Tolstoi)
-Today more than ever it is important to bear in mind that it is humanity as a whole that should be taken into account… Governments should come in second place, after the people… In times of great human tension, we can only find the right path if we think big, if we think of everyone. If we think small, if we only bear in mind a few of us, we will fail. We now have a voice; it is time to raise it. It has now become clear that global governance cannot be the task of just a few –let alone of the markets. (Federico Mayor Zaragoza)
-It is difficult for a person to understand something if their salary depends on not understanding it. (Al Gore)

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