As one of the most talked about ideals in modern political discourse, the subject of human rights is at once very straightforward and painfully nebulous. Human rights is the buzzword that ticks across media screens when highlighting issues of oppression, injustice or unfair treatment. Its slogans are raised by politicians, intellectuals, trade unions and activists of all shades and colours. Indeed our political and social culture seems woefully deficient without reference to human rights. Each one of us assents to the notion of human rights, and factors it in one way or another into an outlook on the general human condition and wider global reality. The preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) proclaimed on 10th December 1948 points to some of the underlying reasons for this universal association to human rights. The UDHR begins by affirming the inherent dignity, equality and freedom of human beings. It then proceeds to condemn oppression, tyranny and ‘barbarous acts’ that have “outraged the conscience of mankind” in indirect reference to the horrors of the Second World War. It would be difficult to find an individual who does not agree with both facets of this preamble, let alone openly oppose them. Despite our initial assent however, question marks begin to stack up when tasked with defining these terms. For example, how do we define freedom, dignity, equality, oppression and so on? What sources do we rely on to come up with these definitions? These questions open up a Pandora’s Box of sorts when we put them alongside notions of universality. At the same time, we are faced with certain absurdities in the application of human rights. For instance, we witness wars advocated ostensibly in defence of human rights which end up exacting untold loss of human life, pain and suffering. Or the forceful proselytisation of aggressive free market policies in the name of creating open, democratic and human rights-upholding societies, whereas these very policies have noticeably widened the economic divide between the so-called ‘haves and have-nots’ and doomed millions, if not billions, to half-lives of virtual slavery and unfulfilled potential. When confronted by such dilemmas, we are impelled to develop a more precise view of human rights, firstly as a concept, and then proceed to examine its application in real-world contexts. To do such, we inevitably gravitate towards the UDHR and its role in defining the contours of this discourse in our present day.Human rights and their universality Discussions concerning human nature have taken place for millennia. Different outlooks have posited their own unique views about the character and composition of human beings both in their individual ‘selves’, and how this in turn influences their collective social existence. Similarly, the concept of ‘rights’ and its variants rooted in legal jurisprudence throw up a rich diversity of opinions. This diversity is simply carried forward when coming up with a working definition, even if we were to define human rights as ‘the rights you have simply because you are human’.
“[…] all human cultures have a lot in common [..]. We need to understand the logic of diversity versus unity by realising the poetry of unity in the constitution of self and society.” Ayatollah Mohamed Taqi Jafari
As with all political documents and charters, the UDHR is also rooted in a particular historical context and experience. To its critics, the claim of universality is simply code-word for the imitation of a uniquely western understanding. It would be wrong to assume that the critics of the UDHR are exclusively individuals with cultural or faith-based sensitivities. For post-modernists, the very notion of history as a single, unified process that produces a coherent and universal human rights discourse is void, particularly in an age in which instrumental reason has become the reigning yardstick. For those who look upon the subject of universality from an anthropological angle, there is a seemingly unresolvable paradox: how can we speak of the universality of human rights in the absence of a universal human culture? Obviously, there exist lines of defence against such arguments. For instance, to those who solely rely on the culture-argument, the immediate rebuttal tends to take the following shape: should we treat cultures and cultural values as sacred or sacrosanct regardless of what they promote? Putting aside the associated polemics, it is evidently clear that there exists a rich diversity of views concerning human rights, as well as in our conceptual understandings of the fundamental ideals – such as dignity, freedom etc. – that form their bedrock. The UDHR emanates from a very particular context and claims of universality overlook this diverse tapestry. Nevertheless, one still notices a broad consensus on what we consider to be basic human rights; an outcome, no doubt, of our common human nature and experience. Differences largely arise out of interpretation concerning the ‘form’ of these rights, rather than their very being. The building blocks of the various charters of human rights that we have today – be it the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) or the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights (CDHR) – originate from the same spring of human experience. In fact, one notices a great deal of similarity between the two documents and the rights that they stipulate. To overlook the commonality that exists would be akin to not seeing the wood for the trees. Indeed scholars like the late Ayatollah Mohamed Taqi Jafari viewed human rights discourse as an important step towards creating a common human culture: “Beyond their appearance, all human cultures have a lot in common and are inseparably associated. We need to understand the logic of diversity versus unity by realising the poetry of unity in the constitution of self and society.”Human rights and their politicisation “It is an undeniable fact that human life has never been as universally treated as a vile and perishable commodity as during our own era.” – Gabriel Marcel More than sixty years after the UDHR was proclaimed, we observe a precarious human condition. Unspeakable crimes such as ethnic cleansing, or attempts at it, are still taking place with frightening frequency.
Human rights is not simply an abstract social aspiration, rather it affects the lives of each and every one of us.
In the last few decades, we have also witnessed an unmistakable trend towards the militarisation of politics; a situation in which military might is frequently resorted to in the resolution of political conflicts. Additionally, the dividing gulf between the haves and the have-nots is widening by the day. And despite the Millennium Development Goals, certain rights stipulated in the UDHR remain a distant goal for a large portion of humanity. All these realities either point directly to worsening human rights conditions or serve as alarm bells for the same. In our current context, the politicisation of human rights presents a formidable challenge. Certain states seemingly motivated by a sense of national exceptionalism have come to regard themselves as sole owners of enlightened human values. Coupled with this, the notion of humanitarian intervention often resorted to by the same political powers, has arguably drained the term of all proper meaning. In truth, human rights has been employed as a flag of convenience and moralising rallying cry to justify imperial agendas and hegemonic plots. Under the garb of human rights, political powers have committed some of the most egregious violations and contributed to a wider climate that is inimical to the protection of the basic rights of individuals and entire communities, such as has been witnessed in the aftermath of the so-called War on Terror. Experiences of the recent past give further credence to the belief that human rights should be removed from the embrace of politicians in the absence of proper mechanisms and institutional frameworks. Moreover, it appears increasingly clear that there is an urgent need for real dialogue, at a global level, about our human rights aspirations on the one hand, and the extent to which political powers can influence and exploit these on the other. Moments of crisis such as the recent NSA and GCHQ spying fiascos provide fertile ground for such efforts. For those sincerely seeking to uphold the basic rights of their fellow brethren and aspiring to better the general human condition, the reality of the world that we live in today requires a solemn sense of personal duty and commitment. Human rights is not simply an abstract social aspiration, rather it affects the lives of each and every one of us. It is a notion that shapes our daily lives, colours our dreams and fulfils some of our deepest hopes. As members of the human family, we have an individual duty to better our surrounding reality, and to exhibit genuine empathy towards those who live in far-off lands, or those who are of a different race, or those who belong to a culture or religion different to our own. Regardless of whether the UDHR is truly universal on a conceptual level or not, differences on account of culture or religion or any other ‘ism’ for that matter, should not be used an excuse to shy away from the brutal reality suffered by billions around the world today – let alone be used to justify oppression and tyranny. The profound spirit embedded in the words of the famous leader of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’, can serve as a guiding light during these adverse times. Lastly, we should speak out clearly and unequivocally against the politicisation of human rights, if indeed human rights is to be the basis for the ideal human societies of the future.
Ali Jawad is a human rights activist and political analyst with a keen interest in international diplomacy.