Why Human Rights Matter and How They Get Sidelined
|UN Building, New York|
PHOTO: Phillip Capper
When, on occasion, I get challenged about why I bother with human rights, I’m usually surprised. The questioner must, I am often tempted to reply, be happy for me to come over to their house that night with an armed gang and torture them, and follow that by kidnapping them without trial for an indefinite period, only to be protected under law because I’m friends with the attorney general? (This is all hypothetical, of course.) When I sink to such an artless rejoinder, no one ever says “Yes” and means it. While I concede that the above may be a fatuously extreme thing to say, it raises meaningful points. If we want to be free from unimaginable suffering and injustice ourselves, then we surely have to accept in principle that all human beings should be free from it. It is this notion (the universalist principle, one which runs counter to the intellectual constructs that have so long supported the conceits and whims of power) that is found immovably at the heart of the philosophy of human rights.
Of course, this concept is nothing new. It is so ancient as to be an almost archetypal principle. In this sense, the human rights movement is a meeting place of apparently irreconcilable streams of thought, in that it echoes values common to intellectual movements both modern and ancient–for example, the enlightenment and the Abrahamic religions.
What’s more, it posits an equality of worth for all human beings that political systems devised to empower the poor, such as Communism, failed to grant in practice. Indeed, in some cases, the human rights movement has achieved what the various left-leaning political revolutions have always aspired to bring about: radically positive transformation in the lives of the most needy. Moreover, such advances did not come at the cost of individual freedoms or through the agency of an intrusive and corrupt government, as in many ostensibly socialist societies.
A case in point occurred in India in 2001, when a group of campaigners managed to secure school meals for 50 million children, many of whom suffered from extreme malnourishment. This was achieved through public interest litigation in which the indivisible right to food was invoked. This legally mandated system already looks set to reach out to a further 50 million children–and is continuing to expand its reach. It is easily the biggest program of its kind in the world.
The central text of the rights movement, the Universal Declaration of 1948 asserts that certain fundamental entitlements are granted to all global citizens, without distinction. This was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948. The principles it contains were timely and momentous: they prefigured the end of American segregation, the break-up of apartheid and the final collapse of European colonialism. The Declaration, and the codification of the values it upholds, represented a landmark moment in the modern era, one that has helped to form the world that we inhabit now with laws and protections we take for granted. Its span covers all the essential human requirements for life and dignity ranging from freedom from slavery to the right to food.
The declaration also calls for “an international order in which human rights can be fully realised”–something that, to this writer at least, sadly remains an aspiration for the global community, the world being as it is. This is something to which I will return.
Above all else, the great beating heart of the human rights cause is its affirmation of the importance of humanity, its ability to transcend normally incommensurable differences without alienating anyone; and doing so by appealing to that most definitively human of our instincts–our ability to feel compassion for our fellow human beings.
If you would like to read more of this article in Empirical, the February issue is now available at your local bookstore and online at our website.