Like many people I am shocked and dismayed at the horrendous images coming out of Myanmar. What is happening to the notion of Human Rights?
There have been several new reports on the state of Human Rights across the world, including the UN’s Annual Review. Almost all the theorists, including Princeton’s eminent scholar Richard Falk agree that the Human Rights situation has been disastrous over the past century, so what has gone wrong? We must understand these issues as a core problem in utopian idealism.
According to Falk the UN Charter was written in very general language and the operative reality was not specified. This happened because no one truly anticipated the importance of Human Rights after the Second World War. Indeed, having grown up in London after the Second World War blitz I can remember my parents saying the Holocaust would never happen again, the world simply would not allow it to happen. No one anticipated another war until the nuclear stand-off between the East and the West over Cuba (Russia and the US). Human Rights then took on a very East versus West perspective as did all forms of international development and welfare. The West had a highly authoritarian and misguided sense of security within the Human Rights agendas. Development and welfare was directed to Western allies or those with potential for allegiance. Globalization would shift the dice and Human Rights agendas would be revealed as inadequate.
We should not discount the fact that there are many helpful and productive humanitarian activities taking place in the world, but they are selective and Human Rights on the whole has been a failure. As Falk asks in his work Human Rights Horizons, “why would oppressive governments agree to such an elaborate framework of Human Rights unless their leaders were convinced that the Universal Declaration was nothing more than a paper tiger?”
The very institutions that made the Declaration possible had their own pervasive considerations. The world was embarking on a massive capitalist expansion and a recovery from war. Nations also had to conceive of mechanisms to hide their own Human Rights abuses such as slavery in the US and the disenfranchisement of Native American Indians. Indeed, when the US faltered on many of the standards prescribed in the Human Rights framework it gave credence to other nations to carry on abusive business as usual.
It would be easy to say the failure of the Human Rights Declaration to be effective is the responsibility of individual nations and not a problem with the original formation of the Declaration itself. However, clearly when a Charter (any charter) is not working, it is time to go back to the drawing board.
The history of the Human Rights Declaration is far from neutral. While individuals may have been well meaning they were engulfed in a catch 22 situation of restoring and advancing capital.
In essence, the Declaration on Human Rights cannot be separated from the idealization that further embedded advanced capitalism into the principles set out in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Adam Smith was the advocate of Free Trade. Smith reacted against the dominant mercantile form of economics in his time, a system of economics that assumes one country can only get rich if another remains poor. It’s a system of winners and losers that forces every country to compete in order to get richer. To achieve this a country must bring money into its domain without allowing any to flow out again. Smith believed this approach actually makes the country poorer in the long run. If another country can provide cheaper and better goods, you’re actually letting your country down by not giving them access to these better products. However, the system drives down wages, weakens safety measures, rolls back worker’s rights and welfare and causes the collapse of any kind of social democracy. The socialist parties are not exempt from this scenario. Socialism merely transfers the responsibility to the state rather than private enterprise. The principles are the same. Human Rights has completely ignored worker’s rights despite the efforts of the ILO (International Labour Org.)
Hitherto, there has been little incentive for any capitalist country to act on behalf of the oppressed unless they happen to live in areas of significant capitalist investment or they hold the possibility of future exploitation, (albeit perhaps less physically treacherous than their current oppressive regime).
Examples of the capitalist priorities guiding Human Rights activities can be seen in the impoverished responses to the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and to the genocide in Rwanda as well as in the damaging impacts of the NATO intervention in Kosovo, which was clearly a revengeful act as opposed to a humanitarian exercise.
According to the latest reports (principally the Rights at Risk: The Observatory on the Universality of Rights Trends Report 22 May 2017,) religious fundamentalists and ultra-right conservative groups are gradually chipping away at all human rights frameworks by representing themselves as human rights advocates, examples of this would be the anti-abortion lobby, the anti-gay rights; pro-heterosexual family lobby and various groups with underlying racist agendas. For example:
Imperatives for the future include…[t]o take energetic action within the NGO process to blunt or prevent new assaults on family integrity; to identify, protect, and help advance existing “friends of the family” within the U.N. Secretariat; to “place” such friends in positions of current or potential influence within the U.N. Secretariat; and to build an international movement of “religiously grounded family morality systems” that can influence and eventually shape social policy at the United Nations. – Allan Carlson, founder of the World Congress of Families.
These conservative values are not new, they merely take the UN back to where it began in the first place. Womens’ Rights and what constitutes a “family” have always been contentious in the UN. Not to mention various levels of paternalism towards the South. The conservatives have historically retaliated against any changes. For example:
“Actors using arguments based on anti-rights interpretations of religion, culture, tradition, and rhetoric linked to State sovereignty have made significant strides in implementing and institutionalizing their regressive agenda at the UN in recent years. As any participant or witness of policy negotiations will note, the ‘battle for rights’ is fought in large part on the level of language and rhetoric. Many conservative actors have creatively and effectively regrouped in this area, with increased success towards achieving their goal of undermining rights related to gender and sexuality” https://www.awid.org/publications/rights-risk-observatory-universality-rights-trends-report
A number of the rhetorical language skills have been learned from the 1960s and 1970s progressive movements and they have been used discursively against progressive change. The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), held annually in March, had long been an advocated of womens’ rights, which today is still one of the most contested issues in the UN. Here is an example:
“At 2016’s CSW, the new Youth Caucus was infiltrated by large numbers of vocal anti-abortion and anti-SRHR actors, who shouted down progressive youth organizations. Again, intensive negotiations resulted in a lack-lustre text, which included regressive language on ‘the family”. https://www.awid.org/key-impacts-international-human-rights-system
As Marx and Engels noted the family is the main structure upholding capital, its formation can only be changed within the rubric of capital investment. A similar situation is occurring with religion, providing a religious group embraces the underlying capitalist principals, that often include oppression, it is on safe ground. If a religious group are outside this mainstream paradigm then there can find themselves in deep trouble.
Take for example the Rohingya in Myanmar. The nation of Myanmar has a population with a Buddhist majority. The Muslim minority in Myanmar come from different ethnic groups, some originate from migrants and others are indigenous. According to Human Rights Watch the Burmese government has denied citizenship to any Rohingya persons who cannot prove their ancestors settled in the country before 1823, the beginning of British occupation. Consequently, there has been a history of persecution against the Rohingya, retaliatory riots and now ethnic cleansing. One might ask, where has the UN been during this current genocide? The only response has been rhetorical.
Human Rights designed to operate within a framework of exploitation and/or abrogation of its principles is doomed to failure. Hence, Falk suggests, we must strive towards a system of ethics and moral values, which is inevitably going to be different in the context of a wide variety of philosophical, cultural and religious belief systems. Whether universal laws and principles can ever be a working reality is open to question, but such an idea certainly cannot be effective within the current contextual specificity (or lack of it) in the current Declaration on Human Rights.