10 May 2013

Making Sense of Human Rights

Some say we live in a global human rights regime. I'd accept this as a matter of contention, as there's a difference between ideal and practice, but ok. Also not everybody agrees on the ideal, or to whom it applies. But one thing I believe is certain: nobody would have thought those rights up if it did not make sense for those people to have them.

The point I want to make is not all that complicated, but in a recent class I managed to not express it clearly enough for the professor to understand it. He asked for a rephrasing, but in the spur of the moment etc... I blacked out. So I went home and thought about it, and I rephrased. Even if chances that he'll ever read this are very very slim – professor, this one's for you!

The Human Rights Convention was signed in 1948, in the aftermath of the Second World War, which, so the popular story goes, brought some sobriety to humanity. How do we stop this from happening ever again? We sign a piece of paper that states that we'll never do this again!

But ok. Most of the dudes signing that paper were (pan)European, and the rights reflect it. Art. 24 refers to the right to paid holidays. Nice and should be obvious in a capitalist society? Absolutely. Making sense as a universal right? Hardly.

There's also the part about who is included in this humanity. As a (different) lecturer once stated, “we have human rights, and not only human rights, we have women's rights, children's rights, et cetera”. Even the non-feminist, non-gender-aware individuals in class made faces at that one.

But it goes deeper than ridiculous statements implying that women and children are not human. Hannah Arendt makes the inherently frightening point that human rights are only extended to citizens of any particular state. Since the human rights are to be enforced by governments, and the stateless are deprived of their nation, their territory, and by implication their humanity, they are left unprotected by any government. The paradox is that those most in need of human rights are precisely those who are not covered by them.

These are some of the dark sides. Something else: Amartya Sen talks about development as freedom; both direct freedoms and lack of non-freedoms. That might be the freedom to, say, participate in political life, and conversely the lack of constrictions on your freedom provided by hunger (hunger is a non-freedom here).

These freedoms are closely tied to what is envisioned by human rights, even if he doesn't categorically buy into them. Human rights imply rights to do a lot of things that are Good for you and Not Bad for others. Sen's freedoms play along the same lines; lack of constriction on choices, so people can choose to do or not do whatever makes sense for them.

And this was the discussion – do Sen's freedoms work together with human rights? I'd say if things work out as Sen would like them to, human rights might simply not make sense. This is where it gets tricky.

Basically, I understand rights as something you defend, or fight for. Speaking of something as a right implies that it is not necessarily a given. All of those human rights were written down because someone might conceivably try to prevent or not do those things, intuitive as they might seem.

For example: if everybody in the world has food, there is no threat of hunger, and nobody would ever dream of taking your food away, then speaking of food as a right becomes sort of weird. It becomes an absurd statement, because duh – no one's ever hungry! Human rights make sense to us because we can perceive a situation in which they may not be obvious, or may be taken away (as for Hannah Arendt's stateless). Point in case: the vast majority of people in the world are deprived of their human rights in one way or the other. If conversely the world were a place where nobody would even get the idea of hurting others, or not giving them paid holidays, or whatever, then I believe human rights would not be relevant or even make sense.

That being said, I doubt there ever was such a society, and I don't see it happening in any near future. Such a world might be an utopia, but when discussing how to understand human rights, that becomes irrelevant. The point is simply that they make sense to us because they exist in a context that makes them make sense.

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