HOW UNIVERSAL IS THE IDEA OF ‘UNIVERSAL HUMAN RIGHTS’?
The purpose of this article is not to disregard the laudable achievement in the form of UDHR, but to point out that it is not ‘inclusive’. It is an attempt to point out the hypocrisy when assertions are made of ‘human rights’ being a ‘gift of Christianity’ or the ‘civilized nations’ – a term which is no more acceptable to the International Law scholars. The histories of non-western countries for example, India are ripe with examples which suggest that the concept of human rights was very much prevalent in those countries and has not been introduced as a gift by the ‘civilizing mission’ of the West. In Indian history, the reign of Akbar and Asoka is one such example where one can find ample evidence suggesting the emphasis on human rights values. On the other hand, there are ample examples reflecting blatant violation of human rights as a result of European tyranny and imperialism. One such example is the Bengal Famine in India.
Therefore, this article attempts to point out two important aspects – ‘acknowledgement of hypocrisy in the western narratives on human rights’ and ‘lack of inclusivity in the language of human rights.’
One hegemonic narrative cannot be equated to ‘universal will’. So, there are certain issues which need to be settled as we begin to question the universal relevance of “Universal Declaration on Human Rights”. The questions are –
1. Who has set the agenda of ‘Universal Human Rights’?
2. What politics underlies the ideology of Human Rights?
3. Whose experience are we calling a ‘Universal’ experience?
While the first part of the article addresses the lack of inclusivity in the human rights corpus, the second part addresses the call for acknowledgement of hypocrisy in the western narratives on human rights.
I. ADDRESSING THE LACK OF INCLUSIVITY
HISTORY OF THE ADOPTION OF UDHR
An analysis of the events which led to the adoption of UDHR reflect that many Non-European actors took part in the process and therefore it is not merely reflective of Western values. An illustration of the same could be the fact that certain social and economic rights were incorporated on the insistence of non-western states. This is one perspective.
If the series of events are looked at from another lens, it becomes apparent to note that only 56 states participated in the formulation of UDHR which is less than one-third of member states of UN as of now. Also, there was minimal participation from the Asian and African countries. This makes us question whether this kind of history is lop-sided towards European experiences? Not to forget that a large part of the world at that time was colonized.
It would be safe to say that Western voices usurped our voices and declared the regime to be universal.
· SOME PROBLEMS WITH THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE OF HUMAN RIGHTS
The specific rights mentioned under the UDHR have been codified into specific treaties such as International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
· One of the problems with the universal language of human rights is greater emphasis on civil and political rights and lesser emphasis on social and economic rights. 22 articles in the Declaration are devoted to the political and civil rights and just five of them talk of the economic, social and cultural rights. Also, there are two separate covenants for both set of rights. If the intention is not to create any hierarchy between the two sets of rights, then why this has been done?
This approach of according greater significance to civil and political rights is not workable in a developing country. Say, for example, a man who is dying of starvation, what will he do of his political rights? For him, political rights are useless unless his economic and social rights are realized.
· Another problem area associated with these treaties is – the feasibility of implementation of the rights mentioned therein by all the countries. For example, ICESCR mandates a right to healthcare to all citizens. In a poor African country, is it possible for the government to provide each of its citizens with proper healthcare? Not just poor African countries, a major chunk of countries in the world lack the capacity to fulfil the highly demanding economic and social rights mentioned in the ICESR. If that is the scenario, it is not apt to term these rights as universal.
· An important point which cannot be missed while going through the language of human rights covenants such as UDHR is the greater emphasis on rights and ignorance of duties. This is in contravention with the eastern values. An example worth quoting here is the Indian Constitution which mentions fundamental duties along with the fundamental rights. A lot of literature in India, signifies the importance that has been attached to the concept of ‘Dharma’. (starting from ancient times, it is reflected in epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata)
II. HYPOCRISY OF THE “SAVIOURS”
While describing the human rights story, a metaphor has been rightly used by MakauMutua, ‘savages-victims-saviours’. Here, the term savages points out to those non-western countries which fail to appreciate the importance of human rights. (One major determinant of the question if a country abides by human rights values, is the type of government in that country. As per the Western standards, the government ought to be democratic. U.S. justified its invasion in Iraq on account of establishing a democratic regime to usher people’s well-being.)
The term ‘victim’ refers to the people of those countries and the term ‘saviour’ is the human rights corpus itself comprising of United Nations, Western governments who claim to be the redeemers. Here after, certain examples have been cited which help us in finding out the hypocrisy of the proponents of human rights movement.
· The torture by U.S. officials in the Abu Grahib prison, a U.S. detention centre for Iraqis during the Iraqi war between the years 2003-2006. As per the news reports Eleven US soldiers were convicted on account of the crimes committed by them as a part of the Abu Ghraib scandal. Further, several other service members though not charged but were rebuked because of their actions.
· Russia – Chechnya issue of blatant human rights violation by Russia, where local dissenters are tortured, arbitrarily detained, made to disappear and punishment is imposed against their families by the authorities. Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic stated that, he would force punishment on relatives of alleged insurgents and threatened human rights defenders collectively who ‘have the audacity to ask why we resort to collective responsibility.’ Not only this but he also he also identified human rights defenders with terrorists and said they would be banned from Chechnya.
· The US – Vietnam warwhere during the Operation Ranch Hand, the American military forces in order to do away with the forest cover of the and crops for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops sprayed more than 45 million litres of various herbicides over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos from 1961 to 1971. Agent Orange being the most common of all. Later, it was proven that it causes grave health issues such as cancer, birth defects, psychological and neurological problems etc., amongst the entire population exposed to the same that is the Vietnamese people as well as among returning U.S. servicemen and their families. It marked the beginning of a disaster in Vietnam, the health, ecological and social impacts of which are felt till date. It is said to one of the greatest legacies of the country’s 20-year conflict, which is yet to be truly confronted.
· The India – Bhopal gas tragedy where the victims did not receive adequate compensation and still await justice. The insubstantial actions taken by the Government of India are widely seen asa betrayal by the Government of the Bhopalis and for a large part of the population it is also symbolic of the Indian government’s connivance with the American corporation, before and after the tragedy.
CONCLUSION AND SUGGESTIONS
In this era of globalization, the importance of international organisations, international treaties, co-operation amongst the world community, cannot be ignored. On the other hand, a straitjacket formula advocating a one size fits all approach can also not work when it comes to dealing with national issues. Every country has its own political, cultural and economic background. Trying to fit them in one capsule and giving one solution to their problems is not feasible either. So, what is it that can be done? Few suggestions are as follows –
A more self-critical analysis by the western powers will reveal that all human cultures possess certain norms and practices which both, protect and violate human rights, including their own. If we want a human rights corpus which is truly universal in nature, all human cultures should be given representation. Therefore, making it truly inclusive.
The western will to transform the non-western cultures should be done away with. (U.S. and the other western countries should not decide which form of government is best for people in Iraq or Venezuela. It should be left for people of those countries to decide.)
Also, the alternative approach should lay emphasis on the connection between the individual and the community as a whole taking into account factors such as that of cooperation, social unanimity, non-discrimination, acknowledgement and respect for the inherent dignity of each individual and so on and so forth.
In order to bring about a change of such a profound nature, the social fabric of the society needs to be altered in the most fundamental sense. The predisposition of the western nations against the indigent and disadvantaged ones has instigated this endeavour of having an all-inclusive human rights approach to the extent of it becoming a matter of life and death.
Navin Kumar Jaggi