Ismail Lagardien: Human rights complicated

Ismail LagardienLast week sometime, a wise 16-year-old asked her mother why there was a public holiday to remember human rights, but no classes to explain why these rights were important.

That, anyway, is how I remember the story relayed to me.

The young woman made a profound point, implicitly I assume, one which has troubled many people for the best part of 70 years.

For the sake of this discussion, and without minimising its brutality, I want to separate the uniqueness of South Africa’s Human Rights Day – held in remembrance of the massacre of 69 anti-apartheid protesters at Sharpeville on March 21 1960 – from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and focus on the declaration.

Then I want to bring in some political economics.

One view is that the declaration, proclaimed and adopted by the United Nations in 1948 (when most African countries were still part of colonial possessions and did not represent themselves in the UN) was a romantic idealistic statement, because we have simply ignored human rights and invented clever ways of killing each other.

This response misses the point – somewhat.

Like South Africa’s constitution, the declaration cannot be held responsible for subsequent human rights violations.

An important difference is, of course, that our constitution applies only to South Africa, while the declaration assumes that there is a harmony of interests among all citizens of all countries, regardless of the multiplicity of beliefs and values, and the vast diversity of humanity.

This brings in the matter of ethnocentrism – the belief that one particular culture was universally applicable or superior to other cultures.

This is usually achieved quite subtly and insidiously through a process of enculturation, whereby one group of people acquires the norms and characteristics of another group, and this “new” set of beliefs and values are considered to be “normal” and even “commonsensical”.

The question arises, then, whether a set of values that arose (ostensibly) in a world dominated by Western Europe and North America can be extended, without question, to every corner of the world and thereby making them “universal”.

For the record, and I rarely express my personal beliefs and values in this column, I support the idea of a universal human rights that is aligned with the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, especially the right to food, clothing and shelter, and improvement of the conditions of life.

The strength of the declaration lies in its legal value.

It has been the foundation of much of the post-1945 codification of human rights around the world.

The legal system that holds together states and institutions hangs together on global and regional treaties based largely on the declaration.

While it was initially proclaimed as “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”, the declaration has exerted moral, political and legal influence far beyond the hopes of many of its drafters.

It has served directly and indirectly as a model for domestic constitutions, regulations, laws, regulations, and public policies that protect human rights. What, then, is the problem? The declaration has become somewhat of an instrument of powerful countries and transnational organisations as a fig leaf for the pursuit of their own (ethnocentric) interests.

And so I get to the political economic issue.

The US and Western Europe have, since the 1940s, cobbled together a liberal international economic order and an architecture for global finance that have served their interests rather well.

One important assumption and an important driver of this order has been the convergence, through coercion and consent, on a culture of consumer capitalism.

The main vectors of this culture have been the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and US foreign policy, all of which were supported by that country’s military.

There really is nothing conspiratorial about this.

It is what hegemons have done for centuries.

There is no surprise, then, in statements that: “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion, but rather by its superiority in applying organised violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do.”

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who typifies middle-brow-horse-manure-presented-as-intelligence, was a lot more blunt (and honest) when he reminded us that, “The hidden hand of the market cannot flourish without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the US Air Force F-15.

“And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”

Back then, to the young woman’s question.

When the declaration was adopted by the UN in 1948, there was an explicit appeal for states to disseminate, display and read it in schools and educational institutions. I wonder how many people actually know that?

Then again, as the kids say, “it’s complicated”.

One thought on “Ismail Lagardien: Human rights complicated

Leave a Reply