Friday, March 02, 2012

Human Rights... or the View from the Top?

In this post I'm going to do something which is most likely ill-advised. I'm going to speculate about the concept of "human rights" and I'm going to do so on the basis of a hunch. I haven't done any amount of serious research or even focussed thinking on this issue. But it's something that's occurred to me more than once in the last few years. On diverse occasions - moments when traveling in foreign lands, a thought in mid-sentence while teaching, a gut response when listening to CBC radio on assorted topics - I have an increasingly persistent sense that much of our talk (rhetoric?) about human rights may actually be more the product of an egotistical and ethnocentric sense of cultural entitlement than some sort of divine mandate for the proper and appropriate "rights" of all humanity.

Just this morning, for instance, when I turned on the radio I heard the tale-end of an interview with a plastic surgeon from Pakistan who does facial reconstruction (amongst other things) for Pakistani women who have been intentionally burned with acid by members of their own family. I suppose it's some sort of punishment for behaviour and attitudes considered inappropriate or shameful. It's horrendous and who could think otherwise!? But then - again - this thought crosses my mind: who decides what is appropriate or shameful? Surely every nation on earth has it's legacy of shame. Who among us is without sin? In every country in the world - including, of course, our own - an honest history will expose principles and practices that we now find hugely offensive. Acts that are, today, clearly defined as criminal, were once - in our very own cultural context - applauded as being right and honourable and in keeping with the common good. Women were not considered "persons" in Canada until October 18, 1929, for goodness sake! See for the background on this story.

Please, believe me when I say that I am NOT writing this post in defence of acid burning or domestic violence in any form or in any place. Truly, I am not.

What I am calling into question - or at least, for consideration - is the idea that any universal declaration of human rights is going to contain an inherent bias in favour of those who consider themselves the cultural and ideological elite. Such "rights" are akin to a view from the top, passed down to those below, with the expectation that they need not discover these "fundamental rights" for themselves but should rather except the wisdom of those who now see themselves as having "seen the light" in terms of their own past abuses. Canadian law once did not recognize women as persons, but now that we do, it is clear that women truly ARE persons and so other countries should forego the painful path to that realization and simply accept our perspective. After all, should it not now be self-evident that women are and were persons all along?

And I wouldn't necessarily object to this practice, except it doesn't seem to work very well. The path to personhood for Canadian women was not an easy one - IS not an easy one. It could certainly be argued - in fact I WOULD ARGUE - that the path to personhood for women in Canada is far from complete, especially if we consider indicators such as social, economic and political equality as the measure of success. Women have come a long way in this country, but they are still way too often the victims of domestic violence, sexual exploitation, economic injustice, etc. etc. And sometimes women have failed to live up to the challenges and opportunities of "equality".

And none of this happens in a vacuum. There is a growing awareness that the peoples of this world are connected through the political, economic, technological, and social forces of globalization. For some, globalization is inevitable and welcome. It opens new markets, new frontiers, new opportunities. For others, however, globalization means uprooting old ways of life and threatening livelihoods and cultures. The fact is, no matter where we live, we are not immune from the collective forces of globalization and these forces sooner or later impact the very fabric of family life and the role of women in both family and society. They affect life at its very source. These forces of globalization are not neutral. Nor can we assume that they are designed to promote the "common good". Globalization seems to be, most fundamentally, about dominance by the "fittest" - or at least by those with economic and military and ideological power.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948. Fifty nations participated in the final vote - 42 voted in favour and 8 abstained. On the one hand, in the post war context I'm sure it was a remarkable accomplishment to have this much consensus on a template for human rights. But on the other hand, if we look at the Declaration itself, I can't help but wonder how this document must have been perceived by those who had no part in its design. The final portion of the preamble, reads as follows:

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction (

The 30 Articles contained within the Declaration make perfect sense from the point of view of the western world, but is it even fair or rational to expect all of humanity to subscribe to THIS particular view of what is right and good? I suspect that anyone who has worked or lived for any prolonged period of time in a very different cultural context has, at some point, understood that OUR culture and OUR understanding of human rights is a reflection of our biases and perhaps NOT as transferable as we might have assumed.

So, as I observe and read and hear about human rights abuses around the globe, it causes me to question the process. I have no solutions and I need to reiterate that I am not suggesting that we ought to turn a blind or indifferent eye to those abuses. But perhaps it will help us to battle them more effectively if we at least acknowledge that they are rights that we have arrived at through much trial and painful error ourselves. Forced compliance - through military and economic and political sanction - simply doesn't seem to be a very effective strategy.

Well - this seems to be a not very satisfactory conclusion, but it has been my attempt to articulate this hunch that disturbs and challenges me.

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