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[afro-nets] Food for a thought whose time has come (6)


  • From: George Kent <kent@hawaii.edu>
  • Date: Wed, 27 Sep 2006 05:34:00 -1000

Food for a thought whose time has come (6)
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My thanks to Craig Audiss for providing the opportunity to
clarify the meaning of human rights.

Craig asked, "Would you disagree with me that freedom is the
cornerstone of human rights?"

Freedom, as conventionally understood, certainly is an important
part of the set of values advanced by human rights, but it is
not the only one. Freedom is sometimes abused, and turned into a
claim to license to do as one pleases. This is particularly
dangerous when there are great asymmetries in power.

Many human rights advocates take the view that the centerpiece
is human dignity, which includes freedom as usually understood,
but other important things as well. This perspective was
captured well by the late US president, Franklin Delano
Roosevelt, in his Four Freedoms speech of 1941, available at
http://www.libertynet.org/ edcivic/fdr.html He called for "a
world founded upon four essential human freedoms": freedom of
speech and expression; freedom of religion, freedom from want,
and freedom from fear.

The drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
was led by his widow, Eleanor Roosevelt, and was based in part
on the Four Freedoms. I recommend reading the story of that
drafting effort, as told in Mary Ann Glendon's 2001 book, "A
World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights", published by Random House. Reading how she
worked with an international team of scholars and diplomats
should help to convince people that the UDHR was not simply a
whimsical idea or a western imposition.

For those who think the UDHR is a western imposition, I would
invite them to read its text and say which of the articles they
disagree with. The UDHR is readily available on the website of
the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
http://www.ohchr.org/english/ and many other places on the web.
It has been translated into more than 300 languages. The
document inspired the drafting of a series of international
agreements, in a steady process of elaboration that is still
going on.

Craig also asked, "Can we agree that oppressive leaders are the
real violators of human rights? Would it be politically
incorrect to demand that these dictators or communists be held
to account for their deeds?"

Oppressive leaders often violate human rights, but so do many
others. Of course the question is vacuous if we simply define
all violators as oppressors. I would say all violators of human
rights should be called to account, no matter how they are
labeled.

To say this another way, it is not only "criminal types" who
commit crimes. The important thing is to stop all violations,
and not to focus only on selected groups or types of violators.

Craig said, "I don't need to have someone else's definition of
human rights, I know freedom when I see it. Until these tyrants
are held responsible human rights do not exist, period. As I
said in my last posting freedom is the cornerstone of human
rights, do you disagree?"

Well, yes, we are free to define things as we wish. I could name
my cat "Dog" if I wanted, and have fun confusing my neighbors
when I call her. But there is great value to discussing the
meaning of words and converging on agreed meanings. This is
especially important when we talk about legal systems and
procedures for judging behaviors and calling people to account
for their behavior. We need to have plain agreed standards. The
human rights agreements, and the authoritative General Comments
that explain them, are all part of this process of
clarification.

I am mystified by the statement that "Until these tyrants are
held responsible human rights do not exist." Human rights most
certainly exist, and they are clearly described in the UDHR and
subsequent human rights agreements. They were hammered out
through long, hard negotiations among the nations of the world.

Perhaps Craig means that there are no EFFECTIVE human rights
until violators are called to account more regularly. There is
something to that, of course. However, I would counsel patience.
We have had less than sixty years of rights (since the UDHR was
adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948), and thousands of
years of wrongs. Rather than take a dismissive stance toward the
modern human rights system, I think we should do what we can to
strengthen it.

Aloha, George Kent
mailto:kent@hawaii.edu