Tuesday, May 5, 2009

On Universal Human Rights

To claim that human rights is a universal concept is at best hopeful and at worst delusionary. Human rights is not universal to every human and every culture even though some might want it to be. Some describe rights as a universal moral standard, in other words a declaration of certain standards to be upheld and enforced by which we commonly agree to be reasonable and coherent. However, what is reason to one might be madness to another. Besides, who are we to be everyone’s judge? Who represents the common man?

Ironically, it could be argued that we have no right at all to declare a standard for everyone to follow. That in itself is a momentous task best left in divine (if any) realms. For even religious declarations of moral standards have been put in the hot seat and questioned about their relevance and universality. If we were to, for example, adhere to the Ten Commandments as a common moral standard, the right for parents to be honoured would be an inalienable right. While that may seem reasonable and coherent to many, some questions are still left unanswered. What does it mean to be “honoured”, what does such a right encompass and what can be done to enforce this right? While this may be an extreme example, the principle still stands. The issue of enforceability and interpretation already casts doubt on the idea of universal rights. If religious moral standards, held in high regard and presumably thought to be “universal” by some people, can be questioned and even disclaimed, what makes the UNDDHR any different? Just because we put forth the idea that the UNDHR originates from multi-cultural and multi-religious dialogue does not make it a universal standard, it makes it a good attempt. Choosing to subscribe to the belief that there exist universal inalienable rights undermines our ability to appreciate diversity, cultural or otherwise, that we are not all born equal even though we strive to be. We may attempt to level the playing field, do good deeds to the few who are severely disadvantaged but, never, never, indulge in the naive idealism that universal rights exist.

I posit the speculation that the idea of a set of “universal rights” which must be upheld for the common good only comes out of a collective sense of guilt over past actions we deemed as horrendous mistakes that should never happen again. Firstly, the fact that these “mistakes” did happen already proves the human capacity to err and it is mere wide-eyed hopefulness that we should set a universal standard so as “not to sink to a new low”. Now, I am not condoning gross human misbehaviour such as the apartheid, anti-Semitism, racism, slavery, female genital mutilation or any other actions we deem as human rights violation. However, I beseech the universalists to consider why such practices occur in the first place. And in some cases, why entire nations and communities practised such seemingly “uncommon-sensical” actions. Are we to suggest that common sense is actually not that common or that somehow if human rights is so universal, that there was a deliberate suppression of this natural “rightness” on a huge scale in such events as the Holocaust or ethnic cleansing in Rwanda? These are just some extreme examples to highlight and bring to light the fallacy that there is such a concept of a “common good” and the assertion that there can be a universal moral standard which can and should be upheld, never mind the tedious but practical nuances of enforceability. Better to deal with each issue with a consensus suitable to each unique circumstance than parade an idealistic notion that hopes for much but achieves nothing. Faith in humanity must be tempered with realistic and pragmatic considerations.

It is not just the past, but also the present which challenges the concept of universal human rights. Terrorism in all forms demonstrates not only that not everybody believes in the absolutism of inalienable rights but that the idea of balancing national security with individual freedom is a “necessary evil” if one may label it that way. Right to privacy? Maybe not, if the obtaining of crucial evidence that could apprehend extremists requires the loss of certain amount of privacy. Right to life? Maybe not, if the human in question is one of the terrorists involved in the September 11 incident. The issue is that human rights seem to be absolute and universal until they become perplex questions that threaten to derail the idealistic world we live in. The idea of the universality of human rights masks the complexities which come when we have to balance the need for each human right acknowledging that something must give before something else can be protected. Reducing it to greater simplicity, if everyone subscribed to the notion that human rights are universal and absolute, if everyone demands that all their rights be fully and freely exercised, where they want it and how they want it, the world might have a problem. The right to social security in the event of unemployment comes with conditions attached. Do I have a right to be deliberately unemployed? The right to free and compulsory primary education is hard to achieve for some of the poorest of nations. Right to equal pay for equal work directly contests the reigning paradigm of capitalism because it abhors and condemns the idea of “competitive salaries” like that which is given to CEO of charity organisations and cabinet ministers.

In summary, the UNDHR is but a collective expression of hopes and ideals that is impractical to impose on all and every community and persons. Let us not indulge in idealism and focus more on what can and should be done on a situational basis. Let us consider that each region of the world has its own unique and distinct set of circumstance, culture and social structure and that the world is not yet fully ready to be a giant melting pot or one big happy fishbowl. And yes, if that means relativism, bring it on!

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