Human Rights
The heart
[image, unknown] of being human
Ian Moore

'Human rights' is such a common phrase that we no longer hear its deep echoes, no longer see its burning light. Todd Gitlin takes us on a philosophical journey through liberty, equality and common sense.

Human rights: the literal words deserve a moment's scrutiny. Human: member of the species, the single race homo sapiens. Whatever persons are called, or call themselves, wherever they live, they are human. Therefore human rights: benefits to which people are entitled simply by virtue of being human.

The very fact that 'human rights' has become a catch-phrase, that it is inscribed on picket signs and diplomatic agendas everywhere, that the rights generate passions and motivate organizations like[image, unknown] Human Rights Watch, Amnesty Inter-national and Médécins sans Frontières, even that these rights are frequently honored in the breach, represents a human achievement of enormous proportions. The very lip service of governments is a measure that a value has achieved a certain legitimacy. Lip service is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

The fact that there exists a Universal Declaration of Human Rights - called
'universal' rather than 'international' to indicate that these rights pertain to human beings everywhere by virtue of their humanity, not by virtue of the existence of nation-states - is monumental. The Universal Declaration is an unprecedented affirmation of the unity of the human race, and a weapon against all who would usurp. That this Declaration is taken more seriously today than when it was adopted 50 years ago is all the more remarkable. The Declaration is a resource in the hands of the unjustly deprived
everywhere. It affirms that rights are, in language taken from the American Declaration of Independence, 'inalienable' - they cannot legitimately be rescinded or given up.

But obviously such high-flown claims immediately run up against the world's real and specific differences. There are immense material differences, observable from the outside, in human condition, health, longevity and so forth. We live in a period when people perceive and strongly assert other differences as well - differences experienced from the inside. These are differences in the answers people give to the question: 'Who are you?'

'Identity' is the term in current use, and the common answers include understandings of nationality, 'race', religion, sex, sexuality. These identities, with the exception of sexual matters, are all products of social life; they are not natural. They change, and they are multiple - a person 'is' many things at the same time. But this is not to say their understandings, these labels, are casual, superficial. People live them deeply. To be Jew or Muslim, Serb or Croat, Greek or Macedonian, is a matter of passion - it tells to whom people feel connected deep down. This is who I am. Existence for most people feels local and partial more than universal.

So the fact that governments have agreed on paper about the nature of human rights only begins the debate, for the nub is that people disagree about exactly what constitutes human rights, and they disagree because their attachment to human universality is weaker than their attachments to partial and local identities, and thus divergent interpretations of what they, as
particular human beings, need. Many would argue today that human rights are not an ensemble but a list, and even more, a zero-sum game: that, in the realest of real worlds, choices must be made. Human rights do not constitute, in this view, an indissoluble chain. Security trumps free expression, for example, or vice versa.

In particular, the charge is frequently made that freedom of expression or association is 'Western'. What does this mean exactly? There is an argument from origins (these rights come from the West and are therefore colonialist) and an argument from power (these rights ratify and rationalize the power of the West and the rich).

Take the two arguments separately. It is undeniable that the concept emerged in the West - although as an oppositional force, not an official doctrine. Insofar as human rights achieved formal recognition, it was because they were forced upon official authority from below, by popular demand. The American Bill of Rights, for example, was added to the Constitution in 1789 as a concession to anti-Federalist forces and states that would not have approved a Constitution without them. But what do origins have to do with validity? The concept of zero originated in Egypt, but a Christian or Jewish mathematician from the United States is not entitled to dismiss it. All ideas occur to someone somewhere and circulate from there before they occur to others in other places, but where they crop up first has no bearing on their truth (or falsehood). As there is (whatever the Nazis thought) no 'Jewish science', and (whatever the Stalinists thought) no 'bourgeois biology', there are no 'Western human rights'.

By the same token, the fact that certain arguments have been deployed by the powerful first does not mean that they would not also work to the advantage of the less powerful. History is replete with examples of a principle once reserved to élites but subsequently generalized by large populations to their advantage. The rights of lords to property or education, once exclusive or close to exclusive, were later claimed by serfs. In time, slaves appropriated the rights of their masters to literacy and women the rights of men. The rights of owners were appropriated by workers - all at great cost, and all to the benefit of society as a whole.

It might help guide current debates if all parties could accept some common ground. Human rights of free speech, political assembly, religion and so on are often denied by dictatorships in the name of national self-determination; they claim that the nation-state is a guarantor of social equality or solidarity that would be jeopardized by liberty rights. Yet the claims of liberty on the one hand and self-determination on the other share a common root. They are predicated, in the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in 'recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family'. The rights of the individual - of all individuals everywhere, equally - are also the foundation of collective rights, for example, the right of national self-determination, religious practice, and so forth.

We value, say, the rights of Bahais in Iran to practise their faith, or of Kurds to speak their language in Turkey, or of Pakistanis to read The Satanic Verses, not only out of respect for individuals who happen to be Bahais, Kurds, or Salman Rushdie, but because other individuals have need of their activities. Individuals - their activities, their vitalities - are at the core. Communities matter for those reasons.

Equally, a nation needs the right to sustenance because the individuals who
populate that nation need it. As the social theorist Steven Lukes has argued: 'to defend human rights is not merely to protect individuals. It is also to protect the activities and relations that make their lives more valuable; activities and relations that cannot be conceived reductively as merely individual goods. Thus the right to free expression and communication protects artistic expression and the communication of information; the right to a fair trial protects a well-functioning legal system; the right to free association protects demo-
cratic trade unions, social movements and political demonstrations and so on.'

To put it another way, the ideal of equality cannot be used to trump the ideal of liberty. Nor can the ideal of liberty be used to trump the ideal of equality. The Universal Declaration, in Article 29, wisely acknowledges that: 'everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his (sic) personality is possible.' That is, people cannot exist on their own. But, equally wisely, the Declaration goes on to caution: 'In the exercise of his rights and freedoms,
everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of security, due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.'

In other words, the burden of proof is on those who would restrain rights - on the Chinese rulers, not Wei Jingsheng; on the Iranian rulers, not Salman Rushdie. When a government cracks down on a writer claiming that free expression by citizens would generate chaos, saying so does not make it so. Governments are, after all, great compilers of alibis. They must be hedged by a presumption of modesty. When it comes to human rights, individuals are entitled to a presumption of innocence.

Can we move beyond a simple restatement of positions, the mind's rights versus the body's? Individual's rights versus a culture's? How many more persons must be tortured, murdered, displaced, starved, unemployed, to serve the appetite of the custodians of power? How many of the poor (and disproportionately young) must die amid the complacency of the wealthy (and disproportionately old)?

It would serve all people well to exercise great care before assuming that the various human rights are incompatible. The appropriate way to honor the right to eat is to act on behalf of the right to eat, not to subtract the right to publish. We do not need a race to the bottom.

Not only is the confrontation tedious; it does no good for those who suffer. The rights of the Tibetans to self-determination are not supported if China cannot feed its people. The rights of women to sexual lives are not protected if the rights of Kurds are abrogated. Salman Rushdie and his readers are not protected from the fatwa when Muslims are subordinated in Israel or Algeria. No partisan of the debate about the universality of human rights is entitled to hold one right hostage against another.

The burden on the West is to move past smug restatements of its Enlightenment faith, to acknowledge that its own record with respect to the rule of law has been deeply flawed, and to acknowledge that sustenance and security matter as much as the right of expression. The West could use humility about its own achievements, for it was not born with liberties intact in its breast. Centuries of struggle were required to abolish slavery, to secure
freedom of the press and the rest of the freedoms that are still too casually dismissed as 'bourgeois' or 'luxuries of the prosperous'. Concretely, it is also incumbent upon the West to acknowledge by its actions that sustenance matters - not simply to croon praises of free markets. Free trade does not solve, and may exacerbate, the travails of poor countries, and countries that experience wrenching poverty are not good guarantors of law or liberty.

Meanwhile, the burden on the East and South is to acknowledge that the ensemble of human rights are (largely if not always) compatible in practice. They are not automatically at loggerheads, and human
ingenuity allows for many complex permutations and combinations of values. Jailing writers does not help a country feed its people. Torture does nothing to make a local economy sustainable. On the contrary: the jailers of writers are often the same governments that suppress workers' rights and collude with the destroyers of rainforests. Suppressers of women are often deniers of bread.

Moreover, 'Asian values' are not the Confucian monolith that certain rulers proclaim. There is a multiplicity of traditions available under the rubrics 'Asian', 'Buddhist', 'Hindu', 'Muslim', just as there are many Christianities, many Western traditions - including one not so proudly advertised these days, fascism.

After Communism and the Cold War, with their spurious unifications, the world is awash with conflicting claims, competing ways of seeing. It bears repeating that the political problem is not difference - difference is a human fact, or rather, a multiplicity of human facts. The problems include murderous conflict and the ruthless suppression of difference. From the present vantage-point it is blindingly clear that the Cold War served to stabilize an ignoble world order. With its meltdown comes centrifugal motion, which in some ways is the proof of the world's plenitude, its wealth of diversity. But much avoidable suffering also results. The horsemen of the apocalypse ride high. Nationalist and tribal
resurgences seem to mock all universal declarations.

Yet today two ideals offer chances to affirm that humanity has a common nature and prospect - human rights and ecological sanity. For all the crimes and miseries of the present, the fact remains that the global nature of the challenges has never before been so widely recognized. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights offers an invaluable general template. If different parts of the world fall short of the Declaration in different ways, there remains a common direction, a single standard of judgement. There will remain diverse imperfections and diverse ways of living up to the single standard. But we would be farther along now if we agreed on a general refusal to dredge up alibis for failure. We are familiar with all the self-exculpatory lines of argument - as in: 'Those who accuse us of crimes against liberty are themselves guilty of crimes against equality', and so on. These accusations add up to a formula for failure. The politics of excuses serves only the complacency of the privileged. The duel of alibis blocks all improvements. Not either/or but both/and is the proper approach.

Todd Gitlin is a sociologist, essayist, novelist, and professor of culture, journalism, and sociol-ogy at New York University. His most recent book, which elaborates the themes of this article, is The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars (Henry Holt 1995).



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New Internationalist issue 298 magazine cover This article is from the January 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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