Waking early after yesterday’s flight to Port of Spain, and sitting above the Gulf of Paria, watching the swallows sweeping past my window, has given me time to reflect on something I have been meaning to write for ages. I have long argued that both the notion of “Universal Human Rights”, and its acceptance as being a default position in much international discourse, has been hugely damaging for poor and marginalised peoples, and should be replaced by a Human Responsibilities agenda. I first articulated elements of this argument in my 2010 paper on “ICTs, citizens, and the state: moral philosophy and development practices“, and also shared some thoughts on this at the Stockholm Internet Forum in 2013, but have never had the time to develop this into a more formal account (see also my pieces on balancing democracies and DFID’s approach to development aid). Suffice it to say, that I still don’t have the time to do this in the detail it warrants, but I want to take the opportunity to share the outline of the argument here. One day, I will craft the more formal account!
Lest I am misunderstood, I want to begin by highlighting three important caveats that underlie what follows:
- In my earlier accounts, I argued strongly that we should disband the notion of Human Rights altogether. I now accept that making such an absolute and dogmatic approach is too antagonistic because the notion of Human Rights is too heavily embedded in global thinking and policy making. Hence, my present position suggests that the Human Rights agenda needs to be balanced by a Human Responsibilities Agenda.
- Most of those who advocate a “responsibilities” approach to these matters do so from a neo-liberal or broadly “right-wing” stance; I very much want to distance myself from such a position, and instead see my arguments as being profoundly radical. Indeed, as I hope to show below, I see the Human Rights approach being one that largely reinforces the status quo, in the interests of those in power.
- I also want to be very clear that I am not in any way suggesting that we should not put in place some kind of mechanisms to prevent the almost unimaginable horrors that have been, and continue to be, committed all too often across the world by some people on others. As I write, the ongoing massacres of Yazidis and Christians by the so-called Islamic State/Caliphate are an all too shocking reminder of the continual savagery, and what some would decry as evil, that can be found across the world today. However, I do not think that a Human Rights agenda actually prevents such atrocities; if it did, would they still be promulgated?
The fundamental premise
The fundamental premise that I seek to illustrate through the arguments that follow is that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights has supported the legitimacy of a particular kind of social formation, often called capitalism, that has a tendency to lead to greater inequality in the world rather than substantially improving the lives of the poorest, most marginalised and most vulnerable. I argue, that this must be balanced by a Human Responsibilities agenda that places at least as much emphasis on the responsibilities of states and of individuals to the least advantaged in our societies. It is insufficient simply to say they have rights; we all have responsibilities to act.
Strands in the argument
The various strands of my argument need fully qualifying, referencing, and linking together more cogently, but more or less in chronological order they are as follows:
- The idea that humans have rights is a relatively recent one in human evolution. There is much debate about the origins of ideas associated with human rights, but I suggest that it is actually very recent. Far too often, advocates of human rights agendas seek to identify obscure elements of past legal texts as the precursors of modern thinking on the subject, as with elements of the Cyrus cylinder dating from the 6th century BC (see for example United for Human Rights). However, it is very difficult to sustain such arguments, and many are based on ex post facto reasoning. One of the most interesting things about the human rights agenda is that most of the world’s religions have little if anything to say actually about human rights. For humanists, who reject the project of religions, human rights can be interpreted as part of human emancipation from the darkness of religion. However, for those who hold to the beliefs of religions such as Christianity and Islam, although they are very much concerned with what being human really means, and they challenge many of the perceived evils of the societies in which they were formed, there is actually remarkably little if anything in them about the precise idea of humans having rights. Magna Carta, the great charter agreed between the Barons and King John in England in 1215, is often seen as providing the initial framework for the modern concept of human rights through its inclusion of the clause that “No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right”. It was in the 17th century, though, in the writing of Hobbes and Locke that a more formal concept of human rights can be seen as having evolved in the context of the emergent Enlightenment and social contract theory. The essence of their argument was that in seeking to resolve their conflicting desires for peace and power, people cede some of their rights to the sovereign in return for protection. This notion lies at the heart of social contract theory that was developed further in the 18th century by authors such as Rousseau, and reached political fruition in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789.
- There is nothing universal about human rights. Point (1) above emphasises that the notion of human rights has evolved; it has not therefore been universally accepted throughout history. A counter to this particular logic is, of course, the different logic that there has always been a universal, and it is only now becoming increasingly revealed and understood over time. These two logics need resolution, but it is not only a matter of time and history. Space and geography matter! Different cultures have evolved different belief systems and ontologies, and there have been many contrasting arguments about universals. Having long reflected on this, my overwhelming conclusion is that about the only widely accepted moral position is the Golden Rule of “do as you would be done by”. I have always been challenged, for example, by the rights of cannibalism. For a cannibal, it is her or his right to eat someone; for the person being eaten, it is clearly her or his right to remain alive. There are also clearly ongoing debates as to what should be included in human rights agendas, some of which are discussed further below, but the fact that there is little universal agreement across cultures on exactly what should be considered a human right is itself an illustration of the suggestion that there are few if any universals.
- Instead, human rights should be seen as a means through which a dominant ideology is imposed on others. To understand human rights, it is essential to understand where (the geography) and when (the history) of its emergence. It is no coincidence that modern thinking on human rights emerged in 17th century Europe. It did not emerge in Africa, Asia or the Americas. It emerged hand in hand with the rise of individualism, in contrast with what was seen as the cloying hand of communal practices. Enclosure provided the opportunity for individual profit from the land, instead of the traditional common and open field systems. This was essential for the emergence of capitalism, vested fundamentally in private property rights, through which individuals could generate profit. It was likewise no coincidence that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN in 1948 in the immediate aftermath of the 1939-45 war. To be sure, it was in part a response to the horrors of the holocaust, but it must be asked, for example, why there was not the creation of a similar declaration after the very different kind of horror of the 1914-18 war? It is also no coincidence that the drafting committee was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the US President. Although its nine members did indeed include representatives from Chile, China, Lebanon and the USSR, the dominant voice was that of the capitalist “West”, represented by Australia, Canada, France, the UK and the USA. The vast populations and cultures of Africa and South Asia were omitted and ignored. The case I develop below is that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has thus become a vehicle through which global capitalism has sought to impose a universal hegemony on what is seen as being right. It is, though, not actually in the interests of the poor and marginalised, but rather serves the interests of the rich and powerful. To develop a new world order, we must therefore abandon the declaration, and replace it with an agenda that stresses the importance of communal traditions. Interestingly, such traditions are often seen to be grounded in many African practices, that were all too clearly ignored by the drafting committee.
- The human rights agenda has failed to save those who have suffered at the hands of violent people who have no belief in human rights. It may be that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has indeed reduced the amount of horror and violence meted out in the world over the last 66 years. Unfortunately, though, we have no means of measuring this; there are no counterfactuals. We take it on trust. However, it is very clear that unimaginable violence – from Rwanda to Syria and Iraq – has continued, regardless of the declaration. Let us never forget the horror and violence that men and women commit against each other, but let us ask whether the human rights approach is indeed the most powerful vehicle we can have to challenge this.
- The human rights agenda has become devalued and all-inclusive. One of the prime drivers for the Universal Declaration was undoubtedly the experiences of Allied troops who discovered the atrocities committed by Axis powers during and at the end of the 1939-45 war. This found expression in Article 3: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”. Yet, look at the hypocrisy even with the comment that “everyone has the right to life”: some states in Eleanor Roosevelt’s own country , the USA, still regularly take the lives of their citizens executed as the result of the passing of a death sentence, let alone taking the lives of innocent people killed elsewhere in the “war against terror”. Even more important than this, though, is the point that far too many things that are much less important than “life” are now considered to be human rights. Taken to the extreme, this has found expression in arguments that access to ICTs should be seen as a human right. Simplifying, this argument in essence is based on the logic that (1) education is a human right, (2) access to the Internet is crucial for education, and therefore (3) access to the internet is also a human right. As I have argued elsewhere, it is arrant nonsense to argue in such a way, but to understand why this is happening one needs to understand the interests underlying such arguments, because they are indeed powerful.
- The interests underlying a human rights agenda. Capitalism, especially as practised and promoted in the USA, is fundamentally driven by the need for people to be “free”. It is this freedom as a right that lies at the heart of the human rights agenda. It is not for nothing that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins with the statement that “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” (my emphasis). In a Marxist interpretation, freedom is essential for two simple things that capitalism is reliant upon: the freedom of individuals to sell their labour power (the essential source through which profit is created for the capitalist), and the freedom of individuals to purchase products (the mechanism through which such profit is realised). This was why it was so important for capitalism to overthrow “unfree” communism: so that a vast number of new labourers and consumers would be created, who were free to choose where and how they worked, and what they purchased. Individual-ism had to replace communal-ism. This was where the great con (even better and more subtle than that in The Sting) was played; it was largely done in the name of freedom. To revert to the example of access to the Internet as being a human right, it can readily be seen that this argument is driven fundamentally by those who will benefit from the Internet being made available to everyone, be they corporations selling the technology, to educationalists eager to promote/sell their ideas through the Internet. Yet how free are we? Some may think they are free to search all human knowledge on the Internet, but in reality they are paying, and usually giving far more information away about themselves than actually they are gaining; that is the source of profit of the global search engine and social media corporations. Are we not becoming mere appendages of the machines in front of which so many of us sit day in, day out, answering e-mails and losing our humanity?
Towards an alternative: communal solutions and a responsibilities approach
The forces of capitalism are indeed powerful, and even if they were not necessarily consciously embedded in the foundation of the Universal Declaration, they have since usurped it and now drive forward the human rights agenda primarily as a means through which they can generate further surplus profit at the expense of the poor and the marginalised. Make something a human right, someone is then expected to provide it, and this then becomes a business opportunity. The trouble is that actually all too often no-one provides it.
Hence, I want to argue that at the very least we need to redress the balance by advocating for a human responsibilities agenda; deep down I would still prefer to have a responsibilites agenda replace the rights-based agenda, but as I note above too many people make too much money out of the rights agenda for this to be feasible in the short term. Hence, I offer a compromise!
Elements in support of a radical responsibilities agenda go something like this:
- Human rights have failed; we need an alternative. As noted in (4) above, the notion of human rights seems neither to have had a significant impact on improving the lives of the poorest of the poor, nor on those who suffer from states and people determined to mutilate and massacre them. Over the last 20 years, the world has become more unequal, fuelled in part by the uses made of new Information and Communication Technologies; violence and hatred are rife, fuelled by individualistic human greed. Human rights, despite all the claims made for it has simply not delivered. I come close to thinking that all war and killing is a crime (despite arguments that claim that there is indeed something called a “Just War”), and that to define some incidents as being war crimes, whereas others are not is hugely problematic (but this enters a different, albeit fascinating discussion of war – perhaps the topic of a future blog post!). The fundamental point here is that the fear of retribution by the international community has seem to have done nothing to limit the worst abuses conceivable by the minds of those dedicated to inflicting horror. At least we must ask if there could just be an alternative.
- Shifting the emphasis to communal traditions. As will be clear from the above, I see the root of much of the ‘problem’ of human rights as being its fundamental emphasis on the rights of individuals. Do we as individuals really have rights? What makes humans have rights, other than their claim that they do? Might this not be false ideology based on the views of a rich and powerful minority? In many cultures, the value of the community has traditionally been seen as being higher than that of the individual. Indeed, the self sacrifice of many individuals to protect their communities, can be seen as reflecting the species survival, and thus essentially communal, nature of humanity. In particular, although there is much dispute over it, traditions such as Ubuntu in eastern Africa, the Gacaca courts in Rwanda, and Indaba in Nguni cultures, all reflect an important African communal emphasis. So too, I would argue, is the Christian tradition, drawing in part on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), but also the notion of Christ as a servant king (Luke 22), that places emphasis primarily on service. Christ’s two fundamental requests (Mark 12) are that we should love God, and love others as ourselves. There is nothing here about human rights, but rather an emphasis on our communal responsibilities. We have choices – to be individualistic and greedy, overly concerned with some presumed rights, or to serve others. Indeed, in Hobbes’ and Locke’s original formulations, it was to try to resolve this conflict between greed and peace, that the notion of giving up certain assumed rights was born. Perhaps if we placed greater emphasis on responsibilities, we might draw nearer to crafting a world which actually better helped achieve the objectives for which the human rights agenda has sought but failed to deliver.
- Responsibilities of states. Simply to say that individuals have rights, and therefore that states have a duty to ensure that these rights are delivered on is not enough. I assert that we must ensure that we embed in legislation the fundamental responsibilities of states to deliver certain things for their citizens, accepting that these might well differ between cultures and contexts. The richness and diversity of humanity is one of our strengths, and we should not seek always to identify universals, which as I state above seem to me primarily to be ways through which the rich and powerful impose their view of the world on others. The private sector’s unending pursuit of profit can never benefit the poorest and most marginalised; capitalism is built fundamentally on inequality. Hence, the role of states is primarily to mediate these excesses, and ensure that the poor can also live at peace without fear for their lives and livelihoods (in line with 17th century social contract arguments). It is only states that can achieve this. States therefore have fundamental responsibilities to their citizens, and if rulers fail to deliver on these they should be overthrown.
- And the responsibilities of individuals. Not only are states made up of individuals, but it is as individuals that we communicate and interact with each other. I can say to a person: “You have rights. Jolly good. The state will deliver on your rights. I need do nothing”. Or, I can think, “I have a responsibility to that person. I should therefore act in certain ways to them”. Responsibility is about action; rights are about inaction. The human rights agenda has been a way that we can be absolved of our responsibilities to each other. I am seeking to reverse this so that we do indeed take action as individuals for each other. It may only appear to be a subtle difference, but to me it requires an entirely different emphasis and way of thinking. The responsibilities agenda means quite simply that states have responsibilities to their citizens, and as individuals we have responsibilities to each other.
- Who pays for human rights and responsibilities? I have long been challenged about the disconnect between human rights, and payment for delivery of those rights. Many argue that “the right to education” is a human right, but that it is fine for this to be delivered by the private sector. This seems to imply that someone might have a right to education, but that they would have to pay for it. I find this logic unsatisfactory. It is akin to saying you have a “right to life”, but you have to pay for it, which would seem to be a licence for highway robbers to take lives! It seems to me that if you have to pay for a right it is not actually a right. Poor people are highly likely to be disadvantaged, for example, in a society where health and education have to be paid for. Again, this would seem to reinforce the arguments in (6) above, which suggest that some of the most powerful advocates of human rights are those who seek to exploit them for monetary gain. This would certainly seem to be the case for those who want to make access to the Internet a human right! If we replace such a logic, though, by one that says that states have responsibilities to ensure that all of their citizens have, for example, free housing, health and education, this would require societies to find ways to deliver on this, through mechanisms such as taxation. Once again, the responsibilities agenda ia about the common good, rather than the individual greed and selfishness of the human rights agenda.
It is difficult to summarise complex arguments drawn from many sources in just a few lines, and this post is already overly long! However, I would love to hear back from anyone who would like to point out the flaws in my outline argument, so that I can incorporate responses in my more formal, rigorous and detailed argument. Who knows, it might evolve into one of my next books!
My aim is to persuade people that we must balance any universal human rights agenda by a human responsibilities agenda. This will require a radical rethink of all those reductionist arguments, especially by those in the UN system, that simply see human rights as the fundamental grounding for so much of their work. I hope that, at the very least, my arguments here challenge such a supposition, and go some way to persuading others that the human rights agenda is part of a capitalist conspiracy that claims to make people free, but actually enslaves and dehumanises them.