Monday, February 02, 2009

Human rights on the balance

Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“Universal Declaration”) in 1948, there has never been a more striking split between categories of human rights than between political and economic rights.

Articles 3 to 21 of the Universal Declaration define the fundamental political rights of man while economic rights are enshrined in Articles 22 to 28. Naturally, the Universal Declaration bifurcated into two distinct and different covenants: the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“Political Covenant”) and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (“Economic Covenant”). These two covenants also reflected the great divide between the more developed states (the capitalist countries or free market economies) and the less developed or newly-developing countries, or in present day parlance, the North (Western States) and the South (Third World).

This split into two covenants has disruptive ramifications as it allowed states to adopt some rights and derogate others. The United States, for example, has ratified the “Political Covenant” while withholding acceptance of the “Economic Covenant” which was signed by President Carter but until now remains frozen in the U.S. Senate.

It has never been the intention of the Universal Declaration to morph into two covenants but the Western states demanded the division. They insisted that economic and social rights cannot be deemed as rights but essentially aspirations or plans and their realization depended on the availability of resources and on economic theory and ideology. Such rights, according to the West, should not impose binding obligations and be allowed to dilute the legal character of honouring political and civil rights.

Both economic and political rights were included in the Universal Declaration on the assumption that these rights could only successfully exist in combination. Meaning that human beings can only enjoy civil and political freedom and freedom from fear and want in conditions where everyone can also enjoy their social, economic and cultural rights, as well.

Following the full-belly thesis, without civil and political rights the public cannot assert their economic, social and cultural rights. Similarly, without livelihoods and an economically viable society, the public cannot assert or make use of their civil or political rights. Under this assumption, all human rights are indivisible and interdependent, and this has been confirmed by the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, which states that:

“All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and related. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis.”

The stark reality, however, is that most signatories to the Universal Declaration do not assign equal value to the different types of rights. Some Western countries have often given priority to civil and political rights, sometimes at the expense of economic and social rights such as the right to work, to education, health, food and housing. In the United States, for example, there is no universal access to free health care, although these rights are not overlooked in Canada and Western Europe, particularly in the welfare states. In the same vein, developing countries, such as those in Africa and Asia, have tended to place priority on economic, social and cultural rights, but often failed in providing civil and political rights to their citizens.

This great rift between political and economic rights is never more obvious in majority of governments today – those newly emerging countries from the Third World which have embraced free and open elections and other basic features of democracy such as free press and the right to peaceful assembly. But their concept of human rights veers away from the Western or Northern model, which emphasizes political and civil liberties. To these new governments, development issues, economic and social rights are top priority, so the luxury of political freedoms can come later.

The combined voices of the global South on human rights pose a considerable diplomatic challenge to European and North American governments, particularly to the United States which seems the least prepared to respond to this challenge. Official American participation has been conspicuously absent in recent initiatives by the United Nations in building new norms in international law and human rights, notably the International Criminal Court and the United Nations Human Rights Council. It has been the policy of the U.S. government and pro-Israeli groups to ignore the UN’s human rights apparatus and the new Human Rights Council. Without philosophical compromises between the United States and the blocs of nations often unfriendly to America, it seems likely that the United States will continue to be missing in action on almost every human rights initiative by the United Nations.

One probable reason for the widening split between political and economic rights is the rise of cultural relativism which seems to push back the concept of universality of human rights. Those who are critical of human rights argue that it is essentially a Western concept, rooted in the ideology of the West and its ideals, and that it only serves the political and economic interests of the West. Human rights as promoted by the United Nations is oftentimes seen by its detractors as another way for the West to impose its sense of superiority over the less developed countries, and has thus become a new form of neo-colonialism.

Countries who have adopted cultural relativism argue for acceptance of their distinct indigenous cultures which may clash with human rights. An example is female genital mutilation in different cultures in Africa, Asia and South America. It has become a traditional practice in many cultures although not mandated by any religion. Much of the international community considers this practice as a violation of women’s and girls’ rights and is outlawed in some countries.

Universalism is often described by some as cultural, economic or political imperialism. Thus, the concept of human rights that is fundamentally rooted in a liberal outlook generally acceptable in Europe or North America is not necessarily taken as a standard for everyone.

Louis Arbour, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has held the West responsible for perverting the concept of universality. According to Arbour, the United States in particular has never embraced freedom from want as a right:

“It [the U.S.] has been the champion of civil liberties – of freedom from fear – but freedom from want was meant to be achieved by a healthy marketplace... not a place for governments to play too large a role. The developing countries – and whether they are in bad faith or good faith – are doing exactly the opposite. They claim at least to be very interested in freedom from want and that freedom from fear would look after itself if their populations were not starving. These are very profound clashes of vision.”

The new U.S. administration has a very difficult diplomatic role of reversing its image to rest of the world, particularly to the non-Western nations, if it wants to be an important player on the international stage. It must, as President Barack Obama has said many times during the presidential campaign, be willing to open meaningful dialogues, not only with its friends but also with its enemies. This would be a smart step in rebuilding American credibility. It is also a very important step in paving the way for international discussions on human rights with the end in view of restoring the true intent of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as it is broadly understood.

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