A pro-Hamas demonstrator throws a stone toward riot police, during a demonstration in Paris on July 19.
Adam Barborich studied in the Pennsylvania State University, USA. His interests lie in various disciplines including mining engineering, business administration, political studies and Buddhist Philosophy. He travels extensively and has a passion for elephants and conservation. A military veteran and former elected official in his home country, he now resides in Sri Lanka while working as an independent consultant and an assistant boxing coach at Royal College.
Human rights are in the news everywhere today. Yet, for a topic that receives so much attention throughout the world, the definition of human rights is clouded in a mist of philosophical and metaphysical speculation and a healthy amount of political double-talk.
I read a piece from Dr Dayan Jayatilleka in which he asserted that human rights are not a “western invention”. I must respectfully disagree with the good doctor on this, while agreeing with the rest of what he said on that occasion. Human rights are a western invention. In fact, it is doubtful that the modern idea of human rights could’ve developed outside of the western political and religious climate at the time of their formulation. Like any good idea, the portion of human rights doctrine that is based in respect for other human beings and the value of human life has a very basic origin across cultures. That similarity is found in the increasingly uncommon notion of common decency. However, the invention of human rights as a moral and political doctrine has its basis in western economics, politics, religion and philosophy. I believe it is very important to recognise this in any discussion of human rights.
"The rights of women are viewed from the perspective of a capitalistic consumer economy and an individualistic society, where women should be assured of their “right” to function as a productive cog in the capitalist machine. The right to education often means the right to enough education to function in the economy at a basic level, with any further education available for a fee"
The modern concept of human rights is a direct descendant of the theory of natural law. Some concept of a universal law of nature is found in throughout the world and is a fundamental idea in Buddhism. In the west, natural law was incorporated into Catholic theology by thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas. In this framework, natural law was a creation of the Christian god as an Aristotelian “prime mover”. The goal of natural law was to provide a model for a properly ordered society. This concept of natural law led to a hierarchal system of political order in which the “divine right” of kings, “just war”, the role of the Church in politics and early conceptions of “international law” were first formulated.
In England the independent power of feudal nobles in opposition to the king led to the Magna Carta and a parliament. The evolving power of English government and its relative isolation from Rome eventually led to the rise of Protestantism under the English Crown. This turn to Protestantism with an ultimate allegiance to a political order divorced from the mechanisms of the Catholic Church was important in creating an atmosphere conducive a growing emphasis on the freedom of the individual. It was in the century following this radical change in religion that the chaos of the English Civil War brought forth more radical ideas in the political realm.
Thomas Hobbes disregarded the idea of natural law as a product of divine order. Instead, he saw the need of an absolute sovereign to act as an artificial “Leviathan” created by men to escape “the state of nature” where life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. This established a “contractual” relationship between the government and the governed. A sovereign was no longer afforded loyalty by “divine right”. Instead sovereignty was a natural outgrowth of a society acting rationally and living by a “social contract” in which they delegated their individual liberty to a sovereign who was responsible for their protection. This was a rather revolutionary idea at the time and it is still taught as a fundamental idea in political science.
"The emergence of a mercantilist economy, followed by the industrial revolution and the emergence of capitalism in the west led to even more political emphasis on the individual in relation to society. Lastly, the revolutions in America and France led to bold experiments in different forms of governance specifically built around these conceptions of “Human Rights” as “natural rights”"
John Locke also agreed with the concept of the “social contract”. However, he believed that instead of entering a social contract in order to protect oneself, one entered the social contract to protect their individual “natural rights” of life liberty, and property. Not only could loyalty be withdrawn from an ineffective sovereign, subjects could actually be justified in overthrowing a sovereign who did not protect or infringed upon these “natural rights”. In Locke’s state of nature, all men were created equal and free as children of God. Man was also in possession of a “natural right” to the fruits of his own labour (property) in the state of nature. The sovereign’s duty for Locke was simply to protect these “natural rights” and provide civil procedures to resolve disputes between free men.
It is with Locke that the modern conception of “human rights” really begins to take shape. Due to the economic shift from feudalism to mercantilism, the King and the formerly agrarian nobles faced competition from the emerging bourgeois class of merchants and traders. In this changing environment, the ideas of Locke and others like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine found fertile soil in which to grow. The American and French Revolutions were the culmination of this movement from the emphasis on “natural law” and social order to “natural rights” and individual liberty.
Of course the doctrine of human rights has expanded dramatically in the two centuries since the period in question. However, there are important things to consider in the context of the invention of human rights. One is that Locke’s theory of natural rights was a logical outgrowth of the dominant Protestant Christian thought of the time. The emergence of a mercantilist economy, followed by the industrial revolution and the emergence of capitalism in the west led to even more political emphasis on the individual in relation to society. Lastly, the revolutions in America and France led to bold experiments in different forms of governance specifically built around these conceptions of “human rights” as “natural rights”.
It is important to understand this history of human rights in order to understand their context in the world today. As Jeremy Bentham pointed out, the doctrine of human rights given by a creator god or “nature”, is essentially “nonsense on stilts”. However, I believe the idea that governments should create and preserve human rights for their peoples is still a good idea. When it is stripped of its metaphysical elements it becomes exactly what President Mahinda Rajapaksa mentioned in his speech at the United Nations, “a moral and ethical concept” instead of a “political tool”.
Much like the theories of the “social contract” and governments deriving their authority through “consent of the governed” from Hobbes and Locke, human rights are also a legal fiction. Since they have become enshrined in “International Law”, they are interpreted as having a meaning beyond merely a moral and ethical concept. Couple this existence as a legal fiction with the western conception of human rights as an entity of quasi-divine invention and it becomes easy to see the reason why human rights are often used as a political tool to undermine national sovereignty.
We must be mindful of the fact that human rights, the entire concept of “international law”, treaties and multi-lateral agreements are forever going to be used in statecraft, just like military and economic power. Any nation acting in pursuit of its interests will not hesitate to avail itself of any means at its disposal to justify that self-interest. That is simply the nature of the beast. However, the origin and development of the human rights doctrine contains aspects that make it more easily exploitable in this aim. Part of it is simple realpolitik, but there is an underlying problem of interpretation that must be addressed as well.
This is where misunderstandings occur among cultures in the context of human rights. In western nations they often approach the subject through their own lenses. They endow “rights” with a quasi-sacred status and deem any perceived “infringement”, regardless of context, as a form of tyranny. The fact that western nations often see human rights as given by god, nature or some other inexplicable metaphysical force, rather than as ethical concepts and legal fictions created by human governments, means that alleged “infringements” of human rights are viewed on par with “crimes against nature”. This is why it often becomes a useful tool to use against other nations.
There is also a problem of context. The western nations have difficulty in understanding human rights outside of their own political context. The rights of the political opposition are framed against the backdrop of a system where the opposition organises and brings change peacefully through established institutions, not in contexts where the opposition seeks change from the barrel of a gun. The rights of women are viewed from the perspective of a capitalistic consumer economy and an individualistic society, where women should be assured of their “right” to function as a productive cog in the capitalist machine. The right to education often means the right to enough education to function in the economy at a basic level, with any further education available for a fee. Religious freedoms are often viewed from the perspective of irreligious societies. Labour rights, or the lack thereof, are viewed in the context of developed economies, often with generous welfare provisions. This makes the conception of a “sacred” human right in a western context difficult to apply in the same manner in other contexts.
It is also ironic considering the zeal with which some western nations wield the concept of human rights against other nations, to note that there is no real agreement on what constitutes a human right in the west. Some say that it is a human right to have free healthcare, others do not. Some say that is a human right to form a trade union, others do not. Some oppose capital punishment, others do not. Some recognise human rights existing solely as a means protecting the individual from being unreasonably impeded by the government, while others recognise rights as allowing an individual to claim action from the government to aid their individual pursuits, or what Isaiah Berlin called positive liberty versus negative liberty. These are among the least contentious of issues. When “rights” to abortion, marriage, a living wage or a pension enter the mix, there is even more disagreement on individual domestic policies. In international affairs, the concepts of responsibility to protect in cases of genocide and crimes against humanity, as well as the morality and legality of military and economic intervention to “protect” these same human rights that are so difficult to define, is more contentious still.
When we consider all of this, it is unsurprising that many take a very cynical view of human rights or consider them as a tool of western imperialism. However, I believe in human rights. I see the revolutionary potential of human rights to bring about a more just order in our domestic and international politics. However, it is important that we approach human rights as a moral, ethical and legal concept created by human beings and as a tool to make the life of human beings better. Every government in every nation needs to strive to develop and protect human rights domestically. Internationally, we must bring our individual national experiences to the table and define what human rights are in collaboration with other nations, instead of allowing a simplistic and obsolete definition of human rights to be used as a tool to interfere in the affairs of sovereign nations. Human rights are here to stay as a concept and that is a good thing. Now it is time to commit ourselves to the human rights concept, to define and implement them and not to retreat from them or use them to demonise nations with whom we have differences. Only by doing this can we ensure that the doctrine of human rights remains meaningful in our world.