Making Human Rights a Universal Tool

(The Origin of Principles, 25 Mar 2013)

Olivier Beys ·

Even though human rights are an entirely artificial construct, a human rights approach can be a truly universal tool in addressing world problems on a practical level. To that specific end, these rights should not be seen as normative soft law but rather as instruments to enforce minimum standards. Potentially, they could rally people with different belief systems around a common goal. By doing so, they can guide our principles in a very different way than ideological or religious concepts.

The insufficiency of ideology and religion.

The question of where mankind’s morality and its ensuing values are derived from is a quintessential challenge that has troubled people since time immemorial. The ancients attributed our sense of morals and principles to either spiritual or divine origins or – at least since the dawn of Greek philosophy in the 6th century BC – framed them in a wide range of philosophical constructs. Unfortunately, neither had any empirical foundation.

Thanks to ongoing research in the neurosciences, and in particular discoveries about our conscience, we are starting to understand the true mechanisms governing our daily life. For some, this is worrisome. Scientists are now contesting theories put forward by philosophers and ethicists that have been common knowledge for ages.

One such example is the pervasive idea of the “Cartesian Theater”, a term coined by the philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett. The Cartesian Theater refers to the view that somewhere in the brain there is a hub of some kind, being fed a continuous stream of sensory inputs, based on which it makes ‘conscious’ decisions. In reality, our decisions are made through countless feedback loops between various parts of the brain. A groundbreaking study by Benjamin Libet showed that people execute movements, for example the decision to grab a cup of coffee, just nanoseconds before they actually become conscious of the desire to drink coffee. In short, there is no central decision making device through which we make conscious decisions.

These discoveries have radical implications on the often nurtured idea of free will – or rather, the lack of it – in contemporary western thinking. Furthermore, it touches on domains such as economics (are we really rational beings, as standard heterodox economic theory assumes?), or law enforcement (are we truly responsible for our own actions?). Naturally, for practical purposes, we need to sideline these newfangled notions, lest we feel inclined to plunge society into the faceless depths of nihilism.

This conclusion is not a plea to return to fanciful divine world views. Far from it. The simple understanding that rules, norms, social relations, principles and values resulting from a particular view on morality are all very much artificial, opens up opportunities. In fact, it liberates us from dogma. Religious values are based on a belief system that claims universal truths of divine origin, though textual criticism has shown extensively that these narratives are all man-made in the course of many decades or centuries.

Along the same lines, dogmatic ideologies have been deconstructed. Time and again they have proven to explain a part of society, but not everything. This can be illustrated by the plethora of political splinter groups in existence today, from liberal nationalists to social or green liberals to capitalist communists. No ideology has the power to convince all of us what morality and which according principles we should exercise. From a postmodern point of view, one could argue that people simply pick and choose their world view depending on their experiences, their social and geographic environment and so on. Does this mean we should abandon the search for a universal set of principles?

Human rights and their opponents.

People will be people, and obviously such a quest will never be given up. In that respect, probably the most remarkable experiment since the close of the Second World War is the development of human rights, epitomized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) drafted and ratified at the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. The essential element here is the word “universal”. The declaration pretends to be global in nature, and thus applicable to everyone. On a very fundamental level, the principles enshrined in the document should guide our morality.

Saying that the universality of human rights are contested is of course stating the obvious. It is conspicuous in particular in the United Nations General Assembly, probably the best forum to see the controversy in action. Fierce critics can be found amongst those who believe that the state has priority over the individual. They usually invoke sovereignty as a valid argument to resist the universality of human rights. Since the declaration defends exactly those individual rights in the face of an abusive state, it is perhaps not surprising that the USSR, during the preliminary debates in the Commission on Human Rights in 1947-1948, called civil and political rights an “18th-century affair”.

Then there are countries ruled by a religious regime that reject the Universal Declaration. To them, the Declaration is “a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition”, as an Iranian UN delegate remarked in 1982 without any argument as to how that tradition was translated into the declaration. He went on to say that the document could not be implemented by Muslims without trespassing the Islamic law, and that an instrument should be established that was “truly universally accepted”.

Later in 1990, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation adopted the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, in which human rights are subjugated to the Sharia. And so, like their ideological counterparts, religious zealots stick to a discriminatory approach: because dogma doesn’t allow dissenting opinions and since diversity is intentionally eliminated, their view of universality means that everyone should adopt the one and only creed. Knowing that an agreement about morality by everyone on planet earth is impossible, it is easy to see why that line of reasoning simply won’t offer any workable solution.

That is why the only alternative is to be found in human rights, which can apply to everyone, regardless of their race, creed, ideology and other traits. Much like a social protection floor, they function as a threshold that cannot be crossed. For example, only by guaranteeing the right to religion can a person truly choose his or her own belief. In fact, religious people should fully support this rights based approach. After all, it is in their own interest to be sure their religious practices will not be threatened by others.

In short: the problem here is not the human rights themselves, but the ideological or religious dogma thanks to which political dialogue is impossible. If taken up seriously, a human rights approach can turn out to be an instrument enabling us to tackle a wide range of problems on the world stage, regardless of ideological barriers between the different political players in the arena. As the next section will point out, this can be of much help in a time where the debate is often “depoliticized”.

The problem of depoliticization.

This becomes clear when looking at the debates regarding our current economic system. In spite of the financial and economic crisis that has been ravaging the West in particular, and as a result the whole world, the dominant system of capitalism is still firmly in place. Tighter regulation has been advocated and agreed upon, resulting for example in the Basel III Accord, a set of rules strengthening capital requirements, liquidity and leverage for banks. All in all though, these changes are modest and piecemeal.

Many, particularly among the (radical) left, bemoan the simple fact that this vast and complex system is not up for serious discussion in contemporary politics, media or among citizens. True enough, vested interests are too deeply entrenched, and what’s more: in the current paradigm we’re all very much part of the problem. Save for insane dictatorships like the North-Korean pandemonium, or indigenous people clinging on to their habitat, globalization has made it almost impossible to unhinge oneself from this “machine”.

This “depoliticization” of our economy has been popularized by the likes of Slavoj Žižek. While it is true that the ‘most dangerous philosopher in the West’ has a good number of flaws and gaps in his theory, he’s spot on about this issue. Not only because the economy is out of reach of true political debate, but also because this depoliticization distorts what drives and motivates us. It has rationalized and materialized the principles that govern our lives along a mostly utilitarian line.

Ostensibly, many important debates are still fought between left and right. Returning to the economic arena, a lot of ink is wasted on the debate between austerity and growth spending. In reality, the proponents on both sides still very much support a capitalist route out of this crisis. When push comes to shove, their common principles all lead to economic growth measured in GDP increases. They merely bicker about the path leading up to that holy grail.

This convergence of classical left and right, or rather the tilting of the political center towards a rightwing utilitarian side of the spectrum, gained even bigger momentum with the advent of the ‘Third Way’. People like Anthony Giddens sought to try to reconcile right-wing and left-wing politics. However, in doing so, they neutralized the political debate. Now, how could a human rights based approach repair the political debate, rather than avoid it, as Third Way proponents did?

How the human rights can work.

It is important to remember that human rights are an instrument, and that it is a choice. The only assumption made is that they should be able to apply to anyone. They are especially useful because they are operational. Take the problem of world hunger for instance. Everyone will agree that everybody should have enough to eat. What people disagree on is which economic model should be used to achieve it. At one point a theory will dominate the debate, after which the problem is often depoliticized to a certain extent. If that happens and hunger persists, it becomes awfully difficult to contest the approach taken by policy makers.

With a rights based approach on the other hand, the issue cannot be depoliticized. Olivier De Schutter, UN special rapporteur on the right to food explains it in very simple terms: “The world’s 1 billion hungry people do not deserve charity: they have a human right to adequate food, and governments have corresponding duties, which are enshrined in international human rights law. Governments that are serious about making progress on development objectives should be asked to adopt a legislative framework for the realisation of economic and social rights, such as the right to food or the right to health care”.

With such a legislative framework in place, “accountability mechanisms should be established, allowing victims to hold governments responsible for their failure to take action. This removes the stigma of charity, and it is empowering for victims. Instead of being helped because they have unsatisfied needs, they are granted remedies because their rights are being violated”. It is important to note that it’s still up to society to debate on how exactly these rights should be met. With a rights based approach however, the debate can no longer be avoided, since people can effectively take matters into their own hands.

To conclude, the human rights approach can help us define our principles more clearly, and put them up for debate on a regular basis. They are often portrayed as ‘Western’, but even if they originated there they are not Western in nature. Human rights are merely instruments, entirely devoid of dogma, with the only assumption being that everyone should be able to enjoy them without any discrimination. The toolbox can be used to guarantee basic levels of entitlements and freedoms, individual as well as collective, and it still leaves ample room for a political debate. In fact it might even revive it.