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Valar Qringaomis

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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Human Rights and Universality

BBC Radio 4 - Are Human Rights Really Universal?, Episode 1

"There are lots of claimed universalisms in this world. Religions, political creeds, ideas of the common good. Why should this one - the language of universal rights - be adhered to above all others?...

For anyone, any institution, any person to speak on behalf of humanity, how is that possible? Because that presumes that the human race is actually a political entity, which it is not... indeed it is an act of hubris, perhaps, to speak for the human race. Not even the United Nations which after all is an institution which represents nation-states, can speak on the behalf of it. So I think there is a fundamental impossibility there. Human rights in particular is the most prominent attempt of this attempt, an impossible attempt to speak on behalf of the human... Rights are by no means a universal idea. They're a political invention and some would say a Western one...

'There's always been Linguas Francas around the world. I think what happened was that as the Western world lost its primacy and was forced to cooperate with the rest of the world, the language that needed to be used for people to engage in moral debates expanded. It could no longer be based on the Bible or the Christian God because so much of the rest of the world rejected those ideas and so a new moral vocabulary emerged. A vocabulary is one that is basically derived from Western history, Western institutions and Western norms'...

'If you look at how Confucianism would think about self, I think that the liberal democratic assumption is really prioritising these individual rights and individual liberty. And these assumption that it's the primary role of the government to assure this kind of individual liberty... The Confucianism idea is that the self is only defined through your communal ties, your social attachment'...

'A really illuminating way to see human rights is as a kind of secular replacement for religion. At the same time as through science and other forms of criticism, the idea that both moral and social answers are given by God begins to decline, various other ideas and philosophies come to fill that gap... The modern human rights, post Second World War takes a lot of religious symbols and iconography but gives it a secular twist. So candles and barbed wire, prisoners of conscience, these are all religious ideas. And at the core of that is for me this idea of innocence. That the sort of innocent Christ figure is replaced by the innocent child'...

'It's surely a pivotal moment when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights appears and is called a Universal Declaration... The first article reads all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights and it is a statement of a metaphysical position - human beings matter in virtue of being humans. They have a status based on their high rank, which is what dignity means, which entitles them to protection. And so whatever else it is, it is clearly a controversial moral view that most human beings we know would've rejected for most of history'...

'Of course there are exceptions in application. We know for example that in times of warfare it is lawful to kill someone and the right to life not universal in the sense that it applies at all times and in all places. So you need to go through the minimum rights, the core rights, and ask yourself the question in what circumstances, if any, may they be abrogated. I don't think you can say that all human rights are universal. Some are more universal than others'...

'There is a temptation in the world of human rights to be like a cuckoo, travelling around from nest to nest of greatest hits of the past, picking those bits and turning them into human rights bits. Oh, there's Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, that's a bit of human rights. Oh, there's Mohammed, that's a bit of human rights. Oh, look at that guy out in Babylon, he's produced a constitution. I'll take that as the Rule of Law. So you have to be a little careful... what the language of human rights today reflects are commitments to democratic. governance, to the dignity of all and the rule of law, which are reflected in ancient cultures from ancient times, but which were not necessarily called human rights advances when they were made. The threads transcend the current language of human rights and that's what we should be looking for and those threads are universal threads. Searches for representativeness in government and searches for the notion that the State has to be bound by law. These are persistent threads across the world'

'Every powerful movement finds its precursors. Christianity later cast Judaism as Christianity waiting to happen. Communism looked for its own origins not just in the workers' movements and Karl Marx but back in Prophetic Judaism and its call for redistribution or Plato's communism. And the same is now happening today with the human rights movement, which seeks a usable past, seeks to see itself as not a contingent recent creation but almost as if all history were paving the road for it, which is just not the case. Human rights have become more and more plausible for more and more people but that doesn't mean they've always existed or always will...

'The language that you're using is too abstract. People with radically different views may be able to agree abstractly that human dignity or human wellbeing is a worthy goal, but they have such different notions of what that means that in practice they can't live with each other'

'Today, human rights and its order are quickly losing grasp of humanity itself as a category. Where you find a really fulsome sense of human solidarity and of humanity is outside this language of laws. It's in ecological movements, in concerns and activism over climate change, rising sea levels, water scarcity'


BBC Radio 4 - Are Human Rights Really Universal?, Episode 2

"There was trouble from the start.

First they had to contemplate the metaphysical meaning of being human. Was it some moral community? Or a rights-bearing individual? For individual rights, it was pointed out, are far from a universal idea to be found in all cultures. They're surely a Western one, borne out of the Enlightenment and its revolutions: the American Declaration of Independence, the French Revolution and the Rights of Man. The universalism of 1948 drew on this history, expanding the political community from citizens to the whole of humanity...

The voices of truly religious Islam was absent. The voice of Africa was absent in customary law and so on. And therefore when we seek to say that this is about a universal set of values, we actually didn't really dig deeply into the traditions of many of the peoples of the world...

The years of 1947, many countries have not yet been granted the right to self-determination. In fact, the United Nations of 1947-1948 is not very representative. We had only about 50+ countries...

Are human rights universal because their foundations are actually buried deep in all human cultures? Are they universal because they declare themselves to be natural and inalienable? Or is universalism itself a political guise? A kind of neo-colonial endeavour presented as moral right?

'The idea of calling it universal. It is a way of legitimising a particular discourse. In other words, it was called the Universal Declaration in the same way that the Friends called their Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen - The Rights of Man of Citizen. In order to create these things. So if you in a sense adopt a particular term, a particular predicate universal - all the rights of man and citizen when you are creating something in order to give it a certain legitimacy. A certain symbolic status and prestige'...

'Julian Huxley, who was the director of UNESCO at that time, sent out a series of letters to eminent personages around the world asking their opinion on human rights. One of these letters went to Mahatma Gandhi... here is the apostle of non-violence who writes back to Huxley denying importance of human rights, saying that a rights - though we might claim them to be unalienable are in fact the most alienable of all things. That they are owned by states and removed by states. Duties were the only things that human beings possessed inalienably. No one can take away from you your duty. Your right can be stripped from you very easily indeed. Gandhi was interested in the human being. And for him this was the chief reason for suspecting any doctrine such as that of human rights. He said that you cannot have rights without duties. It is on the basis of duty that human beings actually are their most heroic'

Human rights has been compared to a universal secular religion. Drawing on the iconography of candles, vigils and barbed wire. A spiritual, reforming mission, calling for the committed and devout. But it also has all the other universalisms of the world to contend with. Religious thought and religious law...

'Islamic State's articulated position is: the United Nations, Universal Declaration on Human Rights, are something that they simply reject. That the individual has no rights. That there are no human rights at all. So the idea that everyone has accepted minimum human rights for all is plainly not accurate. And we've seen across time and even today, there are communities that simply don't accept the idea of human rights, period'"
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