Human Rights Questioned


The very militant speech in support of the “Occupy Movement” made by the maverick activist and writer Arundhati Roy and published by the Guardian Daily, United Kingdom, on November 17, had one idea which struck more than the others. She said by implication that the West has stopped thinking justice and is now only obsessed with Human Rights. This thought comes across as very relevant in the wake of the wide observance of Human Rights day across the world, and indeed in Manipur. There were fiery speeches made by firebrand human rights defenders, lawyers, academics, social workers and politicians of all hues. Many, it was obvious, passionately believed in the cause they championed, while many others simply wanted political and personal mileages out of the occasion. Amidst all this, the thought Roy raised comes as curiously interesting. It should merit closer scrutiny. If not for anything else, this should be in the spirit of never accepting any idea as infallible truth until it has been literally and periodically put through the test by the fire of scientific rationale and healthy scepticism.

What then could Roy have meant when she in her usual un-moderated militancy, censured even the notion of human rights? Our thinking is, probably she meant a certain outlook to human rights and not the human rights movement per se. What she intended probably was to make the world realise that it is time to expand the notion of human rights. Indeed, the thought that the human rights charter has limitations and has not touched all issues of natural rights is not new. Even the founders of the movement were aware of this limitation, which is exactly why the charter of rights they drew up was christened “Universal Charter of Human Rights” and not “Charter of Universal Human Rights”. In other words, they were aware that there can be nothing as universal human rights, though consensually the rights they named in the charter come very close to what should be inalienable rights any human being is guaranteed. It is essential in this reading of the charter to understand the context this document was drawn up. It may be recalled the need for such a charter became urgent and compelling at the end of the World War-II, after it was demonstrated beyond the pale the huge atrocities the “State” was capable of. The modern belief and faith in the “State” was what was being questioned. The assertion was once again that absolute power corrupts even if it is not an individual but a state which is given it. In its essence, the Human Rights movement is about checking the “State”.

But the rights listed in the Human Rights charter have other reflections of geography. It came into existence in the heights of the Western industrial age, and understandably also sought to control the atrocities industrial workers are liable to suffer at the hands of capitalist owners of industries. As for instance, one of the rights specified is the right to form trade union. In the industrialised society nobody will doubt this is vital, but this relevance would become almost totally redundant in an agrarian economy, or amongst indigenous populations of shift cultivators and hunter gatherers. Similarly, another clause emphasises on “right to work”. This too would make little sense in an agrarian society. But this can also be read as an anticipation that some day these agrarian societies and indigenous populations too would transition into an industrial society and hence protection of the putative individual workers when the projected time arrives is deemed prudent. However, these are some pointers that even such an important universal movement must time to time be subject to reviews and soul searches. To its credit, it must be said that the movement has been accommodative of such reviews. The embrace of the indigenous people’s movement into its fold is just a very important indicator. Roy’s disdain was also probably provoked by the manner the United States and other Western countries have been using Human Rights as an alibi for their invasions of countries which did not conform to their standard of a just world order. Iraq, Afghanistan and earlier on Vietnam are just some examples. From indications, the next target for this seemingly deliberate skewed reading of Human Rights is most likely to be Iran. While we join the chorus cheering the Human Rights movement, we must throw in the caveat that its champions must be ready and a little more open to healthy criticism in order that the movement stays on track.


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