28 May, 2022


Why Human Rights Has Not Worked

By Sajeeva Samaranayake

 Sajeeva Samaranayake

Sajeeva Samaranayake

Why Human Rights Has Not Worked – And What Needs To Be Done To Make Them Work

We have done ‘human rights’ a disservice by failing to question them, probe their meaning and relevance for us here and now in this country.  I am not against human rights but against the blind imitation of all forms – be they foreign or local. In their marketing, human rights are rich in conclusions but poor in methodology. They promise much but deliver little. They are also trapped in formalism. When formal procedures fail in this country we are expected to catch the next flight to Geneva and invoke the formal procedures there. All this has served a particular class of people very well; but not the intended beneficiaries. It is high time the human rights activists in this country realized that they are fighting a well armed adversary with a blunt weapon which commands little respect – from anyone. Thus the time has come to start thinking. And as we start there will be a lot of conflicting thought processes. This is good and preferable to what Walter Lippman said about the unthinking, uncritical society: “when all think alike, no one thinks very much.”

Ten years of contemplation

Like ‘development’ the term ‘human rights’ has lost its meaning. This is due to over – use, especially by people who have not questioned and grappled with its real situational meaning. This includes many glib talkers in development organizations (both local and foreign) whose superficiality is plain to see.

I began my career as a development practitioner in 2003 with broader frameworks in mind (like the ethics of justice and care) to avoid getting enslaved to ‘rights.’ the term has not been easy to crack – much like a zen riddle. Only sustained reflection over a decade has helped me to place it in context in a way that is helpful for all of us.

Initially I recognized that a right is not a complete statement about the human being because it left out relationships. The concept of duties was of course derived from relationships but to me it smacked of dualistic legalism in the same way that ‘rights’ did. And so I understood that the right covered individual autonomy while relationships covered human interdependence. Without enabling relationships the right would not be fulfilled. A full reading of article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights confirmed my interpretation. Of course no one else seemed concerned about this article. In fact the Sinhala translation of the UDHR issued by the UN here omitted the all important portion about the duty of brotherhood.

Along the way some Bangladeshi boy who said very sweetly – ‘I may not know my rights, but you do not know my life’ and Mahatma Gandhi who exhorted to ‘focus on action and leave its fruit and result severely alone’ helped immensely.

The final burst of sunshine was an Indian commentator on Lord Shiva, Devdutt Pattanaik who referred to the western cultural preference for form and objectivity as opposed to the eastern preference for thought and subjectivity. This was a very neat external vs. internal divide. Together they made up the whole.

Early attempts by non western cultures to whittle down the concept of human rights on the basis of cultural variations were rejected as ‘cultural relativism’. My own argument on the other hand is for a fuller conception of rights which includes both autonomy and relationships as indispensable facets of a human being. Rights without relationships were as bad as relationships without rights. Gandhi put it very clearly when he said:

Peace and justice are within the world’s grasp. But they must be pursued together, as one vision.

A cultural preference is not a universal norm

Re-assured by the early victory over cultural relativism the proponents of ‘rights’ stampeded all over Third World societies torn apart by deep ethnic, religious, tribal and caste divisions. They were quite insensitive to the intellectual and psychological damage they were causing by keeping people separated through the pursuit of their narrow organizational agendas.

Impersonal values (like justice and rights), objectivity (clinical and dehumanized data highlighted as facts), certainty (in the diagnoses so reached and their remedies preached) and fixed identities (in their approach to people which separated children from adults; and women from men) constituted an unquestionable framework of values to which we had to submit.

Misapplication of rights

There was actually nothing wrong with the concepts and conventions the international community as a whole had adopted. It was being applied and used in a simplistic and hegemonistic way. Just as the idea of God was abused to assert and dominate other peoples – so the idea of human rights was abused through human folly. All enlightened ism’s and ideologies get turned into absolutisms in human hands. As Kalupahana observed:

The belief in the incorruptibility of concepts is as old as philosophy.[1]

When the world recognizes something as ‘good’ there is no shortage of people to espouse it and convert it to their own limited and private agendas. When all grand ideas (both spiritual and secular) have been so subverted why should human rights be sacrosanct?

One by-product of this self-righteous intolerance has been a convenient retreat of human rights into the moral high ground of criminal justice.

Criminalization of human rights

Where the idea of human rights is not properly conveyed, where policies are not updated, where top down capacity building and development projects fail and where resources continue to be locked within privileged families and institutions human rights will always be violated. The favourite answer of some UN bodies, powerful countries and organizations when this happens is to ignore the long list of sins mentioned above and point their fingers at the final perpetrator of the human rights violation. Enforcement of the criminal law is their final solution, and this has now become enshrined within the International Criminal Court.

I do not question the role and function of criminal law as a remedy of last resort when everything else has failed. But what should we do with those responsible for everything else that has failed? Can there be a better example of collective failure when a vision and mission which must be promoted with a sense of egalitarianism and brotherhood is ruled upon inside a cold, clinical and emotionless criminal court?

When Third world countries are encouraged to use their tottering criminal justice systems for ‘protecting children’ from abuse it simply becomes a license for state authorities to move poor children here and there in the guise of ‘child protection.’

In the words of H.L. Mencken,

For every problem there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong

Separating what Gandhi unified – fragmentation of violence

Mahatma Gandhi identified violence as a single concept that originated from a divided soul. We have fragmented this into so many categories of violence against fixed categories of human beings, like women, children, elderly etc. Each aspect is placed under the microscope like a scientific object of study and this knowledge is used to generate highly technical solutions which only the privileged few can understand. This is the way to lose our fight against the internal causes of violence. These internal causes relate to typical ways in which individual human beings separate their heart from mind, mind from body and self from others. When the individual is not whole his relationships and his society cannot be healthy.

Instead of generating more and more options for human communication and developing skillful means for educating the soul and spirit of people, we have decided to use more and more force, coercion and violence to achieve our ends.

Speaking to people in their own language

There were however, many sympathetic and sensitive foreigners working in development who appreciated the need for a deeper and more profound framework – but the status quo was well entrenched to be questioned or challenged. I remember telling one of my former colleagues at unicef Colombo that the very mention of the word ‘rights’ jarred inside my head. Today whilst remaining a staunch upholder of human rights I am convinced that the word should be used most sparingly or not at all.

As Roberto Calasso, an Italian who immersed himself in the spiritual world of India reported:

When the Buddha taught the people the Middle Way, the only way that is free from error, he also said: “One should speak quite slowly, not hurriedly, one should not affect the dialect of the countryside, one should not deviate from recognized parlance.” Only what is neutral, free from glaring features, only what blends in with all that is common, only what least departs from “thusness” can save us.[2]

The subjective realm

In both the western inspired projects of colonization and “development” there is the same bias found in favour of objectivity in the institutions and solutions that were established around the Third World. This was no doubt influenced by the Enlightenment of the 18th century which witnessed the dawn of the Age of Reason. We are now collectively paying the price for ignoring, suppressing and repressing the subjective side of mankind.  In this present Age of Emotions we can no longer afford to persist with old top down ways of working. We have no choice but to change.

We need to recognize personal values (like compassion, patience and warm conversation), the subjective ways in which information is processed by people (with story telling, songs, art and drama), uncertainty and change as a universal law and the changing and multiple identities that people are endowed with.

Rights give children the broadest space and opportunities for fulfilling their potential. Relationships keep them grounded as part of a community. Both aspects must be recognized for a mature discourse to grow in understanding where the best interests of a child lie in a given situation.

As Van Praagh observed in a book review of Children’s Rights and Traditional Values,

Given that children exist and develop in relationships with others, the exercise of their rights always implicates other individuals (for example, parents) and groups (for example, religious communities). Further the title seems to suggest that children’s rights operate as a counter to traditional values, whereas it may well be possible to imagine a child’s claim framed as a right to community membership or to traditional practices.[3]

This illustrates how children can benefit when traditional values are not treated as always opposed to rights. A right may be rigid and uncompromising when deployed in a legal protection case but yielding and flexible where the context changes to the family and community. The best interest standard supports the multi-factor perspective precisely for this reason. The legal method reduces complexity into specific issues as part of its management technique but the social sphere does not have to adopt the same approach. In the social sphere complexities must be faced and negotiated giving the appropriate weight to rights on the one hand and relationships on the other. Van Praagh again:

…instead of interpreting “traditional” as stale or conservative or even harmful, it is helpful to think of the many traditions that exist and play themselves out in our societies and in our individual selves, whether as children or adults. We develop within family traditions, cultural traditions, legal traditions, and religious traditions, and change within any of these traditions is a complex process. Articulating the claims that might fuel such change is equally complex.[4]

Towards a union of science and spirituality

What is ‘right’ according to somebody’s opinion is not our starting point. We must not be swayed by those whose voices are the loudest. Our starting point is our shared vulnerability, shared suffering and shared goodness. When we work on this foundation we will find that what is ‘right’ will emerge naturally.

In short we must exchange engagement and collaboration for domination – and work hard at building relationships and restoring trust. Our language is a reflection of how ethical we are, how sincere and caring we are in doing what we do. Inasmuch as rights assert individuality, separation and abstraction for their analysis and development they belong within the discipline of scientific objectivity. Relationships on the other hand stress unity and togetherness and they perform the spiritual function of bringing polarities or opposites together – which is the work of peace and harmony. It does not take a lot of thinking to figure out where the emphasis should be in conflict ridden societies.

The cutting edge of this world as a whole is moving towards a better and more balanced enlightenment than what we achieved in the 18th century. Development practice to become relevant must move off the highways and Government offices and move into the interior and work seriously to make so called beneficiaries respected partners. True rights will begin there…

[1] Kalupahana, David (1999) The Buddha’s Philosophy of Language, Sarvodaya p 26

[2] Calasso, Roberto (1998) KA: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India Vintage, New York p 358

[3] Van Praagh, Shauna (2001) Book Review of ‘Children’s Rights and Traditional Values, Gillian Douglas and Leslie Sebba eds., The International Journal of Children’s Rights 8(4): 385 -389, 386

[4] Id p 387

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Latest comments

  • 0

    1.Paradise Poisoned: Learning about Conflict, Terrorism and Development from Sri Lanka ‘s Civil Wars(published January 2005), John Richardson, Professor of International development in American University’s School of International Service, was the result of seventeen years of researching post-independence history of Sri Lanka with a view to understanding the linkages between deadly conflict, terrorism and development.
    In the final chapter(Chapter22) he speaks of how Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mohandas K. Gandhi, invited him and some others to contribute to a volume, entitled World Without Violence. He told the contributors that motivation for the project was rooted in his grandfather’s ideas that the causes of violence in society are due to eight blunders:
    1. Wealth without work
    2. Pleasure without conscience,
    3. Knowledge without character,
    4. Commerce without morality
    5. Science without humanity
    6. Worship without sacrifice
    7. Politics without principle and
    8. Rights without responsibilities

    Each contributor was invited to use one ‘blunder’ and John Richardson chose ‘politics without principle’ and drew two lessons from Sri Lanka’s experience:
    i.practising politics without principle is likely to push a society toward violent conflict. Ethnically diverse societies are particularly susceptible to this pathology
    ii.processes of democratic political campaigning and elections pose nearly irresistible temptations to practice politics without principle.

    2.”……The three elections prior to the escalation of protracted conflict when a new government was swept into power with overwhelming political support were those of April 5-10, 1956, May 27, 1970 and July 21, 1977. In each, the party previously in opposition gained decisive power on a platform that 3 promised fundamental change. The 1970 and 1977 general elections were followed by new constitutions. In each, the party previously in opposition gained decisive power on a platform that promised fundamental change. After each election, there were missed opportunities for initiatives that could have addressed many concerns of Tamil community members, while simultaneously respecting the concerns of all but the most radical Sinhalese nationalists. In each instance, however, Sri Lanka’s political leaders chose not to expend their political capital in this way but instead, to accede to demands of the radicals. … it will be useful to seek lessons from periods when Sri Lankan political leaders, like President Mahinda Rajapaksa, had such overwhelming political support that they were in a position, if they chose, to expend political capital by taking concrete steps toward communal reconciliation.” – Prospects For Post Conflict Reconciliation And Development In Sri Lanka: Can Singapore Be Used As A Model? Prof John Richardson, Text of a presentation at Global Asia Institute Speaker Series (27 April 2010), National University of Singapore, http://groundviews.org/2010/11/05/prospects-for-post-conflict-reconciliation-and-development-in-sri-lanka-can-singapore-be-used-as-a-model/

  • 2

    Human Rights have no place in the Jungle.

    • 3

      The Rights of Man, by Thomas Paine forms the basis for present day human rights accepted by the nations of the world.

      This author is another man who wants a home grown ‘concept’ to human rights. It is an attempt using convoluted arguments to prop up the murderous Maharajakse regime. It is also directed at the recent UNHRC resolution for war crimes investigation against Sri Lankan regime and its armed forces.

      As such it may be dismissed as trash.

  • 0

    A.Just because ”religions” didn’t make (the very selfish) human beings put their religious principles into practice, we had to establish the UN and other bodies and devise rules, cobenants, etc.

    B.”Whereas silence is for animals other than human a natural state of rest, for the human animal silence is an escape from inner commotion”
    – The Silence of Animals, John Gray, https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/the-silence-of-animals-on-progress-and-other-modern-myths/

    C.”The Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations has published a report arguing that the increasing short-termism of modern politics needs to be overcome with serious and urgent reform to address key challenges facing humanity. The report, called ‘Now for the Long Term’, is by a commission of eminent leaders set up a year ago by the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University. ……………… At the launch in London today, Professor Ian Goldin said: ‘Failure to address long-term issues exposes current generations to unacceptable instability and risk; it threatens our ability to build a sustainable, inclusive and resilient future for all. The Oxford Martin Commission analyses the issues, examines the lessons from past successes and failures, proposes a set of principles to overcome deep political and cultural divides, and provides practical recommendations for action on critical challenges” – Combating ‘short-termism’ in modern politics, 16 October 2013, http://www.ox.ac.uk/media/news_stories/2013/131016.html

  • 2

    Even if people cannot love each other positively – they can still agree on what is right. But even this pragmatic bottom line agreement – not to kill or harm each other assumes a little bit of love. So my point is that love in some form or degree is indispensable.

    There is a lot more context to Rights of man than Thomas Paine. Those who would like to seriously research the historical background of human rights can now take a look at the Age of Revolution (1789 – 1848) by Eric Hobsbawm.


    Excellent read for those thirsty for knowledge.

  • 0

    This writer has obviously not been a victim of incest, domestic violence or honor killings. Once he has experienced those violations he can give us all this theoretical stuff that no-one can implement in the real world.

    • 1

      Criminal justice is a lie. How kind is it to exploit their pain and send them on a wild goose chase? It is a highly symbolic ritual which perpetuates the dependency of the powerless. Humanity can and has forgiven. But it is a choice people make.

  • 0

    What a flood of words to say almost nothing!
    Yes rights and responsibilities go together.
    Yawn, yawn, this we all know; what else do these 2000 words say?
    Search me.

    • 0

      You got it mate. There is nothing tangible to hold onto. What you need to question is this idea that there is something you can hold on to; something to promote, something to defend.

  • 0

    Thanks you sir. I very much appreciate your erudite thinking. The human rights paradimes seem to be at it limits now. we need to find other solution. much of human rights is essentially Christian theology masquarading as the sole truth.

    • 0

      Christian theology – no. Masquerading as sole truth yes. Western Faustian culture departed from mystical Christianity especially after Emperor Constantine became the first Christian Emperor.

  • 2

    Dear Sajeewa,

    Loving each other appear to be the answer to the caption to your article. However there is yet another way of making human rights work.

    Long before the advent of modern Human Rights the Arab Empire (between 9th to 15th century) established these. Count Leon Ostrorog, in 1928, in a series of 3 lectures delivered at the University of London observed:

    “considered from the point of view of its legal structure, the system (Islamic Law) is one of rare perfection, and to this day it commands the admiration of the student. Once the dogma of the revelation to the Prophet is admitted as postulate, it is difficult to find a flaw in the long series of deductions, so unimpeachable do they appear from the point of view of Formal Logic and of the rules of Arab Grammar. If the contents of that logical fabric are examined, some theories command not only admiration but surprise. Those Eastern thinkers of the ninth century laid down, on the basis of their theology, the principle of the Rights of man, in those very terms, comprehending the rights of individual liberty, and of inviolability of person and property; described the supreme power of Islam, or Califate, as based on a contract, implying conditions of capacity and performance and subject to cancellation of conditions under the contract were not fulfilled; elaborated a Law of War of which the humane, chivalrous prescriptions would have put to blush certain belligerents in the Great War; expounded a doctrine of toleration of non-Moslem creeds so liberal that our West had to wait a thousand years before seeing equivalent principles adopted.”

    However the concept of human rights in Islam rests upon a foundation theoretically different from the traditional Western one in two fundamental ways.

    In the West, human rights were fought for and extracted from those in authority through bitter struggles.

    In Islam, this problem is not viewed through a secular setting. The problem is not how man asserts his rights against man but how man discharges his duties towards God. It is not preoccupied with the horizontal relationship that subsists between each man and his Maker. If the vertical relationship is properly tended, all human rights problems fall automatically into place.

    So this is another way of making human rights work. There are hundreds of examples how this concept worked throughout the period of the Islamic Golden Age. It will take another book to write how they did in fact work. The closest example for we Sri Lankans is the period during the rule of emperor Akbar.

  • 0

    Thank you Chinthaka

    Did not Rumi say – “Everything is about loving and not loving”

    We have discovered the problems of a paradigm of not loving – or conditional love. We can seek solutions without values but without a proper foundation they simply become ‘problematic solutions.’

    The west introduced good principles to us in the wrong way. We accepted equality as colonized people. Can you think of anything more ridiculous? This is the contradiction that will not go away.

    The structures of governance must reflect the will of the people. If not they breed violence and revolt.

    In moving forward I believe that we must follow Gandhi. It is self defeating to use violence to promote a non violent principle or object.

  • 0

    Dear Sajeewa,

    There is another difference that I failed to point out in my earlier post.

    Indeed, some of the inadequacies of current human rights doctrine result from overemphasis on unbridled individualism, which Islamic law has sought to avoid. All values are set in the context of the community. An individual pursuing his individual rights of contract, property, free speech or trade to the point of conflict with community interests may find little in individualistically oriented legal systems to restrain him. However, in the Islamic legal system he would find the law coming down hard on the side of the communal interest when such excessive claims are made. This necessary qualification of modern human rights doctrine is deeply embedded in Islamic law.

    I agree with you if there is love among one another, then we could make human rights work. The question is can we force every man/woman to do
    that? This is where the need for a formal system to enforce human rights arises. Systems are not going to be perfect as they will be governed by human beings.

    The social contract theories of the West depend upon man’s covenant with man. In Islam every individual is ‘in individual contract, reflecting the Covenant his soul has sealed with God; for the Covenant is in reality made for each and every individual soul’.

    The Islamic citizen does not therefore seek his rights in a contract with his ruler but in a higher source which binds ruler and subject alike. Both alike are subjects of a common sovereign.

    I am fascinated by these concepts. I am still studying them. As a student of history I am shocked at our general lack of knowledge of the era between the 9th century and 15th century. Every aspect of science, mathematics and medicine was developed during this period. All the major principles of law as we know it today, were developed during this period.

  • 0

    When a society develops organically and naturally the different aspects like work and life, leisure and arts and all ethical and scientific explorations can take place in a supportive and sympathetic environment.

    The times we live in are inorganic – artificial and normative impositions are the rule – especially in the 3rd world. There is a crisis of meaning because words and even fundamental identities like mother and father and religious leaders are no longer reliable.

    Human rights – conceived very broadly and enriched by our common history seems the future. But we need to start – not with systems but with self. There is at least one important reason for this.

    Goodness cannot be found anywhere else. Love is a very sophisticated word and encompasses much. However honesty in the sense of basic goodness is essential. This means that when we see black we know it is black. No one can convince us otherwise. When people lose touch with this basic ability and can be twisted and turned by powers that be they are lost.

    This is a very simple, native yet profound value. We have become very complex beings out of touch with the simplicity and beauty of life.

    This goodness is also the source of positive energy. This is why I am very critical about the recourse to criminal law because that is starting from a foundation of aversion and indeed building it up. When it is given too much prominence it will block reconciliation completely.

    Therefore I would suggest my dear friend that all systems are within the self and require the strongest foundations within our hearts

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