Colombo Telegraph

Why Human Rights Has Not Worked

By 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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