By Sumanasiri Liyanage
‘When people hear the phrase “human rights,” they think of the highest moral precepts and political ideals. And they are right to do so. They have in mind a familiar set of indispensable liberal freedoms, and sometimes more expansive principles of social protection. But they also mean something more.’ It was with these words that Samuel Moyn begins his excellent book on the history of human rights, Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. He further adds: ‘The phrase implies an agenda for improving the world and bringing about a new one in which the dignity of each individual will enjoy secure international protection.’ Nonetheless, the embedded goal of ‘improving the world and bringing about a new one in which the dignity of each individual will enjoy secure international protection’ defends on the international human rights regime that reflects hegemonic powers and goes beyond and oftentimes against the level of principles. Hence, I submit in this article that it is imperative to draw a clear distance between the list of human rights, the human rights discourse and the international human right regime.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted by Elena Roosevelt and her colleagues, they might have probably thought the principles laid down there would pave the way for a better world in which private and public rights are well protected and respected. However, as Moyn theatrically puts it, ‘it was less the annunciation of a new age than a funeral wreath laid on the grave of wartime hopes.’ The United States saw no reason to go against colonialism and stand for the idea of freedom as it asserted itself the hegemonic power of the world. Most hilarious thing was the UN selected Iran ruled by the dictatorial Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the venue to hold the Twentieth Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was no secret that Mohammad Reza Pahlavi came to office by overthrowing the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in a coup orchestrated by the US Civil Intelligence Agency and the British M16. Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was judged guilty because his government decided to nationalise the Iranian oil industry. The US and the UK protected and defended human rights as they claim to do so even today by violating the democratic principle of governance.
While none of the world powers were interested in the Declaration of Human Rights, no nongovernmental organisations pursued human rights as their main activity. Amnesty International, remained practically unknown. As Moyn reported, from the 1940s until 1968, the few NGOs that did view human rights as part of their mission struggled for them within the UN’s framework, but the conference in Tehran confirmed the agonising fruitlessness of this project. One longtime NGO chief, Moses Moskowitz, observed bitterly in the aftermath of the conference that the human rights idea had “yet to arouse the curiosity of the intellectual, to stir the imagination of the social and political reformer and to evoke the emotional response of the moralist.” He was right since there was no serious intellectual discussion on human rights prior to the 1970s.
Becoming and Being: A Non-Issue to an Issue
How and why does human rights begin to play an important role in world politics? Why does a new discourse on human rights reemerge? We may not be able to answer these issues unless we focus our attention to the sea-changes that had taken place in the 1970s. Out of many, I identify three reasons as more relevant to this discussion. First, the golden age of capitalism that began after the World War 2 and its crisis intimidating Keynesian policies met its first generalised crisis in 1974- 75. Like in the terminal phase of every long wave prior to this, it was clear that capitalism needed a major restructuring. This issue was resolved by inventing neo-liberal globalisation. Secondly, major struggles were waged by working people, youth and students all over the world seeking a systemic transformation and questioning the legitimacy of the existing system. These struggles were closely associated with a campaign against the American involvement in Vietnam. Thirdly, the mighty military power of the US was comprehensively defeated by the people in Vietnam under the leadership of the Vietnam Communist Party. This increased the hopes and expectations of the toiling masses all over the world and the US had realised that it had to retreat and adopt new means to maintain its super power status.
In this backdrop, the bourgeoise had articulated multiple alternatives for a systemic survival. They had realised that the open killing of the leadership of struggles and the suppression of social movements may be successful in the short-term, but it may be a dangerous surgery in the medium and long run especially in the context of economic hardships that the world all over had experienced. At this new conjuncture, the US President, Jimmy Carter introduced human rights into its foreign policy strategy. In the words of French philosopher, Michael Foucault, a new technique of governmentality had to be invented to ensure the system survival. Part and parcel of this is the present human right regime. Seminars, workshops and conferences were held; New university courses were added to the curriculum. A new world regime of human rights was designed.
One thing is clear. This regime of human rights is not to protect human rights in areas where they were violated. It is a fact that the State and rights always have paradoxical relationship. Human right is used to identify and separate the countries that follow the imperialist path and that do not fall in line. This has been vividly described by Tamara Kunanayakam, a diplomat and former Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
She highlighted that if the international community needs to protect and respect human rights, “the UNHRC has a mechanism called the universal periodic review (UPR) to fulfil the Charter responsibility to promote and encourage respect for human rights in all countries where all countries are duty bound to submit a report on promotion and protection of human rights in their own countries and where questions can be raised by others and a list of recommendations made by all parties. The State under review then has the opportunity to select the recommendations that it can implement and makes a voluntary commitment to do so.
It is a cooperative not confrontational mechanism within which all States are treated equally, in conformity with the inalienable Charter principle of sovereign equality. It is in the interest of the NAM/Global South that principle is respected. Nonetheless imperialist countries has oftentimes opted for a different mechanism that includes targeting a country, or ‘naming and shaming,’ which is a weapon in the arsenal of the US and its allies, when they want to achieve their strategic objectives elsewhere.” What is the US and its lackey want is the maintenance of capital’s hegemony in the guise of the defence of human rights.
The writer is a retired teacher of Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya.