Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

By Sumanasiri Liyanage | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 24 2021

By Sumanasiri Liyanage 

Last Saturday before I went to bed, I read a soft copy of the book, Breaking Silence: The Case that Changed the Face of Human Rights by Richard Alan White. The narrative of the book refers to a young man, Joelito Filártiga, who was tortured and killed by an agent of Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner in 1976. Joelito’s sister who came to the United States, was advised that she could sue the murderer of her brother under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) passed in 1789. White’s book has described how the Filártiga v. Peña-Irala case impacted on human rights because the Appellate court judges concluded that the killing was a violation of the customary norms of international law. 

Before sleep came, I was wondering if the international human rights regime really defends the human rights of the people as White portrays with reference to the Filártiga v. PeñaIrala case. Could the policy shift by the Carter administration be viewed as the point of departure? Early Sunday morning, I was woken up by a dream. Let me recapture going through a blurred memory. The dream was about a deadly incident. The venue was a big supermarket in Colombo that sells almost everything one needs. Suddenly a bearded guy took one big knife from the shelves and started randomly stabbing the people around him injuring four people. 

Policemen in plain clothes fired at the bearded guy and killed him on the spot. The injured were taken to hospital. Later it was discovered the bearded guy was a young Muslim from the Eastern Province. The same evening, the annual session of the International Human Rights Commission was held in Geneva. 

Having referred to this incident, the lady commissioner in attire similar to Kafka’s guardsman to the court declared in her report: “The very recent incident in Colombo shows how the Sri Lankan Government treats their minorities. It was reported that heavily armed Policemen shot at a lightly armed person belonging to the minority community killing him on the spot. It was clear that the Police would have easily arrested the victim using either minimum force or shooting below the knee”. I was woken up. 

International Human Right Regime: Is it Sacrosanct? 

My Sunday reading included two more books, both on human rights. They were, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World by Samuel Moyn and The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism by Jessica Whyte. The dominant human rights discourse posits human rights as a protecting shield from the State assuming that humans existed before the State so the State has no right to violate human rights that have been fundamental to human existence. Following Jürgen Habermas, one may argue that rights and authority are coterminous and linked with the State so that welfare rights are given legitimacy. 

This is shown in Figure 1. In this diagram, the economy and the market are also included in the circle, individuals and civil society following usual liberal position. If we operate within this paradigm, the Filártiga v. PeñaIrala case definitely has ensured people’s right to life and protection from the State. When the system of universal franchise was introduced, it had been anticipated that the majority of people who belong to the labouring classes may use the State in order to contain and limit the power of money and wealth that was in the hands of the upper layers of the society. 

The class of bourgeoisie has been capable of controlling the whole process of Election through its control of crime, corruption and media. This has been facilitated by a creation of new category of State bureaucracy that has developed strong links in myriad of ways with the capitalist class. This process was described by many writers who are very much concerned with the rights of the people. They have witnessed a gradual deterioration of the human rights regime for the need and interest of capital. 

Jessica Whyte has summarised the findings of those writers in the following words: “Upendra Baxi’s pioneering work on ‘trade-related market-friendly human rights’ traced attempts by major corporations to mobilise the normative force of human rights to defend the rights of capital. Makau Mutua has long argued the failure of human rights NGOs to pay attention to ‘economic powerlessness’ has helped to naturalise capitalist markets and subordinated labour relations. 

Costas Douzinas has similarly argued that negative freedom, which he frames as a euphemism for rejecting State regulation of the economy, has ‘dominated the Western conception of human rights and turned them into the perfect companion of neoliberalism’. For Wendy Brown, the politics of human rights not only ‘converges neatly with the requisites of liberal imperialism and global free trade’, but also serves to legitimise them. And Susan Marks has suggested that the more recent turn to examining the ‘root causes’ of human rights violations has in fact shielded the structural context in which violations of human rights are systematically reproduced.” 

Inequality, Subsumption and Hegemony 

Many writers have highlighted the issue of inequality and its impacts on human rights. The irony is that many human rights organisations pay only lip service to this issue. Even people who talk about the issue of inequality and social and economic rights wittingly or unwittingly oftentimes put the issue in the back burner. As Jessica Whyte has shown, Philip Alston, once UN rapporteur of human rights, charged that major human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, had been deeply reluctant to factor questions of distribution and resources into their advocacy, and consequently the deep structures that perpetuate such inequalities have been left untouched. 

This is natural when human rights regimes nationally as well as internationally operate within the neo-liberal paradigm. The role played by the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission may be cited as one of the examples. In spite of the fact that the issue of inequality and the influence and domination of money and wealth in containing human right laws and practice have at least been flagged in current human rights discourse, its hegemonic dimension is hardly brought into notice. It is critical to recognise the international human right regime is not neutral and impartial but hegemonic. 

Its main concern is to maintain and protect the dominance of the imperialist countries. When their interests are not questioned and threatened, it may be helpful for the victims. Moreover, the regime will be used to punish and warn the countries that are not within the parameters of imperialist dominance. Hence, Figure 2 may not provide an adequate basis to understand the present system as the variables in the figure in its entirety have to operate in a bigger international framework that is conditioned by neo-liberal globalisation. 

The writer is a retired teacher of Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya. [email protected]

By Sumanasiri Liyanage | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 24 2021

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