Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Case for Human Rights and Wrongs

Penguin have released a large number of “modern classics” in their hideous orange and cream range of books. While the covers may be offensive to the senses, the books themselves cover a range of subjects and styles and are sold at a very good price. I flicked through them one day and spotted one large tome that looked like a very interesting non fiction read, Crimes Against Humanity by Geoffrey Robertson.

And, hefty as it was, it was a very interesting read, delving into the mind of an obviously very learned individual, who didn’t allow his own exhortations for the right of individuals to live free in their own beliefs to stop him from casting disparaging remarks the way of Scientologists, the Catholic Church and, of course, the French.

The author traces the history of Human Rights and the attempt to make them universal and the flouting of these rights by governments punishable from early anti-Piracy laws to the sense of urgency that came as a result of the German government’s World War Two actions through to the modern era of Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Pinochet, Guantanamo Bay and terrorism used to punish civilians. International respect for Human Rights have, through the work of NGOs and the media, become real and immediate and, through bodies such as the International Criminal Court, something that transgressors can be punished for abusing.

So Human Rights are well and dandy, but (and the author stresses this) the current state of the world means that they (and their enforcement) are not respected because they are feared by the very Western nations want them to be universal. Human Rights may be based on the Western ideas of individual freedoms and they are meant to be guaranteed by precedents established by Western international law, but then it all turns to custard when the Western nations themselves either fear or ignore what they are supposedly all about – or else redefine those rules to suit their own purposes (some “enhanced interrogation” anyone?).

The author saw the solution in international law. The argument is that Human Rights are immutable and the law needs to recognise that. However, in my opinion, the law does not work that way – there are shade of grey that the law defines through precedent, and those precedents pave the way for loopholes and so the whittling away of these inalienable human rights. And then there is the fact that nations act in their own interest, not (necessarily) to defend people from Human Rights abuses and to prosecute Human Rights offenders.

The author’s solution seems to be to amp up the UN, remove its political appointments, give it a police branch to enforce the peace, and make it an independent unifying body. Of course, it does all this while respecting the sovereignty of states, the rights (though not necessarily the customs) of different cultures and to wrap all its decisions in a binding legal framework. One law, one government, one world – an idea which must have survival camps out in the wilds polishing their AK47s waiting to defend their freedoms as I write this.

Being me, I see massive problems keeping the idea of “one morality” from interfering with the notion of continuing with “many cultures”. The West, whose culture forms the basis of what is considered Human Rights, has taken hundreds of years to get to where it is, and not all Western nations agree where that “is” anyway - the French position that “there are no minorities” in the French departments and territories is scoffed at by the author, but it definitely gets around those problems of cultural relativism that I get myself tied in knots about.

The book is a history lesson and a soapbox. The author thinks the world is moving towards a more international justice system since the end of the Cold War and decisions to detain former dictators such as Pinochet. It will be interesting to see though if terrorists and/or human entropy will throw a spanner in the human rights works.

Verdict: Really interesting if a bit of a mission to get through it all. The fact there are random digs at religions or ways of life that don’t quite gel with the author’s (rather than Human Rights) ways of looking at the world unfortunately serve to undermine the main message of the book. 7 Amnesties out of 10.

1 comment:

Not Kate said...

I like the orange and cream covers! They make me feel intellectual and snobby.