The idea of “human rights” is neither new nor did it suddenly sprang into existence after WWII. It has arguably existed since the dawn of human existence, as portrayed in human stories and mythologies and exemplified throughout human history in man’s struggle against the arbitrariness of a higher power, be they of gods, fortune, nature or tyrants.
In Chinese society, such struggles are found in the stories and mythologies of 大禹 (Great Yu) taming the floods, 神農 (Shennong) inventing agriculture or the Monkey King’s rebellion against Heaven. Socio-politically, a central theme of Confucianism is the rights and duties of each member of society, from the peasant to that of the Emperor. Subsequently, 孟子 (Mencius) argued for the rights of the citizens to just rule, while later 王夫之 (Wang Fuzhi) favoured governing in the interest of the people (i.e. for the people) instead of for the benefit of the rulers.
To contrast, in the West, there are the Greek mythologies, such as Eurydice persuading Hades to relinquish Orpheus or Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus overcomes the gods’ capriciousness to return home after events in the Iliad. Western socio-political progression of “human rights” ranges from Socrates, Plato to Aristotle and the Greco-Roman tradition. From the transition of the rule of God and the clergy to the rule of man by the kings and the rule of men following the Magna Carta, the French Revolution, the American War of Independence, the US Constitutional declarations and the various emancipation movements.
The fundamental idea of human rights is therefore neither new nor particularly Western. But what has changed before WWI and after WWII, is that the birth of mass media and communication in the form of the printed word, radio, television, the Internet and telecommunications has accelerated the formalisation of a framework for the concept of “human rights” and its definition in the West. This is dominated as it were by the Western experience due to its technological dominance and wealth that grew out of the centuries old competition within Europe and later with the USA.
Today, this Western “formalisation” of human rights, though not necessarily the fundamental idea of human rights, is itself being contested by other rising cultures. In modern history, these cultures include firstly Japan, the Tiger Economies and now the BRIC nations, other S. American countries such as Venezuela or Bolivia as well as the rise of Islam and the return of political Christianity. Such that different nation’s historical experience must perforce require an alternative “formalisation” process that fulfils their particular needs.
A nation, whilst superficially governed by written rules, regulations and the letter of the declared laws, is no less also regulated by unwritten, but constantly evolving norms, values and belief systems (NVBs) which reflect that society’s history, culture and the aggregate experience of its members/citizens at any given time. Such NVBs may or may not include the idea and a belief in a set of “fundamental human rights” in the Western sense, whether declared or incorporated into that country’s laws and jurisprudence or not.
Being unwritten, such NVBs are themselves subject to change, brought about by legal, political, social, military, technological or inner and inter- societal “buffering”. Changes in NVBs can themselves lead to, among other things, changes in both the law and the legal, social or political framework of that country over time, irrespective of whether there are formal mechanisms (i.e. a democratic or parliamentary process) to do so or not. Sometimes this process is peaceful and sometimes it is not.
Such changes may include developing perceptions within society of what constitutes “fundamental human rights”, such as the debate over the right to die or the rights of the unborn or the premature foetus, as science and technology pushes the boundary of viability and our understanding and definition of human awareness, consciousness and our purported “understanding of the divine”. Inevitably, because of the nature of any government, legislature and the nation’s jurisprudence, these institutions will often trail developments and changes in NVBs.
However, currently at the international level the debate over the formalisation of human rights in different countries is not matched by a corresponding international mechanism to facilitate or to implement that process, notwithstanding the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) or the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Contrary to common misconceptions, the UN does not have the authority to override the sovereignty of a particular nation. To resolve any given issue requires the involved member states to voluntarily surrender their sovereignty and submit themselves to the resolutions passed by the UN.
Should they refuse, as in the case of Israel over Palestine or the US’ lack of mandate over the invasion of Iraq among other examples, there is very little that the UN can do about it, particularly where a Security Council member has vested interest. Therefore, the UN has in fact pretty much zero authority in itself and so long as member states are unwilling to surrender their sovereignty, whether in part or in full, system wise this is unlikely to change.
The UN was also never set up or intended to be a forum for the debate on a determination of what constitutes human rights and nor should it become one. So long as each nation is different and values that distinction, they will have their own NVBs that influence their own formalisation process towards their own variation of human rights and the laws that underpin them. Thus, the debate over what constitutes human rights at the international level is essentially up to each and everyone of us, be it via electronic communications, the printed medium, the mass media or even between individuals, either domestically or internationally.
In this process, the West has traditionally held certain historical and organisational advantages, such as the higher educational level of its peoples, its greater access to information, its dominance of the international channels of mass media, the sub- and overlapping divisions of a civil society, where its governments can influence or act through interest groups and vice versa, both at the domestic level and in the international arena. Of course, this too is subject to change, particularly with the rise of developing nations, Globalisation and the diluting effects of technology such as the Internet, which may render any organisational advantages more fluid and ephemeral.
The UN, like the League of Nations before it, is therefore NOT a proactive, but a conditionally reactive institution that only sometimes successfully facilitate the resolution of a conflict. It is NOT an active promoter or facilitator of planet-wide NVBs. Even if such an institution exists today, never mind an internationally agreed definition of “fundamental” human rights, the question remains as to exactly how fundamental should such rights extend? How is one to prioritise the implementation of which rights and how or who is to pay for it all?
Member states, particularly those with the pre-requisite resources (i.e. often the developed nations) have often made promises of aid, but seldom succeeded in delivering. The supply of helicopters and other equipment to the Darfur African Union Peacekeepers is a case in point. Equally, interested Western activist groups appear to have all but fallen silent recently when it comes to pressuring their own governments to deliver on those promises or it has simply fallen off the radar of the popular media.
Consequently, the current situation is that there is effectively no international system of “humanitarian” military intervention even in cases of really egregious human rights abuse. It is an ad hoc system that only occasionally works, either when the interests of the major powers are not directly affected (the failed intervention in Somalia) or when it is affected, but the other powers are unable or unwilling to prevent intervention (former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Georgia).
As for when one should intervene in another country on the basis of really egregious human rights abuses, I am to be honest torn. On one hand, I have in principle no problem with intervention in what I term “fast-burn” issues, such as the Rwandan Genocide or the Yugoslav Civil War, as I regard these not as egregious human rights abuses but as man-made tragedies where abuses take place.
Then there are the situations I call “slow-burn”, such as pre-invasion Iraq, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia or Sudan, where my personal preference is for patience and tailored engagement, for no two countries are socio-politically alike and a single approach is likely to do more harm than good. In such cases, my optimistic or perhaps even naïve opinion is that often, with engagement and if allowed to play itself out “over time”, these situations have a tendency to “resolve” itself, where the resolution often come from the people and even from the ruling elite within each country. Examples include the transition from dictatorships to democracy in Spain, Mexico, the Philippines, S. Korea, Taiwan and Chile among others.
By comparison, too often overt or inept outside involvement only serve to exacerbate if not prolong the process, causing the outsider to make more enemies. Examples of these arguably include pre-Islamic Republic Iran, Iraq and Somalia among others. Of course, unfortunately “over time” may very well also mean that human rights abuse will continue and people will continue to suffer and die.
The question then becomes at what point is it right for the “international community” to intervene should the situation mutate from one that is “slow-burn” to one that is “fast-burn”, as in the case just prior to WWII when the Nazis and complicit ordinary Germans crossed over from daily harassment of Jews and other undesirables to industrialised mass murder or in the case of Saddam Hussein’s mass killing of the Kurds during the late 80’s, yet the major powers continue to supply him with arms to attack and to keep the “perceived threat” of Iran in check.
This then begs the ultimate question of whether we should take the “human rights” approach to address this issue and if so, are interested nations and its peoples willing to forego their “national interests” for the “greater good”? And if we were to take the route of Realpolitik in the name of national interests, then how do we reconcile that with the ideal of “human rights” that are supposed to be universal? These are in essence the questions that we ourselves as individuals, never mind the UN or any possible future organisation, need to address if we are to be able to reach a consensus on when is it right to intervene on the basis of “human rights”.
This entry essentially grew out of a discussion on US Arms Sales to Taiwan “A Slap to Wen Jiabao’s Face”?, where Allen @ #221 posed me some difficult questions on the above issues.