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Author Topic: A Clarification about "Human Rights"  (Read 1152 times)

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Offline Cyrano JohnsonTopic starter

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A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« on: August 25, 2013, 04:09:27 PM »
I see the thread on Russia has been locked for the time being, which is probably for the best. I'd just like to address a sub-tangent about which one or two participants in that thread seem to have been confused: "human rights."

It is a commonplace among those attempting to defend or rationalize measures likely to be prejudicial to the human rights of a population to attempt to claim that "human rights" are not a universally acknowledged concept. In fact as regards the vast majority of states in the world, this is factually wrong. For decades now, international law and standards as regarding human rights has started from this Universal Declaration, whose full text I will not quote in the post, but which basically is explicit on points such as

Quote from: Article 19
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

193 of the world's 196 countries are members of the UN, which upholds the Universal Declaration as a common standard of aspiration which the bulk of the membership has specifically agreed to uphold. Of the 3 abstentions, two are effective dependencies of UN members and one lacks sufficient international recognition to apply for membership, otherwise would be a member. The Universal Declaration is the basis of a large body of international human rights law and treaties (like the European Convention of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) to which again large swathes of the UN membership are signatory. Effectively, the provisions of the Universal Declaration have, via such means, the force of treaty in almost all member states (though the Declaration itself does not inherently have the force of treaty). So Russia, for example, is explicitly committed to the Universal Declaration and both of the above-mentioned treaties.

[EDITED: The statement that the UN Declaration had force of treaty was an erroneous oversimplification. I have corrected and thank Kythia for the observation.]

Actual observance of these provisions is obviously highly variable, and attempts to flout them are frequent and sometimes flagrant. However, pretty much nobody engaged in any of those attempts or activities has the excuse that they have made no commitment to honour the concept of human rights. The best they can do is argue that the world cannot practically-speaking punish them for violations (so long as they remain in jurisdictions friendly to their views and politics). Politics can make for strange bedfellows and circumstances and some violators can escape consequence for long spans of time: but the enforcement of human rights standards is not just a question of polite fictions, and most modern country constitutions reflect similar language and make similar commitments.   

The advancement of human rights is a real and substantial legal commitment of most member states of the UN and members of the various international bodies associated with it. It is not an outre "Western" notion, and if you believe the country you live in (or one whose actions you are defending) has not at the very minimum in theory undertaken to support human rights as a concept, you are very likely mistaken as a matter of simple fact.

I hope this helps to clear up some misunderstandings.
« Last Edit: August 25, 2013, 05:14:10 PM by Cyrano Johnson »

Offline Kythia

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Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #1 on: August 25, 2013, 04:32:09 PM »
Now, I'm not entirely certain here - this is a request for clarification more than anything - but my understanding was that the UDHR was non-binding and served only as a definition.  I do know for a fact several UN members have not signed and/or ratified it.

My understanding was that the "obligated by treaty" stemmed from later treaties, not the UDHR

Offline Cyrano JohnsonTopic starter

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Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #2 on: August 25, 2013, 05:06:34 PM »
You're right, Kythia. I've edited to correct.

Offline Neysha

Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #3 on: August 25, 2013, 08:38:17 PM »
This is besides the point but you know, I've seen a poster of those Universal Human Rights before and reading through them, I have to admit... is there a country that fulfills or meets all of the Articles mentioned on there? I'm thinking not.

EDIT:

Still... as lists of human rights go... it's a pretty good one to strive for.
« Last Edit: August 25, 2013, 08:40:20 PM by Neysha »

Offline Skynet

Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #4 on: August 26, 2013, 09:51:34 PM »
I agree with many of the UN Declarations.  Problem is that all too often member nations ignore it without any consequences, especially if they're a global superpower like the US, Russia, or China.

Regardless I do hope that multiple nations will sanction Russia in some way for their fear-mongering lawmakers.  If they use the UN, all the better.
« Last Edit: August 26, 2013, 09:53:10 PM by Skynet »

Offline Tamhansen

Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #5 on: August 27, 2013, 03:20:49 PM »
I agree with many of the UN Declarations.  Problem is that all too often member nations ignore it without any consequences, especially if they're a global superpower like the US, Russia, or China.

Regardless I do hope that multiple nations will sanction Russia in some way for their fear-mongering lawmakers.  If they use the UN, all the better.

This, and hopefully the same will be true for the US and China.

Offline Ephiral

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Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #6 on: August 27, 2013, 03:46:31 PM »
Interesting note: In addition to the UN Declaration, Russia is also a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (and has been fined for its violation on LGBT issues in the past), and the Russian constitution enshrine the right to freedom of speech and association. So yeah, the "rights" point as it applies to Russia is pretty well-established.

Offline Pumpkin Seeds

Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #7 on: August 28, 2013, 10:19:40 AM »
"The dedication of a lifetime these are words that are easy to utter, but this is a mighty assignment. For it is often easier to fight for principles than to live up to them." - Adlai Stevenson.

Quote seemed appropriate to the discussion.  The problem with such overarching and grand rules is that enforcing them is near impossible.  Generally speaking these ideals seem to be treated as just that...ideals.

Offline didoanna

Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #8 on: August 30, 2013, 05:08:58 AM »
Just as a point of interest, what happens when the 'rights' we value clash with the 'rights' enshrined in another culture?

Who's rights win?

Offline Oniya

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Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #9 on: August 30, 2013, 06:23:05 AM »
The human ones.  It doesn't happen overnight, but when a culture marginalizes significant portions of their members, the international community imposes pressure of various forms to bring about proper treatment of all.

Offline Kythia

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Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #10 on: August 30, 2013, 06:28:42 AM »
Well, the point Cyrano was getting at with talking about how many countries have signed the relevant treaties is that the "rights we value" are exactly the same, by law, as the "rights enshrined in another culture".  We both signed the same document saying "yup, that's pretty much what we see as rights".

Of course not every country has signed everything, and even those that have may not have signed various aspects (for example, the UK hasn't signed a couple of sections of the European Convention on Human Rights) but these are very much fringe cases.  The core aspects are agreed by everyone and so there is no clash in what the rights are viewed as, merely as to whether or not they are being recognised.

Offline Oniya

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Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #11 on: August 30, 2013, 06:59:48 AM »
I think what didoanna was getting at was when the culture of a country - let's take the fictional country of Erewhon for an example - conflicts with those basic human rights.  Erewhon has a very rigid caste system, and certain people there are treated as little more than livestock by the simple fact that they were born into a specific caste.  They can't vote (Article 21), are restricted from getting certain jobs (Article 23), and aren't allowed more than the bare minimum of education, which is geared mostly at teaching them their 'place' in society instead of things like reading, math, science or history (Article 26).  This has been going on since Erewhon's earliest history as a nation, and thus the treatment of these people is considered 'enshrined in culture'.  The UNDHR says that even the members of this lowest caste are entitled to participate in their government, to have free choice of employment, and the right to an education.

What then?

Offline gaggedLouise

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Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #12 on: August 30, 2013, 07:15:27 AM »
*nods* Like India in the 19th century, and a long time into the 20th (just one example): even if the caste system had not been in place with that kind of strictness and that many divisions from time immemorial, not literally, most Indians at the time, and even their British overlords, supposed that it had always been like that, so it was seen as enshrined in a sacred order and in national culture. So if you wanted India free, you could have taken the line that it had to mean defending the caste system and a lot of other ungainly things.

Happily Gandhi and Nehru didn't take that view.
« Last Edit: August 30, 2013, 07:25:43 AM by gaggedLouise »

Offline Kythia

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Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #13 on: August 30, 2013, 07:19:57 AM »
The fictional country of Erewhon is fictional, 19th century India existed in the 19th century prior to all of these things being developed.  There is nowhere like that.   The Cook Islands, the Holy See and Niue are the only places that have signed up to none of these charters.  The Cook Islands and Niue use New Zealand's laws - which have signed up, the Vatican is the only possible candidate for Erewhon but it doesn't have those laws.  While yes a fictional example could be developed there are no real ones.  There is no clash.

Offline Oniya

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Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #14 on: August 30, 2013, 07:23:09 AM »
And yet we're having a debate a few threads down about moving the Olympics.

Offline Kythia

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Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #15 on: August 30, 2013, 07:29:51 AM »
And yet we're having a debate a few threads down about moving the Olympics.

I'm not sure what you're getting at with this, I'm afraid?  Russia, as has been mentioned above, is a signatory to various conventions.  If there was a world court, its law would be struck down.  There isn't and, as you rightly point out above, international pressure takes that role and Human rights win.

Offline Oniya

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Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #16 on: August 30, 2013, 07:32:02 AM »
But at the moment, there is a clash, and we're still waiting for the human rights to win. 

Offline Kythia

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Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #17 on: August 30, 2013, 07:32:38 AM »

Offline Oniya

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Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #18 on: August 30, 2013, 07:33:58 AM »
Correct, but when you say that there 'are no real [examples]', that's kind of white-washing it.

Offline Kythia

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Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #19 on: August 30, 2013, 07:36:19 AM »
No.  There is no "clash".  Russia has passed an illegal law, which countries do all the time.  There's been discussions in this forum about the US supreme court overriding various US legislation, its happened here (the UK) before and so on.  That doesn't make a clash between one set of rights and another, which is what was being asked.  It makes it an illegal law.

Offline gaggedLouise

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Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #20 on: August 30, 2013, 07:42:06 AM »
The fictional country of Erewhon is fictional, 19th century India existed in the 19th century prior to all of these things being developed.  There is nowhere like that.

Many sides of the caste system are alive and well in India today. They are not supported by a real countrywide body of law, but caste and its conditions still matter very much to many, many people in the country. Even the police are often turning a blind eye to some of what it entails, not least for women and children.

Okay, Gandhi didn't rely on any notion of actual conventions of human rights, but he was familiar with the idea of a universal human value that belongs with all humans, and which goes beyond culture. He knew it from Tolstoy, whom he actually corresponded with for years, and from people like John Stuart Mill and perhaps the tradition from Plato. From the Gospels, and from the Indian sacred writings, the Upanishads, as he interpreted them. So he became convinced that humans had an inalienable value and dignity, in some ways much like the U.S. constitution: "we hold these truths to be self-evident...all men are born free...".

Plainly those kinds of ideas can become embroiled in some "clashes of cultures", but also with their own parent culture.
« Last Edit: August 30, 2013, 07:46:42 AM by gaggedLouise »

Offline Kythia

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Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #21 on: August 30, 2013, 07:47:07 AM »
Many sides of the caste system are alive and well in India today. They are not supported by a real countrywide body of law, but caste and its conditions still matter very much to many, many people in the country. Even the police are often turning a blind eye to some of what it entails, not least for women and children.

This is the key point.  India has no laws saying Dalits are inferior to *thinks* Brahmin.  Those laws would be illegal.  India can't control its population and force them to act in a certain way - at least not without breaching a whole slew of other human rights treaties - but it can give no official recognition or support to what is happening.  I'm not saying the situation couldn't be better, I'm saying that there is no legal clash between rights.  Human rights win.

Offline gaggedLouise

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Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #22 on: August 30, 2013, 08:02:49 AM »
No actual laws?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laws_of_Manu

Right, the Laws of Manu are no part of the official law code of India and they were not part of the law presided over by the British judges before 1947 either. But they were seen as a legacy part of the Hindu social order in every village and city for many centuries, much like Sharia law in some middle eastern countries. They were part of the canon, and the British accepted that they were the rulebook in local life, simply because if a few million people are going to rule hundreds of millions speaking thirty different languages, most of which the members of the overlord class do not understand, you can't waste your strength on fighting strange local customs, even if you think they are nasty. So the Brits accepted this kind of legal-religious order, and with it the caste system, and concentrated on banning some aspects that really didn't square with their own notions at all, such as widow-burning.

The old tradition survived and it was seen as sacred, and part of India. Even after India had become a free country some of these customs and ideas were still accepted in silence by the police, this in turn has kept up the notion with some that this system is legacy India. You can still find large chunks of the caste system and some of the economic injustices it brought in any county of India today.


Quote from: Kythia
I'm not saying the situation couldn't be better, I'm saying that there is no legal clash between rights.  Human rights win.

But the way you size up a victory for human rights, it would be (often) just a victory of words, with little real change to those demeaning laws and pseudo-laws, or obstructive legal and social practices.
« Last Edit: August 30, 2013, 08:08:45 AM by gaggedLouise »

Offline Kythia

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Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #23 on: August 30, 2013, 08:20:15 AM »
But the way you size up a victory for human rights, it would be (often) just a victory of words, with little real change to those demeaning laws and pseudo-laws, or obstructive legal and social practices.

I think you're trying to apply my argument a little more broadly than I meant it.  Either that or one of us is totally missing the other's point.  The question was "what happens in the circumstances where a local/national set of rights clash with international human rights".  I said that that couldn't happen in practice because everyone has signed up to human rights, Oniya said that the mechanism for overturning any attempt at such a law was international pressure (leaving aside things like the ECHR).

Is it a perfect system?  No.  Can non-legal discrimination happen?  Yes.  Neither of those were the question.

Offline gaggedLouise

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Re: A Clarification about "Human Rights"
« Reply #24 on: August 30, 2013, 08:29:15 AM »
I think you're trying to apply my argument a little more broadly than I meant it.  Either that or one of us is totally missing the other's point.  The question was "what happens in the circumstances where a local/national set of rights clash with international human rights".  I said that that couldn't happen in practice because everyone has signed up to human rights, Oniya said that the mechanism for overturning any attempt at such a law was international pressure (leaving aside things like the ECHR).

Is it a perfect system?  No.  Can non-legal discrimination happen?  Yes.  Neither of those were the question.

A government can still tolerate, or even actively play down to, some grave abuses and injustices that it would not explicitly defend when it's doing international law and conventions. That's what diplomacy and PR strategies are for. The diplomats and spokesmen will say "of course we won't let the right of any person to X be infringed" but in reality, it can get infringed a thousand times a month.