60 Years: Human Rights as a Discourse

EDITORIAL, 15 Dec 2008

#40 | Johan Galtung

A meeting honoring the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 10 December 1948 was just concluded in Paris: the 9th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, dedicated to “Human Rights and a World without Violence”. An impressive parade of 50 statements, half by Nobel peace laureates and half by “invited guests”. So, how do human rights stand up as an approach to the human, social and world condition, as a discourse?

The human rights, incorporated in the French constitution of 1789 and reformulated as the Universal Declaration, is a major human achievement, close to a world constitution. The Universal Declaration is not international law, but the Covenants of 16 December 1966 — civil-political, economic-social-cultural — are. But the latter is not ratified by the USA, and the United States still benefit from some residual hegemony so the non-ratification serves as a signal to some of semi-validity. Like Article 1,2 that states clearly that the proceeds from the resources of a country shall accrue to the people of that country — not to foreigners, nor to elites only. Highly meaningful in Nigeria, Sudan, Congo, etc.

And that brings us straight to the point: the human rights discourse states moral values derived from a human rights culture favoring those with a human rights deficit. A value may translate into a claim and become a social force, and where there is a force there is usually also a counter-force if not necessarily of the same size. Maybe stronger, hopefully balanced by the legitimacy of universal human rights goals, attributed to everyone. There is much moral strength to draw upon, and a very rich tradition.

But the conflict discourse contributes something that often makes the human rights discourse look like naive moralism designed to lift the speaker rather than those in human rights deficit.

Basic to the conflict discourse is the idea that there is more than one goal, human rights, to any issue. We may sympathize with the underdogs with an unfulfilled human rights catalogue not only defining their goals but also endowing them with a legitimacy making them non-negotiable. But what happened to the other party or parties, and their goals? Are we to assume that there is nobody whose goals may differ from human rights to the point of being incompatible with them? Has the high moral ground of human rights made incompatible goals not only illegitimate, but also as invisible and unmentionable as the goals held by “terrorists”?

A human rights discourse is essentially moralistic, and establishes goal legitimacy. A conflict discourse is essentially discursive, analytical, identifies the parties and their goals and then moves on to discuss the legitimacy of those goals, and how to bridge the gaps between all legitimate goals held by the parties.

The legitimacy given to human rights tends by implication to make the goals of anyone seen as standing in the way illegitimate. The USA does not ratify, but does that automatically make the US position illegitimate? In the sense of “investments legitimizing  repatriation of profits for eternity”, yes. But there is some legitimacy to compensation, payment, for initial R&D-research and development, of the means of production. A well-known debate.

Let us proceed to a less well-known debate. The Millennium Development Goals rights, like water, food, housing, literacy-education, health, energy, are all easily satisfied if the will is there. But the will is very often not there. There is heavy inaction, even heavy contra-action. Why, and what can be done?

, because of a strong interest in maintaining structural violence, keeping people in abject misery, highly exploitable and clinging to the smallest possibility for a little piece of work.

Any education will make them more costly, so keep them where they are, using the “beauty” of a capitalism that generates wealth for the few, but also poverty for the many, thus reproducing the structural violence. “Free market” it is called, even “freedom”.

Second, because of a strong fear of direct violence if people low down should come out misery-apathy capable of treating people high up the same way they were treated by them. An existential anxiety. Think of Chinese frightened by people in the countryside suppressed for millennia, rising in a Cultural Revolution, about 1966-73. Think of upper caste Hindus frightened by the casteless, the dalits. Think of whites in the US South knowing very well what they did to the slaves. Think of landowners-military-clergy in the Iberian poderes fácticos and their common people victims in a Colombia fighting FARC but not the conditions creating FARC.

But, are “interest in exploitation” and “fear of revenge” legitimate goals? Reformulate them as “interest in livelihood” and “love for survival” and they sound even very legitimate, giving rise to a conclusion: there will be no satisfaction of the basic human rights of the underdogs unless these basic goals of the topdogs are also met. But, how do we meet those goals?

Not that difficult. Education, with literacy and life-long education to everybody, is basic. A guaranteed minimum, as living income or as welfare state measures, would help. By making work more horizontal and labor intensive to guarantee equity and space for everybody. “Cooperative” is one formula. As to fear: by acts of conciliation, so beautifully done by a Kevin Rudd toward the aborigines of Australia or a Silvio Berlusconi toward Libya.

There is much work to do. But, and that is basic: however much we favor the human rights they may come to naught if the conflict and the forces against are left unattended.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 15 Dec 2008.

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