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What ever happened to the image of human rights?

May 28, 2012

What happened to the clear and clean cut image of human rights I had when I was younger?

Although being without the Internet for 2 days was annoying, it certainly provided some time for reading real books, made of paper, that smell like books and feel like books and provided a glorious reminder of why I actually like the traditional tomes.  It also gave me time to sit and ponder a few things that seemed so very clear cut and cleanly defined when I was somewhat more youthful.

Human rights is one such area that appeared so simple to define, identify and support back then.

When I cast my mind back, people such as Vaclav Havel, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, Nelson Mandela etc were all (obviously high profile) easy to identify with and understand the issues surrounding the inequality and persecution surrounding them.  That is true of some modern day examples of course, until recently Aung San Suu Kyi would be a prime case that meets the traditional identifiers and is easy to understand .  Andrei Sannikov in Belarus would be another.

However, it has all become somewhat more murky and in some cases rather unwholesome.  That is particularly so when we stop looking at individual cases and look at regional issues and national peoples.  Then add to that mix, the UN Charter and its uncomfortable fit with Right to Protect (R2P) when R2P progresses all the way up the scale to armed intervention.

Libya set a precedent that many feel (not just Russia and China on the UNSC) that severely overstepped the remit given.  Syria now bears the fruits of those who have misgivings that should Syria follow the Libyan R2P route, armed intervention will become the rule rather than the exception.  Thus at no cost should Syria become the next Libya is the argument.

Once R2P moves into some form of armed boots on the ground scenario, despite what many may think, it is quite probable that a limited R2P role becomes much harder to accomplish than an all-out armed intervention.  For example, humanitarian corridors and safe havens sound wonderful – but – what happens when your safe haven comes under mortar fire or sniper fire?  The immediate military response is to push out and force that firepower back thus either expanding that safe haven exponentially, or pushing out temporarily and then ceding that ground once again when returning to the agreed safe haven boundaries and awaiting the next time the mortar rounds are in-coming because the opposition have decided to take pot-shots from the formal boundaries.  Fish in a barrel?

Oh the dilemmas of not being able to lawfully act despite a moral legitimacy to do so!

We also have the statements from nations and structures like the EU relating to human rights whilst they are not exactly beacons of human rights excellence themselves.

If we take Ukraine, it is under immense pressure from the EU and US over Ms Tymoshenko (and others) over their human rights for example.  That would be the very same USA that is condemning Ukraine whilst Gitmo is roundly criticised internationally, renditions and back ops/prisons are under investigation by the Council of Europe, the death penalty is actively condemned and the support and arming of Bahrain continues despite the clear, obvious and on-going human rights abuses by the government of Bahrain supported and buttressed by the USA.  Amnesty International is hardly glowing about the USA record on human rights in its 2012 report.

It would be the same EU that is criticising Ukraine which the recently released Amnesty International report states “Too many people are falling through the gap the EU’s stirring rhetoric on human rights and their lack of implementation.  The EU’s actions have actually blunted its own human rights tools such as The Charter or non-discrimination laws.  It seems to go backwards rather than forwards.  All too often this makes the EU a decidedly toothless tiger.”  Not exactly a comforting statement for an EU which claims to have the “silver thread” of human rights running through all its foreign policy.

This prima facie hypocrisy is not new of course.  Even influential and very western friendly activists and dissidents such as Lilia Shevtsova have for many years been telling “The West” the best thing it can do for activists in Russia is to do as they tell others to do rather than preach like some pious clergyman to the masses, and then when the congregation is not looking, interfere with a choirboy.

The problem is, of course, that whilst no nation or structure can claim to have a perfect score when it comes to human rights, when it comes to telling others they are out of line, they act as though they do, immediately eroding the legitimacy of their statements.

Every time a nation or structure shouts from within its glass house at another over human rights, all those stones created by their own failures are returned with force undermining their (normally well intentioned and often justified) statements.

Another issue is that human rights seems to be an ever expanding area.  Whether that is mission creep for political ends or whether we as a global society deem far more things as fundamental human rights than ever before, I am not sure.

We all, each and every one of us have more sympathy with certain human rights (and human rights cases) than others.  If you want to light my blue touch paper and then stand well back as I go off on one, then human trafficking would be human rights issue that really gets me going.  For other people it is other areas within the ever broadening human rights arena.

All that being said, when human rights are being abused, things need to be said – even if your own recored is somewhat blemished.  In the pursuit of excellence, throwing out what is only good because it isn’t excellent would be a very foolish thing to do.

Still, the clear cut, clean and wholesome image of human rights is no longer as it was when I was younger – or maybe it was always such a murky, grubby image and I simply failed to see the bigger picture for what it was all those years ago.

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