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Human Rights


Human Rights as a concept originated from the eighteenth century enlightenment thought. Contemporary notions of human rights, however, have relatively recent origin. Dominant understandings of rights draw on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a document forged in 1948 by the United Nations in response to the human devastation wrought by the Second World War. Sometime between the 1940s and the 1990s, human rights discourse became globalized. Today it is arguably the primary normative framework through which benchmarks for justice are measured at the international level.

Human rights are understood to be the basic rights and freedoms to which all human beings are entitled. Even if we assume that there is general consensus that these rights are basic and inalienable, just what constitutes these basic rights and freedoms remains open to debate. Some quarters privilege political and civil rights (sometimes referred to as first generation rights) while others prioritize social and economic rights (or second generation rights). Yet others insist that human rights as articulated in the UDHR are culturally specific and not universally applicable.'

From Natural Rights to Human Rights Throughout much of human history, an individual's social entitlements, duties and responsibilities derived directly from his or her membership in, or relationship to, specific groups and institutions the family, the community, religious, caste or occupational groups, the sovereign and so on. The idea that every individual, by virtue of being human, is entitled to certain human rights is relatively new, although the roots of this notion can be traced to earlier traditions, including those of the major world religions.

'Natural' laws as the basis for claiming universal human rights have had enormous appeal historically. Exactly what constitutes the natural order has varied enormously in different epochs and spaces, running the gamut from the religious or moral to a biologically determinist social order. Ancient Greek philosophers expounded the idea of natural rights and justice, assumed to spring from natural law and to reflect the natural order of the universe. This natural order had a divine basis, understood to be the will of the gods. An explicit shift from duties to the sovereign to natural rights can be found in the work of various 17th and 18th century European philosophers concerned with the rights and obligations of the individual to the collectivity or emergent state. These social contract theorists elaborated different versions of 'natural' laws in the process of defining the 'natural' rights of human beings.

The version of social contract theory elaborated by 18th century philosopher John Locke was especially significant for the later development of human rights theory. In his Second Treatise of Government, 1689, Locke argued that as creations of God, human beings were naturally free and equal. Therefore all people had natural rights, natural law being the protection of life, liberty and property. Despite its basis in divinity, the Lockean concept of natural rights was important in the development of the modern notion of rights. Most notably, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776) included the concept of natural rights, stating not only that all men are created equal but also that they are 'endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights' including those of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Historicizing the UDHR As mentioned earlier, the foundational document for contemporary human rights is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the General Assembly of the UN in 1948 in the wake of the horrors of World War II. As envisaged in this non-binding document, human rights are essential for the protection of individuals from the arbitrary powers of the modern nation-state. Researched and written in part by a committee of international experts representing all continents and all major religions, the UDHR laid out the basic rights and freedoms to which all human beings were entitled by virtue of being human. Article 1 of the UDHR states that all humans are born free and equal in dignity and in rights. The inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights, as well as civil and political rights in the UDHR was predicated on the assumption that basic human rights are indivisible, and inextricably linked. This idea, however, was never fully endorsed by western nations and was openly challenged later.

Over the years, the scope of human rights as laid down in the UDHR has been elaborated through various covenants and conventions, and has been expanded conceptually to include collective rights, as well as the recognition of rights abuses by non-state actors such as multi-national corporations.

Who gets rights and what kinds of rights these would be were not resolved by the UDHR. The 1940s was a high point in anti-colonial and anti-imperial movements, a context in which questions of who was the subject of rights and the kind of rights to which s/he was entitled took on a new valence (Lauren in Cimel). What constituted a fundamental human right and which part was inalienable came to be contested as anti-colonial movements came into their own. These movements brought forth the contradictions of race and empire embedded in liberal rights discourse.'

Nationalists insisted on inserting the question of the self-determination of peoples, rather than the rights of individuals, into human right debates. For instance, anti-colonial activists such as Mbonu Ojike of Nigeria claimed the right to self-rule as a natural right. Ho Chi Minh declared independence for Vietnam quoting the 'inalienable rights' of the US Declaration of Independence. In 1952, over the objections of Western nations, Asian, African and Latin American countries officially made respect for the 'self-determination of peoples' part of the UN's human rights program. European nations as well as prominent intellectuals refused to concede that self-determination could be a fundamental human right along with the right to life, liberty, freedom of expression and the like. Much of the opposition seems to have stemmed from an acute suspicion and resentment of third world nationalism.

Globalization, NGOS and the New Transnational Human Rights Regime In the 1970s, during the cold war, both the human rights agenda and the configuration of power shifted. From the perspective of the market economies of the West, communism represented the ultimate violation of human rights. In this environment the hallowed indivisibility of rights of the 1940s was set aside; western countries embraced civil and political rights (sometimes referred to as first generation rights) as fundamental but refused to recognize economic, social and cultural rights (or second generation rights) at the same level. This divide became the basic fault line between the third world and the socialist bloc, and the capitalist west. Notably, this kind of rights discourse dovetailed with the counter-revolutionary market based agenda of the World Bank in this period.

Simultaneously, the center of activism moved from the UN to international NGOs and human rights organisations such as Amnesty International. 'Naming and shaming', rather than international law, became fundamental tools of NGO activism. A small but powerful transnational elite of human rights activists emerged, who took on the task of putting pressure on their respective governments through publicizing political and civil rights violations. Rights work became regime specific and focused on the individual.

The language and tenor of human rights activism shifted with the end of the Cold War. With the collapse of socialism, the only language of justice left appeared to be that of human rights. The genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, globalization and the emergence of local and transnational NGO networks, as well as the rise of the language of governance and rights in development parlance all contributed to the dramatic rise of human rights discourse globally in the last two decades of the twentieth century. This was true of Bangladesh well as other countries. A number of UN world conferences, especially around women, not only put women's rights as human rights on the agenda but also recast the significance of human rights discourse. The 1993 UN Vienna World Conference on Human Rights was particularly notable in this regard.

This period also saw the emergence of a multitude of southern NGOs who became active in the national and international human rights scene. These NGOs of various sizes and significance, some set up and funded by western donors, others entirely home-grown, also changed the rights landscape. They opened up the human rights agenda to include a wide variety of concerns from environmental and health rights to economic justice and multinational accountability.

Women's Rights beyond the Universalism vs. Cultural Relativism Binary The strategy of naming and shaming ultimately rests on exercising postcolonial relations of domination and subordination among nation-states. This has opened the way to charges of cultural imperialism and political manipulation. Indeed, the recognition of some practices and not others as gross human rights violations invariably appears to be informed by colonial and orientalist structures of knowledge production and categorization. Critics charge that the universalism/cultural relativism debate cannot be understood without taking into account historically mediated global relations of power. The issue turns not on the cultural merit of the practices under question, but on the practices of power that inform the politics of naming and the interpretive frame through which we view cultural phenomena.

The often vitriolic debates around what constitutes universally recognized violations of women's rights and the extent to which these violations can be attributed to particular cultures bring out the tensions and contradictions inherent in universalizing rights. For instance, it is not clear why certain practices such as female genital cutting (FGC) are always represented as the most fundamental of rights violations of African women, located ostensibly in the persistence of 'backward African traditions,' while other equally longstanding and much more widespread practices such as spousal violence and partner murder in the US and Europe are represented as 'acultural' crimes that are not reflective of Euro-American cultural values. By the same token, the cultural relativism/universalism binary does not help us understand why the killing of a Caucasian woman by her male partner in the US is seen as domestic violence, but the killing of an Arab woman by her male partner is automatically labeled an honor crime and so a problem attached to Arab culture.

Tensions generated by the universalism/cultural relativism debate came to a head at the Third UN World Conference on Women held in Nairobi in 1985. There Euro-American feminists highlighted FGC as the central rights violation experienced by African women ' a prioritization contested by African feminists who wanted questions such as access to water and firewood and the deleterious effects of structural adjustment policies to be on the agenda. African feminists charged that disproportionate focus on FGC allowed Euro-American feminists to: i) ignore the latter's complicity and place of privilege in global political economy and so in the domination of Africans, including African women, and ii) simultaneously to assert their cultural superiority by recuperating colonial tropes of speaking for and being the saviors of 'native' women. As this account suggests, the binary of universalism/cultural relativism hides as much as it reveals.

Transnational feminists managed to resolve some differences over time, partly because of shifting power differentials globally. By the time of the UN World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna in 1993, the voice of Southern NGOs and feminists had been firmly established in transnational networks and fora. By then, there was an appreciation of the impossibility of defining human rights. The understanding now is that human rights cannot be limited to definition but proceed from principal elements.

The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action declared that women's rights were human rights and reaffirmed the indivisibility of human rights by stating that democracy, development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms were interdependent and mutually reinforcing.

The Asian Values Debate The Asian Values Debate arose in the backdrop of the phenomenal rise of Southern NGOs and the concomitant globalization of human rights discourse. This NGO-led discourse was critical of both state and non-state violations, and cognizant of colonial histories and global hegemonies. In the shadow of the Vienna Conference, leaders of some authoritarian regimes in Asia claimed that Asia had a unique set of values which provided for a different understanding of human rights from the west, and so justified a different set of standards. One key cultural difference, they argued, was an emphasis in Asia on the community rather than on the individual. Another was the precedence of collective social and economic rights over individual civil and political ones.'

The Asian Values argument drew on and simplified some valid critiques of human rights for transparently instrumental purposes. By then, the notion of a pre-cultural already formed subject, the rights-bearing individual of Liberal human rights discourse, and had already come under attack from legal theorists, political philosophers and activists.

Regardless, to posit the idea of Asian values is immensely problematic. Asia, wherever one draws the boundaries, is a heterogeneous space, not easily reducible to one set of values. In fact, the binary of the West versus the rest falls apart when one recognizes the ethnic, cultural and class diversity of Asia, not to mention the somewhat arbitrary borders around the region that we call Asia.

Human Rights in British India and East Pakistan Human rights has meant different things at different points in time, and that these meaning are informed by local and global political discourse. The historical specificity of the concept of rights complicates any attempts to write the history of human rights in British India and the then East Pakistan. A host of such complications in relation to language and classification arise: can we assume, for instance, that all anti-colonial rhetoric that challenged colonial inequality was part of an emerging human rights vision ?' Should we include the diverse nationalist and anti-colonial movements for independence in British India to be part of the story of human rights in South Asia ? Or does this doom our analyses to ahistoricity and presentism?

In this essay, an attempt has been made to present the idea of human rights as having developed under historically and contextually specific conditions, although not necessarily along an east/west binary. In the circumstances, to talk about the human rights situation in nineteenth century colonial India or in East Pakistan may very well be akin to 'talking about auto-repair in the sixteenth century. This was not the vocabulary not the interpretive framework through which contemporary actors understood their actions or articulated their visions of justice or morality.'

Bangladesh's human rights movement came in active discussion in the 1980s under specific historical conditions. These local conditions were mediated to some extent by global events, especially the end of the era in which western democracies actively supported third world dictatorships as part of the cold war strategy to stave off communism. It is this period on which focus is being made in the remaining sections of this entry.

Human Rights in Bangladesh In the 1980s, the vibrant civil society movement resisting military rule found itself frequently suppressed and censored. In demanding restoration of democracy, at a time when authoritarian rule was being challenged all over the world, civil society movements found a powerful ally in the human rights framework. Leading human rights organisations were established during this period. The trajectory of Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), a leading human rights and legal aid organisation, is illustrative of this moment.'

It was no surprise that ASK emerged as a human rights organisation in this period of severe political turmoil and civil unrest. Military rule had thrown into sharp relief questions of civil liberty and democracy. The atmosphere was charged and many citizens outside political parties were drawn by circumstances into political activism. The movement profoundly shaped the outlook and long-term aspirations of those involved in it. As the struggle to restore democratic politics unfolded, so did debates about the future and over what exactly constituted a democratic polity. For those associated with ASK, involvement in the political struggles of the day led to a heightened sense of urgency about human rights issues.

Organisations such as ASK were many years ahead of their times. When it was established in 1986, there were only a handful of organisations working within an explicitly human rights framework. A recent mapping listed at least 30 organisations working to further rights and social justice listed. Rights groups now cover the spectrum, from campaigning for environmental rights and the rights of indigenous communities to combating trafficking in persons and discrimination against dalits. The international award winning Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), as well as Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA), Bangladesh Legal Aid Services Trust (BLAST), Odhikar and the Society for Environment and Human Development are among the leading human rights organisations in the country.

The link between 'good governance' and neo-liberal development regimes has provided a direct stimulus to human rights work in Bangladesh. At least some of the more recent rush to use a rights-based framework derives directly from donor interest.'

The indivisibility of rights has been a central working principle for human rights defenders in Bangladesh. Acknowledging women's rights as human rights is also widely accepted as necessary. Activists have also begun to push the boundaries of who can be the subject of human rights, incorporating both sex workers and sexual and gender minorities within the rights framework. Human rights organisations have been extremely active in holding the state accountable for the rights violations of both individuals and collectivities, as for instance, slum dwellers and sex workers.'

Perhaps because of their origins in opposing the national military, human rights NGOs have been less engaged in pursuing the violations of multinational corporations. It is the non-NGO sector such as the National Committee on Gas, Oil and Petroleum that has pursued potential and existing violations by multinational oil companies.

Fundamental rights as envisaged in the Constitution include the right to equality before the law (Article 27) and equal protection of all (Articles 31 and 33) as well as the right to be free from discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, caste or sex. Fundamental principles of state policy require the state to ensure free and compulsory education, public health, equality of opportunity and work as a right and a duty.'

As an independent state, Bangladesh is signatory to the UDHR as well as most significant treaties and conventions, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Child Rights Convention (CRC), the Convention on Torture (CAT) and the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). It was also one of the first state parties to sign on to the Optional Protocol to CEDAW. Notably, the government has only signed but not ratified the International Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers (ICRMW).

Although has ratified most international human rights instruments, successive governments have also placed significant obstacles to their full implementation. The state has declarations and reservations on the ICESCR, ICCPR, CEDAW and its Optional Protocol, CAT and the CRC.

Despite pressure from women's groups, successive governments have maintained key reservations on CEDAW and its Optional Protocol on the grounds that they contravene sharia law. This is one place where cultural relativism versus universalism debates comes into play.

In response to a longstanding demand of civil society, the government established a National Human Rights Commission in 2008. Bangladesh has been elected twice to the reformed Human Rights Council of the UN. In May 2009, Bangladesh was re-elected for a second term to the Council. Bangladesh also underwent its first ever Universal Periodic Review of its human rights situation at the UN.

As mentioned earlier, Bangladesh's human rights movement came of age in the 1980s under specific local conditions. These conditions were framed by global events, especially the end of the Cold War and the rise of a related free market triumphalism. The rise of NGOs, transnational networks of activism and globalization processes in general also helped to establish human rights discourse in the country.

Aside from demands to lift reservations on CEDAW, there has been little sustained discussion in the country on the tensions and contradictions embedded in human rights discourse. The situation is on the verge of changing. With increased public piety, especially the expression of religiosity marked through women's attires, questions of who can be the subject of rights and who determines what is or is not a violation of women's rights to equality, are ready to explode into the public domain. [Dina Mahnaz Siddiqi]