Right Approach to Human Rights

Were the liberal sages of the eighteenth and nineteenth century alive to witness the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, they would have surely felt smug and vindicated. It’s not that the world has not changed since Thomas Paine wrote On Rights of Man, it’s because normative conception of how the world ought to be is still more or less similar to what it was in the heyday of classical liberal thought.

By Maria Waqar

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Thu 11 Dec 2008, 9:17 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:13 PM

Our international system might be in constant flux, but lofty liberal ideals of good governance and human rights inspire us till this day. Human rights activists still vouch for the “life, liberty and property” for all, the rhetoric of politicians still centres on the notions of freedom and equality and we still want to see a world where we live safely and freely.

But if those Victorian liberals could just see how the international community is working to promote the liberal conception of human rights that they envisioned eons ago, they might just raise a wizened eyebrow or two in scepticism. The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which is a revamped version of the Human Rights Commission, is the current international platform through which nation-states endeavour to safeguard human rights in the global arena. But sadly enough, the UNHRC has been the target of a great deal of due criticism. It has been repeatedly bashed for the lack of credible criteria for membership in the council, the influence that nation-states with dubious human rights record exert in it and its inability to take concerted action against human rights abuses in places like Darfur. But it is not merely the presence of “unfree authoritarian” countries like Pakistan and China and absence of “free democracies” like US and Canada in the council that makes it an ineffective vehicle for countering human rights violations. And it is not only the vested interests of Council members, which make them disregard the rampant humanitarian abuses in conflict-prone countries.

In fact, it is the state-centric configuration of the UN Human Rights Council, which has failed to safeguard human rights. History is witness to the fact that the states possess a natural tendency to impinge upon civil liberties. They have always been inherently coercive and their goals of seeking power, profit and eliminating competition often conflict with human claim to life and freedom.

Alas, one is reminded of the deep paranoia that the likes of Herbert Spencer, Adam Smith and John Locke felt towards the coercive state! “Soldiers, policemen, and jailers; swords, batons, and fetters are instruments for inflicting pain; and all inflection of pain is in the abstract wrong. The state employs evil weapons to subjugate evil and is alike contaminated by the objects with which it deals and the means by which it works,” wrote Herbert Spencer in The Social Statics.

The English liberal theorist was well aware of the excesses of the state. He knew well that before pleasant-sounding phenomena such as the social contract, democracy and individual rights gained currency in Europe, the continent presented distasteful picture of societal exploitation and coercion at the hands of statesmen.

And till this very day, the state maintains this coercive reputation. It is not just African and Asian countries where the state machinery violates human rights. The developed states, which present a scenario of democracy and limited government — a much desired political order by the classical liberals – intervene in other states and blatantly infringe upon human liberties in countries via war, intervention and insensitive policies.

Therefore, an exclusively state-based approach of the UNHRC will not bring about a positive change concerning human rights in the world. Civil society organisation and citizen-led initiatives are necessary for turning around the situation. Already, international non-governmental organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are doing a far better job than the Human Rights Council at the UN. They have untiringly documented human rights abuses all over the world and lobbied for amends on issues, ranging from prisoners of war to gender equality.

Amnesty International was the first organisation to internationally expose the sort of abuses that go on in Guantanamo Bay and has repeatedly advocated for its shutdown. While the Human Rights Watch has meticulously recorded human rights abuses in some of the most dangerous countries, like Somalia and Congo, and relayed them to international media to create global awareness and empathy. These NGOs have also repeatedly criticised the UNHRC and pressured it to take a more pro-active stance on human rights.

Also, the recent trend of ordinary people displaying a remarkable global civic consciousness by lobbying for international change is a very encouraging sign. In a remarkable gesture, 12,000 people from 147 countries of the world signed a petition to urge the UNHRC to maintain and strengthen its system of independent analysts in May 2007.

This shows that citizens of the world are not merely relying on inter-governmental dialogue to change the state of human rights but are making an independent effort to safeguard their liberties.

More of such steps will at least rekindle the hope that the world can become a place where dignity, safety and security of ordinary people are guaranteed. So that there’s a possibility of salvaging the ideals of those liberal intellectuals who genuinely believed that humans could create a world worth living in.

Maria Waqar can be reached at mariaw@khaleejtimes.com

More news from