Universality of human rights is a myth

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Universality of human rights is a myth

Tuesday, 19 December 2023 | Nilantha Ilangamuwa

Universality of human rights is a myth

Human rights emerge from the ashes of exploitation by a privileged few, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights defiantly standing at its 75th year

In the renowned Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a grand proclamation resonates: all are equal before the law and entitled, without distinction, to equal protection under the law. Each 10th of December is designated as International Human Rights Day, not as a mere ritual of repetitive rhetoric, but as a solemn call for genuine solidarity and authentic commitment to the profound principles it represents. However, echoing the cautionary words of George Orwell in Animal Farm, where 'all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,' the stark reality unfolds before us. The notion of equality becomes not a force for justice but a potent instrument of mass control—an alluring mirage that conceals hidden motives.

Gustave Le Bon, in The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, posited that the truth is often shunned, as people, thirsty for validation, turn a blind eye to inconvenient evidence. The UDHR, in its 75 years, has become more than a document; it transforms into a collection of words manipulated in the most abhorrent manner. Crafted to subdue hostile factions, the UDHR, touted as universal, becomes a tool wielded by a select group of powers. To borrow Slavoj Žižek's words, it acts as a perfect rhetoric, lulling us into a 'dogmatic slumber' of false freedom, from which we urgently need awakening.

The concept of human rights, born in the 20th century, reached a crucial point on December 10, 1948, with the adoption of the UDHR by the United Nations General Assembly. This marked a new chapter in the idea of universal human rights, in responding to the aftermath of World War II. While the UDHR outlined a comprehensive list of rights similar to those in the US Constitution, it carried a political reality—a deceptive facade masking the true nature of its universality. From the start, the weaknesses of human rights law were ingrained in the UDHR, lacking the binding force of a formal treaty and relying on General Assembly endorsement without the power to shape international law as outlined in the UN Charter. The very rights it proclaimed were couched in vague, aspirational terms, leaving room for diverse interpretations. Even liberal democracies hesitated to embrace binding legal commitments, casting a shadow over the lofty aspirations of this declaration.

Despite the initial attention it garnered, this Universal Declaration failed to spark a paradigm shift in international relations, eluding voters, politicians, and influencers. "Human rights" now serves power-hungry politicians, who wield it as a concept to be exploited alongside pseudo-patriotism.

It is also manipulated by self-proclaimed civil society activists, who capitalize on the plight of humans for profit. Human rights have transformed into a tool for expressing idealistic goals while concealing strategic agendas. Once a utopian dream, universal human rights continue to be abused. Understanding their power requires exploring their utopian dimension, promising a reformation marked by dignity and respect. Amidst the various modern schemes of liberty and equality, human rights stand as one among others, not the sole driving force behind global ambitions. They are survivors in the realm of thought and social activism, perceived as a moral alternative to failed political utopias.

In the urgent pursuit of global justice, the imperative to address human rights violations is undeniable. However, a complex narrative unfolds as the United States and NATO cynically weaponise the concept to undermine achievements in socialist countries, veiling hegemonic interests in the cloak of freedom advocacy. Termed human rights imperialism, this alarming phenomenon inflicts its most brutal consequences on Third World states, often through military force. Imperial powers persist in dominating nations, justifying their actions by referencing documents they imposed. Today's crimes against humanity exceed historical atrocities, facilitated by the insidious employment of "soft power" as a tool for global dominion and enslavement.

Grasping the universality of human rights demands a perspective that perceives it as a collaborative process, urging states to join forces in ratifying existing treaties, drafting new ones, and fulfilling obligations outlined in the UN Charter. It transcends abstraction, embodying a commitment to concrete standards that, unfortunately, are corroding in practice.

The realisation of a genuine demand for humanity hinges on prioritizing the defence of justice as fairness, as mentioned by John Rawls, over attempts to merely mend it. This necessitates a radical departure from the current paradigm where international law, including human rights, serves as a manipulative tool for great power policies.

Instead, the call is for international law to transform into the gauge and restraint on state power. The persistent notion that only Western states can be trusted with humanitarian actions, despite a track record of failed interventions and questionable motives, must be shattered. Internationally, this signifies a struggle for peaceful and egalitarian relations among all states, regardless of size or strength. The way forward emphasizes peace, disarmament, independent economic development for the Third World, humane living conditions, and the preservation of the natural environment.

The unequivocal assertion of individual equality before the law demands the simultaneous establishment of comprehensive human rights across various spectrums. It imposes a strict prohibition on promoting hatred or inciting racial, national, or religious contempt. Allowing such expressions under the guise of freedom of speech risks dangerous consequences, as seen in the proximity between vicious rhetoric and incitement to war. The sanctity of press freedom cannot justify the dissemination of perspectives poisoning public opinion. Instances like a Nobel Prize for human rights advocates in Iran and Syria, contrasted with life imprisonment for Julian Assange, reveal a glaring lack of universality.

The drafted universal declaration, despite a meticulous process, omits crucial protections against genocide and atrocities, demanding correction. It fails to address the plight of individuals suffering not only under dictatorships or tyrannical regimes but also those subject to hegemonic ambitions. This renders it a mere statement without the force of law—a wasted effort perpetuating the myth of universality, leading us into the abyss of delusion.

In this redefined era, human rights emerge from the ashes of exploitation by a privileged few, with the UDHR defiantly standing at its 75th year. Rather than teetering on the brink of irrelevance, the UDHR serves as a scathing indictment of humanity's failure to embrace inclusivity and equality.

Beyond the superficiality of talk shows, the document perseveres, its struggle meticulously chronicled, even as institutions betray its core principles. Cultural biases, cynically used to deepen economic disparities, pose a formidable challenge. Nations once victims of egregious human rights violations now demand an urgent reevaluation of the UDHR, emphasising the need for universal applicability and lasting relevance. The time for rhetoric has passed; a resounding call to action is underway—a demand to breathe new life into the foundational principles safeguarding human dignity and rights, transcending selective interpretations and illuminating a world that cannot afford indifference's shadows.

(The writer is a Sri Lankan journalist and worked as a communications consultant for the Government of Sri Lanka. Views are personal)

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