Louise Arbour Against Relativism as Erosion of Human Rights

Louise Arbour Louise Arbour, outgoing UN High Commissioner on Human Rights , give an interview to Le Monde as she takes stock of the current state of human rights around the world.

Every time human rights are mentioned in conversation or even academic meetings, the objection always comes up that human rights are a Western creation that the United States and European countries are ramming down people’s throats all over the world. It is nonsense, of course (to everyone who knows the history of the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ), and it is reverse patronizing (as if only Western people could have come up with the idea of human rights).

But now, emerging countries, groups and powers such as China, Russia or the Muslim world claim a right to a different version of human rights (unsurprisingly, one that is much more restrictive, in terms of, well… rights). So how do we preserve the universality of these rights?

According to Louise Arbour, there are different lines of fracture in this debate. Developing countries, including China, tend to favor social and economic rights more than civil and political rights whereas the United States has done the opposite. This is a line of fracture inherited from the Cold War.

But the main line of fracture now has to do with the rise of religious groups, especially fundamentalist groups who declare these rights secular and therefore inapplicable to them. These groups claim that they should be adjusted.

For Arbour, this is truly an assault against the universality of human rights in the name of religious and cultural relativism. What is the solution for the High Commissioner then? Have a debate with the right parties: not the ambassadors from the European Union or the Organization of Islamic Conference , but rather Muslim women because they are at the heart of the debate as to how to reconcile religious beliefs and human rights.

There is also a juridical, as opposed to political, dimension to consider. For Arbour, it is a false dichotomy to oppose freedom of expression and freedom of religion. The only real question, for her, is "what are the reasonable limits to freedom of expression in a free and democratic society?" After all, even the most democratic societies impose some restrictions on such freedoms.

What has been the impact of the "war on terror" on human rights and their promotion? For Arbour, a lot of democrats (small "d") have contributed, or turned a blind eye, to the erosion of human rights. And therefore, this has opened the door to a lot of abuse (and certainly, the United States bears a great responsibility here, in my view).

Louise Arbour puts what happened after 9/11 in interesting terms. The attitude after the attacks has not been "how much freedom are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of security?" but rather "How much of other people’s freedom are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of security?" And of course, the answer to the latter question is a hell of a lot easier especially when the "other" has been properly stigmatized and dehumanized. And of course, of suspected terrorists very quickly get treated as established terrorists.

For Arbour, we, in democratic societies, have also become easily accustomed to the secrecy of our governments in the name of national security, again. Maybe, ten years from now, she says, we’ll discover the full extent of the abuses. However, the recent US Supreme Court decision granting Guantanamo detainees access to civil federal courts shows that the judiciary branch is starting to push back and regain the ground that legitimately belongs to it: the arena of fundamental civil liberties.

As bad as the abuses brought about by the war on terror have been (and continue to be), Arbour is optimistic regarding the advance of the cause of human rights, especially through the greater recognition of the International Criminal Court. Progress is slow, definitely, However, the greater acceptance of the doctrines of obligation to protect and right to intervene means that more and more countries accept the provision of human rights not as discretionary but as mandatory. Application varies greatly, to be sure, but the framework we use to discuss these issues is significant as well. The Overton Window is shifting in the right direction.

For instance, as bad as the situations are in Darfur and Zimbabwe, both cases are forcing African governments and the Organization of African Union to really consider human rights in the African context and the relevance of the right to intervene.

And then, there are the "new" front lines of human rights. One cannot possibly have witnessed the food riots and not consider access to food a basic human rights. These riots also highlighted the appalling state of social inequalities in world, something well documented but too often ignored. These riots also made relevant discussions on related topics, such as food production and trade, biofuels and agricultural subsidies, trade protectionism on the part of rich countries, financial speculation on food, etc. But too often, for Arbour, these debates have been strictly economic in framing.

For her, the right to food, the right to a decent standard of living are fundamental rights. Is there a right to development. Arbour asks, what is the difference between a government that kills part of its population through genocide and a neglectful and corrupt government that let its people starve or die as a result of sickness and disease? Why do powerful countries a duty to intervene in one case, and less so in another.

And then, there is the next front line: the right to water. And that’s another doozie.

I confess to always finding the High Commissioner on Human Rights fascinating  and intellectually powerful peoples, especially the women, I have always been a big fan of Mary Robinson. I was more ambivalent about the late Sergio Vieira de Mello. But, even though their office is not by any means the most powerful in the complex UN hierarchy, these Commissioners always speak the truth to power.

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