Framing Human Rights

Ten years ago I first picked up a copy of Can Asians Think? by the renown and controversial Singaporean public intellectual Kishore Mahbubani just before reading, completely coincidentally, Amartya Sen’s ‘Human Rights and Asian Values’ published in The New Republic in July 1997. Both essays, extremely engaging and well written, are hugely germane to addressing increasing hate and harm directed against human rights activists in our country, as well as critiquing growing local and international concern and condemnation over the humanitarian situation in the Vanni and claims of genocide. I also believe that both essays can also help develop an endogenous understanding of and approach to human rights, firmly established in our own and evolving political and civil society.

Sen, after questioning ‘Western promoters of personal and political freedom in the non-Western world’ goes on to explore whether such values have deeper historical roots in Asia, which he imagines as a region of diverse peoples bound by some cultural, social and political commonalities and constructs. He considers several examples, from Ashoka to Akbar, from Buddhism to Confucianism, from Kabir’s poetry to Kautilya’s prose. Through characteristically rigorous exploration, he concludes that,

In the most general form, the notion of human rights builds on our shared humanity. These rights are not derived from citizenship in any country, or membership in any nation. They are taken as entitlements of every human being… The human right of a person not to be tortured is affirmed independently of the country of which this person is a citizen, and also irrespective of what the government of that country-or any other country-wants to do. (Emphasis mine)

He goes on to note that,

Since the conception of human rights transcends local legislation and the citizenship of the individual, the support for human rights can come from anyone-whether or not she is a citizen of the same country as the individual whose rights are threatened. A foreigner does not need the permission of a repressive government to try to help a person whose liberties are being violated.

Tellingly, this was years before the hugely controversial Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, but it also prefigures the pointed criticism directed against it when Sen goes on to note that,

This basic recognition does not suggest, of course, that everyone must intervene constantly in protecting and helping others. That may be both ineffective and unsettling. There is no escape from the need to employ practical reason in this field, any more than in any other field of human action. Ubiquitous interventionism is not particularly fruitful or attractive within a given nation, nor is it across national boundaries… My claim is only that the barriers of nationality and citizenship do not preclude people from taking legitimate interest in the rights of others and even from assuming some duties related to them. (Emphasis mine)

Mahbubani strikes a completely different chord. Can Asians Think? is a timeless book and one I have returned to for inspiration and direction on many occasions over the past decade. Mahbubani’s polemics are as entertaining, and no better example of this is in one essay that looks as human rights and the freedom of the press from an Asian perspective. Mahbubani spells out 10 ‘heresies’ in this essay, that through historical examples suggest amongst other things that Western governments work with genocidal rulers when it serves their interests to do so, will happily sacrifice the human rights of Third World societies when it suits them, cannot acknowledge that the pursuit of ‘moral’ human rights policies can have immoral consequences and that an imperfect government that commits some human rights violations is better than no government, in many societies.

Pointing to the examples of Taiwan and South Korea in the 60’s and 70’s and the authoritarian governments that featured in both countries at the time, Mahbubani notes that the West,

… by allowing the allowing the authoritarian government, which were fully committed to economic develop, to run the full course, the West has brought about the very economic and social changes that have paved the ay for the more open and participative societies that Taiwan and South Korea have become.

Mahbubani squarely and unapologetically places economic development before social and political freedoms. Hailing from Singapore, this can be dismissed as misplaced nationalism, but the case made is far more nuanced, if one takes the time to read the entire essay. At the end of his ten heresies, Mahbubani notes,

There is no unified Asian view on human right and freedom of press. There are Western concepts. Asians are obliged to react to them. Predictably, there is a whole range of reactions, ranging from those who subscribe to these concepts in toto to those who reject them completely… But in most Asian societies there is little awareness let alone understanding of these concepts. The truth is that the vast continent of Asia, preoccupied with more immediate challenges, has not had the time or energy to address these issues squarely.

Sen’s and Mahbubani’s essays, written independent of each other offer tremendous value to a constructive critique of human rights when juxtaposed. Both do not decry human rights, but speak to the significant challenges in defining, establishing and strengthening them outside liberal democracies. Tellingly, I have not seen either essay referred to in analyses that look at the systemic challenges to human rights in Sri Lanka and the problems of championing a construct essentially perceived as foreign and suspect. The enduring urgency of and need for securing the human dignity of minorities in Sri Lanka has sacrificed vital critiques on the fundamental basis upon which such protection rests and is framed by. This contestation of the universality of human rights becomes therefore a line of critical thinking unwelcome and shunned, because of the real and perceived risk of such studies and expression becoming fodder for extremism in majoritarian policies and politics. While an understandable risk, this has over time has resulted in self-referential debates on human rights. On the other, hand, Sen speaks of a shared humanity that underpins human rights. Can the rediscovery and redefinition of shared values after war frame debates on human rights that legitimise it through critical analysis amongst a broader constituency? Perhaps, but if Mahbubani is to be believed, some of us may also have to face up to the uncomfortable scenario that the Rajapakse regime and its exclusively defined and violently secured policies and practices of development and governance could well be the best foundation for eventual social and political mobility and empowerment.

Unlike much of the Rajapakse regime’s rhetoric however, Mahbubani fully acknowledges Western values behind the spectacular advance of mankind, including the willingness to challenge assumptions. Yet he notes that what is important and challenging is to open up to the ‘new technologically interconnected global universe’ and yet remain rooted in and conscious of the cultures of ancestors in a continuous effort to define social and national identities in a way that enhances self-esteem. What in verbosity Mahbubani suggests is no different to the shared humanity Sen speaks of as the foundation of human rights.

As Sri Lanka moves forward and tackles the good, bad and ugly of globalisation as well as its internal policies and practices, we need to question our own assumptions, going as far as to openly acknowledge the limited impact and sometimes hugely detrimental consequences of human rights debates oriented more towards the international community. We may well find that the more openly we question ourselves and what we hold to be true, the greater awareness and support we generate for what we all most passionately believe in – that for any meaningful economic, political or social development, human dignity and peace are vital.

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