Monday, November 24, 2014

Plus ça change: Are human rights modern-day colonialism?

Reading through Anghie's (rather brief) exposition on some of the writings of Francisco de Vitoria--widely considered the pioneer of international law--one cannot but be struck by the parallels that can be drawn between his thinking more than five centuries ago and the doctrines informing some of the most recent of global developments.

When the Spanish encountered the "Indians" (Native Americans), they were unsure how to relate to them.  A common error is made in this regard by believing that the former viewed the latter ex ante as less than human.  That was not the case: De Vitoria and his contemporaries considered the natives fully human.  They also acknowledged that they were "civilized," in that they had discernible values, systems of governance and societal order, capacity to interact with others, etc.  The natives were, accordingly, fully human, equal in their humanity to the Spanish.  However, the Spanish recognized that the natives' values system was at prodigious variance with their own, and the question ineluctably arose of how to reconcile them (if possible) or whose system would take precedence (if not).

De Vitoria astutely sidestepped the prevalent dogma at the time that all authority was ultimately traceable to a "god," or, more plausibly, the "god's" earthly representative (the pope).  The reasoning was that the natives had never heard of Christianity and could hence not be held liable under its injunctions.  He thus fell back on the (Aquinian) notion of natural law, i.e. an objective, ubiquitous set of rules and values immanent in all human beings.  De Vitoria termed its contemporary incarnation as ius gentium.  Here was the rub: He posited that, whereas ius gentium was universal, the Spanish had, in a manner of speaking, "perfected" it.  By implication, the natives required assistance to self-realize the truism, benefits, and execution of ius gentium, and it was the Spaniards' duty to proffer that guidance and help.  Crucially, any opposition was deemed unreasonable: If the norms of ius gentium were the perfection of thought and practice for all humankind, then any opposition to it was a fortiori retrograde, reactionary, and progress-retarding, and, accordingly, had to be staunched... - by any means necessary.  On that view, by extirpating dissent to the process of inculcation of ius gentium among the natives, the Spanish were doing them a major favor (even if that "favor" ended up manifesting itself in the form of blatant theft and ruthless genocide).

The analogy with modern times is glaring.  What was ius gentium in the days of de Vitoria is the conceptualization of putatively "universal" human rights (liberal democratic governance, rule of law, separation of powers, equality of the sexes, various freedoms (thought speech, etc.), protection of minorities, and so forth) today.  These values--just as ius gentium of old--are a product of evolution of the Western thought, and have been institutionalized by means of international organizations (e.g. the U.N.), which, themselves, are a product of Western politics.

The U.N. has promulgated such values through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenants, and other instruments.  The Europeans states have embraced even higher normative standards in the form of the E.U.'s Charter of Fundamental Rights and the E.C.H.R.  The O.A.S. has its own charter as does the A.U.  A.S.E.A.N. and the Arab League also compiled declarations, though these have been rebuked for falling short of the "universal" values.

The question is what happens when a subject deviates from these "universal" norms.  That can be due to e.g. its cultural specificities or economic particularities.  The Arab Charter on Human Rights, for instance, fails to guarantee equal treatment of women and discriminates against non-citizens' basic rights.  A.S.E.A.N.'s attempt has met with even more strident criticism for omitting some of the most longstanding, fundamental protections or providing conspicuous and numerous loopholes to evade them.  These, however, are difficult to challenge directly, being that they are endorsed by a multiplicity of quite powerful states.  There is an entire official (government) and semi-official (N.G.O.s) "industry" centered around producing reports and conducting campaigns concerning individual states' adherence to the human right principles.  Which principles?  The "universal" ones, but of course.  And where the presumptive "international society" (read: the Western-led international organizations) can, it does its utmost to introduce as many of these norms as possible to the areas under its control (e.g. Timor-Leste, Kosovo, Iraq, etc.).  Harking back to de Vitoria, opposition to such endeavors is excoriated as backward, unhelpful, and, yes, hostile.  Though such hostility is no longer countered with genocide, its protagonists are excluded from all nation-building processes and, depending on the extent and quality of their opposition, may be subjected to anything from imprisonment to "daisy-cutters."

The issue at the heart of this discourse is what the A.S.E.A.N. Declaration unabashedly makes reference to: the notion of "cultural relativism."  It is an idea with which even a cursory observer of current affairs is familiar, to wit, that every society has a right (indeed, a human right!) to practice and safeguard the values prevailing in that society, even if these diverge considerably from the alleged "universal" values.  That idea is espoused by such diverse actors as autocratic regimes, leftist academics, Western leaders (still reeling under the burden of colonial baggage), and, indeed, a great many people in the type of societies in the docket, including those (e.g. women) who would benefit from a conferral of the "universal" rights on them.  Who, the trope goes, made those rights "universal" and with what justification?  What should give the (Western or West-tainted) powers the right to, yet again, impose their views on the sovereign peoples of the world?  Did we learn nothing from the brutalities of centuries of colonialist practice?

The opposing view is that of the "soft bigotry" of lowered expectations.  The contention here is that the "universal" values are indeed superior to--termed, for simplicity's sake--regional values, and that attempting to equalize the worthiness and merit of the two bespeaks racism, for it implies that the "regionals" are not deserving of enjoying the same liberties and rights as those fortunate enough to be living in, basically, the Western(-modeled) countries.  Far from striving to eschew the aggregate of the colonialist enterprise, "cultural relativism" does the opposite: It perpetuates the "natives'" inferiority.

The crux of the matter, therefore, is the status of the "universal" set of human rights norms in comparison to the others.  Is it--its misnomer notwithstanding--just one of many acceptable (which itself is a normative term) standards or is it the ideal toward whose truly universal implementation to aim?

Descrying a definitive answer to this is impossible.  The Western body politic is petrified of doing or saying anything remotely reminiscent of colonial practices (further affected by the anomie plaguing its society, in which any kind of judgment is unwelcome).  The assorted Third World tyrants are keen to maintain the status quo, which is greatly strengthened by illiberal practices passed off as "local culture."  Many ordinary people in those societies, too, vehemently oppose change.  (That is by no means unprecedented: Some of the most ornery opponents of the Suffragette movement in the West were precisely women.  For instance, tales abound of female prison wardens being far more brutal toward incarcerated women's rights activists than their male counterparts.  Scores of women, too, made public speeches and engaged in other types of campaign denouncing the Suffragettes.)  Who is entitled to deem one system of values better or worse than others, on what basis, and pursuant to what criteria?

Meanwhile, child marriages are rampant.  So is marital rape.  Cheap child labor supports entire economies.  Homosexuals are hanged, "apostates" beheaded, "adulterers" stoned, juveniles imprisoned with adults, "blasphemers" lynched, girls denied access to basic education.  The Gulf Cooperation Council states openly practice what can only be described as modern-day slavery.  Tens of thousands of people are locked up without any due process, including for political slights and "thoughtcrime."  Tens of millions have no recourse to justice against gross excesses by state power.  Hundreds of millions are unable to have any input on who determines the course of their lives.  Do those individuals not deserve the quality of life that those born in other places in the world are fortunate enough to be able to take for granted?  Should those so blessed not assay to help the them?

If the latter narrative is embraced, there will inevitably arise resistance, including from among the "natives."  How should it be addressed: the way of the Spanish or differently?  Is a universalization of human rights necessarily a zero-sum endeavor, viz, either the current state of affairs is accepted or the errant societies are brought into line, even manu militari if need be?

Might the answer lie in gradual, nuanced--yet insistently, doggedly, confidently, continually driven--change employing methods such as Joseph Nye's "soft power"?  That could take generations, meanwhile condemning billions to continued suffering and inferior life quality.  Conversely, rapid, revolutionary tactics could backfire (q.v. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and other, less pronounced, cases in Africa), occasioning conflict whose immediate ramifications would be far more detrimental than the invidious conditions at present.

One conclusion does seem inevitable: The "universal" norms of human rights are superior and should be adopted and practiced globally.  How that is actualized is a different matter, but de Vitoria's strategy is not an option.
© 2014 Michael L.S.

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