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Food for the politics of a thought

Human Rights Reader 239

Politics often is the art of knowing how to choose between two      equally bad, unpopular measures. (R. Aron)

In politics, the power of the purse is the most undemocratic power of all.

In this Reader, we often refer to the politics-of-it-all in human rights (HR) work. From a general perspective, it is fitting we explore what lies beneath the surface:

1. In front of my own eyes and over the years, the ideas and political allegiances of many of my friends and teachers have changed much –not always for the better. Therefore, frankly, I do not feel any guilt anymore when I have become an activist for the cause I strongly believe in. For too long, soft, reformist, band-aid approaches have led us nowhere on HR issues. Sixty years after we should have, belatedly adopting the HR framework without a political plan, to me, risks simply more of the same.

2. In my adult life, development work has, pretty much, swung to the right (…and away from HR principles) so that it does not take a real effort to link immorality with some of the politics behind the neoliberal principles being applied. As it stands, neoliberal parlance continues to be the default language among development policy makers. * (W. Bello)

*: A fair caveat would be: In left-wing politics, one can also build a successful career full of empty promises and cozy accommodations.

3. It is the system in neoliberalism that we mainly object to, primarily the ideological identity and course-of-action adopted by its proponents and implementers. More pointedly, the real underlying associated question is not primarily whether the system works, but for whom it works. (J. Blaylock)

4. In our effort to re-embed the economy in society –instead of having society driven by the economy– it is the “social invoice” or the “social legacy” of the rulers-that-happen-to-be-in-charge what we look-at in HR work. (K. Polanyi) We simply cannot let lifelong politicians and rulers-on-duty come to tell us stories any more…It is facts that count –in our case, facts about HR violations. **

**: Be reminded here that the common belief of all tyrants is that they are the quintessence of the country they rule over.

5. Politicians are prone to twist reality to fit their needs, aren’t they?: “Find me some scientists that share my views”, we may find them asking for. (South African ex-president Mbeki rings a bell here…). But recommendations from such scientists risk being theoretical and having an ideological conservative undertone. ***

***: To be clear: Ideology does not entail cognitive distortions of reality, as some claim. It rather shapes the moral judgment on what pattern of wealth distribution is fair. It influences peoples’ perceptions about that which is fair and, therefore, about HR. (A. Alesina) Take, for instance, the language increasingly used in health: “purchasing or buying services for clients” and tell me if that does not have a clear ideological undertone.

6. We do not often enough address and denounce the rhetoric-action-gap of our leaders, the gap where those-who-decide-over-HR-issues do not take needed decisions or take the wrong decisions; this, because we probably fear questioning or challenging the power of their political position. (U. Jonsson) So that is why we say that HR work is about reconsidering the fundamentals of decision making.

7. What we ought to be asking is: What are the vested interests of decision-making individuals? What are the political constraints they face? What is the hidden process of informal politics behind the façade of good intentions?

8. Bottom line, in HR work we are faced with the challenge of starting changes while still trapped in a system that is skeptical about (if not outright opposed to) HR-friendly needed changes. It is not ‘politics or policies’; it is ‘politics and policies’ (or politics as manifested in policies). **** (V. Navarro)

****: Often overlooked is the fact that pro-HR policies must not be overridden by policies on trade and commerce or by any action that will cement existing power structures which, let’s be clear, are the main source of HR violations.

9. Moreover, because international organizations find it difficult to be confrontational, they often also end up being complacent on HR issues. Their capacity and willingness to address the issues of structural inequality behind flagrant HR violations face-on is limited at best. As much as we as individuals should be doing, these organizations simply need to wield their economic and political clout (which individuals do not have) as a means to contest these social injustices.

10. Globally, the current powers-that-be pay only lip service to the concept of social justice. The leadership of the global political system ‘somehow’ still has a HR-blind-spot: An unlucky coincidence? or An inconvenient truth? The global political discourse is replete with clichéed references to HR and to the role the international ‘global community’ should play in the international HR arena. But we all know that these references are made only as utopian ideals. (R. Labonte)

11. Most importantly, the term ‘political will’ (or lack thereof) is another one of those clichés frequently used. Suffice it to say: It is utterly superficial and ultimately meaningless; it is ultimately used as an evasive euphemism (i.e., a term used in place of a term that might be considered too direct, harsh, unpleasant or offensive). Be honest: We use ‘lack of political will’ when, with a sigh of relief, we shift the responsibility of doing something for HR to someone else, don’t we? That is why it is so popular (or fashionable). Political will really is about the obligations of states. Making no choices is a choice! (A-E. Birn) It is like saying: “I said maybe! …and that’s final”. Political will does not fall from the sky. It has to trickle up/permeate upwards from society. (A, Shukla).  Political will is expecting something from top-down when it is bottom-up accountability in a political struggle that we are really after in applying the HR framework! But political struggle (e.g., labor solidarity,  community activism, and work on redistributive reforms with social-justice-oriented political parties. (R. Luxemburg)) is never mentioned as central in the process of doing away with HR violations. (A-E. Birn)

12. Not presuming that this vast topic is hereby closed, perhaps a fitting closing remark here is: One cannot be a pessimist and hope that, in the end, everything will turn out OK. What this means to each of you, I leave up to your interpretation.

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



Partly taken and adapted from Bryce Echenique, Permiso para Sentir, Editoria Planeta, Buenos Aires, 2005; Contact, WCC, Issue 186, Nov., 2008; Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger, Free Press, N. Y., 2008; D+C, Vol.36, No.5, May 2009; D+C  Vol.36, No.9, Sept. 2009; The Broker, Issue 16, October 2009; Development in Practice Vol.19, No.8, November 2009; R. Labonte, T. Schrecker, C. Packer and V. Runnels Eds, Globalization and Health: Pathways, Evidence and Policy, Routledge Books, 2009.

Postscript: Words do carry political weight. Once released into the world, they have a life of their own. Unlike dogs, they cannot be called back. (U. Avnery)

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