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Food for a how-to-defend-ourselves thought


Human Rights Reader 278


-“Man is a social animal. Therefore he is a political animal as well”.

-Members of society who depend most upon an acceptable theory of justice are its poorer, marginalized and less powerful members. It is for them that a just society is most crucial.


1. Mind you, we have duties towards people we never know… and they have similar duties towards us. The human rights framework thus basically looks at people in societies with attention to claims they have on each other in the form of rights and duties, as well as with attention to their demands for justice * and equality.

*: Justice: The balance of public interest and individual rights, the fair sharing of the available goods of society and the fair restitution of victims.


2. As this Reader has said before, politics is in a continuum with morality; our political duties and obligations are thus often congruent with our moral duties and obligations. Human rights (HR)** are typically defended on the basis of moral principles although it may as well be on legal and political grounds. This is not to say that all politics or all politicians are moral; but it is to say that our politics are constrained and indeed determined by our sense of morality.

**: Rights: Demands that a member of society is entitled to make upon his society.


3. From the HR perspective, a person or a group may very well disrupt the smooth operations of the government if it is convincingly demonstrated these operations interfere with the overall public interest. There must always be a balance between the public interest, on the one hand, and private interests on the other. HR basically carry within themselves the power to bring individual interests in line with public interests. HR firmly contend that the function of the state is and has to be to protect the public interest, protect equity, protect equality and protect justice.


4. If a group of people or a social class have been historically deprived of their adequate share, because of their income, the color of their skin, their ethnicity, their religious beliefs, their sex or age, they should be given more than their proportionate share in compensation. This is not to be construed as an injustice to other people and/or groups. If the distribution of privileges and of power are equally important, why shouldn’t all members of society be able to expect equal treatment and respect, not only by the law, but in every conceivable social situation by every conceivable social institution?


All of the above are concerns of justice. But what is justice? Who decides? And how?


5. For us, in HR work, the elements of what is just is enshrined in a set of covenants. It is the practices applied primarily, but not only, by the state that are to be judged from the HR point of view as per said covenants and their corresponding General Comments.


6. Already for Plato, millennia ago, equality meant that all men and women are equal just by virtue of their being human. I do not need to tell you that this is not a belief that was always accepted by everyone since then. We stand with Plato and do believe everybody is equal.


7. Conservatives say people are to be equal in opportunities alone, without having any actual right to social services. Conversely, a just society considers the welfare of the worst-off members of society as an obligation.

For liberals, justice does not equate with a fair distribution, but with an equal distribution. The question this begs is: Is equality the primary concern of justice? In HR, we are compelled to set up systems of fair distribution.

If justice means equal then a legitimate state is bound to maximize equality. Conversely, if justice only means everyone in his or her proper place (a conservative outlook), the state will be legitimate if ‘harmony and working together’ are smooth.


8. Governments are legitimate only because their citizen agree (or have tacitly –or under duress– accepted) to be ruled by them. Often, an implicit or an explicit social contract exists in the form of an agreement among people to share certain interests and make certain compromises for the good of all people. But perhaps as often, no such social contract exists and the interests of a minority are imposed on a majority. This is where HR are most sorely needed.


Going back to the history of philosophy, much of the world is divided and ruled according to rival political  ideologies.


9. Marx’s emphasis on people’s rights hardly needs to be restated here. He reminded us that many people take more than they can use personally and use their excess possession merely as a means to manipulate other people. This, while many more people are still more concerned with putting food on the table and do not have enough protection under the law to prevent them from being grossly exploited and underpaid for unrewarding and painful labor.


10. For Marx, freedom of speech does not go together with freedom of economic exploitation, i.e., freedom to a decent dignified life. Marx also turned his attention from the supposed right to private property to the abuse of private property. He rejected the accumulation of wealth that someone has personally amassed when it serves only as a means for getting richer at the expense of other people, i.e., when treating workers as a commodity.


11. Freedom of speech, he said, is meaningless in the face of the minimum economic necessities that worry most people everyday. We need more than just freedom to speak out (a civil right). We need freedom from the economic exploitation that keeps workers in dire circumstances (an economic right). “People need freedom from material need. The means to achieve this are already at hand; what is needed is simply a more equitable form of  distribution”. For Marx, this meant no private property. The revolution he called-for was thus not so much a political revolution, but an economic one –a revolution he felt was inevitable and had/has been in the making since ancient times, sometimes hidden, sometimes in the form of an open struggle.


12. Freedom-from-want is as much a battle for freedom as the traditional liberal battles for freedom of speech have been, he tells us. When HR violations are condoned by political (and religious) authorities, such conditions of oppression bring about new forms of struggle, for instance, attacks against the instruments of exploitation used by these authorities who are part of the bourgeoisie. So, when pushed to the limit, popular agitation due to protracted HR violations becomes a distinguishing feature…and each step is accompanied by a corresponding political advance.


13. Numbers of protesters increase, mass movements strengthen, the interests of claim holders are made heard more and more; they form permanent associations and their struggles take more and more the character of collision-between-two-classes.*** Here and there, riots break out. Immediate results are not the important for Marx, but instead the ever expanding union of claim holders. He foresaw the expansion of the various local struggles into national struggles with groups in the bourgeoisie stepping over to the cause of the claim holders as they increase their social consciousness. We know how this panned out in later history

***: Political power, for Marx, is merely the organized power of one class to oppress another. Claim holders, for him, are thus compelled to organize themselves as a class doing away with the old oppressive conditions.


14. What it all boils down to here is that we cannot serve the public interest at the intolerable expense of injustice. Serving every individual’s interest has to recognize a primary concern for justice — distributive justice, i.e., of everyone receiving his or her fair share.**** Public interest is important, but respect for every individual’s rights is even more important.

***: For instance, concerns over land ownership, over just wages and fair prices are all matters of distributional justice.


Bottom line, what is at issue for us is the concept of justice?


15. People ought to be treated equally since they have human rights that no one can take away from them. People ought to equally share the material goods of society (this is and has been the subject of constant debate and sometimes of wars and of revolutions). How much should the state serve the people and how much the people serve the state? (J. F. Kennedy) What constitutes a good state? And when, if ever, do people have the right to overthrow the state or a particular government, or a particular law? There is no way in which we can avoid asking these questions. The Spring Revolution and the Occupy Movement are budding “ought-to” movements. We now need to imbue them with HR principles and standards that go beyond mere protest and the expression of repressed anger!


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi  Minh City



Adapted from R. C. Solomon, Introducing Philosophy: A Text with Integrated Readings, 4th Edition, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.


Postscript: I have always believed that activism pays off: Do the right thing, confront unfairness and selfishness, stay true to yourself…one day it all works out. I do not know if, so far, people who are wronged eventually get their justice because of our activism; it may not work all the time. But I do think one day we and they will get our/their reward. (adapted from A. Verghese)



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