Food for an oversold thought


Human Rights Reader 282


-Democracy and Human Rights are interlinked and mutually supportive. (World Conference on Human Rights)

-In human rights and in development work, dreaming is OK, but being naïf is not.

-To penalize China, Cuba or Vietnam, because they are not Western-type representative democracies unfoundedly puts their measurable achievements in doubt.


[Human rights and democracy go hand in hand like dignity goes hand in hand with free speech. One cannot find instances where human rights (HR) are respected in undemocratic societies; if these instances exist, we should speak about privileges-given-from-the-top rather than rights-acquired-by-social-struggle. This is why I devote this Reader to democracy].


1. Political pressures from the powerful and the abuse of public office affect a government’s commitment to human rights. This is especially true in the arbitrary world of autocracy (the antonym of democracy). In fact, if a government thinks that people are the abstract and the laws it has unilaterally passed the concrete, we find ourselves at a dead end.


2. The more I think about it, our pathetic faith in formal representative (Western) democracy has ended up in frustration and a sense of having been cheated. We live under the illusion that ‘the social’ and ‘the moral’ eventually prevail in such democracies. But neither are clearly adhered-to priorities in existing formal representative democracies –so, ‘eventually prevail’ is pure wishful thinking.


3. Are you not, like me, amazed by the astonishing capacity of  people, both in the North and in the South, to elect the most mediocre leaders –those that keep feeding them promises and mellow speeches?


4. The democratic system most people take as the democratic system is simply badly flawed. Such a deplorable brand of democracy is wishy-washy; it condones misery, condones HR violations and condones corruption, as well as supporting a breed of free-riders that live at the expense of others. The haves are very ‘democratic’ until democracy is no longer of use to them.* The ruling class rules –whatever they say; whatever the voting system’s outcome is, however voters vote, whatever voters want. What we thus get is elite capture, political manipulation (…and deplorably even cooption of civil society leadership). The paradox in formal democracy thus is that real power is undemocratic; it does not arise from our will as citizens. Nothing new here, is there?

*: Coca-Cola and Nestle do not go through elections. Microsoft or Apple do not go through elections. The powers-that-be of this world do not wait to stand for elections. What then do we call democracy, if power is as much elsewhere in the corporations that rule the universe? (J. Saramago)


5. Politicians are people like anybody else. They should thus be socially useful! But they most often talk and act with impunity. You and I know that.


6. I contend that whatever ‘social contracts’ were arrived-at (freely or through imposition) between the haves and the have-little since the era of globalization must now be considered to be in default. A new era is opening up.** Through those contracts, we actually ended up living under a sort of tacit and destructive social pact based on a lack of solidarity and, as said, on corruption. I would say this makes me being not terribly hopeful. Furthermore, wouldn’t you agree with Thomas Merton that the more corrupt a government is, the more it tends to be controlled by technology –or vice-versa?

**: This shitty world is pregnant with another possible world. (E. Galeano)


7. Under autocratic regimes, voices are silenced if they say things that clash with the stock of catch phrases of the pro-regime development specialists who become the masters of the perpetuation of the system. S/he who refuses to adapt to the autocratic regime and speaks-up does it against many odds, out of a sense of duty (often HR-based). Morality and a sense of duty –channeled politically– are thus the sources of social and political energy we are to use to build-upon in HR work. But beware: The future of autocratic regimes is secured by a well carried-out, well financed propaganda machine; we need to grasp what formidable a machine we are fighting against!


8. As Albert Camus said: In the life of a country, the progressive loss of moral behavior and of respect for HR norms has always preceded historical catastrophes. Autocratic regimes oppose any state of pre-revolutionary agitation with violent repression; but what they cannot stand is a constant, slow erosion of the public order, the wearing down of its forces, of its economic strengths, and ultimately of its rallying capacity. Therefore, when momentum for positive social change has slowed down in formal, representative (decadent) democracies, a launch (or a revival) of the human rights struggle can indeed, and I’d say must, push the country forward with its activists not, by any means, shying away from confrontation, from negotiation and from debates that ultimately seek a national consensus on the HR approach.


9. This, since there is a need to change the anachronic institutions of formal representative democracy that do not allow the satisfaction of people’s rights. (F. Engels) Therein lies the challenge. To govern democratically is to fairly sort out, with more or less efficiency, a succession of obstacles well known to HR activists. In essence, it is about seeking to align the value systems and standards of multiple actors so as to build a truly participatorypolitical consensus.


10. Last but not least, beware that democracy is non-existent in the international order either. Just consider a simple fact: the democratic legitimacy of the existing international order can indeed be measured by its respect, protection and fulfillment of human rights worldwide. You be the judge.


11. Bottom line, the underground struggle in HR work is to fight both autocracy and immorality.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City


Adapted from Z. Acevedo Diaz, La Dama de Cristal, Fondo Editorial Casa de las Americas, La Habana, 1999; A. Gomez, Ultimo Patio, Ed. Turmalina, Buenos Aires, 2009; D+C 37:5, May 2010; OHCCHR, HR: key to keeping the MDG promise of 2015, Aug. 2010; F+D, 47:2, June 2010, and A. Gomez, Despojos y Semillas, Editorial Belgrano, Buenos Aires, 1997.


Postscript: Come to think of it, I am an optimist depending on the time of the day; I am not a full-time optimist. (again borrowed from E. Galeano)



Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks


  1. 1Cheikh Hassan Saleh

    La démocrate ; Démos/cratos : le pouvoir-peuple. Sur le sans de mots suivants on peut dire que Les politiciens peuvent être socialement utile, mais en condition que leur démocratie soit compris comme une organisation étatique et sociale qui donne a chaque personne la possibilité d’épanouir sa responsabilité dans la vie économique et sociale

  2. 2Nina Larisch-Haider

    Democracy can only work when people are well informed about what is happening around them. In every country the press is the “longer arm” of the ruling forces … and so most people don’t know the truth, in other words people can’t make the right choices because they don’t have the true facts and therefore cannot act accordingly.

    In plus people get de-sensitized through food and television … and therefore have only small worlds they are living in.

    Democracy needs the truth and participation from all FOR ALL !

    We can only continue to work for this goal.
    But we would need a clean, open and loving press as well!

Leave a Reply