Add a comment

Food for an un-opposable thought


Human Rights Reader 290


-As the French would say: Human rights are “difficilement opposables”, but are also “difficilement imposables”.

-People have the right to be happy even if they are not allowed to. (A. Skarmeta)


1. To start with, let us recap: The value of human rights (HR) lies in their ability to provide us:

  • with a conceptual armature that connects health, nutrition and other social conditions with broad governance principles;
  • with an instrument for turning diffuse social demands into focused legal and political claims; and
  • with a set of criteria by which to evaluate the performance of political authorities in promoting people’s wellbeing and creating conditions for the equitable enjoyment of the fruits of development. * (WHO Commission on the Social Determinants of Health Report)

*: Since here we touch on HR and development, let us briefly look at the Human Right to Development. Its three attributes are: comprehensive and human-centered development policy, participatory HR processes, and social justice in development.

For those of us working on development issues, I ask you: Do we really enforce  these attributes? (It must be noted here though that the Human Right to Development is not contained in any legally binding instrument at the international level; it is thus not directly enforceable in most countries). (Anand Grover)


2. Further recapitulating, HR give us a clear mandate on how to influence change to achieve equity and sustainability. This, by telling us:

  • to redouble our work on grassroots participation;
  • to engage more with activism, especially working with new emerging forces (think Arab Spring Revolution, Occupy Movement, Via Campesina, for example);
  • to look at the world more holistically;
  • to partner-with and empower our local partners;
  • to get actively involved in improving governance and accountability;
  • to increase the accountability of donors, of international NGOs and of local civil society organizations; as well as
  • to develop our own HR and development talents and to use more of these talents in the countries/localities we work-in.


3. But do we really do all this? To illustrate how we rather mostly tackle the symptoms and not the causes of HR violations and widespread neglect of HR, allow me to use a metaphoric approach: I am rushing in the street, late to a meeting; I trip on a stone and fall; everyone around me rushes to pick me up, but no one removes the stone. (U. Baxi)


4. What this tells us is that, if we take human rights seriously and see them as normative (i.e., actively seeking to align the value systems and standards of multiple actors so as to build consensus) rather than aspirational, we must take the obligations that flow from them seriously. If, on the other hand, we opt for a merely aspirational view, the costs are high. For, then, we also have to accept that where human rights are unmet there is no breach of an obligation, nobody is at fault, nobody can be held to account, nobody is to blame and nobody owes redress to anyone. We would, in effect, be accepting that human rights claims are not real claims.  (O. O’ Neil)


5. The next pertinent HR question here then is: Are we demonstrably getting any better at fighting discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, religion, age, disability…? Be the answer to this as it may, I can tell you that, on the other hand, we are definitely not any better in fighting corruption as we can see from the following:

6The interaction of human rights and anti-corruption brings up three issues:

  • Is fighting corruption complementary to HR work or is it not? and Are there any inherent contradictions in the mandates to fight corruption and the protection of HR?
  • Does corruption undermine the HR principle of non-discrimination through unfairness, favoritism and nepotism –as much as it undermines the rule of law (for instance when judges are bribed to issue judgments in favor of the highest bidders)?
  • Do common, shared principles underpin human rights, good governance and anti-corruption work? Many of us think yes! (We are talking here of transparency, accountability, citizen participation, rule of law, freedom of expression, right to information, separation of powers, equality and non discrimination, equity and fairness).


7. We can thus assume that, because these are common principles shared between human rights, good governance and anti-corruption, anti-corruption and human rights are mutually reinforcing. (P. Matcheza)


8. Political will, we know, is an essential prerequisite for any anti-corruption reform to succeed. ** We also know that political will towards HR rarely emerges from any corrupt system, making it difficult to create or nurture any kind of national ownership of any proposed anti-corruption reform. Many efforts to fight corruption fail, because of the absolute absence of political will. The big question that remains open in the literature and in practice is: where does political will come from?

**: I have often said in these Readers that ‘lack of a political will’ is actually a misleading concept. With others, I think that rather a-conscious-will-not-to-act is there! It is thus our own weak empowered-accountability-demanding-capacity that allows leaders not to exert a greater resolve, in this case, to fight corruption. In HR work, we advocate bringing politics back-in by unpacking the hidden relationship between power and political will (actually the lack thereof).


9. Instead of providing simplistic answers about anti-corruption, there is a need to have a clear understanding of its definition, types, causes, relationship with governance practices and with human rights violations, as well as alternative remedying reforms and reasons for past reforms failure.


10. So, you see? Political will can hardly arise from the political system itself, but instead must be the result of the demand from a population that is equipped with sufficient capabilities and power. That is, empowerment is the key to create political will; it is an investment; it can be a ‘vaccine’ against corruption –and this vaccine becomes particularly effective once aggrieved claim holders’ empowerment has reached a critical mass or tipping point and they de-facto begin exercising their rights.


11. We know governments are unwilling to make such an investment for their populations. Unfortunately, any anti-corruption reform initiated from outside the country, i.e., with no national ownership, is doomed to fail unless the international community invests in empowering claim holders and those with the role of duty bearers. But when most state employees’ daily worry is to survive, as they do not receive a regular or receive a very low salary, talking about anti-corruption, good governance, human rights violations and neglect of HR simply remains a very remote issue. (J. P. Obembo)


12. The above empowerment issue underpins the sad current reality that the victims of HR violations are unemployed, underpaid, undervalued and under represented, as well as incapable of self-determination and can be defined by limitless unmet needs. (D. Eade)


13. A person without a job looses not just her or his income, but often a sense of dignity, a sense that she or he is not fulfilling the duties expected of her or him by society. The market for jobs just is like a game of musical chairs with more people on the dance floor than there are chairs; when the music stops some people cannot find a chair. ***(G. Akerlof)

***: …economist-missionaries, who have forever had trouble blending HR into their economics, have not come up with any plausible solutions to the unemployment dilemma.


14. So, on this note, let me close with yet another quote by Eduardo Galeano: What is missing in the diet of our HR work is that Vitamin D (‘d’ for dignity here) that so much brings us to the key realization that the obedience imposed on us by the powerful of this world may be our shame, but cannot be and is not our destiny… This shitty world is pregnant with another possible world.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City


Postscript: Utopia is on the horizon. I move two steps closer; it moves two steps further away. I walk another ten steps, and utopia runs ten steps further away. As much as I may walk, I never reach it. So what’s the point of utopia? The point is this: it makes us continually advance.  (F. Berri)

Hence, the best way to predict the future is to create it. So, take charge of your life by embarking on that what you always wanted to do. If your goal seems utopian or overwhelming, start small. I could not live without a daily victory, no matter how small. (C. Fuentes)


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


  1. No Comments

Leave a Reply