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Human Rights: Food for a cannot wait thought


Human Rights Reader 438


Fair priority setting is essential to the realization of the right to health.


  1. Achieving justice in health-care priority setting involves applying a range of substantive ethical and ideological principles that extend beyond primarily utilitarian calculations of which policies maximize health care costs. Among them, equality of access to health care and health services, as well as equality of results are always to be emphasized.


  1. Inappropriate health resources allocation can and does lead to discrimination that may not always be overt. (General Comment 14). Policy maker committees are to be brought together to, on moral and legal grounds, respond to such discriminations, i.e., securing equal consideration for all individuals. (The right to health framework clearly explains why these committees are to be called in the first place!). Why? Because the right to health does provide the framework for dealing with issues of discrimination, exclusion and the power asymmetries at their base, decisively establishing the normative aspects of the moral principles to be the center piece in priority setting.


  1. Importantly,

(a) The debate from the human rights perspective forces attention on issues of equality.

(b) The human rights framework offers the important key tools and mechanism for citizens to demand the needed additional resources.

(c) Interpreted correctly, the realization of the right to health is to be an integral consideration in priority setting by identifying concrete and distinct priorities for changes in the health-care system. (Note that priority setting is neither about a utilitarian drive to maximize health benefits across the population, nor is the right to health only about securing every individual’s access to health care totally regardless of cost).


  1. Taking all this into consideration, ad-hoc panels are to be set up to deal with the wider questions of allocative efficiency in the realm of fairness –not forgetting the needed actions that address the social, economic, and political determination of health. Such bodies must be accountable to their populations, the executive, the legislative and the judiciary branches of government. Finance ministers are then to reappraise their budgets, considering the state’s obligations under this right. (Since the right to health is binding, resources have to be made available whether through taxation or other means). When the status-quo fails to uphold the right to health, changes pursued by claim holders, including judicial remedies, are needed.


The capitalist ideology manifests itself in the ideology of health and health institutions (David Sorkin)


  1. Bringing-in the private sector has accentuated the silo mentality in the provision of health care services in the name of its ‘purported-role-whose-time-has-come’ –overlooking the fact that the latter is squarely centered around the profit maximization principle.* (Sandra Vermuyten)

*: The struggle does not end with eliminating private financing in the sector. Efforts must be made to ensure that public financing indeed serves to build more democratic, participatory and accountable systems that serve the needs of communities. Community engagement is a vital component of this process and governments must ensure that mechanisms are set up to effectively involve claim holders in decision-making. (Meera Karunananthan)


  1. The free market ideology influences all spheres of life in neoliberal economies, including how health systems are organized and why health is considered a consumer good as opposed to being a right or a vehicle for securing a life of dignity.** Without effective regulation of private and of public health care supply, the market delivers the illusion of freedom –the freedom of the consumer— while in reality creating a situation of exclusion and of services degradation. (Alicia Yamin and P. Bergallo)

**: The so-called ‘health system’ is in fact a ‘disease system’ where the focus is on the market and the commodification of health care and where, as a result, the system promotes illness …and kills; it is controlled by a handful of corporations –many of them the same ones making agro-toxic products as is the case of Bayer. (Declaration of Rosario, June 16, 2017, Encounter Intercontinental Mother Earth, One Health, 4th International Congress on Socio-environmental Health)


  1. Furthermore, the deep linkages between neoliberalism and the plutocrats that cynically condemn single payer (tax funded) health systems are also related to other ideological and biomedical biases they hold that, for instance, condemn women’s control over their own bodies. Actually, it is women who invariably experience the greatest marginalizing effects of neoliberalism, as well as of the extreme religious ideologies. Women require the realization of the full spectrum of human rights, including benefits to education, employment, and equal protection in addition to access to health care (the same is true for the LGBT community). (A. Yamin and P. Bergallo)


  1. Do you agree with this set of iron laws?


  • The capitalist ideology manifests itself in the ideology of health and health institutions.
  • Medicine legitimizes the capitalist order (a medicine that sometimes produces more comfort than health…).
  • Epidemiological profiles are often class-centered and support the legitimacy of the prevailing economic model. External top-down pressures on epidemiologists are very significant.
  • Academic qualifications overshadow compassion and a desire to serve the people.
  • Health systems form part of the totality of social and productive relationships and thus mirror the society’s class structure.
  • Disease patterns and health care cannot be dissociated from social, economic and political powers.
  • Different modes of production are associated with different patterns of disease.
  • Different social classes are differentially affected by occupational diseases, accident rates, and diseases of poverty.
  • State responses to health needs reflect emerging or existing class forces. Race and tribe may appear as important as class and gender in determining access to health care and other resources. Yet in neither case can these be dissociated from class.
  • Tribe and race are not natural categories, but are social and ideological constructs. What needs to be clarified in each case is the precise relationship of ethnic origin with class divisions.
  • Human problems arising from race relations are social and not biological in origin.
  • Allocation of health care resources is a powerful legitimating tool used by the rulers and deeply affects the ruled. It is a recipe for domination and at the same time a means of reconciling obligation, power and beneficence.
  • State and class relations are predictors of the nature of health care allocation.


  1. For all these bulleted reasons, further gains in outcomes resulting from targeted, vertical health interventions has been declining. (David Sorkin)


In most countries, the health sector is perhaps the sector that has least to do with health


  1. It is the wider political and economic forces that generate the direct causes of preventable ill-health, preventable malnutrition and preventable deaths. Health is at best a contributor. Although medical bureaucracies are not necessarily generators of capitalist dependencies, they are their administrators choosing to use technological knowledge and technical education and training as reinforcers of capitalist hierarchies. Health can and does act as an entry point for human rights activists’ initiatives, but they need to be aware that national development priorities are often at odds with improving health. This is where the role of health education comes in, yes, but as a conscientization tool, not only to teach health behaviors. (Vicente Navarro) The right to health and the social and political determination of health cannot be omitted in ongoing and upcoming human rights learning activities for claim holders.


Beware: Health care priorities funded by the World Bank are expected to contribute to economic development, not to the inalienable people’s right to health


  1. It is clear that countries rendered poor are experiencing new forms of subjugation to the accumulation of capital that are explicitly hazardous to public health. The attempt to prove the feasibility of solving the public health problems of the people rendered poor using solutions within the framework of capitalist/technocratic/biomedical/vertical alternatives is clearly ideological. Seen from that ideological perspective, health care interventions are used in an attempt to counteract the logic of public health imperatives. This means that, under capitalism, disease may well be socially produced, but the responsibility for health is assigned to the individual(s). The requirements of the accumulation of capital are masked by the technocratic mystification of alternative solutions. But health care per-se cannot be liberating except possibly from disease. Health care may become a praxis of liberation only as an integral part of a political liberation program since health care priorities express class relations and distribution of economic and political power. (Najwa Makhoul)


  1. After 40 years, the primary health care (PHC) experience in countries rendered poor has so far been dismal showing that health and politics are interlocked.*** The social and political roots of ill-health and malnutrition have thus to be taught to the newer generations –this, because the democratization of the health sector is ultimately inseparable from the democratization of all institutions of society.

***: Ultimately, health services can be community supportive (encourage responsibility, initiative, self reliance) or community oppressive (paternalistic, dependency creating, initiative destroying).


  1. Countless central global bureaucratic health planning and programming efforts have attempted to influence countries’ decisions concerning their strategies addressing health. It is only when countries themselves muster their political will and take in their own hand the preparations for their national strategies that a sound and realistic basis for developing bottom-up regional and global strategies will emerge. (Halfdan Mahler)


The contributions of human rights to universal health coverage
(Andrew Chapman, Health and Human Rights 18(2) December 2016

  1. Recently, there has been a growing push for countries to achieve universal health coverage (UHC) in order to strengthen health systems and improve health equity and access to health services. Importantly, not all potential paths to a universal health system are consistent with human rights (HR) requirements. Simply expanding health coverage, especially if it continues to exclude communities rendered poor and vulnerable, is not sufficient from a HR perspective. There are requirements that a HR approach to UHC imposes. These include:
  • locating UHC within the context of a national effort to provide equitable access to the social determinants of health;
  • making access to essential health services and public health protection legal entitlements that include redress measures for failures to provide these benefits;
  • paying explicit attention to equality in the design of the universal health system including in health financing;
  • incorporating opportunities for consultation-with and the participation-of the population in the design of the path to UHC and the determination of benefits packages.


  1. The process for pursuing the progressive realization of UHC is to first expand coverage for high-priority services to everyone with special efforts to ensure that disadvantaged groups are reached. The goal of achieving UHC can generally be realized only in stages, through a long process of gradual and progressive realization, given the limitations in resources availability and administrative capacity —and this imposes difficult trade-offs along the way.


  1. As they progress towards the achievement of UHC, policy makers face two ethical imperatives: to set national spending priorities fairly and efficiently, and to safeguard the right to health. Policy makers cannot avoid asking themselves over and over: If illness is universal, why is health care not? (Raj Panjabi)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



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Human rights: Food for an old and a new thought


Human Rights Reader 437


Where we came from


Having concentrated too long on the basic human needs approach was a time consuming diversion from any serious attempt to change the prevailing unjust order.


  1. Contrasting the basic human needs approach with the human rights-based approach reminds us of the difference between animals living in a zoo, where their basic needs are met, and animals living in freedom. Simply going for fulfilling these needs is only as good as the discredited trickle-down principle. In the case of health, focusing on it as a set of basic human needs and not as a human right (HR), assumes absolute scarcity of health resources thus calling for assistance-oriented policies that are, at best, palliative. The basic human needs approach in this case is a discredited form of triage as it aims at optimally targeting public health and nutrition programs. The current prevailing development paradigm simply thrives by concealing the true causative forces underlying preventable ill-health and preventable deaths, i.e., their social and political determinants and, therefore, the contradictions of capitalism.* (Najwa Makhoul)

*: Paradigm changes do cause us to see the world differently; and when a paradigms changes, the world itself changes with them. (Thomas Kuhn)


Where we are now


  1. There is a tendency these days to be defensive or to be critical of the HR discourse.** This is especially difficult to understand as decisions are, more and more, reduced to certain powerful groups’ choices –a fact that degrades the idea of what being human means. But times have changed: We cannot confront hegemonic power the same way as we historically confronted colonial domination; power in the 21st century has to be fought from inside. And for that, we must reach across silos, as well as across North/South and academic/activist divides to be able to more effectively struggle to implement the HR framework and its tools so as to subvert the forms of hegemonic power that so pervasively colonize our consciousness. The HR community has already developed methods to identify harmful stereotypes, e.g., in gender, as well as in the case of many other recognized or inadvertent discriminations often based on criteria that assess and end up making unequal policies and biased budgets visible. Now, the HR community needs to develop a workable praxis for exposing and disrupting the hegemonic discourse, as well as destabilizing the neoliberal paradigm that impoverishes our conceptions of development and of democracy. (Alicia Yamin)

**: Social scientists are not innocent in voicing the same criticism. What the social sciences need is using less elaborate techniques and demonstrating more courage to tackle rather than dodge the central issues behind HR violations. (J. D. Bernal) But why should this surprise us? Political science is a young discipline born in stable Western democracies. This is why it is mainly concerned with changes in the system and not changes of the system. Modernization thus has become westernization –a mere imitative process.


  1. The HR community’s responsibility towards those whose HR are being violated is not to go in and ‘do for them’, but to help remove the obstacles preventing people from providing their own solutions. It is not about going into countries rendered poor ‘to set things right’. It too often is rich countries and TNCs plus local elites that are behind those obstacles. This is why this Reader keeps calling for you to look, not only at the close determinants, but also at the more distant forces that keep things the way they are.


The application of laws consistent with universal human rights standards and guarantees is the only workable antidote if our struggle against human rights violations is ever to be successful (Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights)


  1. The above notwithstanding, as part of being critical, human rights law has long been ridiculed by the influential tabloid press (think xenophobia, bigotry, spreading fear…). The viewpoint they paint has resonance with certain slices of the public unaware of the importance of international human rights law –often seen by far too many people as too removed from everyday life, too lawyerly, too activist and ultimately ‘too weird’. It is the very bodies of international HR law that are thereby endangered.


  1. Taken to an extreme, if you believe the rhetoric of many governments, every lawyer or journalist is almost by definition a terrorist, if they are human rights-focused. But to defend the human rights of all requires a continuous investment of thought, where the natural prejudices lying deep within each of us must be watched out-for and rejected every day of our lives. The dangers to the entire system of international law are therefore very real. But human progress never glides; it will always stagger and sometimes even temporarily collapse. We must thus be vigilant. The common effort, for a common HR cause, within the common HR frame of understanding and regulation, will always be attacked by those more committed to the pursuit of narrower personal or national interests. Reason alone has proven to be insufficient to counter them.


  1. The two words ‘human rights’ were not placed in the preamble of the UN Charter by its final editor, Virginia Gildersleeve. They were instead written into the later text –almost at the beginning, in the third line– because human rights were viewed as the only choice possible for that first beat of a new pulse towards development. Only by accepting HR as the cornerstone could the rest of the edifice of the UN Charter –success in economic development, durable peace– become possible. It is a point that even today –perhaps especially today– needs to be absorbed by the numerous political actors who only see HR as a tiresome constraint. Indeed, many people who have enjoyed their rights since birth simply do not realize what these principles really mean. Like oxygen, they lie beyond our daily sensory perception; only when suddenly deprived of HR do we fathom their enormous significance.


(Not so) new a challenge: Social protection as a human right (Global Charter for Social Protection Rights, Francine Mestrum et al)


  1. The International Labor Organization has for long had a Recommendation on Social Protection Floors, but that floor is thought to be rather minimal. ILO repeats that social protection is a human right, but the recommendation bears some of the characteristics of the now dominant neoliberal approach to social protection, i.e., it is very much at the service of the economy.


  1. The main objective, therefore, is to promote a different perspective on social protection,*** one that encompasses environmental needs and bridges the unacceptable gap between production and reproduction, all this meaning that social protection is not a correction mechanism for the prevailing economic system, but is to be transformative and contribute to a better system that better sustains persons throughout their life cycle.

***: We need social protection systems that are based on solidarity, sharing of risks, and built on collective bargaining and social dialogue, democratic structures and long-term strategies to combat poverty and address inequalities and inequity. Universal social protection is essential to achieve gender equality and there is a strong link between the provision of public services and the ability of women to enter the labor market, to address unpaid care work responsibilities and to ensure that children have access to health and social services. The international financial institutions (IFIs) continue to promote social protection reforms that focus on targeting, which is less efficient and more costly, rather than promoting a broad coverage. (Sandra Vermuyten, Public Services International)


  1. Demands can and will differ from country to country depending on the priorities of local groups. But principles of social protection are to be universal and are the following: (They are to be used by all groups preparing the strategies for their social struggles)


Embed the right to social protection in national legislation and laws

  • Public authorities have the primary responsibility to guarantee social protection. The same is to be rights-based and be organized on a non-profit basis. All countries are to ratify and implement the relevant treaties and conventions and embed the right to social protection in their national laws.

Respect core labor standards and eliminate all discrimination

  • Social protection systems are to include ILO’s Core Labor Standards, an adequate level of living wages, as well as minimum income levels. They must eliminate all discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion or sexual orientation. They must include a series of social services, such as a right to water, health, nutrition, education, public transport, energy and communication, housing, vocational training, etc.

Guarantee solidarity-based and redistributive financing mechanisms for universal social protection

  • Social protection is affordable, even in the poorest countries, provided there is sufficient political determination. Sufficient means to implement a well-developed social protection system are to be provided at the national and international level. However, unfair tax policies, nationally and internationally, reduce the capacity of countries to invest in social protection and essential public services. More international cooperation is needed to stop these destructive tendencies.

Involve citizens and social movements in the development and governance of social protection systems

  • The design, development, monitoring and evaluation of national and international policies for social protection must be a participatory, inclusive and democratic process. Social organizations, such as trade unions, solidarity-based health groups, organizations of farmers and small businesses and informal sector and domestic workers know best what the real needs of people are. Public support for social protection systems is to be built through social dialogue.

Enact coherent policies to strengthen social protection systems at national, regional and international levels

  • Social protection is part of a reproduction process that cannot be de-linked from the production process, while both must be aimed at human sustainability throughout the life cycle. Public policies in all fields have an impact on countries’ capacities to set up comprehensive and universal social protection systems including environmental and agricultural policies, trade and investment agreements, etc. International financial institutions and international cooperation in general have a huge responsibility in enabling States to provide social protection for all.


  1. Bottom line: Although we already have an International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, we do not have a specific codified text about rights to universal social protection. Much work to be done.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



-In HR work, we need a plan and not just become a brand. Working for the sake of a brand becomes a problem, because we end up making decisions based on protecting the brand as opposed to on building the largest HR movement that we can with a much more open ethos, a plan, a vision and a mission. (adapted from Naomi Klein)

-The hour calls for optimism; we will save pessimism for better times. (Jean-Claude Servais)



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Human rights: Food for myth-busting thoughts


Human Rights Reader 436


-To better learn from purported development miracles, it is necessary to demystify them. (Jomo Sundaram)

Myths about human rights are like zombies that never seem to die. It is only a matter of time before they rise from the dead and threaten to eat our brains.

The technology myth


  1. The biggest myth about globalization is that it is a process driven by technological progress. But it is economic policy (or politics, if you like) that has determined exactly how globalization has evolved.* (Ha-Joon Chang)

*: The choice of technology implies a choice of society (technological determinism). Technology can only be considered appropriate if it helps lead to a change in the distribution of wealth and power. This is why a socially appropriate technology must address human rights violations, must be labor intensive, must help to change income distribution, must take the use of resources into consideration and must be ecologically defensible. The distributional problems generated by inappropriate technologies will not be solved as long as control over their generation and utilization is concentrated in a handful of corporations and other dominant political and economic institutions. The technology found in countries rendered poor is, in general, appropriate for the rich and powerful in them and highly inappropriate for those rendered poor and destitute who constitute the majority. Technologies only become appropriate or inappropriate according to the social purposes they are supposed to accomplish! The elites in developing counties are an integral part of the international system of exploitation. They have stood in the same relation to the poorer sections in their own societies as the industrialized North has stood vis-a-vis the underdeveloped world. With rates of technological change in the developed and developing countries so vastly different, the prospect is for continuing backwardness and dependence; catching up slowly may be irrelevant. Countries rendered poor should instead try to become collectively strong in order to act as equals in the international arena according to their societal needs and interests.


The economics myth (#)


  1. Economics is a 20th century branch of social sciences. It literally means ‘the science of the management of the household or estate’ But it actually is the science treating the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services.


  1. Come to think of it, theology and economics have actually not discovered anything much new in the last century. This, since both are based on matters of faith.** (Bernard Maris) So, when Milton Friedman was asked “What’s new?” he responded “Adam Smith” as he giggled into the questioner’s face. On the other hand, political economy is the study of wealth; of the conduct of men as desiring to possess (acquire) wealth –and it has added much new in the last century.

**: Reminds me of demography that is said to be a science, but confesses being a science of estimation. …any parallel with economics here?


  1. Add to this the problems we have to translate ‘econospeak’ into ‘layspeak: Economists occupy a place in the high rent district of academia. They are so often engaged in rhetoric that it seems they lack any self-awareness about the rhetorical and linguistic nature of their endeavor. They rarely use natural references to what is perceived closer to reality by other humans. Economists choice of style and vocabulary is often supported by un-argued premises and shaky evidence (…myths?). Worse, the mathematical language so favored by economists is itself a system of metaphors (an imaginative transformation of one thing into another). This language elicits an unconscious acceptance of similarities while ignoring crucial differences. Technical jargon is used not so much to reveal truth, but to gain consent by persuading others to believe as they believe. (Les Perelman) [I am the first to admit that ‘humanrightsspeak’ also needs to more proactively translate into ‘layspeak’].


  1. Let me just go a step further: The economic theory economists have us under in the dominant prevailing order is the same science that justified and condoned slavery –one of the worst human rights violations ever. (B. Maris) It is clear that those who exercise power are the ones that establish the privileges according to which some thrive and others perish. …Not being facetious, you already know all about how ‘free’ competition works, no?


The competition myth


  1. If competition exists, it happens among the privileged …you know that too, no? To define and set privileges, barriers have to be set up and it is the state that must have the power to impose them –with the agreement of (or conniving with) those rendered rich and powerful. Competition has thus never been fair! ‘Small fish’ can never become competitors; instead, their rights are violated. One of the weapons of free competition is (what else?) secrecy –needed to peddle influence. (Jean Favier) The ‘magic of the market’ only thrives with those influences as a helping hand. Yes, but how much of an exposure and denunciation of this is required to bring the problems this brings-about to the fore? The human rights-based approach can help bring in a heavy touch of behind-the-scenes reality and truth to this.


The free market myth


  1. In the 21st century’s global market, all goods are treated the same, because fundamentally it is about private profit-making and this means that man’s dependence on the natural world is ignored. The buyer is essentially a bargain hunter; he is not concerned with the origin of the goods or the conditions under which they have been produced. The market, therefore, represents only the surface of society to the momentary situation as it is there and then. There is no probing into the depths of the natural, social or human rights (HR) facts that lie behind them. In a sense, the market is the institutionalization of individualism and non-responsibility. Neither buyer nor seller is responsible for anything but himself. He does not, and is not expected to, accept responsibility for the country’s balance of payments either. (E. F. Schumacher)


  1. So, my conviction only grows: When big transnational corporations, an odd head of state here and there (or two or three of his front men), many a politician and not few generals accumulate wealth quickly and become overnight millionaires, they use methods and resources that were with us, in some cases, already millennia ago. So, you see? During our happy modernity, we have invented nothing. (Louis Casado) Perhaps with one difference: The transnational world order has become increasingly exploitative, human rights-abusing and self-absorbed, as well as beyond effective sovereign controls. The modern TNC is probably the most adaptive institution humankind has ever devised.


  1. Take rich countries: In them, national wealth by conventional measures has declined.*** But corporate ownership of the globalized economy has exploded. (Noam Chomsky)

***: In the modern era of neoliberal globalization, the conventional estimates of national wealth in terms of GDP are misleading. With complex integrated supply chains, subcontracting, outsourcing and other such devices, corporate ownership of the world’s wealth is becoming a more realistic measure of global power than national wealth. (Sean Starrs) And never forget: People do not eat GDP; they need food, jobs education, health, opportunities –all HR issues. (S. Shadid Husain)


  1. This all is why there is an imperative need to eliminate the most speculative forms of trading. It is absurd that existing tax systems still put the heaviest burden on labor. A financial transactions tax is talked about a lot, but still lingers in limbo. Reliance on ever more philanthrocapitalism is not the appropriate response either. Needed are better governance systems that truly aim for greater social justice. (Karl Falkenberg) Applying the HR framework can help bring both these to fruition.


The foreign aid myth


-In the last 40 years, countries rendered rich have become 40 times richer than countries rendered poor, but their foreign assistance has either declined or increased marginally only.

-At any time, Africa plays host to around 40,000 expatriate experts, costing a conservative estimate of about $100,000 a year each. Is their combined advice worth $4 billion a year? (Earthscan)


  1. Foreign aid spends a lot of money finding out what to do and then finding who to do it to in the world. Foreign aid is first and foremost a means of exerting influence and creating dependence.**** Instead, and as an example that makes the point, foreign aid ought to be used to decrease the % of income spent on food, and not necessarily to increase food consumption. This would be compatible with HR. Making health or nutrition ‘more important’ within development policies is not enough either; it risks becoming a curative and not a human rights-based approach.

****: In foreign aid, zones-of-influence have replaced colonial empires, even though they do not cover exactly the same geographical areas.


  1. The foreign aid paradigm certainly has its dose of cynicism: At points in the past, the IMF and the World Bank were beneficiaries of the flow of global funds from South to North –repayments exceeded disbursements. ***** (Not to mention the toxic argument of the IMF: “Countries have deviated from orthodoxy. So, whip them back into the discipline of the centrally dominated system”).

*****: The realistic definition of bankruptcy is the point at which a debtor can no longer borrow the interest owed.


The privatization myth


  1. Privatization is considered today’s miracle cure; it has taken its place alongside trickle-down and other theories that have finally come to rest in the graveyard of panaceas for the world’s economic ills. (Daniel Nelson)


The social progress myth


  1. Despite what Bill Gates wants to tell us about progress in development, wealth creation and social progress do not necessarily go together. Some countries have translated relatively low levels of economic growth into human progress while others have failed despite high rates of economic growth. Meaningful social changes and HR must override economic growth!


Bottom line


  1. It is not that the above are all the myths there are in development work –or that I have reflected all there is in each of them. I have perhaps addressed the tip of the iceberg in an effort to debug some of the miracles Jomo Sundaram tells us we are fed or made to believe. Do not be surprised that I tell you that I am a firm believer in HR work as a demystifying exercise sorely missing in the sustainable development goals and in Agenda 2030 plans. Human rights violations are not a myth. We have the tools. How can our global leaders have ignored this?


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



-Between robbing a bank and owning one is not the latter the more heinous crime? (Bertolt Brecht)

-Did the call for a new international economic order (NIEO) represent the local bourgeoisies’ desire to integrate with the center of the world economy on better terms? Was it just a simple modification of the then existing order? Was it a ploy against the people in countries rendered poor? Was it just a ‘capitalism for everybody’ charter’? Did it only seek a more active role for the ruling classes in the same countries? Did it in essence demand for more equitable shares of the same old pie rather than being an entirely different recipe? …Interesting questions …but this is by now history…(Johan Galtung)


I know this Reader has been longer than usual. But if you can spare 10 minutes, I want you to have a look at what fittingly follows.


#: How economics became a religion: some reflections whose time has come


  1. i) The moral code of economics promises salvation; its high priests uphold the discipline’s orthodoxy. But perhaps too many of its doctrines are taken on faith. We have all been made to follow a powerful economic credo around which we have oriented our lives: such is economics. Think about it. Conventional economists offer us a comprehensive doctrine with a moral code promising adherents salvation in this world; it is an ideology so compelling that the faithful remake whole societies to conform to its demands. If you are educated to believe greed is good, then you will be more likely to live accordingly.


  1. ii) The doctrine has its savants, mystics and magicians who conjure money out of thin air, using spells such as ‘derivative’ or ‘structured’ investment vehicles. And, like the old religions it has displaced, it has its prophets, reformists, moralists and, above all, its high priests who uphold orthodoxy in the face of dissent. At the end of the 20th century, amid an economic boom that saw the Northern economies become richer than humanity had ever known, economics seemed to have conquered the globe. With nearly every country on the planet adhering to the same free-market playbook, and with university students flocking to do degrees in the subject, economics seemed to be attaining the goal that had eluded every other religious doctrine in history, namely converting the entire planet to its creed. No sooner do we persuade ourselves that the economic priesthood has finally broken the old curse than it comes back to haunt us all. Not surprisingly, our faith in the ‘experts’ has dissipated.


iii) The scholars of conventional economics, with their belief that theirs was a science, do not observe the laws of nature, they help make alternative laws! Economics neither is nor can be a science –and has always operated more like a church. You just have to look at its history to realize that. Powerful political interests that have historically included not only rich industrialists, but electorates as well, have helped to shape the canon of economics which was then enforced by the scholarly community. Once a principle is established as orthodox, its observance is enforced in much the same way that a religious doctrine maintains its integrity, i.e., by repressing or simply eschewing dissent.


  1. iv) Studies of personality traits common to various disciplines have discovered that economics, like engineering, tends to attract people with an unusually strong preference for order and a distaste for ambiguity. Economics rests on a set of premises about the world not as it is, but as economists would like it to be. Just as any religious service includes a profession of faith, membership in the priesthood of economics entails certain core convictions about human nature. What actually sets economists apart from the clergy is that they must still test their hypotheses against the evidence. The data used by economists, however, is often disputed. In economic theory, very often, you believe what you want to believe –and as with any act of faith, your choice of heads or tails will as likely reflect sentimental predisposition as scientific assessment. It is no mystery why the data used by economists so rarely throws up incontestable answers. Some data has just simply been bad. Other data rarely throws up incontestable answers. What about spending less time in mathematical modeling? The trend has already been going in that direction. Today, the economist who wanders into a village to get a deeper sense of what the data reveals is a rare creature. Just as you can find a quotation in the Bible that will justify almost any behavior, you can find human data to support almost any statement you want to make about the way the world works. That is why ideas in economics can go in and out of fashion.


  1. v) Economics moves in cycles. A given doctrine can rise, fall and then later rise again. Any economist who gets a following gets a pulpit. Like the person who regularly attends church, but does not always keep the commandments, we behave as economic theory predicts only when it suits us. But, does the endless accumulation of wealth always make us happier? You see? Many of us do not fit the model. Those who belong to the ‘expert’ class, and to the priesthood of economics, ought to dismiss their behavior when it brings about a clash between faith and facts. This, since the facts are bound to win in the end.


  1. vi) Last but not least, the conventional economics narrative has never made room for the losers of this order whose resentments were derided as being a reflection of their ignorant and retrograde character.


vii) Humility has simply been lacking in economic orthodoxy for quite some time. Although economics was starting to ride ‘the crest of intellectual respectability’, an uneasy feeling about the present state of the discipline has been growing. Pure theory is making economics more remote from day-to-day reality. Just take the palpable inadequacy of the scientific means of using mathematical approaches to address mundane concerns… Nevertheless economics departments are still attracting and promoting young economists who want to build pure models with little empirical relevance. (adapted from John Rapley, The Guardian)


viii) Bottom line: If you think describing economics as a religion debunks it, you are wrong. We need economics. It can be –it has been– a force for tremendous good. But only if we keep its purpose in mind, and always remember what it can and cannot do! It is still time for conventional economists to look into their own history to find a narrative that avoids the evangelical certainty of orthodoxy. (J. Rapley)



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Human rights: Food for two haunting thoughts


Human Rights Reader 435

-As relates to the abuse of power, take the issue of transnational corporations (e.g., ‘Big Food’): As evident from their trade associations and non-governmental front organizations, they work as a voracious pack. (Geoffrey Cannon)

-These same TNCs often employ unethical marketing techniques that have been described as ‘social pornography’.


Power? In the global architecture that includes trade and investment, it is key power asymmetries that influence how trade and other economic rules are made, implemented and adjudicated (Ted Schrecker)


-Any surprise here? Labor laws, pension laws, corporate laws and tax laws have been and are also crafted by those at the top.

-Furthermore, do not overlook the fact that wages are not somehow ‘naturally’ low in the South –they have been made low by design. Wages are an effect of power. (Jason Hickel)

-Once you see all the above, you cannot unsee anymore… (Arundhati Roy).


  1. Among other, power operates
  • through the control of resources,
  • through funds used to finance political activity,
  • through the design of institutions that favor certain interests (what has been called the ‘mobilization of bias’), and
  • through what has been called the two faces of power, i.e., by involving not only visible interactions in which one party prevails over another (e.g., elections, court cases), but involving situations in which power also operates invisibly (e.g., keeping some issues off the policy agenda, perhaps because of anticipated reactions). (T. Schrecker)


  1. Why are people rendered rich indifferent to power asymmetries in their own countries? Because they benefit from supporting policies that maintain or increase power imbalances. (The US income distribution is significantly more unequal than the German, i.e., there are many more people rendered extremely rich in the US than in Germany). (Branko Milanovic)


  1. Governments, public interest civil society and multilateral organizations must thus rethink the purpose of trade (and trade agreements), so that they foster wellbeing rather than serving to promote and re-enforce powerful investment interests. (T. Schrecker) As Gore Vidal put it: “It is not enough to succeed. In the process, others do fail”.


Ignorance? People must be trained to keep on-and-on lifting the fallen and creating proactive grassroots organizations (Shula Koenig)


  1. This massive job never stops as populations grow –and ignorance about human rights (HR) prevails. Just producing documents (like this Reader) may well be necessary, but is indeed not sufficient; activism cannot stop there. Significant actions need to start out there.


  1. In these matters, there is no tomorrow, because tomorrow quickly becomes yesterday. And ignoring HR depletes the masses of hope and creativity. Yes, we need to fill-in the details for accomplishing this vision and mission; yes, we will make mistakes, yes we will learn from one another. But we cannot make HR an added side issue. It is a central one to address including the big task of overcoming bureaucratic inertia and resistance.


The root problem(s)


We tend to forget (or are made to forget) that economics is only one piece of our broader, social, political and HR problem. (Neil Irwin)


  1. The actual assumption, that the neoliberal business model can resolve social problems* –and is superior to redistributive, collectively deliberated policies and actions developed by elected governments– rests on the belief that the free market model is the best suited approach to take-on these tasks, despite ample evidence to the contrary. At best, business models engage in charity. We nevertheless note that the belief that charitable giving can change the world for the better in the long-run is just another variant of the decidedly undemocratic doctrine that those rendered rich swear-by. Applauding and encouraging the largesse of elites will not at all contribute to create equitable, sustainable societies. In short, a plutocratic governance system with authoritarian features is becoming entrenched –a system we, HR activists, are actively fighting against. (Anne-Emanuelle Birn, Judith Richter, U.S. Philanthrocapitalism and the Global Health Agenda: The Rockefeller and Gates Foundations, Past and Present. )

*: Neoliberalism is taken to mean an economic model that combines the promotion of privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector, and reduce the role of the state, in the economy and society. As a model, neoliberalism can be said to include all the above features. Market-based policies can be said to include some of these policies at different times, so are not really a model. (HealthpovertyAction) Not being facetious, Deng Xiaoping was the founder of ‘market socialism’ (with Chinese characteristics), which is not pure (but close to ) capitalism …Note that is written in ideograms, the writing of the feudal Middle Empire. (Louis Casado)


  1. Citizens or consumers? Until 30 years ago, we were considered citizens; now we are considered consumers. Despite the fact that historically, and for political reasons, our rights as citizens were never fully upheld, nowadays, for economic reasons, our consumer rights are not upheld either. (Albino Gomez)


Related miscellanea


  1. The language of banks is money; they pay fines when they are caught misbehaving; although it is just money, this is where it hurts them most: in their pockets… Then they go right back to their tricks hoping the next time they get away with it. (Deutsche Welle)


  1. Those rendered super rich save (off-shore?), because they cannot think of other things to do with their money. This hurts the economy by wealth not being put to work. (J. Bradford DeLong)


  1. Religions have many common traits. The economy –that also has elements of superstition– also has at its disposal apostles and some gods –or false idols. (For some, Milton Friedman can probably be the God of this superstition called ‘the neoliberal economy’). (L. Casado)


  1. There is no higher God in neoliberalism than growth. No sacrifice too big for its craving altar. As long as you keep your curve exponential, all your sins will be forgotten at the finish line.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City




“They got to live before they can afford to die” (John Steinbeck)


Can people accept that the conditions so many people live-under are results, not causes? Is it because the causes ‘lie deep’? The causes are a hunger in the stomach, multiplied a million times; a hunger in a single soul, multiplied a million times; having painfully stepped out of hunger and then inexorably slipped back. Every stepping out is proof that the spirit has not died, e.g., strikes do not stop while the great owners live; every beaten strike or act of resistance is proof that the spirit has not died. When slipping back, things people must have are lost, crops are reckoned, families are driven from the land…and they resist. If you, who own the things people must have, could only understand this. If you could go from what look like separate outcomes to the deep causes. If you could know that Marx, Jefferson, Lenin were results not causes, humanity may survive. Needed is the never discouraged stimulus to action.

Crops lost are counted in dollars since land is valued by its ‘principal plus interests’, since crops are bought and sold before they are planted. Then when crops fail, drought and flood are no longer little deaths within life, but losses of money….until people are farmers no more; little shop keepers of crops, little manufacturers who must sell before they can make a living are no more. Then those farmers who were not good shopkeepers lose their land to ‘good’ shopkeepers. No matter how clever how loving a man may be with earth and growing things, he cannot survive if he is not also a good shopkeeper. And as time goes on, the businessmen have the farms and the farms grow larger, but there are fewer of them.

Now farming becomes an industry, and all the time the farms grow larger and the owners fewer. And the crops change; trees take the place of grain fields. And it comes about that owners no longer work on their farms. They farm on paper; and they forget the land, the smell, the feel of it, and remember only that they own it, remember only what they gain and lose by it. The owners then hate the dispossessed who dare to strike. And in the towns the storekeepers hate them as well, because the strikers have no money to spend. The town men and lenders also hate them, because there is nothing to gain from them; they have nothing. And the laboring people hate them too, because a hungry man must work and if he must work, if he has to work, the wage payer automatically gives him less for his work, and then no one can get more.

And the little screaming fact that sounds all through history is that repression works, but only to strengthen and knit together the repressed. The great owners ignore the cries of history. Every effort of the great owners is directed at repression; spies are sent to catch the murmurings of revolt so that it may be stamped out.

And the little farmers who lost their land, taken by the great owners and the banks, they move into town for a while until they exhaust their credit, exhaust their friends, exhaust their relatives. And then they are pushed out to the highways and the roads are crowded with men starving for work. Although the granaries may be full, the children of the poor grow up rachitic with swelled belies. The great companies do not know that the line between hunger and anger is a thin line. And money that could have gone to wages goes to tear gas and guns, for agents and spies. The anger begins to ferment. (John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath)



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Human rights: Food for a maiming thought


Human rights Reader 434


-The most successful transnational corporations in the world are those that are maiming the planet and many of its people –and the rich countries that house those TNCs are the ones that are knowledgeably behind this crime. (E. Galeano)

Every corporation claims to be environmentally minded until they have to pay for it.


The rights of nature: Is biodiversity a human right? (D+C, Vol.37, No.10, Oct 2010)


Nature does not need people; people need nature.


  1. Combining human rights-based and ecological approaches provides a powerful framework of analysis and a basis for action to understand and guide development from here to 2030 –before it is too late.  The human rights framework unfailingly draws attention to the common root causes of social and ecological injustice. Human rights principles and standards do guide development to more sustainable outcomes by recognizing the links between ecological and social marginalization, by stressing that all rights are embedded in complex ecological and biodiverse systems, and by emphasizing ‘provision-for-need’ over wealth accumulation. Together, human rights (HR) and ecology give us a clearer idea of what development is to achieve, i.e., securing the current and future generations a sustainable amount of ecological space that does not compromise the human and the ‘earth’s rights’ of the coming generations.* Since those needs have a natural basis, no one can take more than a sustainable share of natural resources without threatening others’ rights; and since these resources are linked through ecological processes globally, all natural resources should be seen as part of the commons.  If one person or group takes more than their fair share of these common goods, HR globally are threatened. Human rights, therefore, demand that we protect these common resources. (Bret Thiele)

*: An economic system that violates the earth’s rights also violates HR, because we are inseparable from the Earth. (Vandana Shiva)


Climate change is not just about carbon pollution


  1. Climate change is about a hotter world and about the collision between carbon pollution and a toxic ideology of market fundamentalism that has made it impossible for our shackled leaders** to respond to the dangers of a hotter world while they simultaneously make the problem so much worse. (Naomi Klein)

**: Manfred Max Neef, well known Chilean economist, considers himself the founder of a new discipline: ‘stupidology’. He argues that stupidity is a unique trait of human beings. No other living being is stupid except ourselves. So, is homo sapiens (or homo-not-very-sapiens, or homo demens) in need of an upgrade? Sort of… (Yuval Harari, Geoffrey Cannon, Leonardo Boff)


  1. Furthermore, the climate change negotiations are no longer an environmental negotiation, they are now being turned into economic negotiations that want to establish, by international agreement, new technological paradigms and new competitive conditions in international trade. The proposals at hand are favorable to large multinationals, because they restrict the space for national development policies and, under the pretext of climate change, will control the market participation of countries, as well as the producer prices in international agricultural trade. (U. Mazzei)


  1. It is no news*** that the effects of a hotter world will be shared very unevenly, with a number of northern countries, including Russia and much of Europe, benefiting from the rising temperatures and poorer countries, including those in much of South America and Africa (which already tend to be far hotter) being damaged by the rising temperatures. By 2100, the average income for the world’s poorest 60% of people will be 70% below what it would have been without climate change. Thus, climate change will result in a huge redistribution of wealth from the global poor to the wealthy. (Learn more and check out some charts at MIT Technology Review)

***: It is also no news that the old worn approach of compensating reductions of carbon emissions with money is not working and has become obsolete.


Saying no to bad ideas and bad actors is simply not enough


  1. If we accept the premise that, from here on, the battles will all be mostly defensive, we will but be holding our ground against regressive attacks against HR. Then, we will end up in a very dangerous place indeed. We cannot spend the coming years only playing defense. The crises are all so urgent, they will not allow us that lost time. On the rights of nature, for instance, humanity has a finite window in which to act, after which protecting anything like a stable climate becomes impossible. And that window is closing fast. So we need, somehow, to fight defense and offence simultaneously –to resist the attacks of the present day and to still find space to build the future we need. In other words, the firmest of ‘nos’ has to be accompanied by a bold and forward-looking yes –a plan for the future that is credible and captivating enough that a great many people will fight to see it realized, no matter the shocks and scare tactics thrown their way. It is ‘yes’ that will keep us in the fight. So, we first need to be very clear on what we are saying no to. We are saying no to the system. And then let us move to a yes –a yes that will bring about change so fundamental that today’s corporate takeover will be relegated to a historical footnote –a warning to our kids. (N. Klein)


  1. The climate conversation should cease to be a shouting match. Much too much is at stake. (United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



Reusing is better than recycling and not-using-in-the-first-place is best of all. (…neither is recycling always the green alternative it appears to be). (F+D 50:4, December 2013)

– When an animal product is purchased, three prices have to be paid: one by the consumer, one by the taxpayer and one by nature. The consumer uses the first price to judge the item’s value. The other two prices represent hidden subsidies to the people who produce and merchandise it. We need to be reminded that they are responsible for and preside over a system of price support of a type of industrial agriculture whose products, at current volumes, are harmful to population health and to the planet and the biosphere. (Heinrich Boell Foundation)



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Human rights: Food for defying a system of thought


Human Rights Reader 433


A tough period is ahead of us, charged with many challenges. We have to think hard, reflect; we have to (re)invent and continue dreaming: never give up! (Jorge Scherman)


  1. Marx famously said that he was not interested in understanding the world but in changing the world. More than anything, human rights work depends on active agents of change. Claim holders and their leaders need to understand not just why, but also what to do.* (Alicia Yamin)

*: The word praxis suggests the need to connect philosophical ideas and theory with real-life experience and action in the political world. Human rights work is, or should fundamentally be, a praxis about the regulation of power.


  1. Throughout history, the single most important source of human rights (HR) consciousness and energy has come from the diverse people who have been affected by, and collectively struggled against, what Paul Farmer has elegantly termed “pathologies of power.”We must reach across silos, as well as across North/South and academic/activist divides to be able to more effectively deploy the HR framework and its tools to subvert the forms of hegemonic power that so pervasively colonize our consciousness. The power of hegemony lies in the acceptance of the ‘way things are’. Speaking truth to power requires that the HR community challenges this hegemony. The ever-greater abdication of responsibility by states to private actors is not –repeat, is not– a neutral quest for greater efficiency and innovation. (A. Yamin)


  1. For example, the creation and recent exponential surge of human rights indicators driven by external funders, governments and global institutions, suggests that only what gets counted, counts. (?)** An over-reliance on such technocratic exercises may well undermine our consciousness of the need to struggle against the structural obstacles within countries and in the global order. The HR community now needs to develop a praxis for exposing and disrupting the discourses that control our collective imaginations***; it also needs to destabilize the neoliberal paradigm that impoverishes our understanding of development, democracy, and the meaning of being human. (A. Yamin)

**: The goal of cross-country comparisons of these indicators appears naturally desirable, reasonable and neutral. But it is precisely their abstraction from the social context and from the meaningfulness of people’s participation that obscures more than reveals the power dynamics at play. Rather than better capturing reality, such indicators may well come to define reality.

***: Yet robust human rights and equality indicators did not make it to the SDG indicators list that will be used to measure achievements on these targets; achievements will thus most likely fall through the proverbial cracks.


  1. Bottom line here: Increasing technocratic interventions alone will neither change minds nor unfair power relations. In fact, well-meaning attempts by development practitioners to ‘inform’ the public may even backfire. It turns out that presenting facts that conflict with an individual’s worldview (e.g., about HR) can and does prevent people from digging-in further into matters that will eventually offer counter-power to power. (adapted from Tim Requarth)


The universality of human rights cannot be reinterpreted (adapted from Alicia Yamin and P. Bergallo)


  1. In the current political landscape, we seem to have gone back to a time when human rights are universal only to the extent that they can be universally agreed on by UN member states –this making the normative scaffolding of HR dangerously precarious. This is clearly a fallacy. Any collective deliberation to contest universality is totally out place. To move forward, as HR activists, we must hold firmly onto what we have already achieved. We must collectively reflect on where we are in relation to using the HR discourse, its tools and framing so as to de-facto advance in our struggle. Today, it is clear that there is no one path forward, no one-size-fits-all strategy. We would do well to move beyond some of the standard debates in international HR law and situate our struggles within the realm of national and global political economies, and especially within the neoliberal context.


  1. Legalistic approaches to HR and constitutional rights assume that ethical relations between people, states and international law are guided by the rules set by HR covenants and that they are followed. But are they? A rigid legalism tends to see international HR law, as well as domestic legislation in formalistic terms; this is why it is justifiably critiqued as naïve by HR scholars and activists. The argument is that it is naïve to assume that HR principles and standards constrain self-interested political actors: It is clearly not so. In international law, the portrayal of a linear march of progress in a formalistic vision fails to consider its social and political legitimacy. As it happens, written legal HR norms mean different things in different contexts given that such norms’ validity is contextual and are the product of historical trajectories.


  1. At the domestic level, then, should activists work towards law reform by launching a strategy of legal mobilization? If so, it has to be kept in mind that much of any legal mobilization often needs to incorporate an understanding of how de-facto power relations determine and structure the opportunities at hand. Activists do have to face the vast array of conservative tactics when seeking legal reforms. The transnational potentiation of advocacy plus mobilization has to be stressed here. Because we are talking of the need of a society-wide legal mobilization that will help shape a broader public understanding of HR, legal mobilization around HR cannot be disconnected from the overall social contestation that occurs in other fronts, beyond legislatures, courts and administrative bodies. We simply need to go beyond law reform and litigation. Ensuring enabling legal and policy frameworks based on international HR law is only the beginning of a longer process. The battle requires many steps to change practices in invariably complex systems.


  1. Just as legalism alone is inadequate, simplistic anti-legalism does not either reflect the advances made through a combination of national and supranational mobilizations in other areas. No one field alone can achieve normative victories. Achieving the fulfillment of HR requires challenging not just ideological views, but also views of human beings with equal dignity and rights. It also requires subverting neoliberal and religious fundamentalisms that increasingly control our collective imaginations. The maintenance of the neoliberal status-quo at the national and international levels is not compatible with a global system that recognizes and guarantees the effective enjoyment of substantive equality and social rights.


A short comment on human rights and the Welfare State


  1. The origin of the Welfare State was a sort of class conciliation between employers and sectors of the middle and working classes. The current widespread acceptance of this ideological-manifestation-of-clear-cut-class-interests makes it close to impossible to arrive at more radical paths to wealth redistribution that will avoid the inequalities brought about by the Welfare State to begin with. Precisely by developing a system based on merits –through educational attainment, for instance– the Welfare State ended up reproducing social inequalities that have generated a veritable social selection of individuals in society. The Welfare State and the liberal democracy that goes with it are, therefore, no panacea. So we will have to look for our own new paths –the HR framework being a prime vehicle.


  1. What is needed, is for all the powers of the State to be governed by fundamental principles such as the respect of HR, transparency and the rejection of the so widespread conflicts of interest. But this will not happen unless claim holders address this and demand the abolition of the many existing social control mechanisms that underlie the Welfare State. The response ought to come more from a greater radicalization of democracy than from a defense of leading and controlling liberal principles other than those compatible with HR principles.(Gonzalo Cuadra)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City




Humans have a right to have rights (Boaventura de Sousa Santos)


There will eventually be a moment when societies (and not just some ‘enlightened’ individuals) will come to the conclusion that our race to the bottom can simply not go on. However, the negativity of the present will never suffice for that. There is something terminal about the condition of our times that proves to be an endless terminality. It is as if abnormality possessed an unusual energy to transform itself into a new normality that makes us feel terminally healthy instead of terminally ill. This enables those who have economic, political, or cultural power to present themselves socially as champions of causes while they are in fact champions of things. Generally hating the present is considered as being the expression of a treason or a degradation of a golden past, a time when humanity was more consistent.

The reactionary downward project makes a distinction between humans and sub-humans sound necessary. It suffices that the inferiors be treated as inferior, whether they be women, black people, indigenous peoples. The reactionary project never questions its own privilege and duty to decide who is superior and who is inferior. Sub-humans should be the object of philanthropy to prevent them from becoming dangerous and to defend them against themselves, we are told. They may have some rights, but they certainly must always have more duties than rights.

But can we think the past was definitively better than the present? Can we think that the struggles of the past were able to irreversibly overcome the excesses and the perversities of extremism? We unfortunately live in a time of informal dictatorship with imaginaries of formal democracy; in a time of racialized ideas with imaginaries of human rights –but not with imaginaries of globalization; and imaginaries of a digital communicational orgy; these are true. Is it not a paradox that the oppressed are electing their own oppressors –with false imaginaries of liberation and social justice?

Beware: If paths are many and they go in all directions they can easily become a labyrinth, a dynamic field of paralysis.


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Human rights: Food for a thought on mediocrity


Human Rights Reader 432


In reality, if people get closer and look those who govern us in the eye they will often be astonished by their mediocrity. (Voltaire)


It is known for economists and politicians to make inaccurate/unrealistic predictions


  1. The empirical analyses economists embark-on are inherently backward looking.* I ask: Is it possible that a forward-looking approach could give a more optimistic view of the future? Economic historians do tell us that the enhancement of ‘social capabilities’ is a key determinant of societies’ success or failure. Social capability is thought to be the capacity to reform institutions and policies –and attaining the capacity to reform institutions and policies is a human rights (HR) and a political challenge requiring, among other, tackling discrimination, embarking in large social transfers, in taxation reforms and in market regulation, as well as in employment creation and working towards social protection being considered seriously beyond lip service. Significant structural reforms are thus required. Will they be forthcoming? That is the question.** (Nicholas Crafts) I am afraid no, unless…

*: Unfortunately, economists inability to communicate their analyses and predictions to the general public in ways that are understandable and applicable to people’s lives is a key political problem. (Kristin Forbes)

**: Just keep in mind that public sector transfers for pensions, health care and long-term care will be unsustainable unless a) progressive taxes are raised, b) benefits are reduced, or c) both: This is the via crucis (way of sorrows) of the politicians. (Ronald Lee)


Canadian political scientist Harold Lasswell defines politics as Who Gets What, When and How


  1. Given that purportedly without political parties there is no democracy (or is this rather what those who deal with ‘the things public’ want us to believe…?), one does not have to be a genius to figure out that political parties are not necessarily part of the solution, but often are part of the problem. The French philosopher Simone Weil tells us that the revolutionary temperament leads revolutionary parties to look at the totality of change. The petti-bourgeois temperament looks at slow, continuous, limitless progress; the fraud in the latter is so evident that some illuminati came up with the concept of a participatory democracy that purportedly leads to ‘empower the people’.


  1. Be conscious: The Anglicism ‘empower’ in reality stands for a top-down ‘authorization of representation (as in giving a power of attorney). From this perspective, claiming that the people are empowered, in reality too often means that someone has given the people a very limited authorization to participate –a concept diametrically opposed to the legitimate and sovereign power that resides in the people without anybody granting it to them (…as well as diametrically opposed to the HR-based approach).


  1. As regards the above participatory democracy, the same is, again, too often a fraud. Just consider elections –the favorite political method pushed by the oligarchy for centuries… Our ability to withdraw our confidence (and our vote) from professional politicians has always been touted to be the warranty of the democratic character of our public (democratic?) institutions. But sometimes, you have to wait four years or more till the next election –even in the face of patent crises…*** (Louis Casado)

***: Mind you, etymologically speaking, the word crisis does not have a negative connotation. Crisis is the moment when routine-stops-serving-us-as-a-guide so that we need to opt for a new roadmap and discard the old one.


Young People: You didn’t vote, and now you protest?


  1. Immediately after the vote on Brexit, thousands of young people marched in the streets of England to show their disagreement over the choice to leave Europe. But polls indicated that had they voted en masse (only 37 percent voted), the result of the referendum would have been the opposite. What is a real cause of concern for democracy, as an institution based on the waning concept of popular participation, is that young people are not at all apolitical. In fact, they are very aware of priorities like HR, climate change, gender equality, social justice, common goods, and other concepts, much more than the older generation. They feel much more connected to the causes of humanity, have fewer racial biases, believe more in international institutions, and are more interested in international affairs —but they stay away from the poles. There is a general consensus among analysts that the damages of globalization and the discrediting of political parties are the major causes for the decline in participation. Bottom line here: If young people would vote, they could change the results. (Roberto Savio) Not being facetious, is it that the young tend to know what they do not want earlier than what they want? (Albino Gomez)


There is a worrisome (dangerous?) fashion already entrenched among us: centrism (L. Casado, Frederic Lordon)


  1. There is no longer a clear political left –and the right is fuzzy or extreme. There is a center-left and a center-right, yes, a clever positioning that allows either to co-govern with the other satisfying the interests of the powerful. Note that the center has sort of an ideology that, at best, generates confusion given the fact that those who call themselves centrists say they reject all ideologies; they prefer to call their ideology pragmatism and use it as a panacea that actually too often leads to inaction buried, as it is, in the paradise of free markets and the negation of conflict.


  1. This negation of conflict results from assuming that the interests of the powerful are also those of everybody. The centrist utopia is based on some kind of reconciliation and political peace that makes no sense. The language used is insipid, polished and lubricated by the agencies that handle the political marketing of centrism. Centrists typically only leave open the avenues of accommodation that are bearable to them.


Unfortunately, democracy is transformed into an illusion when some interpret ‘peace of mind’ as the possibility to forget confrontation


  1. Centrism has made this nonsensical no-conflict assumption the center of its political creed. It imposes laws that ultimately express disdain for HR and domination by the strong without even attempting to understand the structural mechanisms at play. But as you throw them out by the window, problems come back to haunt you. The list of conflicts through which our societies are going through is never ending.


  1. A strong dose of cynicism is needed to pretend that a politics of accommodation resolves the hidden mass of contradictions. Under these circumstances, how can minimum consensus be reached? Consensus around what? Around the interests of the powerful? Around the interests of those who expropriate the wealth generated by the efforts of the many? This is all ambiguous, devoid of a vision, of a program or of a clear direction –with a strategy limited to fostering ‘fair market competition’ when the whole institutionality of the system is rigged.


The tenets of centrism infiltrate all spaces


  1. Centrist elites have the press and other media in their pocket so they can effectively manipulate public opinion so that the public never really understands the true purpose of the system they live under. The sorry thing is that the centrist position can garner the support and help of the otherwise progressive social forces that pursue peace and stability.


  1. The practitioners of centrism should be reminded that the moment always comes when one has to come back to the harsh realities of a world in conflict that looks the other way about myriad violations of HR. “We are all brothers, part of humanity, and there is no conflict” is, after all, a mirage. The program of the centrist onslaught is just that: “Do not do anything that can lead to controversy, violence; be reasonable, moderate, only ask that which we can give up without losing our position of power”. A sad situation we are in…


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



The thief violates a law; corruption violates all laws. The murderer takes a life; the corrupt takes-in all of society. (Theodor Roosevelt)



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Human rights: Food for a concealed thought


Human Rights Reader 431


  1. Conventional historians are inclined to use histori­cal information of previous historians to supplement what they find during their research and to flesh out old and/or new details provided by their findings. As readers of history, we cannot be certain that historical details are 100 per cent accurate, particularly from a human rights (HR) perspective. This serves as a cautionary tale about using (or misusing) evi­dence to often support what have been nationalistic agendas. This debate involves the trustworthiness and credibility of historians’ accounts and the influence of nationalism on the interpretation of their narratives. Whom do we believe? And can we ever tap evidence from hundreds of years in the past to establish the origins, legal claims and the ignored birth rights of peoples then and today? While there is a concerted effort among historians today to avoid being unduly influenced by nationalism or other similar sentiments, that may not always have been the case. (Eric H. Cline)


  1. In conventional history, intelligent and persuasive chronicling has too often been used as a fig-leaf to justify domination, HR violations and destruction. (Stephen Cave) Some have called this ‘historicizing beneficience’:
  • Consider: Have the abuses of tyranny only been miserably hushed by the influence of sheer self-interest of the haves and carefully hidden shame? (Edward Gibbon)
  • Consider: Is conventional history a contested discipline that shapes our perception away from social justice?
  • Consider: Learned tomes by historians, economists, political scientists and other scholars fill many bookshelves with explanations of how and why the process of modern economic growth or ‘the Great Enrichment’ exploded in Western Europe in the 18th century. Europe’s success was not the result of any inherent superiority of European (much less Christian) culture –it was in good part pilfering. (Joel Mokyr) Think slavery and colonialism (actually also the ongoing historic processes of neocolonialism). (Lori Hanson)
  • Consider: Famine, plague, HR violations and war. These have been the four scourges of human history. The question is: How were their true causes recounted…?
  • Consider: Today, people in growing number of countries are more likely to die from eating too much rather than too little, more likely to die of old age than a great plague, and more likely to commit suicide than to die in a war. The question is: How are their true causes chronicled today…? (Derek Thompson)


Is the past to be seen in some way as a prelude of what is to come?


-Many experience the course of history with total indifference.

-Against any rationale of history, the clarion call from those in power, has by and large, been “let us go back to yesterday, but to an even better yesterday”. (Roberto Savio)


  1. When we look at the past through the eyes of the present, we find huge cemeteries of abandoned potential futures, e.g., struggles (including HR struggles) that inaugurated new possibilities, but were neutralized, silenced, or distorted; futures murdered at birth, or even still-born futures; contingencies that determined the winning choice of the haves later ascribed to ‘the course of history’. That is why we mourn so many whose HR were violated with impunity, so many dead –though never the same dead since the bad things that happened in the past continue to happen right now.


The trivialization of innovation goes hand in hand with the trivialization of ongoing historical horror


  1. Too many people have long given up making-the-world-happen and, therefore, accept with resignation the fact the-world-happens-to-them. (Ever thought about the long-term consequences of the widespread use of smartphones?). These include the cynics, the professionals of skepticism, those who ask little of the future. However, there are groups of people, very dissimilar in kind and size, for whom giving up on HR is just not an option. These still-minority-groups can be powerful though. With the exception of ‘neoliberal fundamentalists’, skinheads and ‘radical Jihadists’, a growing number of minority groups envision a better world to happen –every day defining and fighting-for a better future. The beginnings and evolution of this has simply not been too brilliantly chronicled by conventional historians. The history of the last many hundreds of years recommends that we approach this phenomenon with due caution. Has this historical failure been the direct or indirect cause of the-imprisoning-lack-of-choice we have in which we live between extreme fundamentalisms, radicalisms and tomorrows with no certainty about what happens the day after tomorrow? More important than answering this question, it is crucial that we know how we get out of here. If historically democracy and revolution were chronicled on opposite sides of the divide and both democracy and revolution collapse(d), maybe the solution lies in reinventing them both so they can coexist in mutual articulation. Differently said, democratize the revolution and revolutionize democracy. (adapted from Boaventura de Sousa Santos)


Bottom line


  1. I feel conventional history has been a closed system of (almost) historical periodicity. For a fairer account of the flow of the course of history, I think that what is needed/missing is history being written as a human relational field —embedding this in the reality of the economic, social and cultural milieu of the past (way before HR were codified…). What I am saying is needed is elevating the entire history of the HR victims and their struggles. I am thus seeking historical vindication of, what I think, is an inaccurate rendering of historical facts by shifting the historico-political emphasis aspects of history, i.e., viewing history through a biased social, historical and political lens.*

*: Beware historians: More than ever, the West’s unresolvable moral ‘quest for innocence in a post-colonial world’ needs to be put to rest. I think historians can do more, guided not only by introspection, humility, and reflexivity, but also by a practice of solidarity and social justice and a rigorous critique of the systemic and structural issues into which their work is inserted. (Lori Hanson).


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



According to historian Walter Scheidel, based on historical evidence, the suppression of inequality was only ever brought forth in times of sorrow, i.e., economic inequalities are usually narrowed most effectively as a result of cataclysmic events: war, revolution, the collapse of states and natural disasters. Scheidel concludes that these catastrophic levelers are gone for now, and are unlikely to return any time soon. This casts doubt on the feasibility of future leveling. But, is this true? The proletariat of early industrial societies did turn out to be a different kind of historical subject from all other oppressed classes. Its early revolutions were abruptly redistributive for the very reason Marx outlined: It had no stake in society, but had the means to mobilize itself independent of demagogic factions of the elite. Only specific types of confrontation have consistently forced down inequality. Scheidel asks whether war has to be total; revolution to be ultraviolent and socially pervasive; state failure to lead to violence so intense that ‘it wipes the slate clean’. Social democracy is actually something very new in history. Social democracy wishes to suppress inequality in a controlled, consensual way, using the very state the elite has fashioned and entrenched; the only problem is that, for 30 years, social democracy lost the will to redistribute (other than upward…). Human rights work should not adopt the pessimism whose premise pervades this thinking. (Paul Mason)



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Human rights: Food for a dispassionately critical thought


Human Rights Reader 430


The end justifies the means when something justifies the end (Joseph Stalin)


  1. In case you have not noticed it, consensus positions are pushed by the powerful to benefit the powerful. Since claim holders are kept out of consensus building processes, opposition and grand standing in staged protests has become a banality since to govern has ultimately become a way of cutting business deals at any cost. (Arturo Alejandro Muñoz) Therefore, do note that resistance is something very different from opposition… (William Burroughs) We need more of the former.


Rulers vs intellectuals


  1. Growing numbers of us think that rulers lose their right to govern, indeed even to be in politics, if they breach the fundamental ethics, principles and standards of human rights. Given that this is so prevalent, an intelligent though not-yet-convinced ruler would be one who would be wise enough to surround her/himself with people more versed in human rights (HR) she or he is.* (Albino Gomez)

*: I am reminded here of an old Chinese proverb that says that those who are closely involved can be blind while bystanders can see clearly.


  1. Facts are powerful. This is why autocratic rulers make such an effort to suppress inconvenient truths. (Kenneth Roth) By now we know that, too often, the opposite of a lie is not the truth, but another lie. (A. Gomez) And, yes, never forget: Patriotism is the last refuge grabbed by many of these autocratic rulers.


  1. Populist rulers are a special breed. (Some come to mind to you…?)
  • They claim to know what people want.
  • They are not interested in nuanced debate.
  • They read any criticism of themselves as an attack on ‘the people’.
  • Only they know what the nation wants and, accordingly, only they can govern it properly.
  • Claiming that anyone who opposes them is thwarting their wonderful intentions, they keep hounding opponents; they need scapegoats.
  • They are prone to changing laws, regulations and constitutional clauses to perpetuate their power.
  • They limit media freedom, suppress civil society activism and monopolize their grip on state institutions.
  • They keep casting themselves as representatives of the ‘silent majority’.
  • They promote technocratic ideas according to which there are no alternatives to the market-driven policies.

The big issue here is whether public interest civil society organizations and the media keep a check on them. The way to resist populism is to insist on pluralism, diversity and broad-based controversial debate. (Jan-Werner Mueller).


  1. A true intellectual produces ideas in any field based on her/his knowledge, but she or he also assumes a compromise in the public space. (Antonio Gramsci) But unfortunately, these days, intellectual/political debates have a very limited horizon and scope and transpire an underlying (subconscious?), conformist resignation. (Mario Vargas Llosa)


  1. There is no choice. Intellectuals have to jump into the political arena and produce/contribute ideas, not repeat slogans; they must question the political imposition of a system that is responsible for the wholesale violation of HR in today’s world. (Emir Sader)


Anti-neoliberal (just) rhetoric only serves to distract us from forcefully denouncing policy failure (Henning Melber)


  1. The language used by the left does no longer ‘bite’; it does not move masses –even if, at some time, it had merit. Class struggle exists, neoliberalism exists, domination and exploitation exist, violence against labor exists, excessive wealth accumulation in the hands of a handful of privileged families is not an anecdote. Nevertheless, for reasons worth examining, that phraseology does no longer have any effect, among other, because the left keeps repeating these poorly understood and explained concepts as a parrot; it has literally fallen into the trap of allowing those who dominate –the powerful– to impose this language in a distorted, washed-down version. (Louis Casado) Something to worry here.


  1. Let us not forget that, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, there was an attempt to throw ideologies by the wayside. Politics became mere administrative competition, devoid of vision and values. Corruption increased, citizens stopped participating, political parties became self-referential, politicians turned into a professional caste and elite global finance became isolated in fiscal paradises. (Roberto Savio)


Bottom line


  1. Never mind ‘the left’. Current HR problems are of such magnitude that many think that we are beyond resolving them; they are deepening. But let us be clear: Either we resolve them ourselves or they will not get resolved. The progressive solutions are not going to come from outside not even from our best allies or our best friends, because those solutions we will not own. (Mario Vargas Llosa)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



-‘Correct thinking’ often is coward thinking, i.e., a way of always being at the extreme center (Alan Berg) and a way to hide what one really thinks or believes-in. (Vladimir Volkoff)

-He who does not want to think is a fanatic; he who cannot think is an idiot; he who does not dare to think is a coward. (Francis Bacon) The problem we have in the world is that the stupid and the fanatics are always sure of themselves, as opposed to the wise who are full of doubts. (Bertrand Russell)

-Pope Leon XIII in his Encyclic Rerum Novarum promoted the creation of labor unions, set the bases for social doctrine of the church and introduced the concept of social justice. [Rerum novarum (from its first two words, Latin for “of revolutionary change”), or Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor, is the encyclical issued in 1891. It was an open letter, passed to all Catholic Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops and bishops that addressed the condition of the working classes. It discussed the relationships and mutual duties between labor and capital, as well as government and its citizens. Of primary concern was the need for some amelioration of “The misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.” ]. (Wikipedia)



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Human rights: Food for a committing thought


Human Rights Reader 429


-If you do not have the courage of living the way you think, you end up thinking the way you live. (Albino Gomez)

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. (Martin Luther King)

-We have to act like thinking men; we have to think like men of action. Contemplation is a luxury; action is a necessity. (Henri Bergson; excuse his sexist construct)


  1. As I often do in the Readers, let me start with, what I consider, some strategic iron laws:


  • Beware: Beautiful rhetoric can go along with brutal human rights (HR) behavior.
  • All societies ultimately decide themselves what degree of hypocrisy and violations of HR they are willing to accept.*
  • *: Talk about the world’s hypocrisy: Do-gooders want to help those rendered poor —yes, but provided the state of affairs of the world’s order and the prevailing power relations are not questioned. (A. Gomez)
  • When morality disappears in a nation, the whole social structure crumbles. (Alexis Carrel)
  • Too often, caring about the other, a HR attribute, is superseded by an irrational form of individualism (that so many have managed to rationalize). (Jose Luis Vivero)
  • Frequently, justice, instead of being seen and used as a universal value, is merely seen and used as one perspective among other. (A. Gomez) The same is true for HR!
  • For too many political leaders, the alleged and unsupported proclamation of a ‘right to property’ includes claiming the authority of deciding what HR ought to be. (adapted from A. Gomez)
  • Too many states have the opportunity to foster equality and HR, but neither do they have the will** nor do they make available the means to really do so. (Beatriz Sarlo)

**: Actually, political will is usually understood as a greater resolve on the part of states. But political will is not owned by politicians, who usually act only in response to consistent and compelling pressure from organized and mobilized claim holders from the left and (cronies from) the right. Therefore, it is not a lack of political will, but rather the accumulation-of-a-political-will-by-the-powerful to oppose or stall the implementation of progressive policies that tackle HR abuses. We cannot forget that ‘a political will’ must be pulled from those in power and thus depends on the capacity of local, national, and transnational public interest civil society and social movements to push governments and the international agencies to be consequent with the HR framework.


You cannot insult claim holders more than when you say that theoretical issues and polemics are only for academics (adapted from Rosa Luxemburg)


We strive for a world where we all are socially equal, humanly different and totally free. (Liberty is to mean liberty for those who think differently) (R. Luxemburg)


  1. In HR work, we do not look down upon street action; on the contrary, we celebrate it as profoundly formative. Spontaneity of such claim holder actions has much to teach a leadership that has become cozy in their positions. A year of claim-holder-direct-actions teaches them more than 30 years of parliamentary or union struggles that do not give them what learning-by-doing gives them.*** Their political experience widens beyond narrow limits. Direct actions are a vital element –the air without which the HR cause cannot advance– because these actions strengthen their global strategic vision and reinforce their, till then, only weak demands. (R. Luxemburg) For her, future victory will be born from our defeats in direct action.

***: This is true, provided that these actions revolve not only about denouncing, but also about announcing a new order.


The widespread tendency to understand concerns about the human condition as ‘common-sense-concerns-of-economics’, in fact, amounts to a colonization of our minds (Ryan Higgitt)


The current Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, acknowledges that, for most purposes, the World Bank is “a human rights-free zone, treating human rights ‘more like an infectious disease than universal values and obligations”.


  1. The terms economics and development have found themselves being effectively used as homologous. In good part, this explains the fact that the vast majority of the people employed by the World Bank and IMF are economists (Philip Alston). This also explains why questions of development have found themselves, by and large, posed as economic questions.**** One must, therefore ask: Why are economists –researchers of economics, teachers of economics and advisors of economics– so celebrated as the ultimate authority on development issues? At least part of the answer lies in the way economists present their discipline as science, whereby ‘development’ and ‘onwards evolution’ are treated as synonyms.

****: Economic rationality has come to constitute the intellectual processing of practically all problems and solutions in our world today. Par excellence, the World Bank’s $2-a-day money metric poverty measure is a manifestation of this. Also, the Bank argues that, to achieve its view of humanity, includes using highly systematic and sophisticated processes of quantification (think DALYS…). (R. Higgitt)


  1. But it is the use of the human rights framework what makes the enormous difference, argues Alston –which is exactly why the Bank is so resistant to using it. With the authority of its ‘scientists’, the Bank has actually reduced what it means to be human to a veritable mathematical formula –one that insinuates that the more money any given individual has, the more human that individual is. Alston speaks of the World Bank being concerned that any engagement on its part with HR “would bring about a radical paradigm shift with unknown consequences”.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



-Being powerful or a miser, judgments of the Court will find you innocent or guilty. (Jean de la Fontaine, 1621-1695)

-It is by worrying about adversity that people survive; complacency brings catastrophe. (Mencius). Never let a serious crisis go to waste. (Philip Mirowski)

-Charity, even if commendable, is not a right and lasts only as long as the giver wants it to last or funding is available.