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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.


New Cable/YouTube Program, Prescription for Justice

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This is to announce the new show from the Public Health and Social Justice website, Prescription for Justice. The show, hosted by Dr Martin Donohoe, runs 30 minutes per episode, and will cover a variety of issues related to social justice, from health care to the environment to food justice to racism to war to economic justice. Most shows will begin with a review of the episode’s topic, followed by a discussion with a guest expert. The show began in Portland, Oregon in October, 2017, and has already been picked up by cable access markets in 6 other states. The first three episodes cover The Education System in the United States, Reproductive Rights for Women, and Nuclear Weapons and the Campaign to Abolish Them. Episodes are available on the program’s YouTube channel  at For information regarding obtaining the program for television markets in your area, go through PEGMedia or contact Martin at My production staff and I (all volunteer/unpaid) are hoping to be able to include guests from around the country via Skype or other video link, so if you have an issue about which you are passionate and would like to be considered as a possible guest (or know of someone who might be a good guest), please contact me.


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Human rights: Food for a realist’s thought


Human Rights Reader 428



-In the post-truth era, it is not pessimism that is called-for, realism is. Perhaps truth will ultimately survive and there will be a renaissance. It will take a long time though, but valuable things always do take time. (Nathan Stone)

-These days, the discourse about progress has stopped being a discourse about improving the quality of life of the many to become a discourse dealing with their mere survival. (cited by Albino Gomez)


In human rights work we constantly battle the technocratic development mindset


  1. We battle this mindset, because it approaches every problem with a five-point plan designed to produce ‘evidence-based deliverables’. This clearly leaves human rights (HR) vulnerable or rather marginalized. Unfortunately, technocratic experts have come to symbolize even what democracy is supposed to be all about. Technocrats have always shown little interest in fights over fundamental values. Their line of thought proceeds from the assumption that everyone –or at least all ‘the people who truly matter’– already share the same enlightened commitment to development values (OK, but also to HR values?). The only debate they are concerned about is over evidence on ‘what works’ among the policy inputs they propose to produce the desired measurable outputs. So, when technocrats are all we have to defend democracy and HR, arguments over fundamental values become predictably one-sided. Technocrats do not even have a good answer for technocratic-sounding attacks on development. Technocrats’ defense of development on the basis of ‘what works’ makes HR values become hostage. But, furthermore, these self-proclaimed experts often cannot agree on what this ‘what works’ is –or even rightly interpret what has already happened. (William Easterly)


The principal defense of fundamental values (HR included) must be that they are desirable in themselves as values. Period!


  1. Technocrats are not trained to duly criticize their infatuation with evidence-based policy. This is why equal rights proponents need to mount more eloquent defenses capable of building broad resistance alliances on behalf of HR. But the long reign of technocracy has deprived-us-of proactively using the needed moral and political weapons to defend the core values that are the foundation of democracy. We will not be able to fight back against HR violations unless we, once again, find the capacity (and courage) for moral and political outrage and for actively claiming for non-negotiable democratic and HR values. (adapted from W. Easterly)


In human rights work we also constantly confront the main ideological divide


  1. As the Third World freed itself from colonialism, it gradually became clear that reformism would never lead to socialism –it might, at the very best, have led to capitalism-with-a-human-face (not a-HR-face). Eventually, both models of social transformation collapsed with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The revolution became a discredited, obsolete fundamentalism that collapsed down into its very foundations. On the other hand, democratic reformism gradually lost its reformist drive and with it its democratic practices. Reformism became a byword for the desperate struggle to maintain the rights of the popular classes (to public goods, such as public education, health and water) that had been gained during struggles in the previous period. Reformism thus slowly languished until it has become a squalid, disfigured entity shamelessly reconfigured around neoliberal fundamentalism by means of a facelift that has then been transformed into the sole model of ‘exporting democracy’, i.e., liberal democracy converted into an instrument of imperialism. (Boaventura de Sousa Santos)


The term International Community should never be used. It simply cannot be defined and has become an easy reference to avoid the needed ideological discussion (Urban Jonsson)


  1. The development aid agenda of rich countries has evaporated. This leaves development agencies (both bilateral and multilateral) with the challenge to take up a meaningful role in the broader mainstream socio-economic, political and HR discourse. This will require new alliances, not those vaguely-defined with members of ‘the international community’, but concretely with public interest civil society organizations, with social movements, with political parties, with women’s and trade unions. What is needed is for these groups to develop a new narrative for their respective constituencies (members, supporters, funders…). Inequality and HR will definitely have to be part of this narrative as the two main drivers of the required system change. (Rene Grotenhuis)


Important note


  1. As evidence indicates that there is a net outflow of funds/resources from low income Southern countries to high income Northern countries, we ought not talk about the latter as ‘donors’ (under this optic, Africa is actually an important donor*), but must refer to them as ‘external funders. The use of the term donor obscures this and is perhaps part of the fallacious worldview propagated by those interested. (Rene Lowenson)

*: After decades of development, aid has failed to carry Africa significantly forward. Critics even consider it partly to blame for the continent’s underdevelopment. Foreign aid has failed to spell out that measures to ensure the rights to food, to health or to social protection, among other, truly serve ‘legitimate policy goals’. (Armin Paasch)


  1. Let us also remind ourselves that, whereas the World Bank, as a key external funder (mostly of loans rather than grants!), claims to contribute to the eradication of poverty, it continues to finance projects that jeopardize those people and groups that for generations have been rendered vulnerable and poor. [There comes a point when help becomes overly manipulative, and violates the dignity of those who are supposed to benefit. (George Kent)].


Bottom line


  1. The more we become aware that the goal to be pursued by external funding is not really to attaint ‘aid effectiveness’, we must replace this concept by the concept of ‘development effectiveness’. (Urban Jonsson) This means that foreign-aid-funding nations must not primarily strive for security and stability, but for fulfilling the HR and protecting the dignity of those they purport to be helping. (Robert Fisk) And for us, this further means that we have to take the initiative to challenge external funders and must be bold to make room for new forms of activism and virtual and de-facto engagement that ultimately mobilize people to innovate, claim, demand, and yes, if needed, confront. (H. Wolf)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



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Human rights: Food for an opinion-manipulating thought


Human Rights Reader 427


In development work, there is a tendency to confuse political discourse with technical knowledge, enhancing the power of select experts over a) political actors/activists, and b) over the empirical knowledge of the wider population (Nadia Lambek, Jessica Duncan)


  1. Since the use of quantitative measurements can be a means to a biased end, data and evidence from the social sciences can be used for regressive ends, especially depending on what is measured. The question for human rights (HR) activists is: Can we, without the economic clout or the power to mobilize citizens, use the fruits of measurement as valuable advocacy tools to promote progressive change in public policies? (Bill Jeffries)


  1. I do not deny: While measurement is a key component of understanding and addressing development progress, I do want to point out that there are limitations associated with indicator-based measurement tools (think SDGs) including:


  • Indicators are often developed on the basis of what data exists and not on how to best measure progress towards normative goals.
  • Indicators have analytic limitations and the selection of indicators is never a neutral process.
  • There are limitations to imposing indicators designed in one context (e.g., global) to another context (e.g., local).


  1. Emphasizing the quantification of change can thus lead to mistaking means (using quantitative measures for reporting or tracking social change) for ends (reporting or tracking qualitative transformations). This is often used to stir emotions…* (Think Trump)

*: The Oxford Dictionary added the word post-truth and defined it as the situation in which objective facts or data influence less than calls to emotions and to personal beliefs. There thus is a ‘true truth’ and an ‘emotional truth and the latter can be said to be a lie-transformed-by-an-emotion as long as it becomes the belief of a majority.


  1. A wider variety of data and news sources was supposed to be the safeguard of a rational age. However, studies repeatedly show that when confronted with diverse information choices, people rarely act like rational, civic-minded automatons. Instead, we are influenced by preconceptions and biases, and we usually do what feels easiest; we gorge on information that confirms our ideas, and we shun what does not. (think human rights) If we see something we do not like, we can easily tap away to something more pleasing. Then we all share what we found with our like-minded social networks, creating closed-off, shoulder-patting circles online. This creates an ecosystem in which the truth value of the information does not matter. All that matters is whether the information fits in our narrative.


From data to communications


Optimism in the world of today can only mean a lack of ‘true truth’ information. (Albino Gomez)


  1. In this era of exploding communications, let me here just quote a couple of respectable opinions:


  • In modern times, more than communicate we actually ‘connect with each other’. Moreover, we live overwhelmed by trying to take in all the information on offer, but we spend less time thinking. (A. Gomez)
  • Social media have given legions of idiots the right to talk, something they previously only did in a neighborhood bar with a glass of beer in their hand –and this did not hurt anybody. (Umberto Eco)
  • Used recreationally, the Internet risks reducing users to mindless clickers, racing numbly to the bottom of a bottomless feed; but done well, it has the potential to expand and augment the very action-oriented HR and development space that more and more of us pursue. (Roberto Bisio)
  • At any moment, public opinion is a chaos of superstition, disinformation and prejudice. (Gore Vidal)
  • True wisdom does not come from a mere accumulation of data that end up saturating us in a sort of mental contamination. (Pope Francis)


From communications to the news media


Today, achieving a TV appearance has become a sign of elegance and status… (U. Eco)


  1. Best here as well is to quote some more respectable opinions:


  • Not innocently, the media neglect offering a reading of the true world Why? Because information has openly become a trade good. The media are no longer profitable and whoever purchases the different media outlets has a personal interest. Human Rights are ‘too abstract’ for the media and so we end up not having a rational view of the world and we end up not knowing much of anything other than what is sensationalized. (R. Bissio)
  • Newspapers are the toys of a few rich men. Capitalists and editors are the new tyrants that have grabbed hold of the world. The media themselves have become the censors. Newspapers started existing to tell the truth, but today they exist to impede the truth is told. (G. K. Chesterton, 1874-1936) [Nothing new under the sun…].
  • The elite makes good use of its paid agents in academia, in think tanks, in the corporate media and elsewhere to make sure that you are kept carefully misinformed and told what to think and how to react. (R. Burrowes)
  • People’s politics are increasingly defined by the media they consume rather than by loyalty to parties. (P. Iglesias)
  • Freedom of expression: What good is it if the other does not listen? (A. Gomez)
  • Can average readers distinguish fact from opinion, for instance from incompetent (or mal-intentioned) coverage? (S. Mysorekar) [Think fake news].
  • Every day, as I read the newspapers, it is as if I am attending a history lesson. Newspapers teach me by what they say and importantly by what they do not. (Eduardo Galeano)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

All 400+ Readers are available at



George Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Aldous Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. (Andrew Postman)



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Human rights: Food for a thought devoid of meaning


Human Rights Reader 426

We cannot create the impression that the SDGs are a normative rather than a political framework. The SDGs are a political compromise, one that many-of-those-who-should do not fully support. (Simone Lovera)


What happens when indicators are linked to goals that are not centered on human rights?  


  1. A goal is a desired aim or ambition. Goals can be achieved as part of a human rights-based approach, but not vice-versa. Human rights (HR) are inalienable rights that we have by virtue of being equal and innately having dignity. Take the example of the right to food and adequate nutrition: A rights-based approach represents a longer-term and structural approach to addressing food insecurity and malnutrition that expects states to pass legislation and adopt national policies. These are to ensure recourse mechanisms are made available to hold the state accountable to progressively realize this right (meaning that it ensures a continual and growing commitment to addressing the realization of this right).


  1. One possible implication of the SDGs having chosen to shift from rights to goals, is that a different set of actors are emboldened and empowered under each approach. The SDGs call on a variety of actors, including the private sector, to participate in reaching set targets. This is not necessarily a bad thing —but, in our example, increased corporate consolidation in the food supply chain and increased corporate capture of food governance fora are indeed worrisome trends. They are worrying because corporate interests are not necessarily aligned with the public good: Indeed, corporations (unlike states) are not accountable to claim holders; they are accountable to their shareholders. In contrast, the human rights-based approach makes states the primary duty bearers.


  1. This begs a few questions


  • Will states pass responsibility off onto non-state actors as the Agenda 2030 becomes the main frame of action?
  • Will states be willing to compromise on social protection schemes or environmental protection when they frame their commitments to food security only through the lens of the SDGs and not the right to food and adequate nutrition lens?
  • Will states use the SDGs to deflect from their obligations under international HR law to approach hunger from a broad systemic, social determinants-based approach?


  1. All of this is very possible. The human rights framework places the focus on systemic change, one that can indeed result in qualitative changes to achieve desired outcomes, rather than focusing just on quantitative outcomes as measured by most of the SDG-proposed indicators. (Nadia Lambek, Jessica Duncan)


…and a few more questions about accountability*


  1. What does accountability really entail?
  • Name and shame?
  • Fire or replace somebody for inefficiency or corruption?
  • Tax the for ever under-taxed?
  • Kick out exploitative TNCs?
  • Preempt free trade agreements that have a negative impact on HR?
  • Regulate and legislate along the lines of HR imperatives and needs?
  • Bring-in users (claim holders) to the decision-making process?
  • Demand the drawing of participatory budgets?
  • Give public interest civil society organizations the watchdog function on the violations of HR?
  • All of the above? (probably, depending on context…).

*: There are five types of accountability, namely:

  • Judicial accountability: e.g., judicial review by domestic and international courts; constitutional redress; public interest litigation.
  • Quasi-judicial accountability: e.g., hospital complaint boards; national HR institutions, national ombudsmen; regional and international treaty bodies.
  • Administrative accountability: e.g., HR impact assessments by a governmental or independent body.
  • Political accountability: e.g., parliamentary committee review of budgetary allocations; health councils and committees, and
  • Social accountability: e.g., by domestic and international NGOs; the media; public hearings; social audits.


How can we ask for accountability when the SDGs are not binding?


  1. Some iron laws here:
  • Demanding accountability is not imposing conditionalities. (!)
  • It is a fallacy to talk about accountability fatigue when there has been so little of it.
  • There can be no accountability if responsibilities and duties of States are not binding.
  • Non-binding SDG goals bring promises and, historically, promises are broken.


Bottom line


  1. Anything less than full and meaningful accountability risks rendering the SDGs a set of lofty, but empty promises, rather than the transformative agenda that public interest civil society, the Secretary-General and many of the progressive States envision. It is not only about indicators and targets, but also about financing and lining up the means of implementation along the lines of the HR framework. (CESR, Human Rights Caucus, Amnesty International)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



Every day is a rough day for claim holders. They feel left out of any control. They are not sure what to do. Every day is anxious, and every day will be like this for the foreseeable future (if they do not get organized to claim). “What will happen today? Will my and others’ rights be infringed upon yet for another day?” (not if they get organized to claim) (Sunil Rajaraman)



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Human rights: Food for a thought in old clothes


Human Rights Reader 425


Nothing disappears until it is truly replaced. (Auguste Comte)


  1. Neoliberalism is not really new. It is actually an even more anti-social version of 20th century capitalism some of us were born into; it actually is the yet most ‘sophisticated’ predatory version and instrument of capitalist accumulation, i.e., Financial Capitalism. The latter, you know, has now been under attack. But capitalism, mobilizing its survival instinct, continuously makes the necessary concessions (taxation, social regulation, small human rights (HR) ‘concessions’ to labor and to peasants…) in order not to jeopardize and guarantee its reproduction. If the attack alternatives being proposed collapse and are no longer a threat, capitalism will certainly cease to fear its enemies and will return to its unabated predatory, wealth-concentrating madness even beyond its thirst for accumulation that already is extremely aggressive. (Boaventura de Souza)


Economic growth, if not accompanied by real social and moral progress eventually turns against (the rights of) human beings (Pope Paul VI)


The global economic system promotes market fundamentalism (really a form of super capitalism) that reorders social and political priorities away from social welfare. (Gillian McNaughton)


  1. Economics is driven (dogged?) by ideology –and it is ideology, not nearly as much as science that drives capitalist economists to assert that, for instance, bank bailouts are tolerable, but policies that protect the inalienable rights of those rendered poor are not. Unsurprisingly, flawed thinking like this is a great comfort to financial elites —explaining why so many economists are hired and funded by big banks, corporations and the wealthy. And this also explains why their words and ideas are repeated by the media outlets that faithfully serve the status-quo –or by the establishment. Why should we be surprised? Markets –in money, labor and goods– have always been subordinated to the interests of elites, those with power in society, who also govern society.* It is not so recently as many think that markets, especially financial markets, have been elevated to a god-like role, governing whole societies and determining the rights, the life chances and the future of millions of people. (Ann Pettifor).

*: Because ‘efficiency’ is what is most often used as an argument to privilege small elite groups, the collective (biased) understanding of the world by elites will simply never be enough to meet the challenges ahead. (Andrew Berg)


Transnational corporations are nothing really new either


  1. You know: There are transnational corporations (TNCs) that, even long before today, have had more power than many states; this has made them into a modern form of colonies** that violate the sovereignty of poor nations. (Albino Gomez)

**: Never forget: In the Americas, illegal immigration started in 1492. (A. Gomez)


  1. Leaving the pharmaceutical industry aside for a while, look at how the monopolistic concentration of foreign trade in commodities has led to the appalling accumulation of huge profits by the sectors that control agribusiness. It is our responsibility to make this fact, which is already common knowledge, much more widely known. (Miryam Gorban)


  1. Transnational corporations’ self-proclaimed rights are protected by hard laws with strong enforcement tools, while their obligations –such as they are right now– are, at best, backed only by soft laws and voluntary guidelines. How to correct this imbalance is one of the greatest challenges that needs to be addressed to defend public goods and peoples’ rights. The task becomes more arduous the more TNCs assume regulatory responsibility and enter into global (UN) and national governance spaces. What steps can be taken to contrast the spread of this perverse multilateralism? Fighting against the conceptual wooliness on which corporate infiltration of governance thrives is a prime necessity. Resisting the tricky corporate capture of the HR framework is another necessity. Because they are depoliticizing HR concerns by translating them into standardized technical language, TNCs are deflecting attention from the issues of inequality and oppression that they are not intent to address. It is thus imperative to insist on the distinction between states-as-the-duty-bearers in the HR framework and businesses-as-potential-HR-violators colluding with states. (Be aware: A growing range of research has demonstrates that multistakeholder mechanisms are not as neutral as is often presumed since they tend to negate the complex power mechanisms at play). (Nora Mc Keon)

Ah, yes, and then there are ‘free’ trade agreements…


  1. FTAs are nothing new either. You also know that not all HR impacts are identified before a trade agreement takes force. Accordingly, clauses concerning aspects that directly serve to protect HR are needed in them. Such clauses are to ensure that states have the policy space they need to protect the HR of their citizen. (Armin Paasch) But under the current circumstances, is this a realistic demand? A challenge for claim holders the world over…


  1. The question is often posed about whether trade is to be a zero sum game among nations, but I do not think that nations are the correct focus here. I do not think it is nations that lose or gain. It is people, workers, farmers, and corporations, and banks and their accolades.  So, perhaps we should focus more on different segments rather than nations as a whole. In other words, we should move from a nations-based analysis of globalization to a class-based analysis of globalization. (Yilmas Akyuz)


…and furthermore there are some of the favorite toys of economists: Models


Through economic modeling, economists mistake beauty and elegance for truth. (Paul Krugman)


  1. Mainstream economic theory took a disastrous turn 140 years ago, when it attempted to use calculus to explain human behavior. A real economy involves people who are not variables in equations. (J. Legge)


  1. ‘GIGO’ (garbage in, garbage out) also applies to econometric models; just because something can be computed –offering a variety of models concerning business cycles and other such like– does not mean it makes economic (much less HR) sense to do so. Keynes resisted the mathematization of economics.*** Yes, economics is a cultural product; it is a social science, but one marked by controversial debate.

***: The excessive mathematization of economics since the 1970s is to be deplored. Assuming that ‘rational’ economic mathematical models are risk-neutral is gratuitous.

Let’s face it: The purpose of these composite models is communication. No one is pretending that they are very precise.


  1. To many of us, economists that spend their time constructing sophisticated models are absolutely off; they promote theories that make it impossible to understand the real world. The only thing they can claim to have is what it is: a mathematical model. But for them that model represents ‘reality’. But if it happens that that model does not work, it is not because the model is wrong: it is that reality plays tricks –and the function of reality is to always challenge models! (Manfred Max-Neef)


As a general problem, then, our era is characterized by us knowing a lot, but understanding little


  1. We do not need to know more. What we need is to start understanding –and to do that, we have to immerse ourselves into ongoing processes. Alone, each of us can do nothing for people who have been rendered poor and whose rights are being violated; we can only do if we do with them. “Get into the field, see what potentials there are in poor communities and together build based on those potentials”. But making plans from the comfort of our air-conditioned offices where we have all the statistics (like the World Bank does) is good for nothing. Let us understand: growth and development are two completely different things. Development does not necessarily need growth. Growth is an aggregate of quantitative magnitudes and development an aggregate of qualitative and creative elements grounded on HR. Development has no limits; growth does –there is nothing that can grow forever. And as Kenneth Boulding said: “He who thinks that in a finite world perpetual growth is possible is either crazy or he is an economist”. (M. M. Neef)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



-Why are most of the reforms this Reader proposes unacceptable to capitalism and cannot be realized within capitalism? If we cannot reform capitalism, any more than we could reform the EU, does capitalism need replacing rather than rethinking? (Will Podmore)

– Nihilism is described as the negation of any belief, any moral, any religious, any political or any social principle. I do not know why, but this definition that basically purports to say that nihilists suffer from an absolute loss of ‘the value of values’, reminds me of the equations used by economists working on models. (Louis Casado)



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Human rights: food for a socially determined thought


Human Rights Reader 424


[Adapted from Anchoring Universal Health Coverage in the RTH: What difference would it make? Policy Brief, WHO, 2015, G. Ooms and R. Hammond Editors].




The human right to health is indispensable for the exercise of other human rights.


  1. The link between an individuals’ state of health and his/her access to health care services is clear. It needs no saying that the most vulnerable people have the greatest needs, but have extremely limited, or even practically non-existent, access to health care services and yet health is an inalienable human right (HR)*.

*: The right to health (RTH) is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 (Art. 25) and in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966.


  1. For WHO, the RTH is to enshrine both freedoms and rights: the right to control one’s own health and one’s own body (for example sexual and reproductive rights); the right to physical integrity (for example the right not to be subject to torture and not to be subject to any medical experimentation without consent) and the right to access a health protection system which guarantees equal possibilities to all to enjoy the best possible state of health.


So what does the human right to health actually mean?


  1. In the year 2000, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted its General Comment 14 on the right to the highest attainable standards of health. It states that:
  • A health system must function properly: Accordingly, the key to health is a functional/ing health care system, one that is available, accessible and acceptable to all without any form of discrimination and is of high quality. Let us see what this entails:
    • Available means that the facilities, goods, public health programs and health care services are functional and in sufficient supply.
    • Accessible means that the facilities, goods and health care services are accessible to all without any form of discrimination. Accessibility includes four interdependent dimensions: non-discrimination, physical accessibility, economic accessibility (being sufficiently affordable) and free access to information.
    • Acceptable means that all facilities, goods and services in the domain of health care must respect medical and commensurate ethics from a cultural point of view. In other words, they are to respect the culture of communities, individuals and minorities and be receptive to the specific requirements linked to sex and to the different stages of life. They must further be designed to respect confidentiality and to objectively/measurably improve people’s state of health.
    • Quality means that, as well as having to be acceptable from a cultural point of view, installations, medicines, goods and services in the domain of health care must also be scientifically and medically appropriate and of a high quality.
  • But acting on the other determinants of health is as indispensible, i.e.,

the RTH extends beyond the health care system. It covers an array of factors that help individuals to live a healthy life and improve the way in which the same is promoted. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights refers to this using the term ‘underlying determinants of health. These comprise: a) drinking water; b) adequate living conditions; c) nutritiously safe food; d) appropriate housing conditions; e) a healthy environmental and healthy working conditions; f) health education and information; g) information relating to sexual and reproductive health; and, last but not least, h) gender equality.


  1. Now, as the deeply ethical and political principles of the Alma Ata Declaration were disregarded and sidestepped for decades, the international community is adding the latest attempt to bring health to all in the seemingly catch-all and ill-defined initiative of Universal Health Coverage.     But is this a step in the direction of the RTH? Let us see:


Any claim to Universal Health Coverage that does not serve the purpose of the human right to health is simply not truly universal (!)


  1. Efforts towards achieving universal health coverage (UHC) do engage in some, but not necessarily all of the efforts required from governments for the realization of the right to health (RTH). The RTH covers more than the right to health care. At present, much debate surrounding UHC remains focused on health care services.


UHC leaves too much leeway for the inclusion of private-for-profit providers and does not sufficiently emphasize the responsibility of governments


  1. As enshrined in the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR), the RTH makes no mention of the role of private providers in realizing this or any other rights. The state is the primary duty bearer. If the state relies on private providers, it must ensure these providers fulfill their role on behalf of the government (!).


  1. As often pointed out in these Readers, health equality is in many respects an ideational sibling of the RTH. Equality is the principle of being fair to all persons. The RTH is somewhat better defined than health equality though.


  1. The RTH perspective insists on no discrimination and adds that non-discrimination is not optional, but a matter of legal obligation. However, often-used-cost-effectiveness-criteria do push things below the limits that are acceptable from a HR perspective —particularly as regards discrimination.


  1. UHC has little to say about the principle of shared responsibility. It does not mention that foreign assistance is also a matter of legal obligation. UHC does not imply a minimum level of core contents as the RTH does. Shared (national and international) responsibility for UHC is not clearly mentioned in the norms underpinning UHC.


  1. The RTH insists that countries have to allocate maximum available resources, but, when it comes to domestic financing, UHC provides very little, if any guidance on this. If a state does not use the maximum of its available resources for the realization of the RTH, it is in violation of its obligations.


  1. It is too often taken for granted that any form of pooling financial resources for UHC contributes to the rich subsidizing the poor; it does not (!).


If UHC is not anchored in the RTH it risks not being universal (!)


  1. Like in the case of the RTH, progress towards UHC is about the journey, not the destination. UHC anchored in the RTH requires that authorities engage with those who are excluded and come up with policies that include them in deliberations about the directions the health system should take.


Note: The Policy Brief here summarized has a very good table on the ‘OPERA HR framework and methodology’: For a summary of the same, also see HR Readers 310 and 311 at


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



-I sincerely hope that we will all write an obituary to that type of health education which has been concerned with telling people how to act and that, instead, health education will emphasize taking due consideration of the social forces that bring them to act as they so negatively do. (posthumously by Halfdan Mahler)

-Somebody proposed to, on World Health Day each month of May, send an annual letter to both the WHO Director General and minsters of health the world over complaining about the unfulfilled promises on the RTH. …worth considering.



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Human rights: Food for a non-token thought


Human Rights Reader 423


Look at the travesty of language: ‘The excluded’ are the majority, no?; actually, the ‘included’ are the minority. [By the way: We, human rights activists, are also part of the excluded since our advice is, so far, ignored].


  1. Inviting a token ‘voice’ to speak briefly at an international conference or ministerial meeting does nothing to advance the real human right to participation and the true inclusion of community representatives. Although meaningful participation is a key principle of human rights, explicitly stated in the Right to Development (among other UN resolutions), it is the people most impacted by inequalities that are quite systematically excluded and ignored from having a say on decisions and policies that directly affect them.* The clear lack of participation ‘at the table’ of policy-makers is not only the missing element in efforts to achieve the UN’s Agenda to 2030, but it signals a failure of the UN agencies to fulfill their agreed obligations to implement a human rights-based approach. (Case Gordon)

*: Being invisible is different from groups being ignored (they are visible!) Therefore, what is needed is a change in the balance of power so the ignored become protagonists. (Walter Flores)


  1. Rightly so, some are of the interesting (and plausible) opinion that public interest civil society organizations (PICSOs) staying absent from the global governance discussions (not exactly level-playing-field dialogue venues) would speak louder than them being coopted to participate as a token in these fora. (Stefano Prato)


You know this


In most of the literature we find calls for ‘more coordinated intersectoral action’. But this means coopting different technical sectors —not considering the community as a sector!


  1. Participation processes often cut off participation following the planning phase at the point and time when implementation starts. This frustratingly limits the accountability to grassroots claim holders. Given the emphasis nowadays put on participation in the self-proclaimed ‘equality discourse’ found everywhere we read, we have to be aware of the pitfalls and potential harms of so-called participation processes that are not relevant to equality theory and practice –and not relevant to what we pursue in human rights work.


  1. For people-focused policies to address human rights (HR), they must acknowledge the fact that people’s own knowledge, practices and creativity are key driving forces for social change. Since all indications make us doubt the commitment of governments, local community involvement is a prerequisite (i.e., a people-centered and inclusive participation). (Stineke Oenema)


You may not know this


  1. The guiding principle of any successful development action is the following: The material force has to be in the masses and the moral force in their organized movement(s). (S. Rodríguez, 1840) It is only when having recognized and organized their own forces as a social force that claim holders will no longer separate their social force from their political force –and this marks the beginning of human emancipation. (adapted from Karl Marx, 1843)


  1. The above applies to true claim holder participation which entails, not only being free from coercion or manipulation, but being directly involved in decision-making before plans are made, having the technical and legal knowledge required to make decisions, and ultimately reserving the right to withhold consent.**

**: In the absence of the right to say NO, participatory methods can be empty and meaningless or, at worst, smokescreens for elite control in which elites merely provide information on decisions already made. (INESCR)


  1. We find an illustrative example of saying NO in Guatemala where groups in rural areas have decided to mind no more about the so many technical documents on participation. They have instead organized into groups of right-to-health-community-defenders that de-facto engage in reclaiming public services by deciding on issues in their health services. They collect information on all good and bad aspects of those services and open channels of engagement with duty bearers. Since they are not regularly invited, they claim their spaces of influence. They have variously engaged the National HR Commission, the judiciary, the MOH authorities. Furthermore, educators do not come to their communities from the city; the educators are local natural leaders. Activists in the capital do not go to speak with the authorities ‘on behalf of the people’; local leaders are trained to do their own demanding. The focus is on raising consciousness so as to be able to challenge politicians, for example, asking them: “Have you been in a public hospital or clinic?” These local leaders understand the local health care scene and the providers in rural areas (who, by the way, often also are victims, i.e., claim holders). (Walter Flores)


A relevant aside


  1. These days, we find a growing number of group initiatives struggling for the commons (land, water, other). These are civic movements pursuing actions that represent the de-facto growing expression of people’s resistance against the commodification of resources and the privatization of services that affect their living conditions. These initiatives are not based on the historically-more-traditional working-class-power-struggles aimed at coercing the capitalist class by calling for strikes. The demand for change they are placing as part of their civil rights goes beyond these traditional strategies of working-class movements. Movements demanding access to the commons actually channel people’s felt needs for change into pointed citizens’ actions including transnational actions. To be valid though, the commons movement must be able to create a social and political alliance with the HR movement thus increasing the potential to challenge commodification as a HR issue.


We have to make participation the central activity of the political obligation we all have (P. Dardot, C. Laval)


  1. As per the above, the challenge, therefore, is to move participation from the realm of a social movements to that of a political movement; At the core, it is a matter of mounting counter-power to power. We must thus speak of the political economy of power on which the political participation and representation of claim holders depends; their participation must thus be binding in character so that it not only allows them to be vocal, but to have the power to influence decisions.


  1. In the end, popular mobilization of claim holders will be the only means to reach our goals in the battle for the protection of human rights. (D. Cordova)


  1. The monitoring of accountability mechanisms will also have to be made eminently participatory if we want to greatly improve the credibility, ownership and effectiveness of the HR movement. Why? Because this monitoring accountability makes processes more responsive to people’s needs and thus facilitates the potential for real transformation.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



Caveat: Have you noticed? Holding back from providing your own answer when you ask a focus group a question is ‘more difficult than trying to suppress an oncoming sneeze’. (Jerry and Monique Sternin)