‘Norms such as the responsibility to protect’ and claims to human rights can never become universal characterized by cultural differencet.
I intend to answer this question in two parts. Part 1 I will discuss and critically assess whether human rights can ever be truly universal or always contested. I will discuss the UN R2P human rights charter which tries to come up with a human rights declaration with universal applications. In part 2 I will discuss how the African Unions has attempted to come up with a similar declaration of human rights as the r2p.
The concept of human rights has existed in all societies from the past to the present. Each country has come up with its own concept of human rights. This has depended on a countries historical and cultural history which varied from country to country. As a consequence of these diverse nature of societies of multi cultural, multi- racial and multi -ethnic identities, of varied political and religious norms, divergent views of human rights have arisen.
Female circumcision is a cultural practice in some African and Middle Eastern countries which in the western countries is regarded as abhorrent and violation of person’s human right.
While pornography prevalent in the west is regarded as abhorrent and violation of female human rights in many Muslim societies.
Religion has played an important part in the development of societies and given rise to different and diverse discourses in what is regarded as human rights. In the western Christian tradition much emphasis is placed on the individual to behave morally and ethically and to do the right thing .In contrast in Islam there is no concept of the right of the individual being sacred above his family and community. There is no rights culture of the individual in Islamic societies, only duties and obligations to family and community at large, and roles are clearly defined for men and women.
At the international this has led to conflicts over human rights issues. The sentence for stoning to death of a Nigerian woman for adultery (www.cnnworld.com.sept26.2003) caused outcry in the west and pressure at the international from many human rights organizations managed to get the sentence reduced to a prison sentence. At the same time some western governments like the U.K were quite happy to send people it regarded as terrorist threats to countries where they were tortured to elicit information, known as rendition flights.
Western hypocrisy seems to have no limits. For many years they have been quite happy to support and do business with dictators and undemocratic regimes who have ,tortured, raped and killed their people in the most horrific ways.Saddam Hussein,Pinocet,the Shah of Iran and Mubarak of Egypt to name a few. In these sample cases the West was happy to disregard human rights when it suits them.
Now it is true that in many non western countries there has been a blatant disregard for the protection of human rights especially of minorities. This has been often due to regimes either being undemocratic, failed or weak states unable to apply laws to protect people, often of very poor societies, divided societies wrecked by ethnic and civil strife.
The human rights agenda really began after world war 11, after what happened to the jews.the great powers did not want a repeat of the genocide. The human rights charter endorsed by most countries of the world was the first attempt to codify in international law minimum standards of human rights.
Unfortunatley the human rights charter has not been upheld as the UN organization intended. The UN has been very selective where it will intervene on humanitarian grounds.
The right to protect often means sending troops, countries are reluctant to do this unless their national interest is threatened. So the Kurds in Iraq during the first gulf war protected from Saddam Hussein, but Kurds in turkey are not protected from the Turkish army because Turkey is a western ally. Because of the selective use of what is regarded as universal human rights the whole process has become discredited
To overcome the obvious limitations and the contested issues of human rights the UN has come with the concept of r2p (the right to protect).The idea being that innocent people must be protected if the state fails to do its duty, especially women, children and old people, since it is they who suffer most in conflict situations. In present day conflicts civilians are the main casualties. Again the concept of r2p can only work if it is applied consistently.R2p is similar in concept to the Red Cross it tries to de-politicize the right to protect people, like the Red Cross which does not take sides in a conflict but will give medical treatment to both sides of the conflict. The idea being to mitigate the cultural differences as expressed in Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis towards a common agenda on human rights
The reality in world situations is that the modern state systems and sovereign integrity is a European idea made universal through colonization, which created arbitrary borders and lumped together diverse communities often antagonistic against each other, this often meant suppressing dissent and self determination to ensure the state remained intact.
The human rights implications have been severe, leaders from minorities have ended up ruling majorities, the allawites in Syria, in Bahrain Sunni minority over the Shia majority, in Africa despots galore, in other countries minorities have suffered human rights abuses disproportinatley, the Christians under Mubarak and under democracy continue to suffer
To create a national identity and protect human rights for many countries has been very difficult. When the state fails to protect its own citizens from human rights abuses because it is a failed state, or has a weak or ineffective government it is very difficult for the UN to apply r2p.The Congo being one example where estimates of upwards of 2 million killed, the international community unable to bring peace to a country which is at war with itself.
For philosopher Michael ignatief the human rights agenda is western moral imperialist. It is another weapon used to interfere in the affairs of other countries which they do not like.
President carter raised the issue in the 1970’s that Chinese people were not allowed to leave the country which was against the human rights charter, Den Xiao Ping(the Premier) was puzzled by this remark ,paused for a long time then replied how many million Chinese the US would like, this quickly ended the conversation on this subject. This one incident vindicates ignatief’s assertion.
One modern view is that of ‘imagined communities, since people in a country are unlikely to meet each other face to face, religion or territory is used to connect people, so Israel is home for the Jews and Israel will try to protect Jews where ever they live, or Kashmir where religion and territory is used to defend the rights of the people. For theorist Alexander Wendt of the constructivist school ideas at the international of states, identity and discourse in human rights issues is often determined how other states behave and interact with one another, ideas of cultures and human rights exist within states and between states
So the concept of human rights is subject to change and argued over, as an example some countries continue to use capital punishment, while there is concerted campaign at the international to ban capital punishments as it is seen as infringement of a person’s human rights, i.e. we can never be certain 100% that the person is guilty.
Applying the above with all the limitations mentioned above I want to analyse the African union attempt to emulate the UN in coming up with a set of universal norms to protect the innocents. Initially the African union did not interfere in the affairs of other countries directly i.e. sending in peace keeping troops to protect the innocent. This was more due to Africa at that time run mostly by dictators and undemocratic regimes, also some of the countries belonging to AU saw themselves as enemies. As a result of this there was little criticism of human rights abuses. So non intervention became a norm for the AU despite gross human rights abuses.
This later changed as Africa became more democratic and any elected government lacked legitimacy if it was not seen to protect all of its citizens regardless of their religion or ethnicity. So the AU despite the diverse nature of African countries has tried to use the shared history of colonialism, slavery and liberation to come up with the norms where intervention is now considered, of minimum standards of behaviour of AU states. It must be said norms do not determine behaviour.
So the AU now expects every member to respect the rule of law. So norm violating behaviour i.e. unconstitutional changes not accepted, or unfair elections, the UN’s concept of rp2 concept to applied with minimum standard of human rights expected, things like ethnic cleansing not accepted. Many African countries continue not to implant the r2p concept of the AU.
Despite these new policy commitments the AU has been reluctant to criticize or intervene, in Darfur Sudan despite the evidence it has not acted. In Rwanda and the Congo it has been active to bring peace.
The problem with Africa is that many of the conflicts are internal to the countries i.e. civil wars, inter- tribal conflicts between different ethnic groups claiming to represent the national interest of the country. It is very difficult to solve human rights problems and protection of the innocent in civil war conflicts.
Even the UN finds it hard to act, if the rule of law and democracy breakdown and no government in charge or different groups claim to represent the interest of all the people, who do you negotiate with in this situation. If you do deal with one group as the UN has done in Darfur you simply antagonize the other side who see humanatarian intervention as supporting the enemy.
So the AU faces the same dilemma as the UN of when to intervene and on what basis it has the responsibility to protect the innocent, as any act of humanitarian action will be seen some in the conflict situation as being politically motivated. It has tried to use the constructivist’s idea of using the past common history to bind African countries towards some sort of collective expectations of norms.
Politics at the international as with AU is wrapped up in language of national, ethnic and social identity, of nationalism, self determination, issues defined by values and local loyalties, which are constantly changing, when nations and nationalism collide .This inevitably leads to changing views of human rights and responsibility to protect the innocent, when who the innocent are subject to contention and change. Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity means for the AU it is very reluctant or limited to act and under only extreme circumstances,often this means if the state is about to collapse it may intervene for humanitarian reasons.
The concept of responsibility to protect (r2p) was intended to resolve the issue of cultural differences and human rights. The originators of the UN human rights agenda have through policy formulation tried to bypass sovereignty, territorial integrity and historical and cultural differences of states, and come up with a universal norm r2p, designed to protect the innocents through humanitarian non political intervention and allow if possible help the innocent of conflicts regardless which side the people belong to of the conflict
The African union have tried to do a similar thing and have gone through a political change from non intervention to intervention by invoking a similar political stance to the UN’s r2p.It will no longer tolerate disregard for national and international laws, or non democratic means to change the constitution, unfair elections, ethnic cleansing. This is a remarkable change in African politics arrived at through considerable discourse on what human rights means among African states, and even more remarkable to arrive at a common stand.
In our concept of the Good Society the Language used can hide the power relations between,states,societies and people in the poltical sphere.The West's attempt to impose on the world concept of human rights which they never practiced during Imperialism and Colonialism (and they new what they were doing was wrong,slavery being the classic example)Slavery only finished when it became unprofitable
So in our concept of the Good Society all countries must be subject to the rule of international law,that includes the US and Israel which are the greatest violaters of international law and human rights
Kind Regards Tiger Moto