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A Point of View: Do human rights really exist?

  • 27 April 2012
  • From the section Magazine
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Statue holding scales of justice

Do "human rights" really exist, when they can be so easily taken away, asks Will Self.

I always feel slightly queasy when people begin talking about the humane treatment of animals. Of course, I know what they mean - not being cruel, or inflicting unnecessary pain upon creatures whose lives are - sometimes literally - in the palms of their hands.

Nonetheless, the expression has always jarred with me - after all it's equally humane, in the sense of typical of a human, to treat animals by clipping their beaks and claws, putting them in vast clucking concentration camps, packed into cages so small they're unable to move, where they are drip-fed drugs to artificially enhance their breasts, before being executed.

But if humane seems a contestable term when it comes to the rights of fowl, surely there's nothing exceptionable about humans' own rights? Who but a paltry fellow would quibble with the resounding sense of humanity enshrined by the first line of Article 1 of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights : "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights holds that all human beings are equal

For, from this one statement, as if in a logical-deductive system, derives the entire structure of human rights as commonly understood - a network of declarations and conventions subscribed to with near-unanimity by the world's sovereign states, which taken together ensure that each and every individual on the planet can be assured that she will be free from torture and discrimination of all forms, while her government will seek to actively promote her access to housing, water and employment - among many other universally recognised goods.

Who, as I say, could possibly dissent from such unambiguously moral aims, which surely represent one of the purest expressions of what it is to be humane?

Indeed, in its characterisation of human rights as universal and inalienable, the United Nations Declaration is surely only stating a fact that all of us intuitively know - no single one of the seven billion-odd human lives currently transpiring can be held to be of greater value than any of the others, we have all been weighed in the balance and it remains resolutely level.

True, there is one problem with this figuration - who's holding the scales?

In the Koran - which presents another ethical system, although one that concentrates rather more on duties than rights - there is the same sense of a logical-deductive system, of all subsidiary propositions deriving from a single incontestable one that forms the apex.

However, in this case the shahada - or act of witnessing - is concerned with existence of God. As commonly translated into English, it reads: "There is no god but God and Mohammed is His prophet".

In all three of the great world monotheisms, it is this establishment of the one God's authority - his fittingness to hold the scales of justice - that enables human lives to be correctly assayed in all their multifariousness. And in Islam we find the purest expression of the notion that it is in actively assenting to this dominion that humans take their place in society.

Employing the broadest of brushes, the picture we can paint of the last quarter-millennium of Western history is of a progressive move away from vesting authority in supernatural beings, to one in which the responsibility for enforcing duties - and their corresponding rights - is founded in human institutions.

The natural rights identified by the philosophers of the Enlightenment become the Rights of Man that gave shape to the institutions borne of the French and American revolutions - and these rights were in turn extended, piecemeal, to encompass not simply property-holders, but all men, then women, then other ethnic groups formerly deemed subhuman, then to those who choose same-sex relationships - or indeed to change their sex entirely - while simultaneously being stretched out from the democracies of the West to encircle all of mankind's children.

Looked at this way, the pattern of human rights in the 21st Century is a sort of beautiful pointillism, with splodges of brightly-coloured entitlement rippling away towards a bright new dawn.

But I reiterate: Who's holding the scales? Take, for example, the current situation in Syria - here, surely, there is no room for equivocation. A vicious dictator is actively and consistently violating the human rights of his own citizenry.

The UN Security Council is hamstrung when it comes to protecting human rights, says Self

All are agreed on this - the non-governmental organisations who monitor such things, the Arab League observers, the special rapporteurs assigned by the United Nations itself, and the sovereign nations that subscribe to its conception of human rights law.

And so the logical-deductive system ratchets into action and the supreme body within which humanity's authority has been vested acts to ensure the human rights of the Syrian people are respected.

Except… except… the Security Council of the United Nations is hamstrung both by its inability to intervene in the internal affairs of sovereign states (Syria was, after all, itself an initial signatory of the 1948 declaration), and also by the little peccadilloes of its permanent members, two of which effectively deny their citizenship democratic rights - among others - and one of which has a somewhat dubious record when it comes to torture and legalised execution.

Oscar Wilde said that England was the native land of the hypocrite - but it often seems to me that hypocrisy may have been the British Empire's most successful export, one that in the post-imperial era has taken root and flourished all over the globe.

Certainly the existence of human rights generally attested to but almost as widely abused, smacks of hypocrisy - but perhaps we're being a little too harsh on our political leaders.

True, one man's extraordinary rendition is another man's licence to torture, which in turn is a flagrant denial of a third man's human rights, but might the cross-border tangles of semantic barbed wire that snake through almost all human rights cases - from Tripoli to London to Strasbourg and back again - give the lie to the very concept itself?

I only throw this proposition out in a spirit of humane enquiry - could it be that human rights simply don't exist? After all, in my understanding it's difficult to conceive of a person's rights as obtaining at all unless an effective sanction is in place in the event of their violation.

Take the human right not to be enslaved - it's a noble aspiration, but looks pretty threadbare in a world in which there are more slaves than ever, many of whom are debt peons created by the operations of powerful multinational corporations who cannot even be accused of hypocrisy, since they aren't signatories of that ringing declamation.

No, the only situation in which human rights could truly obtain would be one where an independent global judiciary, duly and constitutionally constituted by the sovereign will of all humanity, was able to judge violators who had been arrested by an equally incorruptible international police force.

Since we have considerable difficulty in creating such a state of affairs even in our right, tight, democratic little island, I hardly think the aspiration to such a world government - which, as I say, is implicit in the UN Charter - is worth the paper it was written on.

Instead of an august gowned personification holding the scales of justice, we are treated to a quick-change act, whereby the narrow interests of one political elite after another put on the blindfold and then peek out from behind it to see that their will be done.

Such a figure is as nebulous and shape-shifting as any god - arguably more so - and since the human rights it confers aren't actively assented to, as the duties implicit in the shahada are, it makes of humanity an impotent collectivity comparable to that of any other species. Chickens, for example.