Attitudes and expectations have change dramatically over time, making the fight for human rights ongoing
Do human rights exist?
Our approach to human rights is not timeless, and – here’s the only timeless part – it never has been.
Slavery was unquestioned for centuries – except, of course, by the slaves. So, too, was torture. Torture is still widely practised, as the headlines have reminded us in recent days and weeks. But the uproar that followed the WikiLeaks revelations is progress of a kind. Once upon a time – the French in Algeria in the 1950s, or the British in Aden in the 1960s – such practices were taken for granted.
Attitudes and expectations have changed dramatically in recent decades, in the west and worldwide. Two obvious examples are race and sex.
When President Barack Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961, the marriage between his Kenyan father and his Kansan mother was prohibited in more than half of American states, a ban which millions of Americans regarded as rational. Seen from a 21st-century perspective, the judgments of that time, reaffirming America’s own apartheid, can be faintly staggering, as I discovered when co-writing a recent book on the themes of mischief and social resistance.
“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents,” Judge Leon Bazile told Mildred and Richard Loving in 1965. “And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages.” (Two years later, the Lovings won their case, and changed history.)
The change in attitudes to sexuality has been no less startling. Half a century ago, consensual sex with an adult of the same gender was a jailable crime in the UK and many countries around the world. In 2010, by contrast, a basically feelgood (and very funny) Hollywood movie, with a more or less well-adjusted lesbian couple and their teenage children at the heart of its storyline, stirs no controversy at all. How remarkable a change is that?
None of these changes came in a vacuum. Large numbers of people campaigned. People lost jobs and lives in the struggle for improved rights. But the right to choose your own life partner, regardless of skin colour or gender, is not some passing fashion, nor does it belong to one corner of the world. Those changes show – just as the campaign for the abolition of slavery showed, two centuries ago – that the world can move forward, if enough people are determined to create change.
Those who demand change are sometimes accused of not living “in the real world”. Nothing new there. When Amnesty International was founded, 50 years ago next May, one commentator described the idea of people from all over the world creating the pressure for change as “one of the larger lunacies of our time”. (Amnesty’s first significant victory, the release of a leading Czech prisoner of conscience, came a few months later.)
Governments that use violence to stay in power like to insist that invoking human rights is culturally inappropriate, or a postcolonial invention. The Burmese generals, who are holding elections this weekend against a background of repression and violence, like to blame everything on foreigners. But the rights being demanded come from the citizens of Burma – where 2,200 political prisoners are today behind bars – not just from outside.
Human rights do not merely exist – they are growing. Samuel Moyn is partly correct in asserting, in his recently published The Last Utopia, that human rights are not “age-old and obvious”. In the 21st century, there is, however, a better understanding of what human rights encompass – including a range of basic rights which got lost in the long and sterile arguments over civil and political versus economic and social rights (“our” rights versus “your” rights) during the cold war.
Human rights mean the right to make one’s own choices: the right to wear a headscarf, and not to wear a headscarf alike. Rights are about dignity – the right not to be excluded from access to healthcare, the right not to be forcibly evicted at the authorities’ whim, the right to hold abusers to account.
Some argue that the very concept of rights remains “subjective”. The victims themselves rarely see it that way. For them, human rights – and the lack of rights, in different contexts around the globe – are real. We owe it to those people to ensure that change is achieved.