Balancing Human Rights with Poverty Alleviation

Sanja De Silva Jayatilleka, in The Island, 29 December 2017

Professor Richard Falk’s inspiring and reflective article on Human Rights, Democracy and International Liberalism in ‘The Island’ of Dec 28th (originally titled ‘Democracy, Development, and Reputation: Vietnam, Turkey, and International Liberalism’) re-thinks human rights in a way that potentially introduces a whole new paradigm which  will resonate with many developing countries including Sri Lanka. That it was written by an internationally eminent Professor of Law who has been involved with issues of Human Rights for decades including as Special Rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Council, makes it all the more important.

For us Sri Lankans who have seen human rights extremism from Western countries as well as Western NGOs, this thoughtful and timely article comes as a relief. Instead of the hypocrisy that pervades Western hegemonic human rights discourse, Professor Falk questions the assumptions and the arrogance assumed by those who criticize non-Western regimes that have actually accomplished a great deal for the welfare of their people under difficult conditions.

The article observes that “it does raise serious questions about what is the real motivation for such excesses of criticism and calls attention to geopolitical considerations that may be more explanatory than a country’s human rights profile…In effect, bashing countries for their poor human rights records needs to be geopolitically decoded if it is ever to be properly understood.”

Professor Falk does not advocate human rights relativism but deals with the question of the right balance between collective human rights and individual rights and arrives at a possible resolution.

He critiques the prioritization of certain human rights in the current liberal discourse: “…the liberal insistence on privileging political and civil rights should be superseded by adopting a more cosmopolitan agenda of human rights that is attentive to the collective, material wellbeing of a national population, and especially its lower 50% and minorities. In other words, the liberal exclusion of collective rights should be partially rejected, and the tendency to gloss over the existence of poverty and gross inequality in capitalist societies should be subjected to critical scrutiny.”

He adds that “As well, the tendency of socialist or state-dominated societies to undervalue civil and political rights of individuals should be equally scrutinized.” This is important, and was certainly an issue here in Sri Lanka. However, he also points out that “normative backsliding with respect to fundamental civil and political rights should not be the occasion for overlooking how well or badly a government behaves in other spheres of activity bearing on human wellbeing.”

This is a useful and timely intervention. Professor Falk draws attention to the fact that “rich countries in the West are at ease living with large pockets of extreme poverty in their own affluent societies as measured by homelessness and extreme poverty, including the absence of health care, educational opportunity, and even food and housing necessities.”

After Hurricane Katrina, I remember a Washington Post headline which humorously stated that in its aftermath, America had discovered a new species: ‘The Poor’. While Sri Lanka dealt swiftly with the devastating Tsunami to bring things back to normal, it took years for the US to rebuild the areas affected by its own hurricane.

Professor Falk says that “the three richest Americans—Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffet—possess wealth that exceeds the earnings of the entire American working class.”

He explains: “What I am objecting to is the invisibility of the suffering of the very poor (as in America) along with the refusals to acknowledge the public achievement of their improved circumstances elsewhere (as in Turkey or Vietnam).”

Prof Falk’s conceptual intervention helps to clarify many issues that have troubled Sri Lankans. A timely question he poses, especially for Sri Lankans facing a choice in the upcoming elections is”… the question as to whether the market-oriented constitutionalism of the Euro-American governmental template is the exclusive foundation of legitimate governance as was the claim of the triumphalist West in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse. With the rise of China and other Asian countries, there is a growing reluctance around the world to claim too much for self-satisfied Western styles of governance.”

In some respects Professor Falk’s attention to collective rights coincides with the Beijing Declaration on Human Rights held earlier this month. On December 8th this year, at the first South-South Human Rights Forum held in Beijing, a text called the ‘Beijing Declaration’ on human rights was adopted. The Forum was attended by more than 300 delegates from 70 countries.

In a welcome contribution to the discourse on human rights which has been dominated by the developed countries of the West, the South-South Forum offered an alternative view of human rights priorities. It declared that “The right to subsistence and the right to development are the primary basic human rights.” In Article 4 it introduced these rights together with the right to peace and the environment as “collective” rights: “The right to subsistence and the right to development, the right to peace, and the right to the environment are both important collective human rights and the prerequisite and basis for the realization of individual human rights.”

What is the solution to the question of the right balance? Professor Falk says “There is no clean solution, but an improved normative understanding can only arise by celebrating the cardinal principle of self-determination, which should allow ample national space for diversity, economic sovereignty, and political experimentation.”

He concludes that “national reputations of legitimacy should rest on a comprehensive assessment of material, ethical, and spiritual wellbeing of individuals and communities, and no longer be allowed to reflect geopolitical agendas and civilizational arrogance.”

Although the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review attempts an evaluation along similar lines, this is not the perspective adopted at the UNHRC regular sessions by some powerful countries and most NGOs, which apply human rights standards selectively. A more holistic approach which celebrates achievements in all the areas recommended by Professor Falk may encourage better commitment to human rights.

Referring to the popularity of President Erdoğan of Turkey, Richard Falk observes that “The response of AKP loyalists when asked why they vote for Erdoğan over and over again offer different lines of explanation: ‘Are we stupid?’ Some of these persons actually dislike, and even fear, the Islamic edge given by Erdoğan to Turkish government identity or think the Syrian policies were a huge mistake, but for what touches their lives most directly, the AKP remains for them far preferable to available alternatives in Turkey.”

These sentiments are certainly true of people’s loyalty to the previous regime here in Sri Lanka. They have however also seen some progressive decisions, resisted by elements in the previous regime, successfully attempted by the current one. The ideal option could be a combination of the best tendencies of the two sides, reflective of the balance sought in the realm of human rights, which is not altogether impossible following the upcoming elections.





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