Vinoth Ramachandra

Language and Vigilance

Posted on: October 2, 2009

China “celebrated” 60 years of communist rule yesterday. Since I have never visited that great country, I dare not comment on its economic achievements or its political failures. But this is what a young Chinese friend penned on the anniversary:

“Unsustainable, Undemocratic, Immoral, Corrupt, Ruthless, Polluted, Paranoid, Value-free.”

What adjectives come to mind when we think about our own nations?…..

Governments kill. That is true of governments of every ideological hue from red to blue. The vast majority of the hundreds of millions of helpless, unarmed civilians who have been shot, burned alive, bombed, and tortured in the past one hundred years have been victims of either their own governments or foreign governments. The atrocities committed by anti-government insurgents, rebels, terrorists and such like, while every bit as wicked as that committed by governments, are numerically insignificant by comparison.

But that is not the impression given by local and global media who prefer to focus on the spectacular “terrorist” attacks (a focus that further fuels such “terrorist” methods) rather than the often covert, routine abductions and killings of political dissidents and critics. The fact that the media are often controlled by governments, or are owned by a handful of moguls who are hand-in-glove with the government, is another reason for the bias.

That is why political vigilance on the part of ordinary citizens like us is so important. Watch the language of politicians. “Emergency laws” and “national security” are usually cover-ups for bolstering one’s power and justifying repression. It was not too long ago that the phrase “un-American activities” was bandied about in the US without generating much debate. China still speaks of “anti-patriotic elements”, although Mao’s “capitalist lackeys” and “Western revisionists” have fallen by the wayside. “Naxalites”, “terrorists” and “terrorist supporters” are widespread in South Asia. The “Muslim threat” raises it ugly head in some European nations.

The moral history of the twentieth century is a horrific one. But it would be incomplete if we failed to include the emergence, as a response to the horrors, of a global recognition of human rights: that is rights that attach to the status of simply being human, a member of the species Homo Sapiens. The main documentary achievements in this regard were the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), and the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966). The Roman Catholic philosopher Mary Ann Glendon observes, at the end of her narrative about the UN Declaration of Human Rights, “By affirming that all its rights belong to everyone, everywhere, it aimed to put an end to the idea that a nation’s treatment of its own citizens or subjects was immune from outside scrutiny.”[1]

It is that “immunity from outside scrutiny” that despots demand. Governments that have signed these declarations continue to violate them with impunity. And that is as true for liberal democracies when they perceive threats to their “national security” or “economic prosperity” as it is for dictatorships. Therein lies the chief failing of these declarations: their lack of enforceability apart from economic sanctions and, in extreme cases of genocide, military intervention.

Moreover, the declarations sit uncomfortably with a founding principle of the UN Charter- the myth of “national sovereignty”- which is invoked by evil regimes around the world to deflect all international criticism. The main problem with the UN is neither corruption nor double standards (very real though these are), but the fact that it was conceived in a world of sovereign states, a world where the overriding concern of the post-World War II settlement was the guarantee of the inviolability of national borders. But today’s world is one where wars happen typically within states. Whole populations, or minorities within populations, need assistance against their own despotic governments. Thus the UN Charter’s emphasis on the inviolability of sovereign states poses a conundrum.

The preamble to the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights opens with the claim that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Article 1 goes on to affirm that “all human beings are born free and are equal in dignity and rights.” This is obviously not an empirical observation. So what is its epistemic status?

Further, what is it about each and every human being that gives him or her an inherent dignity that serves to ground human rights? That is not an easy question to answer. And every secularist attempt to answer it ends up defending only the rights of some human beings and not all human beings. More on that next time.


[1] Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (New York: Random House, 2001) p.235

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