Understanding Human Rights
After being elected in 1976, President Carter announced that he would make human rights a central focus of US foreign policy. Most people thought it was high-sounding talk. The policy did not work well due to stiff resistance from foreign governments. That should not come as a surprise because every government (the US included) has some skeletons to hide because of the way it treats its own citizens.
Discussing human rights is not high-sounding at all for it concerns how we want to be treated in everyday life. For practical purpose, there are two ways to deal with this complex issue. One is to expose the human rights violations. The other is to enforce those rights. The former is much easier to achieve than the latter. In fact, focusing on exposing violations will gradually achieve enforcement, too. How?
If the people know about the violations, they will pressure their government for change. That is why all governments promptly deny having committed the violations once being exposed. They perceive the people’s pressure as threats to their existing power. In a subtle way, they feel ashamed, too. Herein lies a practical way to promote human rights: Enforcement from outside seldom works. Make the people aware of the violations. They will pressure their government to change.
Do people really understand what human rights mean? Let me begin by discussing the most basic rights.
First, the most fundamental human right is the right to live. It follows that the value of any person’s life is the same no matter where he/she comes from. Thus, the mistreatment of any citizen carries the same severity of violation. This right should be widely applied for protection of the weak and the innocent, not for law-violators who must receive appropriate punishment.
Second, when life is assured protection, a person should have the freedom to pursue his/her own happiness provided that no harm is done to others. This right should be made broad enough to encompass all kinds of activities. Note that for practical purpose, right and responsibility must be brought into balance. There is no right that is meaningful without being restrained by responsibility.
Third, respecting life and activities are not enough, we should also respect other people’s privacy just like you want them to respect yours. So personal privacy should be protected.
Fourth, everybody should be treated equal. This does not mean that everybody is made equal because we are not born equal and brought up equal. This right ensures equal opportunities for every person to develop his/her own talents and future.
Fifth, everybody should be free from being bullied, misinformed and misled. As society gets more and more complex, people tend to get lost and want to seek guidance from others. This right protects the uninformed from being short-changed by the devious. It also promotes the propagation of truth for the society.
Sixth, last but not least, human rights do not limit to humans alone. The reason is that human life is sustained by the environment consisting of land, ocean, air, plants, animals and marine life. To enrich human life, we need to protect the environment and all things in it for humanity to enjoy. In the case of renewable resources such as food, water, and soil, we need to recycle and regenerate efficiently in order to support human life. Therefore, protecting and replenishing the environment are promoting human rights, too.
The above is my view of the six most basic human rights. As you see, they are just the simple rules of fair play and justice. Deep inside, we all want this kind of protection. On the other hand, the darker side of us also wants to violate them to take advantage of others.
Can you find any person or any government having violated none of the above six rules? We all have violated some rules to a certain degree, one way or another. So the point is not whether human rights are violated. The point should be how gross is the violation.
To expose will lead to enforcement
If you agree that we should promote human rights, what should be a better course of action? Should we expose the violations, or force other governments to observe human rights? Forcing other governments to do anything always faces stiff resistance. Besides, how can you do that if you also violate other kinds of human rights, which the other side will point out as a rebuke. To expose will achieve much greater success. If we do this well, we may even achieve good enforcement, too.
Human rights rest on the foundation of fairness and justice that everybody readily understands. However, out of selfishness, people tend to violate human rights to benefit themselves at the expense of others, often on a gross scale.
Do you think human rights in the world have greatly improved during the last 200 years? I definitely think so although we wish a much better outcome. Here are the great positive achievements:
*Absolute monarchy where the king owns everything including your life has finally disappeared.
*State-supported slavery in the US was abolished after the Civil War, and racial discrimination was finally outlawed in 1964.
*Apartheid has ended in South Africa by the mid 1990′s.
*Western colonialism has nearly disappeared since the end of World War II.
*Only a few dictators now remain in this world.
*Communism has collapsed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. China has abandoned the communist economic system in favor of private enterprise and open door policy.
*Authoritarian regimes in the Arab world are being overthrown by popular uprisings in the spring of 2011.
The above are monumental regime changes that have directly affected the lives of billions of people worldwide. What caused those regimes to collapse? It is certainly not a direct result of deliberate enforcement of human rights. Those systems collapsed under tremendous pressure exerted by their own people. This clearly shows that unfair and unjust systems cannot stand the test of time no matter how powerful they are. The biggest corrosive force is corruption from within, not enforcement from without. When a government exploits and mistreats its own people, it corrupts itself and causes its own downfall at the end.
I have just shown you the fallen regimes that were gross violators of human rights. Are there any others existing? Of course, there exist countless violations all over the world. These violations are subtle and are harder to identify, including the following:
*Discrimination against women and other groups.
*Police detention without trial.
*Child labor, forced prostitution, usury, financial scams.
*Corruption in both the private and public sectors.
*Collusion between government and big business to exploit consumers.
*Nepotism and cronyism in business and government.
*Political lobbying employing great sums of money.
*Increasing environmental pollution.
*Suppressing free speech and peaceful demonstrations.
*Commercial, political, and religious deceptions instead of propagating truth.
Note that some of the above are crimes already outlawed, but by no means eliminated and maybe worsening. Can we rely on more laws? The fact is that laws can be ignored, and immunity from punishment can be bought with money.
What should be done? Bring in the spotlight! Although people are selfish and exploitative, they have conscience, shame, and a sense of fairness. That’s why all of those violations are committed in the dark, under the table, and behind closed doors. The best weapon is to bring them to light, and expose the dirty linen and the skeleton. In this Internet age, the violations and their perpetrators can easily be exposed all over the world in a matter of seconds. Big corporations are especially sensitive to exposed violations because they don’t want their image to be tainted. Individuals too, they want to be left alone rather than having their dirty linen washed in public.
So every one of us has the responsibility to expose anything we encounter as unfair and unjust. We should also encourage the press and whistle blowers to tell the truth. Violators don’t fear the law because they have the money and power to overcome it. However, they fear the truth because they cannot justify their unfair and unjust practices, which are basically human rights violations.