Thursday, June 08, 2017

The Battle Against Human Rights

President Trump wants to withdraw from the UN Convention of Human Rights. Theresa May in Britain is promising to sweep aside Human Rights legislation. The governments in France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe are coming under pressure every day to suspend Human Rights obligations and deal with terrorism with a firmer hand. Saudi Arabia, which regularly chops off hands and heads, and cane and imprison women for the crime of being raped, made it to the UN Council for Human Rights. Israel, which has a habit of bombing at random to teach Palestinians a lesson, is seen as a model state by many, despite the very logic of Israel being founded as a protection against state terrorism. And, all this is happening with middle classes, including those from Minority and Immigrant communities, cheering on.

This is a great paradox, but reasons are not difficult to understand. The idea of Human Rights became a central element of Post-War order because of the horrific experience of the Second World War. Now that history has supposedly ended, the memory is being fast discarded (not surprisingly, Europe is clinging on it as it suffered the most). At a time when voters are looking for a more muscular state, the idea of Human Rights, something sacred and above and outside the powers of Governments of the Day increasingly looks like an aberration.

And, while it is strange that the immigrants and minorities, people who are most likely to suffer when the idea of inalienable Human Rights is undermined, are enthusiastic about its demise. There are several reasons for this. For the migrants from ex-colonies and theocratic and various authoritarian states, there may not have been an experience of inalienable human rights in the European enlightenment sense. And, they have even less of the historical memory of the European wars which made the idea of Human Rights so central to business of a civilised state.

Besides, the politics of identity has become the staple of electioneering. The messaging, approach and engagement are now carefully designed to prevent engagement in a common public sphere, and instead, has become a game of personalised messages and interests. In this, the idea of a common humanity is rather antithetical. Couched in the motto of tolerance, everyone has become a member of one community or another; patronising celebration of diversity has drowned the idea of a common human essence. A strong state as an overlord, constantly engaged in surveillance of its self-obsessed desire-driven endlessly-indebted populace, who stay away from politics and define themselves by their consumer preference, has emerged as a new ideal. The days of Bill of Rights seem irreversibly over.

But Human Rights is central to democracy. Without human rights, the politics offers an open season for demagogue. Human Rights is not an add-on to Constitutionalism, it is its essential guarantee. Without it, the fearsome powers of the modern state, of surveillance and coercion, can fall in the hands of a Putin or Trump all too easily. Promise the earth, divide the electorate, win the vote and then carry out your agenda: Hitler exploited the contradiction of Weimar Constitution all too easily and his playbook would be eagerly followed. 

We say we need to suspend Human Rights to deal with the terrorists. We miss the point: In fact, all these mindless terror attacks - by people with kitchen knives and lives to spare - are all designed to encourage us to destroy human rights. The terrorists do not win when a few people ram a van into a crowd; they win when we turn ourselves into a military state and pave the way for a Dictator. They want us to self-destruct. And, it seems we are becoming ever keener to oblige.


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