About Judith Soares

Judith Soares, PhD, is the head of the University of the West Indies' Women and Development Unit.

The issue of human rights and peace is being highlighted now more than ever. This is so because the world is in turmoil and peace is elusive. Every day, the news media bring to us incidences and situations in which the rights of women, men and children and of whole nations are constantly being violated with impunity. We are fed a diet of acts of genocide; violations of human rights; violation of women, girls and all children; civil, religious and ethnic hostilities; foreign occupation; torture and forced imprisonment; corruption; war and more war; and the prevalence of acts of colonial and neo-colonial domination. In addition, unequal exchange and economic imbalances within the international political economy and the persistence of poverty throughout the world signify the violation of the social and economic rights of a significant amount of people struggling to survive.

For us in the Caribbean, we have our own difficulties. Within the context of a chaotic world and a seemingly ‘disintegrating’ region, we are also witnessing the continued violation of the rights of women and children, the violation of the economic and social rights of the people, a violation of workers rights, xenophobia, homophobia, the abuse of power in some instances and the breakdown of a number of institutions of national and regional import. In fact, given recent developments nationally and regionally, we in the Caribbean seem to be walking backwards on cranky legs. In our region, then, the issue of rights is just as important as it is in the international sphere.

We do not intend, here, to get into a discussion on the dynamics of the politics and socio-economics of the Caribbean or the world for that matter. Rather, we want to understand the nature of ‘human rights’ as fundamental to the dignity and worth of the human person, and to examine the extent to which such ‘rights’ can uphold and ensure justice and peace. We speak with specific reference to those rights found in the 60 year-old United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, intended as an instrument of justice and peace.

In addressing this issue, then, we begin by asking the following questions: Is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights really an instrument of peace? Can the exercise of ‘human rights’ bring about justice which is necessary for peace in today’s world? To what extent have these ‘rights’ served the peoples of the world?

While some may claim that ‘the world has changed’, it is my view that these changes, for the most part, have been superficial, despite the demise of the Soviet Union. The historical fundamental political, economic and social structure of the world has remained intact, being cemented in the post World War II period: the injustices and inequalities may be expressed in different terms, but the actions are the same.

In the post-World War II period, anxious to avoid any further conflict and war, the newly formed United Nations adopted on December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as an instrument of justice and peace. This Declaration affirmed that “all women and men are born with equal and inalienable rights and fundamental freedoms.” In this respect, Article 1 of the Declaration states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” in a 30-article document which clearly states the rights which should belong equally to all human beings. These rights and freedoms, according to the Declaration, were to be the foundation of justice and peace within national borders as well as across borders. That is to say, the Declaration applies equally to individual states and the international community as a whole. This is supported in Article 2 which states that every person is entitled to all the rights and freedoms as set out in the Declaration, regardless of “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or any other opinion, nationality or social origin, property, birth or any other status”. These are two critical articles which are supposed to ensure the right to life, liberty and personal security.

The Declaration was not out of keeping with the broader UN Charter of 1945. Article 1, in outlining the purposes of the international agency of security, peace and cooperation between and among nations, spoke to promoting and encouraging issues of justice, peace, mutual respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms irrespective of difference and diversity. Article 55 of the same Charter specifically defines human rights as relations between countries based on mutual respect for equal rights and self-determination. Human rights, it states, is necessary to peace and development. It must be admitted, then, that this universal and official recognition of human rights by the UN was an important step towards achieving the goals of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” which heralded the birth of capitalism, as a distinct mode of production, which emerged on the ruins of European feudalism.

While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is expected to be an instrument of justice and peace, an examination of the rhetoric in relation to the reality of national and global politics strongly suggests that the principles of universality have not been upheld by governments and nations. It would seem that states are unwilling to recognise ‘human rights’ as a priority, and, hence, they do not live up to their social, economic, political and legal obligations. Some countries, for example, according to the UN, invoke concerns of national sovereignty and national security to hide, at the least, and to justify, at the most, abuses of human rights. So, more than 60 years later, peace is still elusive as the provisions of the Declaration have not had their desired effect. Governments have not met their obligations nor honoured their commitments to promote national and/or international peace and security and reduce conflict and war through the settlement of disputes by peaceful means. Essentially, there has been a continuing lack of respect for human rights and, an effective dismissal of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly by the powerful countries of the North.

We offer that the slow movement towards justice, the basis of peace, and the continuing lack of respect for human rights within and across borders occur because there is no universality in the application of these rights. That is to say, experience has shown that there has been no standardisation nor consistency in the application of rights and freedoms by governments of the international community of states. While we agree that respect for ‘human rights’ will inevitably lead to justice and peace, we, nonetheless, argue that there can be no justice and no peace in the world at this time because ‘human rights’ have been manipulated to serve the interests of those who own and control investment and finance capital, supported by military might, both nationally and globally. That is to say, ‘human rights’ is neither abstract nor universal, and its practice is determined by the socio-political and economic organisation of societies and the structure of the international order.

The concept of human rights, as we now know it, has both a national and international dimension, appearing as it did with the emergence of the social and economic system of capitalism. Since its introduction in society, within the context of Western liberalism, ‘human rights’ as a concept has been surrounded by much controversy, and lacking any clear definition. But, despite the controversy and the lack of definitional clarity, it is our view that the notion and practice of ‘human rights’ is not independent of ideology in the same way that there can be no ideology and practice of ‘human rights’ outside of a clear philosophy, philosophical system and a clear set of values. We, therefore, believe that the concept and practice of ‘human rights’ are not autonomous nor ideologically and politically neutral. Neither are they value free and free of philosophical systems, practice and ideas. That is to say we believe that in any society, whether capitalist, democratic socialist or communist, the concept of human rights is directly linked to the economics, politics and ideology of the state, and its practice reflects the dominant worldview and philosophy. Hence, one finds that ‘human rights’ have been modified and continue to be modified with the changes in historical conditions such as the needs and interest of various social classes, social groups, national leaderships, and capital and Empire.

In our world, the reality is that some social groups and classes are privileged over others: for example, rich over poor; white over black, aboriginal and native peoples; heterosexuals over homosexuals; Christians over Muslims; Jews over Muslims; capital over labour; and man over woman. In fact, Audre Lorde in her work, Sister Outsider, indirectly addresses this issue when she points out that the world exists on the basis of a mythical norm which, in our view, best describes the way in which rights and freedoms are accorded. According to Lorde, those who are recognised, as ‘human beings’, are those persons with the following characteristics: white, male, Protestant, heterosexual, rich and we add, existing within the framework of capitalism.

To demonstrate our point let us look, for example, specifically at the case of women. To be born black, poor and woman puts that woman at an automatic triple disadvantage, particularly if she is born in a dominant white culture. In the United States of America, for example, African-American women have to fight racism in a sexist society and sexism in a racist society as some feminist thinkers have pointed out. In fact, Lori Heise makes a critical point. In noting that the rights of women are hardly ever seen as human rights, she points out that if a person is murdered for political reasons, then the world’s response is “justifiably outrage”. However, if a woman is physically abused or allowed to die, the same world simply dismisses it as “cultural tradition”. And, as the world slips into disorder, it is no secret that women and girls pay a heavy social cost in the form of systematic rape among murder, sexual slavery and forced pregnancy as a tool of genocide. The cases of Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Bosnia and Kosovo come to mind as does the “epidemic” of rape experienced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A 2006 “Report from the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict”, notes that in Haiti, it is estimated that up to 50 percent of girls living in conflict zones have been victims of rape and sexual violence. This is not surprising since women are violated in every culture in the world.

In the case of international relations, specifically between the countries of the North and those of the South within the context of globalisation and the spread of Empire, our lived experience has shown that there is a skewed application of rights and freedoms. Hence, a significant gap between the provisions and what is real in terms of the international dimension of rights and freedoms which have different expressions at different moments in history. In this respect, we note the changing relationships between the countries of the North and those of the South which involve issues of sovereignty, self determination and control over one’s resources. The story of the Middle East is constantly with us, the women, men and children in Pakistan’s Swat Valley do not even have the right to life, let alone the right to live in peace and dignity, and Afghanistan struggles daily with issues of self-determination and sovereignty.

Let us take a look at the situation as it relates to the countries of the Caribbean and Latin America in an historical context.

In the 1970s-1980s, we note that the question of human rights took centre stage in the tension between contending ideologies of capitalism and communism, represented by the United States of America and the Soviet Union at the two opposing poles. At that time, the Western concept of human rights was dominated by ideas which sought to justify capitalism as the desired system of social and economic relations, ideas which sought to undermine the ideological base of communism, socialism or any other socio-economic system critical of the capitalist mode of production. This included those countries of the South which were not on the path of dependent capitalism, but were choosing a path of self-determination and ‘non-capitalist’ development.

For us in the Caribbean and Latin America, we note, in this respect, the West’s destabilisation of Castro’s Cuba, Manley’s Jamaica, Allende’s Chile, the Sandinista’s Nicaragua and the invasion of Maurice Bishop’s Grenada on the basis of national security concerns, while, at the same time, supporting, for example, apartheid in South Africa and Rhodesia, the institutionalisation of a system of terror in Pinochet’s Chile, and D’Abuisson’s El Salvador, and the violation of rights and freedoms in Rios Montt’s Guatemala. We offer that in these cases, representative of other situations, ‘human rights’, one could argue, was used ideologically against those governments, peoples and countries which were attempting to extricate themselves from the dominance of global capital by reducing the influence of foreign capital in their countries, altering the foundations of poverty and establishing economic and trade relations with countries of the then Eastern Europe. Farther afield, we also note the historically determined changing relationships between the North and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Afghanistan’s Taliban, Nasser’s Egypt and Lumumba’s Congo (Belgian Congo/Democratic Republic of the Congo).

Whereas in the 1970s and up to the early 1980s, the application of ‘human rights’ took an ideological form, from the mid-late 1980s, rights were contextualised in social and economic terms. This was certainly the case in our region as well as in some countries in Africa which witnessed human rights violations in their development processes. Structural adjustment policies, clothed in neoliberalism, dictated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and later the rulings of the World Trade Organisation, further eroded the ability of governments (in societies where the application of rights and freedoms were already skewed) to ensure the practice of human rights in development as defined by the United Nations. The structural adjustment programme expressed in downsizing of companies and reduction of workforces, cutbacks in social expenditure on services to locals, removal of price subsidies and price controls and, hence, reduced local consumption, higher personal taxes, lower taxes on businesses and tax holidays, wage controls/freezes and the devaluation of the dollar and trade liberalisation and an emphasis on free trade further restricted governments’ ability to promote social progress and development. In such a situation, governments could not ensure the well-being of all people, allowing them to meaningfully and freely participate in the development process and the fairer distribution of the fruits of that development.

In this dispensation, then, peace must, logically, be elusive as the rhetoric on human rights has not guaranteed that justice which would lead to peace. It would be less than wise to expect that any of these Western societies would allow the full practice of human rights, because, as we stated above, the practice of human rights is neither abstract nor universal. But, there can be a more just application of rights if we hold to a philosophy and an ideology that locates human beings and their humanity at the centre of a socio-politics of change and an economics rooted in the fairer distribution of the material rewards of the production process, both nationally and internationally. This would call for a reorganisation of the structure of existing societies, nationally and internationally, and a corresponding restructuring of their existing institutions to reflect just relations. Only then can we begin to respect human rights and to speak about the application of human rights towards guaranteeing justice and peace. The bottom line is this: can there be justice in a framework of injustice?

Judith Soares PhD is Tutor Coordinator of the University of the West Indies’ Women and Development Unit.