The concept of human rights is one of the most powerful espoused in the 20th century.
|New norms driven by individualism, republicanism and industrial capital led to the emergence of the concept[GALLO/GETTY]
Ever since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations on December 10, 1948, the legitimacy and popularity of human rights discourse has grown consistently.
It has also opened up areas of ambiguity.
One such is the origins of human rights. Are human rights essentially a "modern" Western construct? Did human rights exist in non-Western societies? Was it an intrinsic part of ancient religions?
While the bulk of early writings on the origins, including contributions from the South, traced the concept back to late medieval Europe, there have been attempts to see the beginnings elsewhere.
However, the debate on the origins has its pitfalls.
The definition of rights, and in particular human rights, tends to be less rigorous. A majority of authors either consider the idea to be either "self evident" or tend to define it loosely in historic and normative terms.
For Western authors, the universal nature of human rights draws exclusively from Western traditions of thought.
Similarly, literature on non-Western traditions seems to confuse human rights with the concept of humane governance.
To clear this fog, human rights should be seen as a set of values that intend to provide a perception of a human being and a moral and legal basis to regulate human relations and interactions.
Seen from this perspective, human rights are merely a new basis for regulating human conduct and relations because all societies have had some form of socio-cultural and political regulation.
In other words, perceptions of duties and privileges did exist in all human societies. The question is whether we can identify humane practices present in those ancient and medieval times as human rights practices.
A rigorous definition has to be linked to the emergence of a new perception of a human being based on radical individualism along with a political order shaped by the spirit of republicanism and an economic order based on industrial capitalism.
While these processes emerged with significant force in 17th century Europe, a host of developments preceded them. It is for this reason that the origins of modern human rights are generally traced back to 13th century Europe.
Here the focus is not so much on the humane character of existing norms, but the context and the emergence of new norms driven by individualism, republicanism and industrial capital.
The beginning of this journey can be seen in two historical contexts.
The first is European history from the 13th century to 19th century and the second is the events in the colonised South from the 18th century to the mid-twentieth century.
Within the first period, there were two sets of developments.
The first set could be put together from a series of documents beginning with the Magna Carta (1215), the Petition of Right (1628), the English Bill of Rights (1688) and followed by the republican declarations of the 18th century in the US (1776) and France (1789).
The second set could also be seen as a series of documents like the Declaration of Rights of Women (1791), the Chartist declaration – the People's Petition (1838), the Negro Declaration (1876) and the Declaration of Rights for Women (1876).
The second historical context was marked by numerous movements against Western colonialism. It was ironical that colonial domination was often justified by the same people who fought for the new social and political orders in Europe.
Not surprisingly, the bulk of literature on the history of human rights has very little reference to colonialism and human rights violations.
However, the aspirations and demands of the struggle against colonialism both within the West as well as in the colonies, are important sources of the influence that gave meaning and content to contemporary human rights.
The paradoxes in the development of human rights do not stem from any kind of rejection of the concept. Rather, a theme that is common among all of them is "demand for rights" by and for the excluded groups.
An exception to this would be the struggles of native people, particularly in North America during the 18th and 19th centuries. These were not based on the demand for "inclusion" into the framework of modern development and human rights. On the contrary, it was an explicit resistance to such plans by the US government.
These absurdities highlight two issues.
First, however inclusive a concept might be, and however democratic may be its perceived or theoretical meaning, its actual realisation is likely to be limited by the historical context.
Certain kinds of exclusions will always be unrecognised as exclusions or underplayed for reasons of the interests of dominant groups.
Coexistence of "universal" claims of rights with blatant practices of gender discrimination across the social settings; colonialism; slavery; and systematic discrimination based on caste, race and religion represent this quandary.
While human rights are norms with claims of universal applicability, their eventual meaning and content is determined by the context of power relations.
The second issue that jumps out of these paradoxes is a duality in human rights: that human rights is simultaneously a means of entrenching Western hegemony and equally a potential source of inspiration to the downtrodden in their struggles for empowerment.
Human rights thus seem to be significant on two counts.
First, it places normative commitment over and above real politics. And it provides a framework to evaluate unprincipled politics and economic development. Second, it has evolved as a powerful tool to point out the more uncivilised traits of some aspects of modernisation.
It is noteworthy that the last couple of decades has seen a growing challenge to modernism within both academia and social movements.
The presumption that the spread of modernisation is both inevitable and desirable is being challenged; similarly social relations based on and guided by contractual relations as against status-based systems are also being questioned.
These challenges do not emanate from the so-called cultural relativist arguments. Rather, they emerge from the debates on the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples.
What is emerging is a fascinating convergence between the debates on human rights and those on environment and development.