Expanding Human Rights - from individuals to communities

Discussing the statement: "Real human rights are the individual freedoms enshrined in civil and political rights; so-called 'economic, social and cultural rights' may refer to worthy objectives but do not have the compelling force of 'human rights'”.

Human rights are usually defined as natural rights, inherent to an individual, simply because they are human. However, the concept of groups or communities of people having rights, which supercede those of the individual’s exclusive rights, is an equally valid interpretation of the concept of human rights. 

These apparently opposing worldviews are the reason for the superficial distinction made between the so-called individual rights – civil and political (CPR) – predominantly championed by the Western countries, and the “group rights” - social, economic and cultural (ESCR) - which other countries value. 

When the declarations of CPR and ESCR were signed in 1948, countries on both extremes of this spectrum were signatories, and most of the world’s dominant religions were also represented in their countries (Freeman 2002: 10). This would appear to give the declarations some universality and at least the appearance of a compromise between the cultures.

Recent discourse on human rights has introduced the concept of 'development' as a human right, linking CPR with the ESCR necessary to ensure a holistic view of human well-being. 

The 1993 Vienna United Nations Conference on Human Rights resulted in the 'Declaration of the Right to Development as an Inalienable Human Right', bringing the long-neglected interests of developing countries back onto the international agenda. 

When the original Declarations of Human Rights were being negotiated, after World War II, Roosevelt and others involved had envisioned these rights as inter-related, and in fact had emphasised rights like freedom from want, which is an economic right. 

This view was subsequently held hostage to 'Cold War' politics, causing Western countries to downplay what they viewed as the essentially socialist ESCR, and focus on CPR instead, in line with the neo-liberal democratic agenda (Sengupta 2001: 2527). 

Yet, in measuring the success of development in countries, the United Nations (UN) uses the Human Development Index (HDI) - which measures life expectancy, access to health and education, and other economic and social factors (HDR 2000: 20).

The Right to Development

The 'Declaration of the Right to Development' is concerned with a qualitative improvement in the living standards of all people, and emphasises the need for participation, contribution and equal distribution of the benefits of development processes (Article 2 Cl.3). This is simply fleshing out the concept of self-determination which is the basis of most human rights discourse, as both an individual, and a group or National right (Article 1 Cl.1 & Article 2 Cl.1). 

The declaration then takes further steps, placing the responsibility for ensuring the appropriate social and economic reforms to guarantee an environment conducive to this type of development, including the introduction of proactive policies and programs, on states (Articles 2 Cl.3, 3, 6 Cl.3 & 8). 

Even more challenging, is the statement (Article 2 Cl.2) of a mutual responsibility held by all people, individually and collectively, to act out of dutiful respect for others and foster co-operation with the whole process of development. 

Finally, international co-operation is required to ensure any obstacles to equitable development are removed, which cannot be achieved by individual states, or those with weaker economies and limited resources (Article 3 Cl.3 & Article 4).

This is a truly remarkable document, notwithstanding the obvious hypocrisy of many of its signatories, and it heralds the next phase of human rights on the international stage – the so-called ‘third generation’ or group rights. 

With this holistic approach to human wellbeing, comes new avenues of international co-operation, incorporating environmental activism, protection of bio-diversity and indigenous cultures (Hurrell 1999: 293), as well as efforts to guarantee nuclear disarmament (Article 7) and the rights of future generations. 

These are often criticised as lofty and general goals, lacking the inalienable legitimacy of 'basic' human rights, and perhaps seen by some as unaffordable luxuries. 

Basic needs may be sufficient demands for animals, however, it is obvious that a human life is hardly worth living in fear, insecurity and violence, or surrounded by potentially harmful environmental pollution, and bereft of the beauty and diversity many of us take for granted.

To lose sight of this, in a morass of debates over technicalities and definitions, would rob all of us of the potential to progress to a higher level of humanity and consciousness than has ever been possible before. 

It has been pointed out that each 'generation' of rights corresponds to one of the 'Rights of Man' declared during the French Revolution – liberty (CPR), equality (ESCR), and fraternity (Development, Environment and Peace) or solidarity rights (Wellman 2000: 639).  

This progressive consciousness also corresponds to the move from individualism to communitarianism and then to globalism. “Individual states acting alone can no longer satisfy the obligations imposed by even the first and second generations of human rights” (Wellman 2000: 642). What is called for is the global co-operation of like-minded people across National frontiers (Hurrell 1999: 288).

Western Democracy as a guarantee of Human Rights

Democracy, as propagated in the current dogma of ‘good governance’ (accountability, transparency, participation), and modelled by Western countries, has noble and worthy aims, but lacks moral depth and spirituality, since it has been stripped of all reference to any meta-narrative, in order to make it more palatable to a postmodern world. 

Even the founding philosophies of the 'contract theorists', like Locke, are considered out of vogue, with their insistence on ‘natural’ rights. People seem more comfortable acknowledging the legitimacy of human rights based solely on legal codes, and the growing international consensus generated around them (Donnelly 1993: 31). 

Yet, as Muzaffar has eloquently reminded us, 
"these… worldviews are marginalising other ideas about the human being, about human relations and about societal ties embodied in older and richer civilisations…which could, in the long run, result in the moral degradation and spiritual impoverishment of the human being" (Muzaffar 1999: 27). 

And "without a larger spiritual and moral framework, which endows human endeavour with meaning and purpose, with coherence and unity, wouldn’t the emphasis on rights per se lead to moral chaos and confusion?" (Muzaffar 1999: 29). Even a superficial examination of Western society shows that these concerns are already a reality we have to deal with.

The debate about 'Asian Values' concerns a similar protest against the ethical foundations of human rights, as they are perceived to be too individualistic and removed from responsibilities towards society. 

Asian people place a lot of value on community, family, respect for authority, consensus, sacrifice and hard work (Mauzy 1997: 215,216). As one Malaysian observed, “our history has taught us to fear, not so much the tyranny of government, but the chaos of anarchy and the shackles of poverty” (Mauzy 1997: 218). 

Most Western Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) and activists see human rights from their own culturally-biased viewpoints, and may even be responsible for further reinforcing the global hegemony of 'democracy' as the supreme deliverer of freedom, further separating East and West in the current debate (Mauzy 1997: 223). 

Instead, we need to be aware of the fact that norms for the legitimation of sovereignty are not only culturally influenced, but change over time, and 'democracy', as the dominant norm in human rights debates today, is no less vulnerable to being replaced by another theory (Barkin 1998: 251). 

The impact of globalisation on Human Rights

In addition to their insubstantial ethical foundations, the first two 'generations' of human rights lack the scope and universality necessary to negotiate international issues in a globalised world. 

The 'Declaration of the Right to Development' mentions alleviation of the external debt burden faced by developing countries, as an example of a global issue which would be an obstacle to the rights of people within these countries, draining government resources which could otherwise be invested in life-enhancing projects locally. 

This is not the only instance where the rights of a state or group are the precondition to fulfillment of individual rights and development (Sengupta 2001: 2534). Only through the democratisation and emphasis on the interdependent nature of international relations, can the selfish domination of superpowers, through the international economic order, be restrained. 

A “cosmopolitan” model, with individuals and NGOs applying pressure from below, whilst the global community applies pressure from above (Donnelly 1993: 31), assumes an integrity and consistency on the part of the participants in global affairs which is unsupported by historical experience.

The conventional concept of states and 'sovereignty' has been severely challenged by globalisation, leaving governments powerless to effect the changes necessary to protect their populations from the consequences of belonging to an international political and economic order - transnational corporations (TNCs), international financial institutions (IFIs) and their 'structural adjustment programs' (SAPs). 

These limitations are not entirely new, as states have always essentially had to balance the idea of individual freedoms with state intervention to protect the rights of the marginalised in society (Evans 2001: 625). However, these relatively recent limitations on the State have in many cases reduced states to administrators of global regulations (Evans 2001: 626) and international agreements - which are seldom debated in the domestic arena before their acceptance. (HDR 2000: 69) 

Most of these demands and adjustments negatively impact on human rights, and the evidence points to a failure of states to follow democratic principles, even an inability to do so (Evans 2001: 627).

The present tendency of the United States especially, to encourage 'low-intensity democracies', in an effort to gag political protesters and subdue ethnic tensions in developing countries, rather than allow them the right of self-determination, is a sinister indication of the true agenda of the superpowers and their global investors. 

Thus ‘poor relief’ and ‘riot control’ ‘help to sustain the emerging social structure of the world by minimising the risk of chaos in the bottom layer’…democracy and human rights are of limited interest when social unrest threatens the smooth continuation of the practices of globalisation” (Evans 2001: 632). 

Those who suffer culturally, socially and economically from the processes of development in their countries, are seen as the unfortunate bearers of the price of economic progress, for the good of the majority (Evans 2001: 635). Contrary to 'trickle-down' theory, two thirds of the world’s population have not shared in the economic gain of decades of development (Thomas 1998:165). 

The ruling elite in the international economy see them as 
“'superfluous billions’ unable to engage in the liberal, free market, consumer oriented global order”, and therefore they “do not qualify for a voice in shaping a future global order” (George 1999 in Evans 2001:637).

Other global issues include the political and cultural marginalisation of ethnic minorities (HDR 2000: 59), growing unemployment and poverty, environmental degradation, nuclear proliferation, corruption, greed and extreme materialism (Muzaffar 1999: 30). 

The lack of clear role definitions, and declarations to enforce these, confirms the history of human rights as a gradual raising of human consciousness, with people aiming for new levels of dignity, respect and mutual responsibility even though these are not immediately attainable everywhere. 

Even cultural differences (and 'asian values') are not entirely restrictive in this regard, as all cultures are fluid and inter-relate with others in complex ways (Hurrell 1999: 293). It is only a matter of time and effort, and legislation will be aligned to the next level, or third generation ideals. 

The need to democratise the institutions operating above states, to level the playing field for all participants in the global economic and political arena, is indisputable (Evans 2001: 639).  

The impact of Neoliberal economic policies

The dominant paradigm of neo-liberal democracy (and its economic theories) has failed historically to improve the lives of more than half the world’s population, who still earn less than $2 (US) a day (Thomas 1998:165), and live with malnutrition, disease and civil war. 

Economic policies, based as they are on the growth of 'Gross National Products' (GNP) and the belief that this would eventually increase every individual’s autonomy and standard of living, is at best a simplistic worldview. 

Reliance on Smith’s 'invisible hand' theory, where the market is seen as providing opportunities for all, driven by each participant’s pursuit of self-interest, without interference from governments and regulations (Habbard 1999:2), has not delivered the goods.

‘Market forces’ have not ensured equitable distribution of the benefits of development (Ghai 1999: 259), empowerment of the poor, or even a ‘level playing field’ at the outset – a concept much cherished by proponents of economic theory. 

Hayek criticised “mankind’s mistaken confidence in reason’s capacity to take control of social processes to shape society in accordance with particular ideals” (Routledge 2000: 335). The Hayekian 'autonomous market' has not brought freedom, but a framework of global economic demands within which states must act, to ensure exaggerated protection of property, rather than human rights promotion (Ghai 1999: 252). 

Instead of a free market, we witness a powerful and wealthy minority directing the affairs of the world, to protect international capital rather than human lives.

The accumulation of wealth is touted as the end to aim for, rather than a means to achieving other ends, like happiness, true freedom and wellbeing. 

Since the market is obviously already directed towards the fulfillment of a certain group’s needs, it can surely be turned around, to aid in the propagation of more equitable ideals? 

What is needed is beneficial structural adjustment and a re-examination of maximum possible profits, favouring trade-offs for equity and justice (Sengupta 2001: 2536).  After all, what is the point of democratic rule, if not to allow people to decide what principles and ideals should guide decisions and the implementation of policies on their behalf?

Asian markets seem to have benefitted from government regulation, contrary to expectations, and although human rights were far from being a high priority in their development agendas, this does point to intervention in the market forces as a feasible course of action. 

Many see the Asian financial crisis of a few years ago as an ‘optimal crisis’, which proved the need for social safety nets to be put into place, to prevent similar social chaos being experienced again (Habbard 1999:3). 

Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen has recently shown the 'conjunction of rationalities' between economic rationality and the ethics of human rights thinking, which is also based on rationality, although this was previously denied equal respect, due to narrow conceptions of what constitutes rationality. 

Sen mentions famines in authoritarian countries as an example of the interplay between the two lines of thought – famines are linked to lack of accountability of governments to the people, rather than limited resources in a country (Habbard 1999: 4). 

In fact, the elements of democracy seen as promoting human rights – accountability, freedom of expression, freedom of information, participation and better redistribution – are at the same time prerequisites for a healthy business and investment environment (Habbard 1999:5).


It is clear that human rights are a rich tapestry, interwoven with both civil and political, as well as economic, social and cultural rights. 

When separated artificially from each other, these rights lose not only their full meaning and inter-connectedness, but also their feasibility and practical application becomes lopsided and ineffective. 

The 'Right to Development', recently revived in the human rights debate, is one way of placing human rights in a holistic framework. 

The impact of globalisation and neo-liberal economic policies on countries, proves that democracy (CPR), as the narrow focus of Western human rights discourse, must be accompanied by wide reform programs (including ESCR) to deliver qualitative and equitable improvements. 

Furthermore, “for us who seek inspiration and guidance from our spiritual and moral philosophies in a non-selective manner…The individual and community must both submit to spiritual and moral values which transcend both individual and community…This then, is the road we must travel; the journey we must undertake. From Western human rights, which has been so selective and sectarian, to a genuinely universal human dignity – which remains the human being’s yet unfulfilled promise to God” (Muzaffar 1999: 29-31).


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