Time to get back to the basics of human rights

Time to get back to the basics of human rights

More than a decade ago, Mahathir Mohamad, then the prime minister of Malaysia, issued a novel call on the issue of human rights. Mohamad demanded that the United Nations 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights be abandoned. In its place, he suggested, should be a looser code whereby individual governments would set their own standards of human rights in accordance with their own individual needs.

Needless to say, Mohamad’s suggestion was widely regarded for what it was, a cynical effort to deflect criticism from his own authoritarian record, for if human rights are not “universal” they are not “human” rights at all. The definition of humanness cannot change upon the crossing of a border.

So it will be interesting to see the direction of a new initiative between Turkey and Russia to combat the “politicization” of human rights. A story by Sevil Küçükkoşum in yesterday’s Daily News revealed that in the wake of a Dec. 8 meeting between Turkish and Russian human rights officials, a joint effort is now underway to make the case in international forums that human rights law should not be a tool for other goals.

Fair enough. No reasonable observer of human rights issues would disagree that the packaging of an ever growing number of concepts under the human rights umbrella has diluted the intent and meaning of the original U.N. declaration. A debate ensues, for example, over whether the “right to trade” should be a human right. The impulse to trade is innate to all humans, the argument goes, hence a right. But individuals seldom trade commercially, comes the response, companies do. And can companies be protected by “human” rights guarantees?

Similarly, if one looks at the docket of the European Court of Human Rights, in which Turkey and Russia are the lead defendants, this inflation of definitions is clear. Property cases, commercial litigation and many other disputes far distant from the original intention of human rights advocacy crowd the court’s calendar. A discussion of the scope for abuse in this legal evolution – if that is what the Turkish-Russian initiative seeks – would be welcome. A renewed focus on the basics of freedom from torture, arbitrary imprisonment, discrimination and the right to free speech would be timely indeed.

The early outlines of this new joint diplomatic effort, however, do not strike one as being developed in this vein. Rather, one suspects the growing resort to authoritarian tactics in Turkey and Russia to restrain the press, keep opponents locked up and contain criticism seems the more likely motivation.
Sure, beginning from an abysmally low base, Turkey has improved its rights record in recent years. But many problems remain, and they are problems of the basics: unconscionable detention, growing discrimination and increasing constraints on free speech and expression.

If Turkey is to be and remain credible in defending the progress of recent years, a resort to a muddying of definitions is hardly the proper course. And Russia is hardly a credible partner in a drive to draw international attention to the real need for reform of human rights law as it is sometimes cynically practiced.

What’s needed is a renewed focus on basics.