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Human Rights in the Third World

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Robert Traer*

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins by asserting that "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. . .." The image of "the human family" is perhaps a rhetorical flourish, but it suggests that human rights are seen as the legal ordering of the common good. Human rights are not merely the claims that individuals have against the state or other citizens, but are ways of ordering life in the human family so as to ensure dignity for all its members.

This image of human rights is sometimes lost in the fray of ideological debate. However, it is embraced and articulated by religious leaders who affirm human rights as an expression of their faith. Religious leaders see human rights not only as means of protecting the individual from oppression by the state, but as the way of creating justice within states and peace within the world community.

I will describe briefly the political debate over human rights, between members of the First, Second and Third Worlds and the shift in emphasis that has taken place in the human rights efforts of the United Nations. I will suggest that human rights advocates in the Third World are bringing together diverse notions of human rights into a new synthesis. 

Liberal and Socialist Debate

Hersch Lauterpacht argues that the heart of the doctrine of human rights, as it has developed in the West, is that, "The sovereign was subjected to the higher law conceived as the guarantor of the inalienable rights of man."1 This "first generation" of human rights, using the phrase introduced by French jurist Karel Vasak, is concerned with the civil and political rights of the individual.2 It is concerned with the freedom of the individual from interference by the state, with what are often called "negative rights" for they involve assertions of what the government cannot do.

These rights dominate the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and are set forth in Articles 2-21, which include:

    freedom from racial and equivalent forms of discrimination; the right to life, liberty, and the security of the person; freedom from slavery or involuntary servitude; freedom from torture and from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile; the right to a fair and public trial; freedom of movement and residence; the right to asylum from persecution; freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; freedom of opinion and expression; freedom of peaceful assembly and association; and the right to participate in government, directly or through free elections.3

The Universal Declaration also includes the right to own property and the right not to be deprived arbitrarily of property, rights central to the struggle in both the American and French revolutions and to the rise of capitalism.

This expression of the Western liberal view of human rights stresses the rights of the individual over against the state, as necessary conditions for human dignity. Maurice Cranston argues that this view precludes any notion of rights that requires positive action by the state, and so he concludes that social and economic rights are not human rights at all.4 More recently, Jack Donnelly and Adda Bozeman have vigorously asserted that human rights are grounded in a concept of the individual lacking in the cultures of Africa and Asia.5

The history of the development of human rights in the United States suggests that this is not merely an academic debate. James Sellers argues that in America it is the ideas of Hobbes rather than those of Locke that came to predominate—what shaped American political thought most was "not natural law, or the common good, or the humanitarian impulse toward community," but "the absolute right of the individual."6 This impulse has until very recently not only limited American understanding of human rights to civil rights, but to the narrowest reading of civil rights, which stresses the rights of the individual in a society in which the state is conceived as guaranteeing protection only by not intervening in the lives of its citizens.

This is the context in which President Roosevelt in his annual message to Congress on January 6, 1941 affirmed the Four Freedoms that were to receive wide sanction a year later in the Joint Declaration of the United Nations. Roosevelt said:

    We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peaceful life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.7

Freedom of speech and expression and freedom of worship are clearly established in American constitutional law. However, freedom from fear is largely left to an informed public, and freedom from want is traditionally understood as the goal of charity rather than as the responsibility of government.

Arthur Holcombe argues that in the newly formed United States of America in the late eighteenth century:

    There were no provisions in any of the state bills of rights for securing a right to work and nothing about the conditions of employment or what is now called social security. The independent farmers and tradesmen who constituted the bulk of the free population in 1776 were more interested in equality of opportunity to subjugate the wilderness and exploit the natural resources of the country than in what we now call social and industrial justice. Instead of a right to work there was a popular demand for the kind of liberty that consists of leveling natural barriers to profitable enterprise rather than organizing the market for labor and regulating the conditions of employment in the interests of a special class of wage earners.8

Even today the struggle for freedom from want in America is an uphill battle against the tradition that identifies rights with individual opportunities, in a society guided more by private economic interests than by public policies to promote the general welfare.9

The history of human rights thought on the continent of Europe is somewhat different. In 1789 the citizens of France were confronted by intractable social and economic forces causing impoverishment and hunger. Hence, the distinctive emphasis on rights more raw and basic than those of individual civic dignity. Economic growth, with more fairness of distribution is the reigning value, and human rights (viewed 'collectively' rather than individualistically) depend upon governmental management, improved for the purpose by ridding itself of archaic involvement with religious preoccupations and institutions.10

The French embraced all of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man and not merely the sections that the Americans had taken to heart.11 Thus, the French Constitution of 1791 provides for public relief for the poor and free public education, rights that were not protected in early American constitutions and in international law today are described as "economic and social rights."

Therefore, even within the framework of Western liberal thought, there is diversity as to how the conditions of human dignity are to be realized. Rights are seen to arise in response to particular situations, expressing demands on institutions that certain deprivations be ended. "Hence there can be a recognition of universal rights at the very time there is disagreement on the philosophical foundations of those rights."12

Jean-Bernard Marie suggests that human rights "are, quite simply, a way of living together in a society that values human dignity."13 As all societies fall short of such a vision, one might well conclude: "The movement for human rights is really a movement for world reform."14 In the West the American and French revolutions stimulated social reforms with different emphases. In the American tradition, liberty or freedom clearly dominated over equality, and thus equality came to mean only equality of opportunity.15 In the French tradition, equality was as important as liberty, and thus social and economic rights were more readily embraced.16

Socialists were quick to point out that Western liberal notions of rights had developed in the particular economic and political circumstances of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As these circumstances changed in the nineteenth century, liberal theory was unable to respond to the need for state action to secure fundamental human rights and freedoms for citizens. Socialist theories of rights, often described as the "second generation" of human rights, emphasize economic, social, and cultural rights. The socialist human rights position was in large part:

    a response to the abuses and misuses of capitalist development and its underlying, essentially uncritical, conception of individual liberty that tolerated, even legitimated, the exploitation of working classes and colonial peoples. Historically, it is counterpoint to the first generation of civil and political rights, with human rights conceived more in positive ("rights to") than negative ("freedom from") terms, requiring the intervention, not the abstention, of the state for the purpose of assuring equitable participation in the production and distribution of the values involved.17

Those who affirmed liberal notions of natural rights resisted this development. In the words of Gregorio Peces-Barba, professor of law at the University of Madrid,

    at this very stage of the historical origin of fundamental rights, there is a barrier in positive law to the reception of the philosophy of economic, social and cultural rights when they appear historically, because they presuppose a major factor—one of positive action by the State—which is foreign to that historic origin and to that concept of law.18

In the socialist perspective, this historical analysis explains "the assertion of doctrinaire liberalism that equality is incompatible with freedom" and allows for "attempts to correct the discriminatory character" which fundamental rights "have in the liberal conception. . .."19

Peces-Barba speaks of this approach as the "integral reformulation of the concept of fundamental rights" and sees in it great hope for humankind.

    The incorporation into the concept of fundamental rights of the economic, social and cultural rights that assume the egalitarian component which harmonizes, completes and makes freedom more real, also creates a new dimension which is that of solidarity, synonymous in my opinion with the fraternity of the trilogy of the French Revolution. If this is confirmed, the fundamental rights will be the means by which men truly put into practice the banner of liberty, equality and fraternity, which will thus be the patrimony of all and not just of the liberals, and give impulse to historical progress and the liberation of men and their integral development. This is the utopia for which one must struggle as if it were possible to obtain immediately, because the utopia also forms a part of reality, though it be a premature reality anticipated by the dreams of men who have their eyes on a different light.20

In a slightly different way than Jean-Bernard Marie, Peces-Barba also sees fundamental rights as central to "the historical development of democratic society," which has as its goal the strengthening of "the freedom of individuals and of the groups they form."21

Irving Louis Horowitz is correct in asserting that the present debate on human rights:

    can be conceptualized in part as a struggle between eighteenth century libertarian persuasions and nineteenth century egalitarian beliefs—that is, from a vision of human rights having to do with the right of individual justice before the law to a recognition of the rights of individuals to social security and equitable conditions of work and standards of living.22

This struggle may be seen as an attempt to correct the overemphasis, in liberal notions of civil and political rights, on the rights of the individual over against the welfare of groups and peoples. Yugoslavian scholar Katarina Tomasevski writes: "The second generation (social, economic and cultural rights) emerged as a counter-balance to the dominantly Western concepts, [and was] advocated primarily by the newly founded socialist states."23

It is important to recall at this point that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in Articles 22-27, affirms:

    the right to social security, the right to work and to protection against unemployment; the right to rest and leisure, including periodic holidays with pay; the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of self and family; the right to education; and the right to the protection of one's scientific, literary, and artistic production.24

As noted earlier, these are at least in part an effort to express what President Roosevelt described as "freedom from want." Thus, the concept of social and economic rights advanced within the socialist tradition is included in the Universal Declaration and not entirely absent from the liberal tradition.

Similarly, not all second generation rights can properly be described as "positive rights." For instance, the right to free choice of employment, the right to form and to join trade unions, and the right to participate freely in the cultural life of the community do not require action by the state to secure their enjoyment. However, certainly the emphasis of second generation rights is on claims to social equality; and so state intervention is essential in the allocation of resources required to enforce these rights. 

Shift at the UN

Antonio Cassese, professor of international law and director of the Post-Graduate School of International Affairs of the University of Florence, describes the years 1960-1973 as the "second phase" in the life of the United Nations.25 In this phase the socialist countries joined forces with Third World countries to champion the right of peoples to self-determination and to economic and social rights. Rather than resisting the development of human rights instruments, socialists now saw in international law the possibilities of promoting the very concerns for economic and social justice that had prompted their original opposition.

It is no accident that both the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights begin with the same first article: "All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development."26

Cassese asserts that this right has become "the linchpin of the United Nations strategy toward human rights."27 He notes that until the middle of the 1970s the struggle in the United Nations was still largely between the Eastern and Western countries, with the developing countries frequently supporting the socialist position. However, since 1974 the Third World countries have come to dominate debate at the UN. Together, the Third World countries have shifted the agenda away from the liberal-socialist controversy to an explicit concern for changing international economic conditions.

The challenge to realize a "third generation of human rights" was first articulated in the 1974 Charter on Economic Rights and Duties of States.28 It was reiterated in Resolution 32/130, which was proposed by Argentina, Cuba, Iran, the Philippines, and Yugoslavia and adopted by the General Assembly in 1977.29

This resolution established two priorities for the future work of the UN Commission on Human Rights. The first priority is to combat violation of the human rights of peoples, with apartheid, racial discrimination and colonialism named as primary concerns. The second priority is the realization of a new international economic order. W. A. Whitehouse comments: "It is fair to observe that the language of human rights has been taken over from the worlds of liberal capitalism and of Marxist socialism and adapted to contend with the collective emergencies of Third World societies."30

Resolution 32/130 also affirms that all human rights and fundamental freedoms are indivisible and interdependent and that the realization of civil and political rights is therefore impossible without the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. In addition, all human rights are seen as inalienable and their promotion globally is understood to involve different emphases in different parts of the world. Finally, realization of the new international economic order is identified as essential for the effective protection of human rights.31

Third World Crucible

George Shepherd argues that the Third World is the crucible in which a "global consciousness" is being forged, "because it is the center of the anticolonial and development process in which the two streams of individualistic and social human rights flowing from the first two worlds have met."32 He suggests that the Third World is developing a conception of human rights that goes beyond both individual and social notions:

    This global view sees rights as both inherent in the individual and socially derived by development. Political freedoms are not possible without primary social development and conflicts are resolved in terms of the welfare of society as a whole.33

The basic rights to survival and food are asserted both as qualifying civil and political rights and as depending upon them.

In the Third World human rights are understood to embrace political and religious concepts as well as indigenous traditional values.34 Human rights are conceived as elements of the right to self-determination, which protects the rights of peoples to their cultural traditions and language, as well as their right to development.

Although socialist concepts may seem to predominate in the Third World, human rights advocates argue that civil and political rights are not subordinated to economic and social rights.35 For example, the late José W. Diokno of the Philippines, former senator and presidential candidate, argues against the notion that governments in the Third World are inevitably authoritarian either because of the need for rapid economic development or because of indigenous traditions. He characterizes the second justification for authoritarianism as "racist" and the first as "a lie" that perpetuates an unjust status quo:

    Development is not just providing people with adequate food, clothing, and shelter; many prisons do as much. Development is also people deciding what food, clothing and shelter are adequate, and how they are to be provided.36

This is utterly consistent with the assertion by the Sengalese Kéba Mbaye that the right to development is a "fundamental human right, without which life in a society is not worth living."37

In the Third World the right to self-determination, which "is an internationally recognized right of long and dubious standing,"38 is being given a new shape. This is reflected in the Algiers Declaration of Third World Peoples, adopted on 4 July 1976, which attributes violations of human rights directly to the structures of the international economic system.39

Richard Falk argues that the Algiers Declaration is important for at least two reasons. First, as a nongovernmental document it cannot be dismissed as a statement representing only the interests of ruling elites in the Third World. Second, it is an assertion of the principle of popular sovereignty—"that it is the peoples of the world that are the fundamental source of authority."

    Somehow statist tendencies have distorted this situation, making it appear as if governments are the ultimate, if not the only source of authority with respect to human rights. The Algiers Declaration, drawing inspiration from the Magna Carta tradition, is a framework of rights asserted by and for the peoples of the world over and against the claims and activities of government, multinational corporations, and international institutions.40

In this declaration of human rights it is every people, not every individual nor every state, that is said to have the right to existence, respect and self-determination.

The Algiers Declaration was authored largely by "non-Marxist communalists," as David Forsythe describes them, who are convinced that "effective respect for human rights necessarily implies respect for the rights of peoples. . .."41 Forsythe suggests that non-Marxist communalists, such as Tanzania's Julius Nyerere, are able to combine liberal and socialist notions of human rights. In 1968 Nyerere asserted:

    For what do we mean when we talk of freedom? First, there is national freedom; that is, the ability of the citizens of Tanzania to determine their own future, and to govern themselves without interference from non-Tanzanians. Second, there is freedom from hunger, disease, and poverty. And third, there is personal freedom for the individual; that is, his right to live in dignity and equality with all others, his right to freedom of speech, freedom to participate in the making of all decisions which affect his life, and freedom from arbitrary arrest because he happens to annoy someone in authority—and so on. All these things are aspects of freedom, and the citizens of Tanzania cannot be said to be truly free until all of them are assured.42

Forsythe argues that on numerous occasions Nyerere defended individual rights, even as he asserted communal and economic rights as expressions of "working together for the common good instead of competitively for individual private gain."43

Louis Henkin agrees that although many of the states of the Third World describe themselves as socialist, most are not essentially Marxist and are only pragmatically socialist in that they stress economic and social development. He argues that while there are many cultural and historical differences:

    Almost all Third World states have constitutions including bills of rights, most of which were drafted after World War II on the model of the U. S. Bill of Rights, the French Declaration, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the European Convention on Human Rights.44

For instance, the Constitution of the kingdom of Burundi, which had been part of the Belgian Trust Territory of Ruanda-Urundi until 1962,

    affirms in the Preamble the King's belief in God and his faith in the high dignity of the human person and his decision to guarantee fundamental human rights, and records that he takes his inspiration from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and from the Charter of the United Nations.45

However, as Henkin readily acknowledges, almost all African constitutions also contain provisions for the suspension or derogation of rights in times of emergency. Therefore, these constitutions do not effectively limit the power of the state.

Affirmations of human rights in the Third World clearly reflect a convergence of Western liberal and socialist traditions and by no means the victory of one over the other.46 What is also clear is that these reactants are being catalyzed by the cultural values of Third World peoples. In the crucible of the Third World there is not merely a reformulation of liberal and socialist doctrines of human rights—the first and second generations of human rights—but at the same time a reassertion of traditional values. The right to self-determination is seen as the right to shape the future in a way that protects as well as reforms the past.

If diverse cultural contexts in the Third World make the traditional distinctions between individual and group rights less clear, the oppressive character of many governments renders the debate between liberals and socialists a luxury. Patricia Weiss Fagen argues in a study of human rights literature in Latin America that, "the human rights movement has begun to function in Latin America as a means of keeping politics alive."47 Against the claims of the ruling elites of Latin America that individual rights must be subordinate to the state, those working for human rights insist "that individual human beings have rights which take precedence over the state's and must be recognized by the state."48

Fagen identifies the largest body of this literature as the product of Catholic and Protestant groups working for human rights.

In general, the writing from religious perspectives begins with the assertion that the rights advanced in the UN and inter-American human rights declarations and covenants correspond to accepted religious ethics. Catholic clergy equate human rights principles with the spirit of major theological statements since Pacem in Terris (Pope John XXIII).49

Therefore, in Latin America it is understood as natural and necessary for church leaders to defend human rights and for many church programs to be devoted entirely to human rights advocacy.

Fagen concludes that where political systems are open it is not necessary

    to appeal exclusively to concepts of human rights in order to struggle, as people always have, for bread, freedom, land, a greater voice in the decisions that direct their lives, and overall human dignity. For the present, the very fact that there are suddenly thousands of people proclaiming and writing about human rights indicates that political systems in most countries are far from open.50

In Latin America, as in Africa and Asia, human rights claims are a means of affirming basic moral values in the face of severe oppression.

The breadth of the concept of human rights is an asset in this respect, for it encompasses different social, political and ideological perspectives and "is therefore useful to the political left, right and center, to religious and secular humanitarian associations and to victims of the many forms of repression."51 The ambiguity of human rights language, as well as its association with established legal and religious institutions, allows a certain amount of protection for those seeking redress for their grievances, as they would be more vulnerable using ideological or political language. 

Perhaps noted Chinese scholar Wm. Theodore de Bary offers wise counsel in how to interpret changes in the Third World. He argues that human rights are being translated and adapted into Chinese thought in the same way that Buddhist concepts were assimilated in the early Middle Ages.52 Therefore, he resists the argument that human rights are intelligible only within Western culture:

    In my own view nothing is to be gained by arguing for the distinctively Western character of human rights. If you win the argument, you lose the battle. That is, if you claim some special distinction for the West in this respect, or assert some inherent lack on the part of Asians, you are probably defining human rights in such narrow terms as to render them unrecognizable or inoperable for others. If, however, you view "human rights" as an evolving conception, expressing imperfectly the aspirations of many peoples, East and West, it may be that, learning from the experience of others, one can arrive at a deeper understanding of human rights problems in different cultural settings.53

The synthesis of human rights concepts in the Third World is to be embraced rather than resisted, for it means that the possibility of a truly global standard for human dignity is becoming a reality.54

Despite the obvious violations of human rights there is hope. R. N. Trivedi, director of the Human Rights Institute in Lucknow, India, affirms that

    the indomitable spirit of man, phoenix like, has risen from the ashes of despair to refurbish the bastions of hope, to give new meaning to life and make it worth living. . . . Want he has sought to banish by unending toil but the lurking fear that the fruits of his toil and labor may be snatched away from him has to be dispelled by faith. Faith in the form of awareness of his rights as a human being, individually or in a group, to enjoy life together or alone and to share the bounties of nature beyond the man made barriers—social, economic, political and geographic.55

In the Third World, faith in human rights is a way of living, in the face of renewed barbarism and systematic oppression, with hope for the future of the human family.

Notes to Rights in the Third World

*Revised from a chapter on "The Common Good" in Faith in Human Rights: Support in Religious Traditions for a Global Struggle (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1991).

[Have you done any research in this area?  If so, please share it.]

 

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Human rights are the social conditions necessary for human dignity.