Human rights and openDemocracy – a conversation

Good luck, Dialogue, for the launch of your initiative on democracy and human rights on international democracy day! Thank you for this opportunity to tell you something about openDemocracy and human rights.
Rosemary Bechler
28 September 2010

In our nine years of existence since May 2001, we have always believed that there is an intimate relationship between good communication and human rights.

There has always been injustice. But it was when modern communication technologies opened up new avenues for comparing similar problems - helping to expose the causes underlying such atrocities, that the idea of universal human rights was born, as well as the common political and legal strategies designed to overcome them.

This is a learning process that, to say the least, remains unfinished (see below). But today, human rights standards are global in reach and we are now comparing experiences which to a large extent people share all over the world. For them to advance, human rights needs to become a global conversation, not between governments but between the individuals it is meant to defend, including those whose rights have been traduced, as well as a much greater range of their representative organisations.

But that very global transparency and reach presents us with new challenges. As Daniele Archibugi wrote, marking the 60th birthday of the Declaration of Human Rights for openDemocracy, if the authority and universality of that Declaration is not to be fatally undermined, its cause, “can never again be entrusted to the hands of a single country, or confined to the essentially intergovernmental logic that has dominated the human rights regime to date”. Instead, we need to actively promote global checks and balances based on a far greater degree of participation from individual citizens, and their organisations. Above all, “We need to finally allow citizens to become the main players in the production and protection of rights.”

Today, an amazing revolution in communication technologies is opening up new avenues for horizontal negotiation, the ongoing comparison of injustices, the fightback against all forms of authoritarianism, and the redefinition of what the free development of people should look like, both individually and within their communities and societies. The internet couldn’t have emerged at a better time for helping societies all over the world come to terms with the challenge of radical pluralism, whereby people of different worldviews, political and ethical affiliations, religious or non-religious convictions literally live, and have to live, side by side. Maybe this is the precondition for that future glimpsed in article one of the UN Declaration:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Certainly, this is where openDemocracy would like to think that we come in. We offer ourselves as one of those new avenues for global communication – an independent online publisher of “high quality news analysis, debates and blogs about the world and the way we govern ourselves… not about any one set of issues, but about principles and the arguments and debates about those principles… Open to ideas and submissions from anywhere, part of a global human conversation that is not distorted by parochial national interests…”

But we are not naïve about the challenge. It is surely no accident that no sooner has this ‘global human conversation’ become feasible, than it should be assailed by a whole plethora of new threats, both to the free and creative sharing of our thoughts and to the commons of ideas. Not only the battle around draconian intellectual property rights and the commercial appropriation of information, but our very ownership of our own identities and the state misuse of data and surveillance – these mark a fresh chapter in the struggle for human rights. openDemocracy as a communicator is directly implicated in these struggles, which is why last year, we and our section, OurKingdom, were happy to sponsor, cover and help organise, the Convention on Modern Liberty in seven venues around the UK, in which these were among the major themes.

I’m writing on September 11, if one needed reminding of that other major frontline for human rights: the encroachment on our liberties by the ‘war on terror’. This, also, is where openDemocracy came in. Launched four months before 9/11, in a horrible way our coverage of these events and those of the Iraq war to follow – times of crisis when so many people were eager to exchange their views with others, and hear their own thinking out loud - gave us our international readership and formed our reputation.  The question of how national security rhetoric becomes a threat to liberty in all sorts of ways has been close to our concerns ever since, as you can see, in Paul Rogers’ and Mary Kaldor’s columns, and in our openSecurity section. It even informs the way we moderate site discussions.  We draw the line at name-calling, incitements to hatred or violence for many reasons – but essentially because they are an enemy to open discussion, illuminating disagreement and new ideas. We believe that intelligent ‘Dialogue’ is essential, not just for our rights and liberties, but also ultimately, for our world security.

This is where our principle of ‘openness’ comes in. Our name is openDemocracy not balancedDemocracy. We are not attempting to be ‘above’ the fray and clash of argument, we are, like you, participants. We do not seek balanced coverage, whatever that might mean or pretend that members of our editorial network must hide their own views. Rather, we encourage clear and explicit argument that encourages engagement and disagreement by publishing articles with other viewpoints provided these too set out an honest case.

What plans do we have for the future? I mentioned above that our coverage of human rights is a learning process. This means we can’t know or plan for everything in the pipeline. But there are three areas where our ideas still need to be clarified and where a new debate is clearly opening up. One concerns that clash between human rights and liberty. Are we citizens of the world or citizens of specific legal countries? Both, is the answer from Anthony Barnett, saying the tension between the universal and the specific is part of human nature. But the conflict between the call of national, democratic politics and judicial norms protected by courts not votes will not be easily resolved. A second concerns the history of human rights and where the idea came from. The received narrative is that Human Rights emerged in their current form from the response by the liberal democracies to the Holocaust as set out in the UN’s Declaration. In a book published this year, Darker than Blue Paul Gilroy shows how the fight for human rights was also rooted in the freedom struggle against slavery and became part of the call for emancipation from colonialism: a challenge to the historic, imperial racism, domestic and international of the liberal democracies themselves. In this reading its universalism is not a gift but a claim. We’d like to see this argument tested in open debate. Third, although surely not finally, there are the arguments over the expansion of human rights from legal equality to fundamental economic and social rights. Since we interviewed Mary Robinson on these issues in 2003 they remain an unresolved aspect of the claim to human rights.

I have spoken about the constraints imposed by those vertical silos called nations. But, of course, there is also a richness in open, national conversations. As we have learnt from OurKingdom and openRussia, as well as the appeal to specific communities large and small, it is one of the paradoxes of our task that the more intimate and knowledgeable the conversation that takes place, the more the rest of us find that we have in common. I would like to see those qualities extended in openDemocracy, through new sections, social networking, e-mailing, blogging and events.

Without doubt, our greatest accomplishment to date is to have provided an open-minded platform for all the generous thinkers and activists, experts and commentators who have made the effort to walk through our doors and advance the global human conversation. Thanks to them, for nine years, we have been able to host democratic movements from Italy to Iran, closely track developments from South Africa to Russia, champion the rights of individuals and peoples, celebrate good writing, and marvel at the stamina and collective wisdom of our readers and commentators.

As we approach our first decade celebrations, we have many ideas for improving that platform, but it is these people who come first. We look forward to increasing their opportunities and finding out ‘where next for openDemocracy?’ from the conversation that follows.

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