Human rights advocates must challenge class and exclusion, not fall prey to sectarian analysis

Fateh Azzam
11 July 2014

In 1948, reacting to “barbarous acts that have outraged the conscience of mankind,” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) ushered in the promise of universal humanity: that every person is equal to every other and has an inalienable right to a life of dignity. It translated this overarching principle of equality into rights that must be enjoyed without discrimination and protected by law.

Yet it seems that history marches in the opposite direction. Horrors and massacres still occur regularly. But in focusing on the tragedies of lives lost and brutalities perpetrated, we have come to tacitly accept an analytical framework based on ever more divisive definitions of communities. Narrowing nationalisms and sectarianism are threatening social and political cohesion and present one of the most serious contemporary challenges to the human rights discourse of universalism, equality, pluralism and non-discrimination.

Proponents of human rights have not risen to this challenge, and indeed are in danger of accepting the new paradigm. Sometimes they do so in the context of protecting minority rights and even the right to self-determination, other times by simply accepting the pundits’ sectarian analysis as a basis for understanding world events. It’s not only too easy; it’s dangerous.

Current examples abound, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, but elsewhere as well. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and their allies have successfully diverted the demands of the Arab revolts into a dangerous Sunni-Shia divide. Throughout the Middle East there is a Catch-22 dance with the terrorism of Al-Qaida and now the more deadly versions like the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS). The latter are the latest episode of Iraq’s descent into sectarian violence – thanks in large part to the American intervention. Meanwhile, the Kurds continue to forge a de facto independent Kurdistan in the North.

The Catch-22 is that State terrorism is all too often the response, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians (a daily occurrence in Syria), and drone assassination attacks that target alleged terrorist suspects (and kill civilians as well). This is sanitized as “targeted killings,” and has been a policy long pursued by Israel, which started on the sectarian road more than 60 years ago. Its revitalized insistence on its “Jewishness” excludes all its non-Jewish citizens (not only the 20% who are Palestinian), as well as the possibility of peace with the Palestinians - who in turn are dealing with their own Hamas and Islamic Jihad.  

Ethnic Russians in the Ukraine are re-identifying themselves vis-à-vis the state. Muslims and Christians are engaged in reprisal killings in the Central African Republic, and in Myanmar the Buddhist majority denies full rights to the Rohyinga Muslim minority, rendering them stateless.

In Europe, there is the continued rise of more organized forms of xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamophobia, and widespread racism against the Roma. Marine LePen’s extreme National Front has become ‘legitimate’ in France, and now David Cameron wants to reaffirm, for some unfathomable reason, the U.K. as a “Christian” country. Racial identity and demography continue to define politics in the U.S. and, while this is not new, it has become the main basis of political, economic and policy analysis there. Indeed the list is long, and if we take it at face value, none of us are safe any more from the politics of exclusion and ever-narrowing loyalties. 

Glaringly absent from public discussions of these conflicts are the issues of class and economic exclusion, which are often intertwined with racial and religious discrimination.  Syria offers a potent example. The revolts that started in 2011 were rapidly – and wrongly - framed as Sunni protests against a “minority” regime of Alawites, a branch of Shi’a Islam. Yet they were much more about economic and political exclusion than about religion. Similarly in Bahrain, the majority rebellion that began in 2011 against the House of Khalifa was a rebellion against exclusionary policies, but the regime and its Saudi allies chose to frame it as a Shia revolt fomented by Iran.  The story repeats itself in the Middle East region and around the world: family and economic elites take full advantage of total political power to enlarge the coffers of those closest to them, to the exclusion of the vast majority.  The resulting conflicts, however, are described in sectarian or ethnic terms, and the description becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sectarianism and ethnic nationalism pose fundamental challenges to the universal human rights discourse, but the responses have been weak at best. National and international human rights organizations have not gone far beyond documenting and protesting violations and pointing to states’ legal responsibilities.. But states are at best selective players in the legal field, and human rights actors are either averse to playing in the political one, or have no ‘power coin’ to put their two cents in, at least not to any real effect.  

The only long-term strategy seems to be a focus on human rights education organized at local and global levels. Important as that is, however, it does not address the fundamental inequalities in economic and political power. Human rights activists around the world appear to shy away from such discussions, perhaps perceiving them as political discussions divorced from human rights principles and law. Instead, they seem to labor under the illusion that, somehow, if people can be convinced to recalibrate their moral compass through better knowledge of human rights, or through a return to religiously inspired moral values, we would then see better respect for rights.  

This of course is not entirely untrue, and grounding actions in higher moral values is important. But it is a very small part of the picture. The risk is to disregard complex economic and political realities that shape policies directly affecting human rights in favor of all-too-facile sectarian analysis. It may even play into the dangerous notion that violations happen because of people’s disparate moral, ethical and cultural beliefs, or because of some built-in ancient hatreds, racism and bloodlust.

What is needed is to look beyond these facile interpretations, to re-commit to universal values and to develop comprehensive strategies that combine legal obligation and public education with an astute political and economic analysis and a revitalized and honest public discourse. In particular, to look at global economic power and its effects on political power and on the lives of people at village level. Strategies must also tackle head-on the dominant sectarian-focused analytical framing of the issues, and incorporate in the analysis issues of power, money and class at the national and international levels.

In doing so, the human rights movement may not solve the complex problems of today’s world, but it may at least begin a discussion towards finding alternatives to the current downward-spiraling discourse.

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