The discussion initiated by Leslie Vinjamuri and James Ron is inspiring. As invited by the authors, I wish to chip in this timely debate based on the insights from my human rights activism in a corner of the global South.
I do not think this “new kind of debate” can take off in earnest unless we are upfront about the problems of the ‘old debate’ and are prepared to deal with them head-on. At a discursive level, the main problem with the old debate is its pro-elitist bias. As such, it concentrates on such issues that at once confuse genuine advocates of human rights and help rulers evade their responsibilities. A clear example of the bias is the debate on Asian values, which decries human rights if they do not fit a cultural lens of the rulers. Another example is the debate on the justiciability of human rights. Masquerading in subtle academic reasoning, the justiciability debate decries human rights if they fail to pass the litmus test set by a court of law operated by the ruling elites.
A new debate on human rights requires deliberation on concrete issues, not on abstract ideas. As such, the issues of neglect, denial and marginalisation, which people on social margins of the world are facing, should feature in the new debate.
The second problem of the old debate is its focus on ‘explanation’ and not on ‘transformation’. It explains why a certain issue is concerning and why it appears the way it does. But it does not delve into the details as to how the issue should be dealt with. The new debate should rise to this challenge. It should empower the people concerned and engage them in the process of transformation.
For example, the new debate should enquire into the effects of socio-cultural discriminations that the Dalits of India and Nepal continue to face. This enquiry should take place among the Dalits in community pockets of Nepal and India to explore how these discriminations have robbed the Dalits of their potential, and perpetuated a hierarchical relationship in which the Dalits remain subjugated. The aim of the debate should be two-fold: (i) to empower the Dalits to realise the damaging effect of the discrimination on themselves and their communities and; (ii) to enable them to lead a process to constructively fight the discrimination. The work of Dalit NGO Federation Nepal, (Nepal National Dalit Social Welfare Organisations and Samata Foundation can be of inspiration in this regard.
We cannot participate in the new debate unaware of the fact that human rights are an ‘ideological construct’ of the ruling elites. Faced with the horror of the Nazi ideology, the ruling elites of the day had to find ways to mobilise people’s sentiment in their favour, which they could do only by appealing to something that would touch the heart of the people. Hence, the reference to people’s inherent human rights and the promise that those rights would be protected through the rule of law. Human rights protection is thus an ideological promise made to the people by hard-pressed rulers. However, these promises have been broken. The relevance of the new debate lies in its efforts to break this promise-deficit at the high level of state politics, and make states respect their obligations.
To say that the new debate would take place in the global South is not enough. The exact location should be in community pockets of the global South (not capitals and city centres) where people face various forms of human rights violations on a daily basis. And, the focus on the global South should not leave out of the debate the underdogs of the west who also suffer the same proportions of denial and discrimination as in the global South.
The new debate should occur among the survivors of human rights violations and the field activists, who eat, drink and live for human rights and whose only goal is to change the order and organisation of their society. The era of philosophical debate is over. It is time for enquiry into lived experiences.