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Reversing present reversions

In the last days of 2005, leading thinkers and scholars from around the world share their fears, hopes and expectations of 2006. As Isabel Hilton asks: What does 2006 have in store? (Part one)
Khaled Abou El Fadl
22 December 2005

Since 2001, humanity has regressed in a fashion that has obliterated the coherence of annual divisions of time. The world is now in a primal condition in which the global hegemon, in the name of a higher truth, demands complete allegiance from the leaders of weaker states and treats them as satellites dedicated to carrying out its commands. It bears a painful resemblance to the historical division between the abode of Islam or the land of Christendom versus the infidels.

Worst of all, in my view, is the regression in the field of human-rights practice. The casualties since 2001 have not been limited to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Covenant for Civil and Political Rights and the convention against the practice of torture, but also the Geneva Conventions of 1949.

Human-rights activists used to shame authoritarian governments by referencing a morally objective and universal standard that prohibited the use of torture, extrajudicial killing, abduction and disappearance and imprisonment without trial. Today, authoritarian governments retort by citing the practices of the United States, Britain, and Israel, which include assassinations, imprisonment without charge, secret detentions, abductions, and torture.

Long before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, authoritarian governments justified such practices by claiming that they were necessary to defeat terrorism. This excuse is not new. But what is new and unprecedented is that authoritarian governments have a solid foundation for arguing that, far from being absolute and objective, human rights protections are circumstantial and relative.

This is one of the ironies of the present era: armed with a sense of absolute moral righteousness the hegemon shows an off-handed disdain for universal standards that restrict its ability to go about its business. This has undermined the very idea of objective moral standards and has taken humanity back to a relativism and even cynicism about any claim of universally applicable ethical standards. Increasingly, it appears that hypocrisy and crude pragmatism are the only truly universal human qualities.

We are living through an epoch that blurs the distinctions between one year and another. This year, like the one before it and the one to come, will be dominated by the same paradigms because all are part of a regressive historical period during which much of the moral progress that human beings struggled to achieve is coming undone. 2006 will, I’m afraid, bring more of the same. The same players will dominate the field, acting out the same roles. Instead of thinking of next year, we should focus on a new epoch in which the tragic reversions of the last five years are themselves reversed.

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