Is the Arab Spring About ‘Western’ Rights?

QUERY | February 6, 2012     

Is the Arab Spring About ‘Western’ Human Rights?The future of rights in Western Asia, as in other theatres, will require an abiding rights ‘culture’ that is not so much ‘Western’ as it is the outgrowth of modernity

Since the end of WW2, a human rights culture has spread over much of the globe. The expression ‘human rights culture’ is used here very deliberately. Historians of human rights tend to focus on texts, theories and doctrines. They mention – as they must – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and all of those noble documents, manifestos, treaties and charters to which so many countries have signed on. But, quite evidently, all of these amount to nothing – to scraps of paper, as it were – unless they have a strong institutional basis; and, even more importantly, a strong cultural basis. Indeed, there would be no human rights movement without the norms and attitudes that vast numbers of people – ordinary people, not philosophers or political theorists – hold today.

What brought about this human rights culture? The growth of democracy is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. Parliaments, after all, can be bigoted, narrow-minded, intolerant, short-sighted and even oppressive. A human rights culture cannot depend on the people in power. On the contrary, it relies on ways of enforcing basic rights independently of governments. And, to be sure, in the last two generations, constitutions and bills of rights have sprung up like mushrooms after a rainstorm: in Spain, Poland, South Africa, Ecuador, Thailand and even Mongolia. Typically, these constitutions call for a court or courts with powers of judicial review. Canada has its constitutionally entrenched Charter of Rights. The UK – once a stubborn hold-out – now has a kind of judicial review through the back door – as it were – in the form of its Human Rights Act. This law essentially commits the UK to the European Convention on Human Rights, and instructs British courts to comply, if at all possible, with decisions of the European Court of Human Rights – though some of these decisions have questioned the legality of laws and regulations of the UK.

To succeed, the institutions – even more than the texts – have to rest on a strong culture of rights-consciousness. Naturally, this culture varies somewhat from society to society. Yet certain fundamental postulates are the same wherever this culture is strong. A certain menu of rights – freedom of speech, religion and mobility (or travel) – is common to all of these cultures. Also common to them is a postulate of equality; that is, that the menu of fundamental rights belongs to everybody – men and women alike, all religions, all races, all ethnic groups, all languages. No actual system lives up to what these postulates promise. But many societies do accept them as goals. And many make at least some progress toward these goals.

Whence these goals, norms and postulates? Tracing them to Plato or Confucius or the Bible or Koran – or even to Kant or Locke – is ultimately futile. They are distinctly modern ideas. And they are not peculiarly ‘Western.’ Women did not vote in most Western countries – and certainly not elsewhere – until the 20th century. A number of countries that are both modern and democratic, like Italy, did not even grant women the right to vote until 1945. (Switzerland granted the right federally in 1971, and one canton dragged its feet until 1990.) Torture was freely used in European courts in the Middle Ages. Heretics were burned at the stake. Kings and nobles lorded over a mass of peasantry. Settler societies slaughtered native peoples, kidnapped their children, and suppressed their cultures. Slavery persisted in the US until the 1860s; even after it was formally abolished, the American South ran something close to an apartheid society. The human rights culture, therefore, is not old, time-honoured or traditional. It is no older than the industrial revolution, and in its modern and most radical form it is barely a couple of generations old.

The roots of this rights culture lie in the structure of modern society – at least in the developed world. It is, most fundamentally, the product of what has been called expressive individualism. Expressive individuals are much more full-blooded and complex than ‘economic man.’ People today – expressive individuals – believe in themselves and in their own uniqueness. They believe in the right to choose their own pathways through life. They are conscious of rights, freedoms and opportunities. They want structures and rules that make their choices possible – that expand their freedom of choice. Economics does play a role here – for the soil in which this kind of individualism grows is a society of wealth, consumption and markets.

In modern market economies, advertising is everywhere. Advertising is, in a way, the hallmark of rich, developed countries. And advertising – no matter what product is advertised – typically carries the message of modern individualism. It is addressed to ‘you’ the listener, the reader, the viewer. ‘You’ can be richer, better, sexier; you can have whiter teeth; you can have a happier life; you can buy more, enjoy more, live more; yes, you can even have a more spiritual life – especially when religious groups advertise. This same message of expressive individualism is omnipresent throughout a modern life lived. In kindergarten, we are encouraged to ‘show and tell’; at life’s end, we get to decide to whom we give our money, and, of course, how we should be buried.

Cultures – including human rights cultures – are never accidents or mutations; they grow out of specific historical and social causes. And, very notably, they rise and fall. For about 50 years, on the strength of economic growth in developed countries, the human rights culture has been showing great strength. In living memory, Europe was the Europe of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Stalin; today, it is the Europe of the EU, the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights. The human rights culture has spread to parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. It seems to be conquering everything in its path. The future looks bright. Optimists would expect the laggards to fall in line over time: China, Vietnam, Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, Syria, Morocco; perhaps even Saudi Arabia and Qatar – not to mention the many African countries that have one-party or one-man rule.

But are we being overly optimistic about the future of human rights, globally? It is certainly possible. The human rights culture confronts at least three powerful and dangerous opponents. The first and most obvious one is the resistance of traditionalists, who find women’s or gay rights abhorrent, or who reject democracy on religious or traditional grounds. Iran had a revolution, in 1979, against an autocratic leader; but what resulted was not a liberal democracy. A stern theocracy replaced the Shah. Today, religious fundamentalism seems to be growing more powerful – and not only in Islam. Poverty and insecurity haunt the lives of millions of people. Markets and open societies seem to promise a good and prosperous life; but for these millions at the bottom of the heap, the promises seem hollow and empty. For these millions, fundamental religion is a haven – a safe harbour in a world of storms. It makes sense out of their lives, and it replaces allegiance to a social order that seems rootless, biased, and cruel; and which rejects their ideals and their values.

Second, and linked to the first, is the danger from massive, global, systemic risks – dangers that are peculiarly modern. For example, for the first time in history, human beings have actual power to destroy our planet. An atomic war is well within the realm of the possible in the 21st century. Catastrophic climate change may be a real danger. We may ultimately lose the ‘arms race,’ too, between modern medicine and mutating bacteria, which can leap suddenly across borders – leading to titanic pandemics. The populations of poor, desperate countries are exploding; the populations of rich, developed countries are shrivelling. Dramatic demographic imbalances and overpopulation of the planet may eat into the quality of life of even the most advanced countries by century’s end.

Third, technology, which has transformed the modern world, may be racing ahead with such rapidity that humankind may not be able to control or manage it. The human rights culture depends on privacy, autonomy, human dignity and the right to decide things for ourselves. What happens, then, in an age that is capable of ‘life-logging’; that is, in an age wherein everything about every one of us – from our first weak, babyish cry to our last death rattle – can be recorded, stored and instantly retrieved by powerful institutions and interests (both public and private)?

Perhaps none of these three major opponents will prove irresistible to the expansion of rights this century. Thus far, the human rights culture has gone from strength to strength. It still, of course, has a very long way to go. The club of dictators is still large. Only time will tell whether the human rights culture grows or shrinks. And time is both silent and inscrutable.

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Lawrence M. Friedman is the Marion Rice Kirkwood Professor at Stanford Law School. His most recent book is The Human Rights Culture: A Study in History and Context.

(Illustration: Janet Atkinson)

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