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The flip side of human rights

Zuhair al-Harthi

Published: Updated:

Protecting human rights is a noble goal that humanity aspires to, which is a beautiful thing when associated with integrity and facts, but has a dark, ugly side as well. We have recently witnessed this quest being politicized and exploited to serve certain interests and agendas. There are those who preach human rights when all the while major human rights violations are being committed in their own countries. As the adage goes, those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

Even in primitive societies, enacting justice has long been and will always be a dominant social concern. Western philosophy has remarkable insights regarding human rights. For example, according to German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s doctrine of transcendental idealism, an individual’s mind and reason dictate a categorical imperative for moral action. In Kant's terms, a good will is a will with decisions that are wholly determined by moral demands or by the Moral Law as he calls it. This means that humans act out of a sense of self-imposed moral obligation or “duty” for the good of society. As for the British philosopher William Clifford, he believed that every human being has two identities: his individual identity and his social identity, and that the moment these two identities come into conflict, the conscience is born, and it is only then that individuals take moral actions for the good of society. Thus, the secret lies in ethics, and this is precisely what Jean-Jacques Rousseau (father of the Social Contract theory) believed. Rousseau saw ethics as the result of the convergence between the mind (politics) and the conscience (ethics). This convergence leads to the production of a law (the contract). This means that ethical behavior preserves life and social growth, as the thinker Herbert Spencer put it. These philosophical ideas are well reasoned, but the important question is, how are they being applied in the West?

Human rights currently constitute a new means for achieving legitimacy; in fact, they challenge the realist school's traditional conceptions about international relations. This has made international control and oversight an inevitable reality, rendering the protection of human rights an imperative after it had been merely an idealistic slogan.

Through my experience in human rights, I have found that some long established international human rights organizations have double standards. These organizations that are supposedly renowned, independent, and credible with a proven track record of unwavering commitment to human rights principles when they issue their international reports, have recently shown that they have no problem with going off track with other reports and following the directives of those who prepared them while blindly backing their claims that these reports are entirely factual. Here we find the real point of contention, as this reflects on the organization’s credibility and status. It would seem that the personal stances of certain individuals have a clear impact on the way reports are drafted and formulated, allowing matters to be blown out of proportion to serve the rhetoric of those individuals. Although reputable organizations have certain mechanisms in place for issuing such reports, this time unfortunately these were swayed by those who wrote the report. In truth, this was made possible with the influence of certain ill-intentioned parties, including Arabs with particular agendas against certain countries. They thereby continue to exploit human rights reports to discredit certain countries or tarnish their reputation.

As for the annual human rights reports issued by foreign ministries of major countries, it is clear to see that most of them are politicized to serve the political agenda of the country that is issuing them. The reports are exploited to meet certain objectives, and thus, through the reports' propaganda, pressure is imposed on certain countries to serve these objectives.

In certain countries, especially when the left comes to power, governments rally around these reports, promote their veracity and use them to further their political agenda by issuing statements in which they denounce the supposed human rights violations to blackmail whomever they want. Readers of these reports say that these states' human rights record is as clean as a whistle, though the reality nothing could be farther from the truth.

There is a clear paradox between international human rights concepts and the actual methods used in certain Western countries, that allows for the existence of glaringly selective implementation methods and double standards. This paradox is evident when these countries firmly commit to respecting human rights within their own countries, yet they violate them abroad.

The West applies two different standards when it comes to human rights, especially regarding the rights of groups or minorities in certain European countries, not to mention turning a blind eye to the acts of terror committed by countries like Iran against Sunni citizens.

Another area the West routinely disregards is respect for other cultures. For instance, what the West may deem as a human rights violation, the Muslim community may see as the opposite; a practice that lies at the heart of its culture and beliefs, such as the death penalty as a punishment. Another example is the right to freedom of opinion and expression. We have repeatedly heard this right being emphasized by human rights organizations; however, certain cultures believe that there should be limitations in order to avoid harming others. Freedom of opinion is relative and should be restricted when it comes to certain topics, such as the issues of voicing contempt for religion and insulting other people’s beliefs, because this is a serious matter aimed at inciting hatred and discrimination.

Perhaps the main problem with Western countries lies in their constant contradiction between implementing the principles they preach and serving their own interests. They may advocate enlightened ideas and visions, yet the West's dilemma becomes apparent when it fails to present these ideas in a manner that can be incorporated within Muslim communities. So far, these ideas have failed to take important religious, cultural and intellectual factors into consideration, completely disregarding the fact that international law grants all states the right to sovereignty, which gives them the right to shape their legal and criminal justice systems in accordance with their cultural and social structure.

In my opinion, accepting the universality of human rights while at the same time making sure to respect other people’s cultures is the key to success, as it veils the dark side of human rights and how they are exploited, and therefore mitigating the West's contradictions.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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