The never-ending story of the West and human rights

Zuhair al-Harthi
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No one denies that the modern West enjoys a remarkable structure, especially in its elements of balance and separation. In other words, the nature of the West’s institutional system with its entailed independence of the regulatory authorities, as well as its commitment to transparency and openness is within the framework of a comprehensive legal system. However, this should not imply that the West holds the entire truth or is entitled to have custody over others. Moreover, its current superiority should not delude it into a sense of supremacy that might develop to some kind of chauvinism, particularly in the media and legal aspects.

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Since the earliest stages of human history, justice has always been a preoccupation of the social consciousness, since achieving it leads to clean conscience and peace of mind. Western philosophy had its notable contributions in that respect, and it is our aim here to shed some light on them. Any human action should stem from the mind, and the latter was analyzed by the German philosopher Kant in his idealistic principle, where he relates the ethical law with the concept of duty-obliged good will, and that should achieve social welfare.

The key word is ethics, and French thinker Jean Jacques Rosseau, author of the well-known Social Contract, considered ethics the result of a process of convergence and production, that is, he perceived the emergence of the law (the social contract) as a result of the convergence between the mind (politics) and the conscience (ethics). In the same vein, English Philosopher Herbert Spencer considered ethical norms the key prerequisite for the advancement of human life. All of these are elegant theories, but how does the West deal with them?

Let us take the London-based British Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC, as an example. It is indeed such a long-established highly respectable institution that sets an example in professionalism, thus maintaining a huge viewership rate, particularly in its English-speaking section. However, and in my personal opinion that is based on my thorough observation of its Arabic section’s programs, I can say that it is lacking in terms of professionalism, and this is quite unfortunate as we thought it to be a media outlet that is close to objectivity. Nevertheless, this TV station surprises us with some programs that give the impression it is being infiltrated by particular sides with specific agendas, as such programs are quite unprofessional and seem rather to serve particular political or ideological tendencies. The discerning programs on human rights might fall into that category.

There is no doubt that the concept of human rights has constituted a new source of legitimacy in our modern times, to some extent in defiance of the conventional ideals of the realist school of international relations. Hence, it modified the essence of statehood and its obligations, rendering international scrutiny of the respect and implementation of human rights inevitable, and making the preservation of human rights a reality on the ground, rather than a theoretical slogan.

BBC logo (Stock image)
BBC logo (Stock image)

In my assessment, principles, ethical values, and beautiful philosophies are all nice and shiny concepts and behavioral norms that have a great value in our modern times. However, they sometimes turn to a demon at the decisive moment, as was the case with the Arabic BBC when it relinquished its objectivity. According to my humble knowledge of media literacy, whenever any case is presented to the public, it should have two sides representing their mutually opposing positions, and each of them should have the chance to explain its position and reply to the inquiries of the other side. Nevertheless, when an entire program turns to a one-sided show then this is intended bias, premeditated targeting, and a kind of demonization that contradicts the principles of media presentation in its various methods.

Furthermore, based on my humble legal experience as a previous member of the Human Rights Commission Board, and since I had been elected then as its official spokesperson in Saudi Arabia, later joining the Kingdom’s consultative Shura Council for years and writing extensively on that theme, I must make a personal statement. I sensed that there are elegant and independent legal organizations that have credibility, tradition, and status, as they irrevocably abide by their principles when releasing their annual reports.

However, at particular instances, these organizations divert from their professional framework due to the tendencies of the person who prepared some reports, claiming it to be entirely trustworthy, and this is quite problematic since it reflects negatively on the organization as a whole in terms of its credibility and status.

The thing is that personal attitudes of this or that person might clearly impact the context of some reports and the way they are released, so that particular pieces of information might be overplayed according to that person’s intentions. Besides, although there is a determined mechanism for releasing reports in such a well-established organization, it would blame the report’s preparer in this case.

As a matter of fact, these organizations were doomed to host some ill-minded cadres, some of whom are, unfortunately, Arabs who have their personal biases against particular countries, and thus would gladly exploit any human rights reports to tar the reputation of a specific state. Meanwhile, the human rights reports issued by foreign ministries of major countries, such as the United Kingdom or the United States, are mostly – if not entirely – politicized, due to an inclination to instrumentalize the human rights issue to serve the political interests of the country which issues that report. Hence, through the propaganda contained in that report, it would exert pressure and dictate terms on a particular state to achieve its own interests, albeit illegitimately.

This scenario is being implemented in terms of the human rights issue with Saudi Arabia, as there are some sides and countries that attempt to target the Kingdom through the fabrication of human rights cases and issues, for the sake of settling political scores against Riyadh. At any rate, it is worth mentioning that the modernist vision of His Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has foiled all the schemes and slogans these sides and countries were recurrently voicing, since it left them no more points to raise or advocate. To sum up, the reformist directives of the Crown Prince went far beyond their demands, expectations, and imagination.

There is a clear dilemma when comparing and contrasting the concepts of universal human rights with the conduct of some Western countries that flagrantly display prejudice, cherry-picking, and double standards, and this is most obvious when observing how such rights are being practiced inside these countries, and how they ignore them when dealing with external sides and countries.

Another noteworthy point is the necessity of respecting other cultural norms, as it is important to recall that some of what the West considers to be violation of human rights might be considered by several Muslim communities as an integral part of their culture and convictions. Capital punishment might be a good example to raise here.

The West uses a different language when the issue is the rights of some Muslim peoples and minorities in particular in European countries. It seems that the West’s dilemma arises when there is a conflict between its principles and its interests. Hence, some think that clinging to the universality of human rights – combined with the respect of cultural specificities is an inevitable formula for resolving that dilemma.

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

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