Depoliticise the human rights debate

Depoliticise the human rights debate

Christopher Lingle
The Economic Times, Apr 30, 2002


THE most vocal supporters of so-called human rights are actually promoting a legal concept that supports the misconduct they wish to see ended.

In particular, human rights are often referred to in terms of social or collective rights. Similarly, government officials frequently engage in populist promises by defining rights based on economic or social characteristics.

In both instances, the attempt to construct a system of group rights is fraught with danger.
Preserving rights and dignity of humans will be best served through a rigorous support for individual rights through the rule of law.

By ignoring the key role of individual rights being guaranteed rights to autonomous human beings, collective or group rights proponents are flirting with the destruction of rule of law.

Indeed, the assertion of group rights over individual rights is what the injustices of apartheid in South Africa and genocide in other parts of the world are based upon.

References to social or collective or group rights mask the fact that assignment of such rights may involve empowerment or possessions that require the action or aid of others.

In the process of activating such group rights, the rights of other individuals will be violated by imposing obligation upon them. Rights that impose obligations necessarily attenuate the freedom of choice and action of others.

As it turns out, many of the countries that suffer most from communal violence and sectarianism are those that have implemented policies that define rights of minorities.

Clearly, this approach has not worked. A collectivistic approach to human rights as group rights also violates the generality requirement of jurisprudence associated with Kant's categorical imperative.

Under a Kantian system, justice is served when rights are applied generally without particular, arbitrary preferences for either individuals or groups.

The assignment of group rights in the case of apartheid is a worst-case scenario of abuses arising from the violation of these generality conditions. Other extreme forms of the exclusivity of ethnic nationalism have ravaged the Balkans and plague other parts of the world.

What is at stake is the choice of a system that serves as the means for attaining and measuring social justice.

Private property rights might be seen as essential for safeguarding most other civil rights. These rights might be the most effective incentive to inspire individual effort that may lead to general prosperity of the community.

A focus on "social" or communitarian rights tends to lead to reliance upon a politicisation of the economic position (income and wealth) of individuals in the community.

Politicising such outcomes in pursuit of a special sense of social justice is open to exploitation by special interest groups or power elites of other groups or specific individuals within the community. It also allows envy and politics to brew up a ghastly stew.

Anchoring human rights to a (more or less inviolable) concept of private property reduces the number of politicised decisions affecting peoples' lives.

This would be less exploitative and also less arbitrary and probably more stable since community actions are justified by mutual consent and voluntary exchange among individuals.

In the end, politicisation arising out of attempts to enforce collective rights can be seen as the principal cause of the powerlessness of individuals.

Expansion in the nature and direction of state intervention replaces the rights of the individual, except as a member of a group. In the US, increased political divisiveness has emerged as more collective action has been mandated.

More troubling is what seems to be a growing intolerance of diversity due to resentment of members of groups who are perceived as recipients of preferential treatment.

Members of groups identified as historical victimisers begin to imagine that they are being victimised and captive to an insubstantial logic of retribution. Certain members of the Hindu community in India are making such claims against the Muslim population.

Defining human rights in collective or group terms invites an increased politicisation of life outcomes. Therefore, human rights will best serve humane ends by being grounded in individual rights.

(The author is Global Strategist for