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Amnesty on stilts - click opera
February 2010
 
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Fri, Nov. 9th, 2007 12:17 pm
Amnesty on stilts

Here's an appeal by the actor John Hurt. It's a call to action -- Hurt, speaking for Amnesty International, wants you to "join one million people in the UK" who will "stand up for humanity and human rights". (That silky-smooth voice; listening to that I'd even sign up for the phone book!)



Now, this video should be very easy to agree with. We should try to minimize domestic violence? I believe that too! We should limit small arms proliferation? Absolutely, look at that appalling episode in Finland the other day! Torture is bad? Damn right it is!

Unfortunately, Amnesty isn't advocating a piecemeal, multilateral approach to these problems. The organisation ties it all up with a bigger ideology, a philosophical package that is -- some say, and I agree -- contentious, controversial, problematical, divisive. The idea of "natural human rights".

"Human rights are ours by birth," says Hurt. "They cannot be given or taken away by any individual, organization or court. They are inalienable. They belong to all of us."

Let me get that clear. We are born with rights which, apparently, are integral, universal, and come from nowhere; "they cannot be given.... by any individual, organization or court". This troubles me. Deeply. Nothing comes from nowhere. Even limbs, which we're also born with, come from somewhere -- we can trace their evolution through various stages in both the species and the individual foetus. Something cannot be both there and coming from nowhere.

So, assuming they come from somewhere, where do human rights come from? We can rule out God, for a start. The Old Testament talks a lot about obligations (don't eat this, treat that as an abomination) but nowhere about human rights. So let's google.

The Council of Europe website has a page entitled Where do human rights come from? It isn't very helpful. "The basis of human rights - respect for each individual human life and human dignity - can be found in most of the world's great religions and philosophies," it says. These rights are not created by texts, instruments and treaties, continues the page, only described by them. They already exist, you see, prior to their tabulation. They are inalienable and inherent.

But if we're really stubborn and keep asking the question, we arrive at places where these rights are derived from. "The most famous of these is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948", says the Council of Europe, adding, a bit later -- and almost plaintively! -- "most people associate the Council of Europe with human rights". Sweet! They come from nowhere and they apply everywhere, but we're personally very, very close with them. Universal human rights and us are like that! Good buddies! (It's a refrain we'll be hearing more of.)

So, okay, let's look up who wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was a Canadian called John P. Humphrey (1905 - 1995), helped by Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the American president. Humphrey lost his father early; he also lost a limb after a bad burn. Here's a proud CBC video claiming him for Canada. I mean for all the world... and Canada! "Say, isn't that the Canadian who actually wrote the declaration of human rights?" purrs the voiceover.



Just before that punchline (which so neatly stitches local pride to universal impact) there's a lawyer who makes a pretty good objection. "Mr President," he says, "our country's legislation was arrived at democratically".

There are other problems with the idea of universal human rights than that such a natural, universal and sourceless thing is impossible to vote on. Firstly, the universality of it is muddied by disagreements -- healthy ones! -- over what these natural rights actually are. For the American constitution they're "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". For Locke, they were "life, liberty, and property". And what about conflicts between these rights? The right to private property conflicts often with the right to public property. Do the humans we define as children have a right to work, or a right not to? Are children "equal in dignity" with adults? Do we have the right to take the lives of those who take life? Does freedom of expression permit hate speech? And then there's the point Moondog makes in his song Enough About Human Rights; "what about dog rights, what about frog rights?"

The Wikipedia entry on human rights gives a good account of the philosophical underpinnings of all this. "The idea of human rights descended from the philosophical idea of natural rights which are considered to exist even when trampled by governments or society," it tells us. "Some recognize virtually no difference between the two and regard both as labels for the same thing, while others choose to keep the terms separate to eliminate association with some features traditionally associated with natural rights."

Turn to the natural rights entry and you can see why these "others" want to decouple human rights from natural ones: "Natural rights are a theory of universal rights that are seen as inherent in the nature of people and not contingent on human actions or beliefs... The concept of a natural right can be contrasted with the concept of a legal right: A natural right is one that is claimed to exist even when it is not enforced by the government or society as a whole, while a legal right is a right specifically created by the government or society, for the benefit of its members."

Count me with the "others" -- the idea that a human concept should be naturally-occurring is just not something I can buy. I agree with Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, who said "Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts". Tony Blair's slip into rightism begins, for me, with his statement to the Sunday Telegraph in 1996 that he used to be a Utilitarian, but was now tending more towards a Natural Law view.

Let's be very clear, this comes down to a division between those who subscribe to a contract model of society and those who subscribe to a status one. The contract people (Utilitarians and relativists) see negotiated contracts everywhere. The status people (Natural Law enthusiasts, absolutists) see properties inherent in things. They're dangerous. They intervene, because they know they're on the right side, the side of nature. If they don't have God on their side, they at least have Nature. She's usually well-armed.

This is what I don't understand about Amnesty International. Why, in an appeal designed presumably to garner as much support as possible, must they alienate us relativists, we Utilitarians, we contract-not-status people? Why can't they just say wife-beating is bad and let's fight it with legislation? Why do they have to harp on about "natural, universal human rights", in a time -- precisely -- when militaristic aggression uses exactly these arguments to justify its adventures?

After all, we're talking about an organization named after a contract between the citizen and the state: an amnesty. "You broke the law, but we're letting you off." The idea of an amnesty without a state -- a universal amnesty, some kind of blanket forgiveness for universal crimes -- is, frankly, Kafkaesque. Amnesty is tottering on dangerous stilts.

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tchernabyelo
tchernabyelo
Brian Dolton
Fri, Nov. 9th, 2007 11:55 am (UTC)

I must admit that for a long time I have been known to fulminate at the TV or radio whenever anyone comes on and starts saying that so-and-so is "a fundamental human right". There's no such thing. People die moments after they're born - what "rights" did they have?

I believe that a civilised society should try to grant crtain rights to its citizens (right to free speech, right to socially provided healthcare, right to this, that and the other), but that since these rights are being granted by "the society", then likewise the society can rightly expect certain responsibilities from its members in return. This is in effect a "social contract", and I for one have no problem with that. Adhere to the contract and the society will erspect (and uphold) your rights. Break your part of the contract, and the society no longer holds an obligation to you.

Now of course there are certain concerns here - can a society, for example, say "by committing crime X, you have broken the social contract, and therefore you no longer have the socially granted right of freedom from torture". A society that will use torture is not one I would care to be a part of. However, do I have the right to tell another social collective how to behave - particularly if teh members of that social collective have decided its rules democratically? In other words, if a society agrees that torture IS acceptable within its purview, then what right do I actually have to impose my, external, view of "rights"?

I think this is why people try to talk of "fundamental human rights". It is, indeed, an attempt to impose an absolute set of standards and values at a global, pan-societal level. It may well be that the vast majority of people on the globe do actually agree on some of those rights, but they may not agree on others (abortion? equal rights for homosexuals? still opposed by vast numbers of people across the globe).

As far as I am concerned, I have no rights whatsoever, other than those granted to me by the legal statues of the society to which I belong. I don't have a "right" to (say) have a child just because I want one, any more than I have the right not to get cancer, or to be rich, or anything else that I happen to desire. I would like to live in a society that codified its contractual obligations to and from its citizens more clearly, openly and in a spirit of dialogue rather than imposition, but no such society currently exists as far as I've noticed. So until then, I'll just have to accept that I have no rights other than those granted me in law, and to bleat otherwise is frankly pointless.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Nov. 9th, 2007 12:01 pm (UTC)

Great post Momus. I agree entirely, not much to add.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Nov. 9th, 2007 12:09 pm (UTC)

My brother actually works for Amnesty; he has a fairly important position in the organization. Not only that, but I've had loads of discussions with him on the kinds of issues you describe in this post. His position can be summed up in this quote from an email to me: "But i don't think i have a problem, per se, with universal human rights, as long as they are set at a low base... definitely historically a western concept, but so what - as a paradigm, it's a useful tool for progressive political struggle." I think I agree with him. The human rights ideology is so much window-dressing to shore up something that is essentially worthwhile. I mean, would you agree that Amnesty's actions are largely beneficial? That there are innocent people free now who would have been in jail if Amnesty hadn't applied pressure on governments, etc.? If you accept that Amnesty is for the most part a beneficial agent in the world, then universal human rights just becomes a useful fiction (or just plain useful, if you want to follow the ultimate relatavist Rorty). Just divide the discourse from the action, and rate the action. Because the discourse is always a fiction of one sort or another.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Nov. 9th, 2007 12:11 pm (UTC)

Also, remember that the kind of criticisms you've made habitually come from the right. It's very much The Economist's line.


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qscrisp
qscrisp
Fri, Nov. 9th, 2007 12:23 pm (UTC)

I've never come across anything yet that can solve the issue of human rights. I certainly don't believe Utilitarianism is the answer, which basically amounts to being able to have a clear conscious no matter what you do, as long as you can balance the accouts of suffering so that you've done more 'good' than 'bad'.

Rights are certainly a fiction, but are they really a fiction we would like to live without? Must everything simply be a power struggle, or a battle of words?

In the end, I don't think anyone has ever been able to codify the most important aspects of life, and I don't think they ever will be.

Torture is bad, but why?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Nov. 9th, 2007 03:07 pm (UTC)

Because it hurts?


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Nov. 9th, 2007 01:23 pm (UTC)

Why can't they just say wife-beating is bad and let's fight it with legislation?

But what does that mean? Does it just mean that you presonally think it's bad, and you'd like to impose your views on others through legislation? Or can its badness be derived objectively somehow? In which case, you're back to where you started, with something approaching the idea of human rights. The trouble is, you might be able to puncture the concept of HR, but you have nothing to put in its place. On what grounds are we going to say wife-beating is bad, and on what grounds might we try to discourage it in other cultures?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Nov. 9th, 2007 03:10 pm (UTC)

How about just saying "we think wife beating is bad, and we hope you agree with us, and of course if you don't that's up to you, and we can't force you to change your mind because that would be as bad as wife beating"?


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Nov. 9th, 2007 01:36 pm (UTC)

Utilitarianism: When you have 9 fratboys and 1 girl in a room, what's the "greatest good for the greatest number?" Break out the web cam, Jeremy!

Humans have no inherent rights. We're just lucky that at some point some guys came together and found that working in cooperation was better than the continuous instability of "every man for himself."


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Nov. 9th, 2007 02:13 pm (UTC)

I like how you're a simpleton.


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translucent
translucent
lux beata
Fri, Nov. 9th, 2007 01:43 pm (UTC)


Come on, I'm only a few paragraphs in and you've already made a fundamental flaw:


"Human rights are ours by birth," says Hurt. "They cannot be given or taken away by any individual, organization or court. They are inalienable. They belong to all of us."

Let me get that clear. We are born with rights which, apparently, are integral, universal, and come from nowhere

Don't be silly! None of that says they come from nowhere. The far more logical philosophical subtext than you've chosen is easy to read in, and not contradictory.


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translucent
translucent
lux beata
Fri, Nov. 9th, 2007 01:48 pm (UTC)


Rash comments first thing in the morning :) I do agree with your motive, of course - Mr. Devil's Avocado. But in the end, I as part of "us relativists, we Utilitarians, we contract-not-status people" don't feel excluded by Amnesty campaigns or ideology, even when examined. But that could be because I'm willing to see/excuse/create loopholes in rhetoric when it's to a good end ... !


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niddrie_edge
niddrie_edge
raymond
Fri, Nov. 9th, 2007 01:45 pm (UTC)

Wasn't John Hurt the voice of paranoia in the AIDS commercials? Forbush and the penguins,Caligula, Turkish jails, The Elephant Man, hosting Aliens, 1984 he has done it all.
Check his Aol Internet and Enron ads.




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niddrie_edge
niddrie_edge
raymond
Fri, Nov. 9th, 2007 01:55 pm (UTC)

Can I just add to the Hurt Hall of Fame, Richard Rich, Quentin Crisp, Stephen Ward........


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Nov. 9th, 2007 02:07 pm (UTC)

Momus, you're quite simply wrong about Amnesty. If you actually look at what Amnesty have to say about themselves in their own charter and on their own website, you'll see that they introduce no metaphysics into their concept of human rights, and that they carefully avoid the notion of "natural rights" inherent to humans. Here's what they say:

Amnesty International is a worldwide movement of people who campaign for internationally recognised human rights. AI's vision is of aworld in which everyone enjoys all the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards.

In other words, Amnesty are pretty much following your line, accepting 'rights' that already have some acceptance internationally. Including explicit, contractual acceptance, given that the vast majority of countries are signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So they are considered rights not on inherent, 'status' grounds, but on contractual grounds - ie most countries have agreed that these are principles to which they should abide.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Nov. 9th, 2007 02:34 pm (UTC)

From the horse's mouth:

William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International, argues that contemporary human rights advocates have long since dropped any notion that human rights can or should be based on nature or natural law. Instead, according to him, "'human rights' refer to 'humans' rights', 'the rights of humans', something that human beings possess or can claim, but not necessarily something derived from the nature of the claimant." Human rights are, in other words, whatever human beings determine they are. As a political strategy for negotiating documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is no doubt that Schulz is correct in saying that rights are whatever you can get people to agree they are, and that there will never be consensus on a set of natural rights.

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2751/is_2001_Summer/ai_76560812/pg_5

You can't get more explicit than that. Admit you're wrong, Momus!



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uberdionysus
uberdionysus
Troy Swain: Black Box Miasma
Fri, Nov. 9th, 2007 02:56 pm (UTC)
This post barely warrants conversation.

Why?

Because we're a statistically small and politically not-very-relevant part of the population.

Not only that, but Amnesty exists to get things done, not engage in philosophical discussions. They may play fast and loose with philosophical concepts on an ad, but as another poster showed you, they're a little bit more cautious and thoughtful when they can (like on their website).

Sometimes we have to agree that everyone deserves to live and to not be tortured, even though there is no philosophical reasons for believing so.

Most people, when exposed to the question, would probably agree that "natural human rights" don't exist, except as a fiction we wish to ascribe to. And most people, including the "Founding Fathers" of the United States, don't agree with the more contentious parts of Locke's "natural rights" (i.e., property). The "truths" that are "held to be self-evident" include equality, liberty, and life, and little else.


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insomnia
insomnia
Insomnia
Fri, Nov. 9th, 2007 04:10 pm (UTC)

"Why can't they just say wife-beating is bad and let's fight it with legislation? Why do they have to harp on about "natural, universal human rights", in a time -- precisely -- when militaristic aggression uses exactly these arguments to justify its adventures?"

If militaristic aggression wasn't falsely justified based on "universal principles of human rights", then wouldn't it be based on more localized judgements, such as "they tyrannize their own people, and force their women into lives of subservience"?

If you ask me, Bush himself tends to favor these "wife-beating is bad" type of arguments over arguments that rely on anything universal or inalienable. He also favors demonizing individuals, based on localized perceptions.

Frankly, I think he does this because most Americans are xenophobic, culturally isolated, and easily stirred up. Meanwhile, those Americans who truely believed in "inalienable human rights" are the very same ones who supported the ACLU, opposed incursions on the Constitution, supported the United Nations declaration on Human Rights, supported the human and legal rights of prisoners in Guantanamo, and believed in honoring our international treaties that theoretically should've prevented policies of preemptive wars.

They were not the ones on Fox News questioning whether waterboarding is torture based on localized values, who referred to torture as being similar to college fraternity "hazing". Likewise, they were not neoconservatives, whose beliefs are, in large extent, based on the ugly ideological child of Nietzche and Ayn Rand... A perverse "will to power" ideologically hitched to a complete lack of personal responsibility that would've repulsed both the ideological "parents", in this case.

By definition, it takes an individual who believes in -- or at least honors -- those certain inalienable rights in order to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States", but you seem to be arguing that we'd be safer in the hands of power-hungry moral relativists.

Now, don't get me wrong... I too don't believe that there is any specific thing underpinning human rights either, but I do think that it's a very useful fiction, like most of the beliefs that help define civilized societies. That said, the idea that someone is a "relativist, Utilitarian, contract-not-status" person does not make them dangerous, by definition... but it certainly doesn't make them safe either. It would be wise to remember that Himmler and Goebbels are amongst our ranks.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Nov. 9th, 2007 04:59 pm (UTC)
Respect....

I don't rate a lot of what you write, but this really hits the mark... thanks


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cheapsurrealist
cheapsurrealist
Dave Nold
Fri, Nov. 9th, 2007 05:06 pm (UTC)

Rights are not given. They are taken.


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tchernabyelo
tchernabyelo
Brian Dolton
Fri, Nov. 9th, 2007 05:25 pm (UTC)

I thought that was ilberties? :)


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