A Dialectical Approach

Aspects of Human Rights

Pritam Singh

There has been a phenomenal growth in the literature on human rights in the last two decades, particularly since the fall of Berlin Wall. Before the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, the human rights discourse was much polarised politically which hindered the growth of a genuine scientific method to study human rights. The American bloc in world politics used the tool of human rights to not only highlight the repressive practices in Stalinist regimes but also to debunk communism or what was understood or believed, by the votaries of that bloc, to be communism. The Stalinist regimes or their supporters and sometimes even socialists, who were critical of Stalinism and the Stalinist regimes, reacted to the strategy of the American bloc by dubbing human rights discourse as essentially anti-communist in character. With the fall of Berlin Wall, one can say that the human rights theorising and campaigning has been freed from the shackles of the Cold War ideological rivalry on human rights. This qualitative change in world political arena opens a new space for developing a more nuanced and a dialectical approach to human rights thinking and practice.

The disintegration of the Stalinist regimes gave a big boost to the triumphalist agenda of neo-liberalism also known as the Washington Consensus. The core of this triumphalism consisted of advocating the unfettered sway of markets on economic, political, social and cultural life in modern societies. Markets, according to this view, not only generated efficient economic outcomes but were necessary for also creating conditions for democratic political order. The most well known work celebrating neo-liberal triumphalism is the book The End of History by Fukuyama (1992). However the rise of global integration of the world economy in the 1990s started showing cracks in the triumphalist neo-liberal claims when empirical evidence started emerging of wide-spread poverty and inequality in many parts of the world including in the so-called developed world but most starkly in the developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. The global financial crisis that unfolded with the collapse of Lehman Brothers bank on September 15, 2008 dealt a further blow to the triumphalist claims of neo-liberalism about the efficiency of unfettered markets. This ongoing financial crisis, along with the global food crisis and energy crisis, has caused enormous hardships to people all over the world in terms of lost or insecure jobs, becoming homeless, reduced access to food and in Africa leading to famine conditions, and a decline in general standard of living for vast majority of the people. The socio-economic rights—e.g. right to food, right to livelihood, right to shelter, right to health and right to retirement benefits to just mention a few— have emerged as key questions in many protests against the devastation caused by the current ongoing crisis of capitalism. This has brought a new strength to the ways of thinking that engage with the language of human rights.

Human rights are increasingly being recognised as important from a range of perspectives and because of that, rather than in spite of it, remain a highly contested terrain. Development scholars, especially economists among them, recognise human rights as absolutely central to any vision of human development. Sen's work on conceptualisation of development as freedom has particularly contributed to focusing on the centrality of human rights to the conceptualisation and operationalistion of alterative development perspectives. Political scientists consider the protection of human rights as critical to the sustainability of democracy. Ethnic studies scholars increasingly point out that any attempt at conflict resolution anywhere is crucially dependent on the robustness of the institutions that protect human rights. The sociological approach explores the need to reframe the human rights discourse to take account of social inequalities in access to property and power. The socio-legal approach looks at human rights as the core of its vision of a society that entitles human beings to some inalienable legal rights as citizens. In the NGO sector, not only the traditional human rights and civil liberty organisations that considered human rights as their key concern and activity, but a range of other organisations, especially in the development sector, look upon human rights as integral to their vision and practice of development. Ecologists emphasise the link between environmental sustainability and human rights.

Although research and thinking on human rights from different disciplinary backgrounds have the advantage of giving valuable insights into different aspects of human rights, it is being increasingly recognised that a more fruitful way to go forward is to adopt multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches. Dialectical method with its emphasis on contradiction provides a good fit for the multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary approaches. Contradiction as a core concept of the dialectical method allows one to look into aspects of human rights activity that does not fit a one-dimensional view of human rights.

Another example of using the dialectical method to research human rights would be to look at the economic interest of governments and human rights. The governments all over the world work to promote trade and investment ties with other governments. To achieve the goal of furthering the goal of expanding trade ties with other countries, a government is likely under normal circumstances to sacrifice human rights considerations such as minimum wages, collective bargaining rights, health and safety standards etc. But this is only one aspect of the relationship between economic interests and human rights. It is possible to visualise, using the dialectical method, to think of the contradictory trend working here, e.g. the power of human rights to change government practices in favour of human rights and against pursuing narrow economic objectives. If human rights campaigners are able to raise the profile of human rights in the political culture of a country, then a political party in power would be very worried if any of its economic ventures are seen to be sacrificing human rights because bad human rights record of a government might mean loss of some electoral support and perhaps even election defeat. So in that case, the government might sacrifice narrow economic interests of earning more revenue through trade for the sake of keeping up a good human rights record.

Similarly, one can use the dialectical method for researching corporate behaviour. Normally, it would be expected of a corporate entity to pursue the goal of profit maximisation and if this requires sacrificing certain human rights such as collective bargaining, equal opportunities policies and health and safety standards, it would be considered a rational business strategy. That profit maximising goal setting at the cost of human rights would be one aspect of corporate behaviour that will have to be examined. However, it is also possible that if human rights awareness is very high in a society, then the corporations based there or linked to that society would be very vigilant in not being seen as violators of human rights because the evidence of human rights violations can damage the reputation of a company and affect its sales adversely as it happened once when Shell had to face consumer boycotts when there were accusations of Shell having been an accomplice to the violation of human rights in Nigeria. So a researcher using a dialectical method would look for evidence of both types i.e. a corporation sacrificing human rights for economic gains but also a corporation foregoing some economic gains- at least in the short run- for the sake of being seen as human rights friendly.

The central feature of the dialectical political approach towards human rights would be neither to support human rights uncritically nor to oppose them in a dogmatic fashion as a liberal discourse. It is certainly true that the origin of the human rights discourse is tied up with protection of property rights with the emphasis mainly on the civil and democratic rights but the human rights agenda has moved on since then. It is now increasingly being recognised that the civil and democratic rights can be usefully employed to further social and economic rights. Further, the defence of social and economic rights can generate radical movements of social transformation which can be totally opposed to the current property and power relations. So a dialectical approach towards human rights would recognise the limitations of human rights discourse and practice that does not address questions of unfair social structures. However, while recognising the limitations, a dialectical approach would also explore the potentialities of human rights thinking and activism to overcome these limitations. Such potentialities can visualise human rights that further the cause of social transformation towards a fairer society.

Vol. 46, No. 46, May 25 -31, 2014