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The attack on human
rights is flawed



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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August 5, 2010

The idea of human rights has been around since the thirteenth century. It gathered speed during and after the French and American revolutions. But it never gained general acceptance, despite the ringing words. Jefferson himself kept slaves. Karl Marx was a vociferous critic of “The Rights of Man”, the seminal French document. “They are nothing but the rights of egotistic man, of men separated from other men and the community and the rights of the restricted individual withdrawn into himself.”

The cause seemed quiescent. Neither Stalin’s mass executions nor the persecution of the Jews in Germany re-ignited the cause. The dam of apathy was not breached until shortly after the commencement of the Second World War when the great science fiction writer H.G. Wells (“The War of the Worlds”) together with a few socialist friends, including A. A. Milne, the author of “Winnie the Pooh”, published a declaration of principles on human rights. This was the first time since the 18th century that human rights had been restated in a way that ordinary people could digest. Penguin Books quickly followed the declaration by publishing “H.G. Wells on the Rights of Man”. It was translated into 30 languages and syndicated in columns all over the world.

President Franklin Roosevelt was one of its readers. Just after the US entered the war, under his prodding, the allied powers in a joint declaration pronounced that “complete defeat of their enemies is preserve human rights and justice in their hands”.

After the war the UN drafted the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. In the years after the UN oversaw the negotiation of eleven important treaties- from the outlawing of torture and genocide to the right to self-determination. Shortly after, the World Court was established to arbitrate conflicts between nations. In 1998 in a landmark step an overwhelming majority of the world’s nations voted to create the International Criminal Court to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The energy that propelled this along and the treaties was often provided by the relatively recently established NGOs- the oldest are not even 50 years old. Amnesty International with its one million members from all over the world led the charge. This was a different kind of participation than the generation of Wells and Milne engendered. The cause spread with such speed that the ex-dictator of Chile, General Augusto Pinochet, was arrested in London. Top officials of Israel fear arrest if they travel to Europe. Leaders from ex-Yugoslavia and the Congo were arrested and sent for trial. The former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, wrote in a despairing and disparaging tone that “An unprecedented movement has emerged to submit international politics to judicial procedures and has spread with enormous speed”.
Maybe it is the time to slow down and consolidate what has been achieved. What does all this progress mean to the average Indian villager who is exploited by his landlord, or the wife knocked around by her husband in Nigeria, or small children forced to work in the sex trade in Thailand and Kenya? Or what about enforcing laws that already exist- as in China with a police that are not held to account for their abuses or the local corrupt party chiefs who break the law by stealing the money sent from the central government for local development or the laws protecting workers from having their salaries stolen by ruthless employers?

Then we can look at the courts. It has been estimated that at the current rate the courts of Mumbai would take 350 years to hear all their cases on their books. 70% of Indian prisoners have not even been convicted of a crime.

Do “human rights” as generally understood by the educated and the UN and NGOs mean anything at this level? Does Amnesty reach down to the bottom levels of society? Do the UN conventions percolate down to this level?


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It is true that the International Criminal Court can prosecute those who are destroying whole parts of society, as Radovan Karadzic did in ex-Yugoslavia or a modern day General Pinochet who intimidates and tortures all levels of society. But that still leaves unsaid the “out of sight” abuses, often taking place in small towns and villages away from the limelight.

Why don’t the human rights and development organisations attempt to focus on constructing public justice systems that will work for the poor? If there were effective law enforcement in the backwoods areas that could honestly and fairly deal with land disputes, wife beating and robbery this would be a great step forward for local communities.

Less than 1.5% of last year’s American foreign aid budget was used for rule-of-law programs. And when outside money is available it tends to be spent on drug, arms trafficking and terrorism.

The human rights warriors have had a good run for their money since H.G Wells and A. A. Milne got the ball rolling. But the modern day human rights movement has barely touched the nitty gritty of everyday rights abuses that too often are overlooked or ignored. Is it not time to consolidate what has been achieved and move on to a new battlefield?



Copyright © 2010 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
and e-mail:

Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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