Yesterday afternoon I attended an event by the NGO Committee on Human Rights. The topic of discussion was “Women Empowered by Learning, Knowing, and Owning Human Rights as a Way of Life.” There were so many different topics discussed that it was really hard to understand what the purpose of the discussion was.
The first speaker, a Human Rights Advocacy Champion, declared her strong dislike of the statement “every human has rights.” This might seem unexpected, but it illustrated her point very well. The reason why she dislikes the statement is that individuals throughout the world do not know what this means. Humans do have rights, she stated, but they must “own them and live them.” This is how “Human Rights Learning” was introduced. It only took a few seconds before the audience was exposed to an example of Human Rights learning. The speaker asked us to recite out loud, as a group, a shortened version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She would say the article number and the rest of the room would recite the condensed version of the article. This made me feel uncomfortable. It reminded me of certain practices of indoctrination that have become infamous during the last century. When we were done with this exercise, the speaker had us repeat, as a group, one more thing, “There is no other option but Human Rights.”
After this, the group attempted to describe the difference between Human Rights Learning and Human Rights Education, which to be completely honest, I still do not understand. The next speaker was a man from Benin. He explained that while education can seem elitist, learning is a process of getting knowledge throughout life and therefore more appropriate to daily life. This man also stated more than once that “all Human Rights are equal,” as if the right to life and the right to participate in one’s government were equally important. The group stressed the importance of differentiating between Human Rights Learning and Human Rights Education but the only distinction I could grasp was that learning was the absorption throughout life of the idea that each person is a subject of rights. Yet the group did describe necessary classes for Human Right Learning so the distinction between both was unclear.
The confused state in which the event left me was not only caused by the lack of clarity in the distinction between Human Rights Learning and Education, but also by the contradiction about the universality of Human Rights. The third speaker was Kishore Mandhyan, the Deputy Director, Political Peacekeeper, Humanitarian Affairs, Executive Office of the United Nations Secretary-General. He stated that Human Rights are “in our genetic being,” that we have to discover them and that they are naturally there. He discussed his mother and father , Pakistani refugees in India who never heard of Human Rights but were completely embedded with them in their understanding of how to approach others. Near the end of the event, however, the first speaker once again addressed us. This time, like Kishore Mandhyan, she stated that dignity is a universal thing, that the group “discovered the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in everyone’s life;” yet she proceeded to say that Human Rights have to be given to people. She then used a metaphor of Human Rights as a frame. Yes, according to her, Human Rights are to frame every word that one writes or speaks. The test is whether the word fits within that frame and can bring about the realization of Human Rights. The contradiction, I think, is evident. If Human Rights are universal and innate, why must they be given to people?
The speaker also said to give Human Rights to children and let their mothers know that their children will not be what they, their mothers, might want them to be. The problem with this is that this is a violation of the parents’ Human Right to educate their children which is stated in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
She concluded by informing us that we had just received Human Rights and should go out with high shoulders to give Human Rights to others. After the event I overheard a university professor say that she would go back to her school and have the student repeat these exercises.
The moderator concluded with what she thought was a rhetorical question, “ wasn’t this a stimulating and inspiring event?” Regrettably my answer was “no.”
Back at school on a regular Monday afternoon, I typically find myself sitting in a classroom listening to my professor’s voice fluctuate from a regular tone to one which gets louder and louder as he tries to grab the attention of the guy playing Solitaire on his laptop in the third row. But today, I was not sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture on Comparative Politics. I was sitting instead in a conference room at a UN side event, listening to the newest ideas of how the international community can help every country achieve and sustain economic development.
In class, we often talk about politicians’ and economists’ use of economic indicators such as GDP as a measurement of economic growth and development. As much as it is acknowledged that these indicators are imperfect, it is pointed out that they are likely the best measure that we currently have, largely because they are one of the only measures we have. Today at the UN, I heard the argument that the use of economic indicators as a measurement of growth is not only flawed, but ineffective. Today, I heard the International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW Asia Pacific) call for a new measurement of economic development-one based on human rights.
Panelists at this side event titled “Development and Women’s Rights: the Way Forward” argued that human rights should replace the use of economic indicators as the framework by which the international community sets goals and creates policies in the effort to help countries develop economically. The speaker pointed out several problems with economic indicators. One, they are based off the assumption that everything is quantifiable. But not everything can be-or has been-measured in terms of numbers. As the speaker pointed out, in the absence of quantified data, important issues get pushed off the table. This data may not be available for reasons that are themselves problematic; for example, some countries do not have legal penalties for domestic violence, and so there is no data about the prevalence of this violence which so greatly hurts women. Another flaw in using economic indicators to measure development is that this method is based off the neo-liberal assumption that as GDP increases, so too will the level of development. However, this is not always true. In some countries, though GDP has grown, levels of education and health have not increased.
These two examples clearly show that the use of economic indicators is flawed. However, to what extent can economic indicators be completely abandoned? If a new framework for development based on human rights is created, how are countries to measure economic development without the use of economic indicators?
Even if countries were somehow able to move beyond economic indicators, what would be the measure by which the international community determines how the pursuit of human rights contributes to economic development? The UN, of course, does have the Declaration of Human Rights, which could be used as the underlying framework with which countries outline their goals. But in order to achieve goals, one must adopt particular strategies and specific tactics. What does the IWRAW foresee strategies and tactics to be? The answer to this was given by one panelist who stated that countries must “use existing human rights frameworks” to proceed with development policy, particularly CEDAW and the Beijing Platform for Action.
However, it is crucial to note that the CEDAW convention and the BPfA Declaration are NOT fully endorsed by the international community. For example, nearly 90 countries have not ratified CEDAW. How can countries use as a blueprint for development something that they do not even support?
Many times, organizations attempt to make it seem that the “rights” upheld in certain documents are internationally accepted and must serve as the foundation for other decisions. The report titled “Rights by Stealth: The Role of UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies in the Campaign for an International Right to Abortion” brings to light many examples of how CEDAW seeks to slip language into international resolutions that in fact has not even been internationally endorsed.
In the search for an effective means of achieving and sustaining economic development, perhaps focusing more on human rights may be a viable alternative to the use of imperfect economic indicators as a measure of countries’ development. However, it is necessary that “human rights” signify those which actually are accepted by the international community, and not the interpretations of particular groups that seek to attach definitions to these terms which merely advance their own agendas.
The day began with a side event sponsored by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). The topic was “Women’s Burden of Unsafe Abortion: Implications for Nigeria’s Development” and I really did not know what to expect. Abortion is illegal in Nigeria unless the health of the mother is at stake.
The discussion began with the claim that no woman should have to risk her life or the well-being of her family because of a lack of reproductive rights. The event proceeded in an expected manner. Claims such as each woman should be able to “manage her fertility” were heard. There were laments about a woman’s lack of self-determination in the area of reproduction and complaints about the lack of privacy rights for women.
I found this very interesting. The group’s legal practitioner, originally from Lagos, began by stating that it is accepted by law that abortion relates to privacy and that women have “a right to reproduction by God.” She stated that “every expansion of government limits privacy” and “every expansion of privacy limits the government.” Since the definition of privacy changes from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, she used the United State’s Supreme Court definition because it was proposed by “civilized men.” “The people of America have a right to be left alone,” she stated. And so, she claimed, women have a national and international right to abortion.
Not only is this a false claim, but it really contrasted with what the next speaker advocated. I will mention that between both speakers there was a 15 minute graphic documentary which deserves its own blogpost. But the recommendations that the next speaker suggested for her government really stood out to me.
She asks her government to:
1. subsidize contraception
2. Aid coupes in choosing the contraceptive measure that is best suited for them and teach them to use it effectively.
3. Improve sexual and reproductive health with abortion
4.Provide the supplies necessary
5. Train nurses for contraceptive services. This last one she extended to age appropriate “family life education” in schools.
Why is this interesting? One does not have to look very carefully at these recommendations to realize that all of them represent an expansion of the role of the government. Government subsidized contraception! The government taking the role of the parents by providing “family life education in schools!” These measures are not expansions of privacy that limit the government, but entanglements of government with the privacy of individuals and families.
It was interesting that the same group that excused abortion as a means to restrict the government’s sphere of influence in private life also advocates for the expansion of the role of the government.