The subjective morality of human rights | Aysha Taryam - GulfToday

The subjective morality of human rights

Aysha Taryam


Editor-in-Chief, Gulf Today News and Media.

People cross a destroyed bridge in Irpin, Kyiv. File/ AFP

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was born from the belly of one of modern history’s beasts, the Second World War. It came to life in retaliation to the horrific injustices that occurred, a noble armour that would shield every human and offer protection from the theft and desecration of what is rightfully ours, those “basic rights and fundamental freedoms.”

The Declaration consists of 30 articles that draft its basic aims from the Four Freedoms State of the Union speech given by US President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 proposing that freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and from fear are the fundamental rights that all humans must have. This notion of human rights, which has become a staple in today’s rhetoric and commonplace for many an argument, is barely eighty years old. The idea has survived and at times gained momentum, but what of the strength of this non-legally binding unified agreement? How protective are its powers really?

Governments continue to violate human rights daily. The United States of America has designated itself as the defender of these rights and has justified great wars in their name even as its human rights records have been abysmal. Iraq’s invasion that followed the September 11 attacks stands witness to a wholly unjustified war against a country that was not involved in the terror inflicted on New York City that fateful day. Freedoms and security were promised to the people of Iraq and the motive, the definite knowledge of Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. Iraq was invaded, Saddam was neutralised, the Iraqi people are no closer to freedom today than they were in Saddam Hussein’s era and the mass destructive weapons… never existed. As per the human rights agreement someone should be held responsible for the atrocities that happened during this war and the sponsors of the crimes that have been committed on false pretences should have been prosecuted. None of that happened.

Figures show that even after the American military’s blatant use of torture and prisoner abuse in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison hundreds of governments continue to engage in torture to this day. The Israeli government continues to ignore UN resolutions, breaking international laws by bombing Gaza, terrorising civilians and building unsanctioned settlements on Palestinian land. The Chinese government is holding Uyghur Muslims in detention camps where an entire segment of the population is subjected to all kinds of abuse in order to denounce their faith. Journalists are being suffocated, silenced, even shot through bullet proof vests by governments who do not believe that freedom of speech is a right every person is entitled to, governments who fear words more than arms. Women’s rights remain a continuous battle around the globe; where education as a basic right is nothing but a dream and where possession of their own bodies is a debatable matter.

The past decades have seen several wars ignited, as a result of which the United Nations recorded more than 100 million people have been forcibly displaced and seeking refuge. With this great influx of migration Western democracies saw their human rights idealism being challenged.

An ambiguous law is a dangerous one because it allows for the concept to be misused, neglected or worse, weaponised. This is the reason why people are always left wondering how some injustices are justified by the nations who have drafted the law of rights and others are not...

The European Union’s opinion on asylum-seeking migrants was one of the key issues that led to the catastrophic blow of losing the United Kingdom. As the numbers of migrants increased and news of boats filled with searching souls capsizing on the shores of the West reached the world, we began witnessing how governments’ idealism wavered and suddenly those non-negotiable rights were being negotiated.

We hear the same term being used to make radically different arguments yet through actions it becomes obvious that the clarification does not comply with the justification, and we are left wondering, baffled by what hypocrisy is leading these debates and how articulate they have become in selling an oddly subjective form of idealism.

Human Rights are usually synonymous with the word democracy generalising from the onset that non-democratic governments are, by definition, ones that infringe on the rights of their citizens. The arguably biased International Human Rights law, which is viewed as one of modern humanity’s greatest achievements loses its power, is continuously being challenged, discredited and at times even ignored because of its ambiguity. Its Western leaning influence has left it tone-deaf to non-democratic societies and its unclear mechanisms of implementation has allowed for it to be challenged and defeated. An ambiguous law is a dangerous one because it allows for the concept to be misused, neglected or worse, weaponised. This is the reason why people are always left wondering how some injustices are justified by the nations who have drafted the law of rights and others are not.

These questionings are on the forefront of recent debates on the war in Ukraine. As Ukrainians fled the bombings European nations absorbed over 5 million refugees in a span of 4 months. In isolation this is an admirable gesture, one that should have chests swell with pride to see humanity moving so fast in aid of its brethren yet unfortunately, this is not an isolated event. The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, the situation in Libya and parts of Africa have forced millions out of their dismal lives in search of refuge to these same countries, who in over a decade have not taken in half the number of fleeing Ukrainians. Today the UK is under fire for its plan to deport Rwandan refugees, making way for ‘other’ migrants, with the knowledge that some will face irreversible harm.

There are those who conceive of human rights as a given and those who conceive of human rights as agreed upon. There are those who conceive of human rights as to be fought for and those who conceive of them as principles to debate and most are wading in the turbulent waters between the practical and theoretical.

One would like to believe that the idealising of human rights in progressive nations is a notion that will prevail against all evils and will eventually blanket the world with the humanity that every person rightly deserves but we live in a world of absolute realism. There is no longer any room for ideals in a world governed by political gains, financial incentives and the enthusiastically cultivated individuality mindset.

Seeing as to how governments have failed in most cases to honour that which it held to be an absolute truth, one must insist that it is time we took another look at the laws of human rights, it is time we made it a legally binding agreement whose consequences are far more severe and absolute than to be vetoed by the mighty.

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