Ninth Letter to My Friends

Dear Friends,

Often I receive correspondence in which people ask me what is happening today regarding human rights. I do not myself have the information necessary to provide a full answer to this question. I believe, rather, that the countries who are signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights know what is happening, that is, the more than one hundred sixty nations of the world who, on December 10, 1948 or thereafter, indicated by their signatures their acceptance of this declaration, which was prepared under the auspices of the United Nations. All of them understood the issues in question, and all committed themselves to defend the rights proclaimed. Many also signed the Helsinki Accords and sent representatives to subsequent commissions on human rights and the international courts.

1. Violations of Human Rights

In reviewing the daily accounts of current events related to human rights, however, one feels compelled to reformulate this question as follows: What is this hypocritical game that governments are playing in their treatment of human rights? Even a cursory examination of the information that flows from news organizations, newspapers, magazines, radio, and television will provide an answer to this question. As one example, let us consider the Amnesty International report for the most recent year, 1992, and briefly review some of its data.

Along with conspicuous disasters such as the wars in Yugoslavia and Somalia, violations of human rights were found to have increased all over the world. There were prisoners of conscience in 62 countries, institutionalized torture in 110, and political assassinations employed by governments in 45. The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina exhibited abuse and slaughter by all sides, perpetrated against tens of thousands of people who were assassinated, tortured, and starved, often solely because of their ethnicity. These same phenomena are also occurring in other places such as Tadzhikistan and Azerbaijan.

Accusations of torture and mistreatment by security forces increased significantly in Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Romania, and Italy. The race of the victims in these cases was often seen to play an important role. Armed opposition groups in the United Kingdom, Spain, and Turkey also committed serious violations of human rights. In the United States 31 people were executed, the highest toll since 1977, the year that the death penalty was re-instituted. In Somalia, thousands of unarmed civilians were killed during this same period.

In 1992 security forces and death squads murdered approximately 4,000 people in Latin America. In Venezuela there were dozens of arrests and executions of political prisoners during the suspension of constitutional guarantees following the attempted coups of February 4 and November 27. In Cuba, approximately 300 persons were kept imprisoned for political reasons, although because international observers from Amnesty International were barred from the country the accuracy of these data could not be confirmed. In Brazil police killed 111 in São Paolo during a prison riot, while in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and other areas of the country hundreds of children and other “undesirables” were murdered. In Peru 139 persons “disappeared,” and security forces carried out 65 extra-judicial executions. Amnesty International also received reports of widespread abuse in Peru’s rural mountain areas, and approximately 70 persons were sentenced to life imprisonment in irregular judicial proceedings. Armed opposition groups also murdered several dozen people in different regions of that country. In Colombia, repeated reports of human rights violations were denied by presidential advisors on this matter, who attributed such reports to opposition politicians seeking to distort the image of political reality in the country. Notwithstanding these denials, Amnesty International accused the armed forces and paramilitary groups of the extra-judicial executions of no less than 500 persons, while armed opposition groups and drug-trafficking organizations murdered some 200 more.

Amnesty International also reported that the struggle against militant Islamic groups triggered a deterioration of the human rights situation in various Arab countries, including Algeria and Egypt. Torture, lack of due process, political assassinations, “disappearances,” and other major violations of human rights were perpetrated by government agents throughout the Middle East. In Egypt the adoption of new legislation “facilitated” torture of political detainees, and a military court sentenced to death eight Islamic militants, presumed to be members of an armed group, following a process that was deemed unjust. In Algeria as many as 10,000 persons were interned in isolated desert concentration camps without being charged and without due process. In turn, fundamentalist groups were found to be responsible for the murder of civilians and other serious violations of human rights in Algeria and Egypt, as well as in the territories occupied by Israel. Detention without due process was particularly widespread in Syria, but also took place in Israel, Libya, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Tunisia.

Regarding China, Amnesty International called attention to the number of “prisoners of conscience” and the sentencing of political activists without previous judicial proceedings.

News and information organizations of various leanings have prepared world maps showing dozens of countries dotted with human rights violations and other maps showing mounting death tolls from religious and inter-ethnic warfare. In addition, they highlight areas of starvation where tens of thousands of people have died, either in their homelands or during large-scale migrations.

It should be emphasized that the information outlined above does not by any means exhaust either the theme of human rights or, consequently, the forms of violation of human rights taking place in the world today.

2. Human Rights, Peace, and Humanitarianism as Pretexts for Intervention

Today there is renewed vigor in the discussion of human rights, yet the cast of those who carry this banner has changed. In decades past, progressive movements have worked actively in defense of these principles, which have been established by a consensus of the nations. Of course, even while paying lip service to these rights, many dictatorships have made a mockery of human needs and of personal and collective freedom. Some have announced that as long as citizens did not speak out against the prevailing system they would continue to have access to housing, health care, education, and employment. Logically, these governments said, we should not confuse liberty with license, and “license” is to speak out against the government.

Today it is the right wing in many countries that has raised this standard anew and tries to appear active in defense of human rights and peace, above all in those foreign countries where their own domination is not complete. Taking advantage of certain international mechanisms, they organize forces for intervention capable of reaching any point on the globe with the stated goal of imposing “peace and justice.” Supporting the faction that is most subordinate to them, they begin by bringing in food and medicine, only to later attack the populace with bullets. Soon, any fifth column will be able to claim that elements in their country are disturbing the peace or that human rights are being trampled, and thus request assistance from these interventionists.

By now, primitive treaties and mutual defense pacts have been perfected into documents that legalize action by “neutral” forces. In this way, the old Pax Romana is being revived and introduced once more. These are, in short, ornithological avatars that, beginning with the eagle on the banner of the legionnaires, later take the form of Picasso’s dove, until by the time we reach the present day we find talons growing once more beneath its bedraggled plumage. No longer does this feathered creature fly back to the biblical Ark bearing an olive branch, it now returns to the Ark of Assets with a dollar clutched in its strong beak.

Of course, all of this is well seasoned with compassionate arguments. And we should be concerned by such events, because even when these “neutral” forces intervene in third countries for humanitarian reasons clear to all, they are setting precedents that may subsequently be used to justify new actions whose motives are neither so humanitarian nor so clear to all. As a result of the process of globalization, the United Nations is seen to be playing an increasingly military role, one that entails more than a few risks. Once again the sovereignty and self-determination of peoples are being imperiled by this manipulation of the concepts of peace and international solidarity.

Let us set aside now for another occasion themes related to peace in order to look more closely at human rights which, it is clear, are not limited solely to questions of conscience, political freedoms, and freedom of expression. Nor can protecting these rights be reduced simply to preventing the persecution, imprisonment, or deaths of citizens who have disagreements with a given government. That is, the defense of human rights cannot be limited only to defending people who are facing the actual or potential exercise of direct physical violence against them. Although certain basic ideas have been embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is a great deal of confusion and much uncoordinated work surrounding these issues.

3. The Other Human Rights

The second article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Article 2. 1. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status.

Among the rights enumerated are the following:

Article 23. 1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and also to protection against unemployment.

Article 25. 1. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care, and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

These articles, signed by the member states, are based on the concept of the equality and universality of human rights. In neither the spirit nor the letter of the declaration do we find conditions such as: These rights will be respected as long as they do not disturb macroeconomic variables. Or any statement such as: The rights declared will be respected as soon as we become a society of prosperity. Yet the meaning of these articles could be twisted by appealing to Article 22:

Article 22. 1. Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international cooperation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality. [emphasis added]

The phrase “and in accordance with the organization and resources of each state” could be used to dilute the effective exercise of these rights, and this leads us directly to the discussion of economic models.

Let us consider, for example, a country with sufficient organization and resources to enter the system of free market economies. As this transition takes place, the State will be reduced to a mere “administrator,” while private enterprise will focus solely on the development of business. Budgets for health care, education, and social security will be steadily reduced as the State ceases to play a role in assisting the people. In the end, the government will no longer have obligations in these areas, nor will private enterprise assume responsibility to meet these needs. The laws that could have required business to protect these rights are being rescinded or rewritten as companies increasingly resist all regulations, even those related to the health and safety of their own employees.

But the idea and practice of privatizing health care will save the day by allowing private enterprise to fill the vacuum left during the previous stage of transition. This model will be reproduced in every field as “privatism” advances, offering its efficient services to everyone who is able to pay for them—an arrangement that will serve very well to meet the needs of some twenty percent of the population.

Who, then, will protect the universal and egalitarian conception of human rights if they are exercised “in accordance with the organization and resources of each State”? For the defenders of that ideology will continue to assure us that the smaller the State becomes, the more the economy of that country will prosper. This discussion soon passes, however, from idyllic declarations about the coming “general prosperity” to brutal statements with the character of ultimatums delivered in roughly these terms: If laws are passed that place limitations on capital, capital will flee the country and there will be no foreign investment, international loans, or refinancing of previously contracted debts. Then exports and production will fall and, in short, the whole social order will be put at risk. This displays in its stark simplicity one of the many contemporary schemes for extortion.

While the example considered above is of a country with sufficient resources to negotiate the passage toward a free market economy, it is easy to imagine how much more difficult the circumstances would be if the country in question did not possess the basic requisites of resources and organization.

As the New World Order is now proposed, and in light of economic interdependence, in all countries, rich and poor alike, the forces of capital will try to undermine the universal and egalitarian conception of human rights.

The previous discussion cannot be strictly derived from the grammatical terms of Article 22, because neither in that article nor elsewhere in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is any economic consideration placed above the people that relativizes their rights. Nor is it legitimate to introduce tangential arguments by proposing, for example, that since the economy is the basis of social development, we must first dedicate all our efforts to macroeconomic variables, so that when we achieve prosperity then we will be able to attend to human rights. This is as clumsily linear as saying: Because society is subject to the law of gravity, we need to concentrate first on this problem, and only when we have solved it will we be free to speak of human rights. In a sane society no one thinks of constructing buildings on unstable foundations because everyone recognizes the conditions that gravity sets. Similarly, everyone is well aware of economic conditionings and the importance of resolving them correctly as a function of human life But these digressions take us away from our theme.

The consideration of human rights cannot be reduced only to the foregoing questions of work, compensation, and assistance, just as earlier we saw they could not be limited solely to the ambits of political expression and freedom of conscience. And although there are certain defects of expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, notwithstanding these it is clear that a scrupulous application of its articles by all governments would be sufficient for our world to experience a positive change of great importance.

4. The Universality of Human Rights and the Cultural Thesis

There exist diverse conceptions of the human being, and this variety of points of view is often related to the different cultures from which people observe reality. And these issues necessarily affect the question of human rights as a whole. Indeed, faced with the idea of a universal human being with the same rights and functions in all societies, today some are raising a cultural thesis in defense of a different position regarding these questions. The supporters of this position regard supposedly universal human rights as simply a generalization of the Western point of view in an unjustified claim of universal validity. For example, consider Article 16:

  1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

  2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

  3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

These three sub-paragraphs in Article 16 present numerous difficulties of interpretation and application in various cultures that stretch from the eastern Mediterranean through the Middle East and into Africa and Asia—that is to say, they create difficulties for the greater part of humanity. The world is so large and so varied that over vast parts of it not even marriage and the family coincide with the parameters that seem so “natural” to the West. As a consequence, these institutions and the universal human rights associated with them are the subject of continuing debate.

The same occurs if we consider the general conceptions of law and justice. If we compare ideas regarding criminal punishment and the rehabilitation of criminals, we find no agreement on these points even among nations from the same Western cultural context. To uphold the point of view of one’s own culture as valid for all of humanity, then, leads to positions that are frankly ludicrous. For example, the legal penalty of cutting off the hand of a thief as practiced in certain Arab countries is viewed as a clear violation of human rights in the United States—while at the same time they like to hold academic debates on whether to execute criminals by the use of cyanide gas, 2,000 volts of electricity, lethal injection, hanging, or some other macabre delight of capital punishment. It should be noted, however, that just as in the United States a significant proportion of the society rejects capital punishment, so too in Arab countries many oppose corporal punishment for those who have broken the law.

Even the West itself, swept along by changing practices and customs, is having great difficulty in trying to uphold its traditional idea of the “natural” family. Can a family today contain adopted children? Of course it can. Can a family have spouses who are members of the same sex? Some legislatures already allow this. What, then, defines the family—its “natural” character or the voluntary commitment of people to fulfill certain functions? On what basis can we say that the monogamous family of some cultures is better than the polygamous one of others? And if this is the state of the discussion, can we continue to speak of a single set of laws that is universally applicable to the family? Which human rights are to be defended—and which are not—regarding the institution of the family?

Clearly, the dialectic between the universalist thesis (hardly universal even in its own culture) and the cultural thesis cannot be resolved in the case of the family (which I have considered as only one of many possible examples), just as I am afraid that for now it will remain similarly unresolved for other areas of the social endeavor.

To sum this up: Here we find in play a general conception of the human being that is not sufficiently well-founded to encompass the many positions in conflict. Yet the need for such a comprehensive conception is evident, because neither the law in general nor human rights in particular can prevail if their deepest meaning is not clear.

No longer can we raise the most general questions of law only in the abstract. Either we are dealing with rights that, to have effect, must flow from established power, or we are dealing with rights that are only aspirations yet to be fulfilled. In regard to the issue of rights, I have written elsewhere [see the chapter “Law” in The Human Landscape]:

Practical people who have not become lost in theorizing have declared that law is necessary in order for there to be social coexistence. It is also said that the law is made to defend the interests of those who impose it.

It seems that in the situation previous to power a particular law is installed, which in turn legitimizes that power. So it is that power, as the imposition of an intention—whether accepted or not—is the central issue. It is said that force does not generate rights, but paradoxically this statement is normally accepted only when force is thought of as brutal physical fact, when in reality force—economic, political, and so on—does not need to be expressed perceptually to make its presence felt and to demand respect. In any case, even physical force, that of arms, for example, expressed as naked threat creates situations that are justified legally, and we cannot deny that the use of arms in one direction or another depends on human intention and not on a right.

And further on:

All those who violate the law are ignoring a situation that is asserted in the present, exposing their temporality—their future—to the decisions of others. But it is clear that this “present” in which the law begins to take effect has its roots in the past. Customs, morality, religion, or social consensus are the sources customarily invoked to justify the existence of the law. Each depends in turn on the power that imposes it. And these sources are changed when the power that gave them origin declines or transforms so that maintaining the previous judicial order begins to clash with what is “reasonable,” with “common sense,” and so on. When the legislature repeals or rewrites a law, or a group of representatives of the people amend a country’s basic charter or constitution, they apparently do so without violating the law in general, because they are not subject to the decisions of others, because they hold power or act as the representatives of established power, and in this situation it is clear that power generates rights and obligations and not the reverse.

To end, let me cite the following:

Human rights do not have the universal application that would be desirable because they do not flow from the universal power of the human being, but only from the power that one part now exercises over the whole. If even the most elementary claims to the governing of one’s own body are trampled underfoot in all latitudes, then we can speak only of aspirations yet to become rights. Human rights do not pertain to the past, they lie ahead in the future, calling our intentionality, sustaining a struggle that is rekindled in each new violation of humanity’s destiny. For this reason, every protest in favor of human rights has meaning because it shows the powers that be that they are not omnipotent and that they do not control the future.

As for our general conception of the human being, it does not seem necessary to review it here or to reaffirm that the recognition we give to diverse cultural realities does not invalidate the existence of a common human structure that is in historical flux in a converging direction. The struggle to establish a universal human nation is also the struggle, from each culture, to put into practice human rights that are ever more coherently defined.

If the right to a fulfilled life and freedom is suddenly ignored in a certain culture, and other values placed above the human being, it is because something there has gone astray, something is diverging from our common destiny. Should this happen, then the expression of that culture in that precise point must be clearly repudiated.

It is true that the formulations of human rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are imperfect, but for now this is all that we have at hand to defend and to perfect.Today these rights are still considered aspirations that cannot be fully realized given the established powers. The struggle for the full application of human rights leads necessarily to questioning the powers-that-be, orienting action toward replacing them with the powers of a new and human society.

With this letter I send my warmest regards,

Silo

November 21, 1993

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