There has been a lot in the news recently and in the past regarding the imposition of universal human rights by NGOs and the UN. ( eg Conor Foley in the Guardian, Issues in the Ivory Coast or Sudan). It has thrown up some questions which I am having difficulty answering myself so I hoped I may be able to stimulate a discussion on the topic to try and clarify some of my thoughts and queries on the issue.

Now, I am of the opinion that all people should be equal. Obviously in practices this never occurs, but the sentiment remains the same. So in the vein of this thought I am left wondering how this can be achieved or, at least how efforts can be made to ‘level the playing field’ so to speak. Certain things like access to clean water, protection from physical violence and the ability to make ends meet appear, to me, to be applicable to everyone regardless of what culture or society they come from. In holding this opinion am I guilty of imposing my western values onto others? Is the idea of freedom or liberty really an exclusively western ethic?

I certainly do not think that every country in the world should be a capitalist social democracy but are there not some ethical codes which apply to all? Is every one not entitled to the same? There are obviously some major difficulties in writing an extensive human rights charter like the one the UN currently is attempting to uphold. However do these difficulties mean that no rights are universal?

Basically I cannot decide whether efforts to uphold ethical codes are noble acts or ones of imperialism obviously the individual acts do affect the anwser but in terms of universal human rights there is a tension between ethics, relativism, imperialism and universalism. Any thoughts anyone?

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I think this is close to being the most important question facing us today. The human rights discourses of the UNhs, NGOs and those of national governments are imperialist by design and in implementation; especially when the notion of the rights of the individual are seen to eclipse those of a community or a people. In most cases, there is already a viable conception of fairness that have been disrupted and denied by the colonial or imperial orders througought the world. I think it is important to keep in mind that the UN the IMF and the major supporting nations (the main architects of what we have come to know as 'human rights') actually participate, on a grand scale, the ongoing massive abuse and oppression of the worlds populations. We live in a world where 'humanitarian intervention' along with 'stabilization' are euphemism's for making sure places of geopolitical importance remain subservient and allegiant to global status quo. In this way, Canada and the US, for example, will commit absurd amounts of resources and lives to 'intervening in Afghanistan' under the banner of 'Human Rights' while denying the obvious  rights to land, self-government and so on within their presumed borders. Canadian Indian Policy is still fundamentlally a policy of destruction and assimilation. Burma is a case in point- perhaps the clearest case of extreme so called 'human rights abuses', but the West continues to invest billions of dollars in the military regime; thus, encouraging their destructive and inhumane system of totalitarian rule and pilfering. This is because we maintain an absurd philosophy that through economic relations, the regime will eventually improve and 'normalize'. Human Rights are at best well-intentioned ethnocentrism and, at worst, the tools of liberal imperialism causing oppression and suffering the world over.


I am just pondering those issues myself working on the refugee, IDPs and the issue of the unwanted humanity. I would like to point at the issue of the dialectics of the human rights. Sure they are used by states as the tools to meet their ends, yet at the same time they do have positive impact if one looks at the "inside out" communities, groups approaches. I was reading some ethnographies from refugee camps by Michel Agier and there is clearly possible for the disempowered groups to adopt human rights based approach to fight for their rights. The Universal rights are only a framework. Local communities would adopt their own understanding of those rights and will pursue them to form coalitions with other groups. As we hate universalism, it is in a way allowing us to communicate... I highly recommend A. Tsing "Friction" to comprehend this issue plus Mark Goodale, Upendra Baxi for the start. Look at the ideas of cosmopolitanism and an interesting positions by Isabella Stengers. Enjoy reading and hope you will get closer to your answer.



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