By: Ahmad Syah Ejaz Hj. Ismail
Human rights consign to "the basic rights and freedoms, to which all humans are entitled, often held to include the right to life and liberty, freedom of thought and expression, and equality before the law." The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."
The concept of human rights came from the philosophical idea of natural rights which are considered to exist even when trodden by governments or society. Some recognize virtually no difference between the two and regard both as labels for the same thing, while others choose to keep the terms split to eliminate association with some features traditionally associated with natural rights. Natural rights, in particular, are rights of the individual, and are considered beyond the authority of a future government or international body to dismiss.
United Nations on Human Rights
The United Nations (UN) is the only international entity with jurisdiction for universal human rights legislation. All UN organs have advisory roles to the Security Council. Article 1-3 of the United Nations Charter states "To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion."
The United Nations Human Rights Council is involved with the investigation into violations of human rights. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the principle judicial organ of the United Nations.
Human rights – from Asians standpoint
The concept of human rights has been largely formulated by the developed countries of the West. Nor surprisingly they reflect the culture of the West at a given time. Just as Western society undergoes changes and development, the perception of what constitutes human rights also changed and developed. Thus voting rights were initially accorded to select landowners only. The enfranchisements were then widened to ordinary citizens. It was not until after the First World War that woman gained their rights to vote. In Switzerland women could only vote in the 1960’s.
Human right is therefore neither inherently natural nor static nor free from change. Since the different human societies differ in term of their development and culture and they all undergo change with time, it is unrealistic to insist that all their values and therefore their perceptions of what constitutes human rights should be identical all the time. True, certain basic rights should be universal. The right to one’s life and to freedom from oppression should be part of the universal rights of all human societies. But it is not just governments which should not deprive their citizens of their rights, no one else should deprive anyone of their rights. Unfortunately when one talks about human rights invariably one thinks of the Government as the violator. And so many have their rights trampled upon with impunity by others within the community or by foreigners and foreign countries.
There is also a difference in the perception of human rights between the East and the West. Whereas the West is also obsessively concerned with the rights of the individual, the East is more concerned with the rights of the Community. One cannot really say whether the West or the East is more right. Thus democracy is based on the will of the majority. But the majority is not beyond abusing their power and oppressing the minority. Would curbing the exercise of the right of the majority result in denial of human rights? On the other hand, the minority may exercise their rights in such a way as to deny the rights of the majority. Should the majority accept what amounts to the curtailment of their win rights in the name of observing human rights?
The developed countries have now appointed themselves the arbiter of human rights worldwide. In the name of human rights they have applied all kinds of pressures on the countries unable to defend themselves. Every now and again new forms of human rights are invented and any country found defaulting is subjected to vile publicity and other repressive measures.
Clearly upholding human rights is not as simple as it is made out to be. Even as individual have rights, society too, being a collecting of individual has rights. In the end the answer must lie in a compromise where the important thing is not just the rights of the individual or of society but good that comes from the practice. Society and individual must accept the need to make sacrifices in the interest of the good of everyone. There can be no absolute rights for anyone. Even basic rights need to be curtailed if that becomes necessary. Rigidity in the practice of human rights can only result in society and individuals in the society paying a high price without achieving the deal. It is the result which counts, not the pious adherence to doctrine.
Human right is not a licence to do anything without regard to the rights if others, the rights of the majority are just as valid as the rights of the minority or the individual. A society has a right to protect itself from the unbridled exercise of rights by individuals or as minority which in the West has contributed to the collapse of morality and the structure of human society. In individual and minority rights are so totally inviolable then you must allow the resurgence of Nazism and the violently racist activities in Europe and elsewhere.
For Asians, the community, the majority comes first. The individual and the minority must have their rights but not at the unreasonable expense of the majority. The individuals and the minority must conform to the mores of society. A little deviation may be allowed but unrestrained exhibition of personal freedom which disturbs the peace or threatens to undermine society is not what Asians expects from democracy. Democracy is a method of Government. It is good only if the result is good.
Uniformity should not be a feature of Asian democracy. Each country should be allowed to tailor its democracy to cater to the characteristics of its people and their needs. The people should decide through the basic democratic process what kind and what degree of democracy they want.
The same applies to human rights. Asian human rights need not be a fair copy of Western human rights. The individual and the minority must be allowed their freedom but such freedom must not deprive the majority of their rights. Apart from being more democratic and subscribing to their owns perceptions as to what constitutes human rights; apart from accepting the free market economy there can be no certainty about the future of Asia. Several scenarios are possible. Based upon Asian History and the present state of Asian countries, all these scenarios are possible.
Before a Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be accepted the different perception and the various results must be carefully understood. Failure to do this may result in oppression rather than the enjoyment of such rights.
The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stems in large part from the strong desire for peace in the aftermath of Second World War. Although the 58 Member States which formed the United Nations at that time varied in their ideologies, political systems and religions and cultural backgrounds and had different patterns of socio-economic development, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights represented a common statement of goals and aspirations as a vision of the world as the international community would want to be.
The Declaration serves as a guide for governments to create national laws that protect human rights. Citizens can then use their own judicial and legal system to prosecute individuals or groups that have violated human rights. In Canada for example, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has incorporated the human rights standards of the Declaration into Canadian law.
The Universal Declaration of Human rights is a profoundly important document for people all over the world because it is founded on three key principles. Human rights are alienable and no one can ever take them away from you. Human rights also are indivisible which you cannot be entitled to some of them and denied others. Finally, Human rights are interdependent which means they are all part of a larger framework and work together so you can enjoy a safe, free and productive life.
Human rights – views of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, 1999, Compiled by World Youth Foundation, Affluent Master Sdn. Bhd.