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Human Rights

Globalization and Multi-cultural Knowledge of Human Rights (1)

Jay Drydyk
Carleton University

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Abstract: Responding to a call by Pierre Sané, Secretary-General of Amnesty International, for a worldwide political movement to overcome the social damage that has been wrought by economic globalization, this paper asks whether such a movement can invoke current conceptions of human rights. In particular, if human rights are Euro-centric, how well would they serve the self-understanding of a movement that is to be global, culturally pluralistic and counterhegemonic to Northern capital? I argue that it is not human rights that are Eurocentric, but only certain conceptions of human rights. Properly understood, human rights are justifiable from within all cultures. Moreover, current conceptions of human rights are not as narrow as they were in 1948, when the Universal Declaration was drafted. Nearly five decades of international dialogue have transformed human rights discourse in ways that are profoundly anti-Eurocentric, and further transformations are already underway. There are resources of moral and political experience, within all cultures, which argue strongly in favor of these transformations. Therefore, a more consistent and more complete knowledge of human rights can emerge cross-culturally if the dialogue is not abused and if the relevant moral and political experience is let into the dialogue from all quarters.

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In the face of economic globalization, what are we to think of human rights? Globalization is a complex trend, including globalization of production processes, globalization of finance, and finally globalization of subcontracting and informalization of labour, as a source of competitive advantage. What is the bearing of these three trends on human rights? In an orgy of subcontracting, employers all over the world have been eliminating jobs and shifting their work through labour contractors, nominal self-employment, and other schemes into the "informal sector", so that ever more of the work is performed by jobless workers, at low cost and with no security or regulation. As a result, the movement of production to the South has not always brought jobs, much less prosperity. (2) The subcontracting trend, by itself, is clearly damaging to labour rights - e.g., safety, equal pay for equal work, protection against unemployment, and the right to organize. Subcontracting and informalization of work also conspire with globalized production and finance to vitiate the taxation bases which nation-states need to finance their protection of social rights - e.g., to subsistence, housing, health, education, social services and welfare security.

Arguably these pressures undermine not only labour rights and social welfare rights, but civil and political rights as well. This argument exactly is made by Pierre Sané, the Secretary General of Amnesty International:

The globalisation of the world economy continues apace. The debt burden and the world recession exact their toll. Massive international speculation and large foreign investments chase the best returns. Millions of people move across borders in search of a better life, or any life at all. ...

Everywhere, people feel powerless in the face of these global trends. And in reaction, they turn to their group for identity. Religion, race, tribe, nation - the ties of blood - all take on a new importance. ...

The nation state cannot control the global trends. It cannot easily accommodate the demands of different groups living in the same country. And so the institution itself loses legitimacy.

The question for us, therefore, is how to develop a global counter-movement to protect all the rights of all the people from the global trends that threaten to destroy the very fabric of society in many countries. [I believe that] we need a new paradigm in which "substantive participation" - at local, national and international levels - is the primary goal, not an afterthought. It should integrate the values emerging from the human rights and other social movements that are developing worldwide. It should put back the human being as the subject of history. (3)

This raises a further question for philosophers. How well can such a movement be served by current conceptions of human rights? After all, aren't the received notions of human rights Eurocentric? If so, how could they serve the self-understanding of a movement that is to be global, culturally pluralistic, and counterhegemonic to Northern capital? My answer is: it is not human rights that are Eurocentric, but only certain conceptions of human rights. Properly understood, human rights are justifiable from within all cultures. Moreover, current conceptions of human rights are not as narrow as they were in 1948, when the Universal Declaration was drafted. Nearly five decades of international dialogue have transformed human rights discourse in ways that are profoundly anti-Eurocentric, and further transformations are already underway.

A wide range of views are held on the Eurocentricity of human rights. [See Table at the end of the paper.] Two of them, which I call "triumphalism" and "rejectionism", agree that human rights concepts and beliefs are exclusively Western; they disagree as to whether human rights have any value. Alternatively, there are a number of views which both value human rights and argue for their justifiability within all existing cultures. I distinguish between three such views: assimilationism, revisionism, and transformationism. In this paper I will concentrate on the four claims of transformationism, which, I think, support the sort of political goals that Pierre Sané has proposed.

Following Henry Shue, and, at a greater distance, J.S. Mill, I believe that calling for a human right means calling for social protection against standard threats that exemplify a particular type of danger that is commonly encountered by humans. What human rights language refers to is the presence, absence, or violation of social protection against standard threats exemplifying some type of danger to humans.

Now, what shall we say about people who believe that social protections are owed to their own people, but not to outsiders? As long as they call for these protections somewhere, they are not human rights nihilists; they are evidently not against human rights protections everywhere. Nor, on the other hand, can they be called human rights advocates, for in that case we should have to include General Mladic as a human rights advocate - for Serbs only. Someone who makes exceptions of out-groups is clearly working with a concept of human rights that is defective. Yet because these are intended as exceptions - because the in-group have no intention of giving up these protections for "their own" - it is too strong to say, as Jack Donnelly does, that they have "no concept" of human rights at all. (4)

Transformationism claims (i) that defective concepts of human rights can be found within all cultural traditions. This is not hard to prove. Let's start at home, with a Western tradition. Take the case of John Locke, for instance. As we all know, Locke believed that anyone who would but consult their own Reason would conclude that behaviour threatening life, liberty, or property was a danger against which social protection was warranted. Men were warranted in providing and enforcing this protection by themselves, or they could contract the work out. Now, Locke was also the second-largest shareholder in the Royal Africa Company, the sole business of which was trading in slaves. (5) In Locke's thought, then, was the concept of human rights wholly lacking, or was it just horribly defective? If we want to hold that Locke did, after all, have something to say about human rights, not just white men's rights, then we must choose the latter. To be consistent, however, we must also say that in traditional cultures - as well as in Christianity and Islam - the concept of human rights, though it may have been applied defectively, is not altogether absent.

In the face of this, the transformationist holds (ii) that there are features of cross-cultural moral discourse that forbid these sorts of defects - if the discourse is not abused. This rests on a meta-ethical theory about the context of commitments that are specific to moral discussions. Moral discussions are not about the most effective way to make something happen, nor are they negotiating or in any other way using words "to get your way". What makes for specifically moral discussion is mutual commitment to reach an understanding of what is the right thing to do. This commitment to reach an understanding presupposes a distinction between understanding and manipulation. As Habermas has stressed, the sort of understanding we want, when we want to reach moral knowledge through deliberation, is not an agreement based on cajoling or tricking each other. In other words, a group that is committed to reaching an understanding is thereby committed to reducing the degree of manipulation in the discussion. Now, a group with these commitments will find it irrational not to give each other equal standing and equal consideration within the discussion. Any implication that someone ought to be demoted in standing or considerability will find the force of analogical reasoning (to treat like cases alike) weighing against it; meanwhile, reasons adduced in favour of the demotion will be suspected as manipulative, self-serving ideologies. Consequently, if social protection against a basic danger to humans is warranted for some, moves to exclude others from this protection will tend to be seen, within the discourse, as irrational.

The third claim that transformationists make is (iii) that the lists of human rights that can be generated from received cultural norms are generally incomplete, by which I mean that they overlook certain protections that people are due. Three generations of human rights have been claimed, declared, or enacted since the founding of the United Nations. Keep in mind that we are discussing the history of human rights declarations, not observance. This has been a history in which the West, led by the United States, has fought a prolonged losing battle to delete or demote all but the civil and political rights from the list. Transformationists, contrariwise, see the trend as essentially progressive. What they claim is not only (iii) that these new rights are justified, but (iv) that the justification rests on resources for moral knowledge that exist in all cultures.

To examine this, let's begin with some second generation rights. According to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration, "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of is 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."

How do we know that these things ought to be socially protected? What are the cognitive resources, available in our cultures, for knowing this? They are located at two levels: moral principles that are plausible within the culture, and the knowledge of care, neglect and abuse that informs people's treatment of each other - especially their treatment of those for whom they feel some responsibility.

First let's consider cultural norms. Protection of people in relation to their needs is hardly a new idea. In some traditional cultures it is justified in terms of dignity - a good example of which can be found in Francis Deng's discussion of virtue and dignity for the Dinka people of Sudan. (6) In others, protection against need is be rooted in the prevailing concept of personhood, as Kwasi Wiredu has shown with regard to the Akan peoples of West Africa. (7) These cultural beliefs, then, can support recognition of human rights relating to need.

However, there are other cultural beliefs that may, in particular cases, argue for other priorities. The question, then, is whether there are any deeper resource that enable us to know that needs protection is not to be overridden by other norms or considerations. My claim that all cultures do have such a resource, which I am calling "knowledge of care, neglect, and abuse". What this knowledge does within moral discussion is to block the use of cultural norms to justify or condone neglect or abuse. If people's common knowledge of care, neglect, and abuse is allowed to prevail in a discussion, the result will be to shape the discussion. Where knowledge of care and neglect prevail, those cultural norms which justify protection against need will also prevail. One can see this influence at work particularly in the interpretation of religious traditions, such as in social Buddhism, in Christian liberation theology, and among the Islamic left.

In different cultures, knowledge of care, neglect, and abuse are expressed differently, and under different conditions the requirements of care will vary, as for example adequate shelter is exemplified differently in different climates. Nevertheless, when it comes to identifying the most important types of protection, and probably even to ranking the worst cases of neglect and abuse, there is remarkable convergence. (8) As a resource for moral understanding, this convergence is bedrock. Were this convergence not possible, neither would it be possible for us to know anything about human rights.

Some of the third-generation rights are supported by this same resource, social knowledge of care, neglect, and abuse. This clearly the case for the emergence of women's rights as human rights. The protections that women seek, as Charlotte Bunch and others have pointed out, include protection from domestic, sexual, and other violence that targets them as women, protection from torture and sexual abuse while in custody, subordination and sexual exploitation of women refugees, feminization of poverty, and of course sex discrimination. All of these could be seen as violations of already-listed first- and second-generation rights. Why, then, add more rights? The reason is to ensure that these will be seen as instances of human rights violations, no less serious than comparable violations that are more typically encountered by men. Moreover, our understanding of a human right is not complete without a full understanding of the standard threats against which this right is meant to protect people.

Consider the right to security as an example. Some male interpreters have in fact denied that the right to security includes the right of women not to be beaten by their husbands. Clearly their understanding of the broad right - of security against violence - needs to be completed by specifying that domestic violence against women by husbands is a standard threat. How do we know about these as standard threats? There is some academic study, of course, but there is also an informal basis in experience: we come to know these are standard threats, through women's experience of having to care for and protect themselves, and each other, from violence that targets them specifically as women. With this addition, our understanding of human rights is, as Bunch argues, transformed. Without it, without understanding human rights as women's rights, our understanding of human rights is incomplete. (9)

Other emerging third-generation rights rely for their justification not on novel moral grounds, but on political experience of barriers to the implementation of first- and second-generation rights. From various histories of Southern countries we can see that not all ways of enacting civil and political rights enable nations to enact, with equal effectiveness, their social and economic rights. The last half of the twentieth century has revealed specific social and political dangers that have become standard threats to social development, and hence standard threats to the institutionalization of social and economic rights. One such threat has been the emergence of elites which, though they may once have wished to lead their people to prosperity and development, have been unable to do so, partly because of their subordinate positioning within international economic systems. The result has been the well-known tendency towards internal repression by domestic elites. As one African writer sums it up, "political independence coupled with the failure of the new elites to carry out an appreciable level of socioeconomic and political transformation generated apathy, opposition, and revolutionary pressures. These pressures in turn compelled African leaders to restort to repression; the manipulation of religion and ethnicity; alliances with powerful foreign interests, particularly for suupport; ideological containment; and defensive radicalism." (10) By endangering democratic development, this syndrome makes rights of the first and second generations insecure. The solution is seen as two-fold. First, international barriers to resources for development must be removed. Secondly, so must barriers to widespread public participation - both democratic participation and private participation - be removed, while organizations and institutions empowering people to participate in and share in control over the development process must be promoted. These are the two main elements of the omnibus third-generation human right that is called "the right to development." Why should this third-generation right be recognized? One argument is that the failure to secure people's right to development yields political structures (the repressive subaltern elite, powerless to lead development) which predictably fail to protect not only socio-economic rights but first-generation rights as well. It is argued on the basis of this political experience that enacting the third-generation right is the only process that can effectively enact first- and second-generation rights in third-world contexts.

In principle, then, a full list of human rights can be known. A full understanding and a complete set of human rights can be justified by moral discourse, so long as that discourse is not abused, and so long as it is open to two sorts of cognitive resources. One of these is the varied yet convergent knowledge of care, neglect, and abuse that informs personal and social life in all cultures. The other is not moral but political experience of barriers to achieving social protections, including those recognized as human rights.

What we will accomplish, in struggling for the inclusion of this knowledge and experience in the moral discourse of human rights, is to rid the discourse of its former Eurocentrism, and in this way render it more capable and appropriate for articulating at least some goals of the kind of world movement that Pierre Sané has called for in response to the human damage that is being caused by globalization. It is part of the process which, South Asian feminist Corinne Kumar de Souza has called "the Wind from the South," which fills our sails "to move outside the universal, Eurocentric, patriarchal patterns ... [and] develop a new universalism." (11)


The triumphalist view is that human rights are superior, and only Western cultures can support them. Thus Jack Donnelly has argued that the concept of human rights is foreign to all but Western cultures.

The rejectionist view agrees that only Western cultures can support human rights, but it denies that human rights have any value. The Ayatollah Khomeini was a rejectionist, as he made clear when he said that "the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a 'collection of mumbo-jumbo by disciples of Satan,'" and "What they call human rights is nothing but a collection of corrupt rules worked out by Zionists to destroy all true religion."

Assimilationists argue that because we know, on independent grounds, that current international human rights standards are more or less correct, further grounds can and ought to be found within all cultures for accepting them. Once this is done, according to Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, human rights will have "cultural legitimacy" and they will not be so easily portrayed as foreign impositions.

Revisionists argue that human rights have been understood and justified within non-Western cultures all along, and they have been understood there perfectly well. This view has been espoused by the authors of the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights of 1981, who claim that "Islam gave to mankind an ideal code of human rights fourteen centuries ago." (12)

Transformationists argue for the most complex position:
(i) In all cultural traditions, some people at some time or other have employed concepts of human rights that are "defective" in the sense that they limit human rights protection to in-groups, while out-groups are excluded.
(ii) Still, there are features of cross-cultural dialogue that forbid these sorts of defects - if the dialogue is not abused.
(iii) Now let us say that an "incomplete" list of human rights is one which overlooks certain protections that people are due. These can be found in all cultural traditions.
(iv) On the other hand, there are resources of moral and political experience, within all cultures, which argue strongly against this sort of incompleteness. Therefore, a consistent and complete knowledge of human rights can emerge cross-culturally, if the dialogue is not abused, and if the relevant moral and political experience is let into the dialogue, from all quarters.

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(1) An extended and revised version of this paper appeared as Chapter 7 of Global Justice, Global Democracy, ed. Jay Drydyk and Peter Penz, Socialist Studies/Études Socialistes vol. 12 (Winnipeg: Society for Socialist Studies, and Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1997) 159-183. A shortened version was republished as "Globalization and Human Rights" in Moral Issues in Global Perspective, ed. Christine Koggel (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1999) 30-42.

(2) In a recent interview, Sandra Ramos, National Coordinator of the Movement of Working and Unemployed Women, gave the following description of conditions in Nicaragua: "Some 70 per cent of the labour force is unemployed. So jobs and the right to healthcare and education are the basic demands for women. Neo-liberalism is working towards the privatization of healthcare and education, and also to reduce the number of jobs required to produce goods."

"The Government's only alternative in terms of jobs is to go work in the maquilas (export-only factories). This strategy is based on the poorly paid labour of women workers. There are 20 international companies investing here - mostly Korean and Taiwanese - all producing for the North American market. The women who work here have no benefits and are entirely outside the normal labour-law requirements. Women earn an average of $70 a month - less than a third of what they need to survive. They work 10 to 15 hours a day." Sandra Ramos, interviewed by Richard Swift, "The NI Interview," The New Internationalist 279 (May 1996) 31. See also Henk Thomas, ed., Globalization and Third World Trade Unions; The Challenge of Rapid Economic Change, (London: Zed Books, 1995).

(3) Pierre Sané, "Human Rights: An agenda for action," West Africa 3978 (1993, Dec. 20): 2294.

(4) Jack Donnelly, "Human Rights and Human Dignity: An Analytic Critique of Non-Western Conceptions of Human Rights," American Political Science Review 76 (1982): 303-16.

(5) Wayne Glausser, "Three Approaches to Locke and the Slave Trade," Journal of the History of Ideas 51 (1990): 199-216.

(6) Francis M. Deng, "A Cultural Approach to Human Rights Among the Dinka," in Human Rights in Africa: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, ed. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im and Francis M. Deng (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1990) 261-89.

(7) Kwasi Wiredu, "An Akan Perspective on Human Rights," in Human Rights in Africa: Cross-Cultural Perspectives 247.

(8) I want to stress that the underlying beliefs about care, neglect, and abuse are in principle a form of knowledge. It is fallible and corrigible knowledge, but knowledge nonetheless. It is a form of knowledge that no culture can afford not to have. Every culture - if it is going to sustain itself - must include practices of direct personal care and support. In some cases we take direct responsibility for the well-being of others - for example, our children. We also take on similar responsibilities towards adult friends and loved ones, although these responsibilities are limited by respect for their autonomy. In order to carry out these practices and responsibilities, people need a great deal of knowledge. Modernity has rendered some of this knowledge formal and testable, but a great deal more of the knowledge we need in order to provide each other with humane care and support is informal, a cultural reservoir based on current and received experience. It is against this vast informal knowledge of how people are to be cared for and supported that we can also recognize neglect. Care and support are eventually concerned with providing conditions for growth and socialization, but they begin with providing protection. Consequently, those who can recognize good care can also recognize abuse.

(9) Charlotte Bunch, "Women's Rights as Human Rights: Toward a Re-Vision of Human Rights," Applied Ethics; A Multicultural Approach, ed. Larry May and Shari Collins Sharratt, (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1994) 41-9.

(10) Julius O. Ihonvbere, "Underdevelopment and Human Rights Violations in Africa," Emerging Human Rights; The African Political Economy Context, ed. George W. Shepherd Jr. and Mark Anikpo, (New York: Greenwood, 1990) 58.

(11) Corinne Kumar D'Souza, "A New Movement, A New Hope: East Wind, West Wind, and the Wind from the South," Healing the Wounds; The Promise of Ecofeminism, ed. Judith Plant, (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1989) 38.

(12) Quoted by Ann Elizabeth Mayer, "Current Muslim Thinking on Human Rights," Human Rights in Africa; Cross-Cultural Perspectives, ed. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im and Francis M. Deng, (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1990) 138.

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