A practical not ideological approach to human rights

People paying homage outside the headquarters of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Feb 15, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
People paying homage outside the headquarters of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Feb 15, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

Ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan advocates a practical approach to human rights in his speech at a seminar on Thursday on "Keeping the Faith: A Study of Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion in Asean", organised by the Jakarta-based Human Rights Resource Centre.

HUMAN rights are undoubtedly a very important subject. But if we are to do justice to their importance, we must take a practical and not an ideological approach. And the first premise of a practical approach must be to admit that not all rights are compatible or capable of simultaneous realisation. There is not one Good but many goods and not all goods are compatible.

A corollary to this is to dismiss from our minds the myth that all rights are really universal. This should not be understood as dismissing the importance of human rights or as an excuse for suppressing them, but as a simple description of reality. The fact is all rights evolve according to specific circumstances and within the context of particular cultures, beliefs, values and changing historical contexts. How we understand rights today is not the same as we understood them 100 or 50 or even, say, just five or 10 years ago.

The idea that human rights have an autonomous reality or are somehow "natural rights" is, as Jeremy Bentham said, "rhetorical nonsense - nonsense upon stilts". It is a civilising myth we choose to believe in so that we may at least occasionally live in a civilised manner. But we should not forget that beliefs are not stable; they change and they do not change in a teleological manner towards a single preordained destination.

Of course, all cultures and societies hold some values in common. But this is generally at such a high level of generality as to be practically meaningless as a guide to how specific societies or political systems actually organise themselves or even as a guide to how they ought to organise themselves. Most rights, despite a superficial consensus, are in fact essentially contested concepts, both within societies and between different countries and societies. And it is to my mind pointless to console someone deprived of the basic necessities of life that his or her civil liberties are protected. It is at best naive if not downright cynical.

An ideological approach to the universality of rights not only leads to a meaningless formalism, but it degrades the very values that are held to be universal. But this is too often the approach in the international human rights discourse. Anyone who has served at the United Nations would have at some point encountered the less-than-edifying spectacle of Western, usually European, diplomats threatening the withdrawal of aid from the less developed countries if they did not support some human rights resolution or other. Curiously, these Western diplomats seem to see nothing hypocritical or even merely contradictory in their behaviour.

When the Charlie Hebdo tragedy occurred, I was struck by the similarity between the mode of thought of the murderers and their victims. Both held some belief so absolutely that they thought it justified anything.

The fact that the terrorists had a completely mistaken interpretation of Islam is beside the point. The point is that they believed in it; believed in it as fervently as the cartoonists believed in their right to freedom of expression. Both were equally wrong. I am not arguing that there is a moral equivalency between the terrorists and the cartoonists; clearly there is none. Nothing justifies murder. But is it right to constantly lampoon a religion? I do not often agree with Dr Mohamad Mahathir, but he got it absolutely right when he said killing is wrong and so is insulting someone else's religion.

Circumstances do matter and again the Charlie Hebdo tragedy is an apt case in point for the specific theme of this seminar: how the state can successfully balance the conflicting interests of different belief systems in society. This is not, I think, in principle very complicated if we do not lose sight of the general points with which I began.

Of course, implementation is everything. The conception of rights that is predominant in the West is one in which rights are held by the individual against an overly powerful state. But the essential problem in much of the rest of the world, and in my view certainly in South-east Asia as regards freedom of belief, arises when the state is too weak to hold the balance between competing belief systems or too timid to be willing to resist political pressures to privilege one belief system over another. This does not, of course, mean South-east Asian or other non-Western states cannot be as oppressive as any other state.

But it is a matter of what is regarded as the most urgent priority and that again will vary according to specific circumstances. You cannot - or at least only very rarely can - do everything simultaneously, particularly when the state is weak. Perfection is not to be found this side of heaven and to pursue perfection on earth usually results only in achieving very little all round.

The French state is certainly not weak. But it hobbled itself by its own absolutist belief systems and was unable to see beyond its own nose and admit that some values cannot be simultaneously realised and therefore need at least some degree of restraint to be enjoyed at all. France paid dearly for persisting in the delusion that all of its citizens shared the same belief in the universality and pre-eminence of certain rights or values. And so the French state failed in the most fundamental duty of any state: to adjudicate between different conceptions of the good.

In fact, all of Europe is tying itself into knots by clinging to systems of values; systems based on an extreme ideological conception of the universality of rights taken to ridiculous lengths - a reductio ad absurdum of values - and which moreover are out of sync with societies that are evolving under demographic or other pressures in entirely different directions. The result, among other consequences, is the revival of fascism or at least extreme right-wing political movements. Is it an accident that anti- Semitism is on the rise in France and some other parts of Europe? I don't think so.

I do not think Europe can easily get out of this conundrum of its own making because that would require a redefinition of what European elites have decided it means to be European. They are not prepared to confront this, particularly at a time when the conception of Europe as Europe - as distinct from France or Germany or any other individual country - has been shaken and its place in the international order is in question.

I wish Europe well. But I even more fervently wish that Southeast Asia in general, and Singapore in particular, does not fall into the same trap. Here at least we can learn from Europe's mistakes if we maintain the self-confidence to pursue our own course and ignore advice that may be well-meaning but is too often utterly inappropriate.