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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 150
January 02, 2010

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Human Rights analysis

Human rights in the 'Third World'

Fayazuddin Ahmad

Human rights are not merely the claims that individuals have against the state or other citizens, but are ways of ordering life in the human ancestors so as to ensure dignity for all its members. This image of human rights is sometimes lost in the scrimmage of ideological debate. The heart of the doctrine of human rights, as it has developed in the West, is that the sovereign was subjected to the higher law conceived as the guarantor of the inalienable rights of man. This "first generation" of human rights, is concerned with the civil and political rights of the individual. It is fretful with the freedom of the individual from interference by the State; with what are often called "negative rights" for they involve assertions of what the government cannot do. These rights dominate the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and are set forth in Articles 2-21, which include: the right to life, liberty; right to a fair and public trial; freedom of opinion and expression etc.

The history of human rights thought on the continent of Europe is somewhat different. In 1789 the citizens of France were confronted by intractable social and economic forces causing impoverishment and hunger. Economic growth, with more fairness of distribution is the reigning value, and human rights depend upon governmental management, improved for the purpose by ridding itself of archaic involvement with religious preoccupations and institutions. Thus, the French Constitution of 1791 provides for public relief for the poor and free public education, rights that were not protected in early American constitutions and in international law today are described as economic and social rights.

Communists/ Socialists were quick to point out that Western liberal notions of rights had developed in the particular economic and political circumstances of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As these circumstances changed in the nineteenth century, liberal theory was unable to respond to the need for state action to secure fundamental human rights and freedoms for citizens. Socialist theories of rights, often described as the "second generation" of human rights, emphasize economic, social, and cultural rights.

The incorporation into the concept of fundamental rights of the economic, social and cultural rights that assume the egalitarian component which harmonizes completes and makes freedom more real, also creates a new dimension which is that of solidarity, synonymous with the fraternity of the trilogy of the French Revolution. Thus, the concept of social and economic rights advanced within the socialist tradition is included in the Universal Declaration and not entirely absent from the liberal tradition. In the same way, not all second generation rights can properly be described as "positive rights." However, certainly the emphasis of second generation rights is on claims to social equality; and so state intervention is essential in the allocation of resources required to enforce these rights.

In its second phase (1960-73) the socialist countries joined forces with '3rd' world countries to champion the right of peoples to self-determination and to economic and social rights. Rather than resisting the development of human rights instruments, socialists now saw in international law the possibilities of promoting the very concerns for economic and social justice that had prompted their original opposition. It is no accident that both the ICESCR and the ICCPR begin with the same first article. The challenge to realize a "'3rd' generation of human rights" was first articulated in the 1974 Charter on Economic Rights and Duties of States. This established as a priority for the future work of the UN Commission on Human Rights. This in recent times shifted to Human Rights Council.

Political freedoms are not possible without primary social development and conflicts are resolved in terms of the welfare of society as a whole. The basic rights to survival and food are asserted both as qualifying civil and political rights and as depending upon them. In the '3rd' World human rights are understood to embrace political and religious concepts as well as indigenous traditional values. Human rights are conceived as elements of the right to self-determination, which protects the rights of peoples to their cultural traditions and language, as well as their right to development.

Although socialist concepts may seem to predominate in the '3rd' World, human rights advocates argue that civil and political rights are not subordinated to economic and social rights. In the '3rd' World the right to self-determination, which is an internationally recognized right of long and dubious standing is being given a new shape. This is reflected in the Algiers Declaration of '3rd' World Peoples, adopted on July 1976, which attributes violations of human rights directly to the structures of the international economic system. Almost all '3rd' World states have constitutions including bills of rights, most of which were drafted after World War II on the model of the U. S. Bill of Rights, the French Declaration, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the European Convention on Human Rights.

What is also clear is that these reactants are being catalyzed by the cultural values of '3rd' World peoples. In the crucible of the '3rd' World there is not merely a reformulation of liberal and socialist doctrines of human rights-the first and second generations of human rights-but at the same time a reassertion of traditional values. If diverse cultural contexts in the '3rd' World make the traditional distinctions between individual and group rights less clear, the oppressive character of many governments renders the debate between liberals and socialists a luxury.

In Latin America it is understood as natural and necessary for church leaders to defend human rights and for many church programs to be devoted entirely to human rights advocacy. Where political systems are open it is not necessary to appeal exclusively to concepts of human rights in order to struggle, as people always have, for bread, freedom, land, a greater voice in the decisions that direct their lives, and overall human dignity. For the present, the very fact that there are suddenly thousands of people proclaiming and writing about human rights indicates that political systems in most countries are far from open. In Latin America, as in Africa and Asia, human rights claims are a means of affirming basic moral values in the face of severe oppression.

The breadth of the concept of human rights is an asset in this respect, for it encompasses different social, political and ideological perspectives and is therefore useful to the political left, right and center, to religious and secular humanitarian associations and to victims of the many forms of repression. The ambiguity of human rights language, as well as its association with established legal and religious institutions, allows a certain amount of protection for those seeking redress for their grievances, as they would be more vulnerable using ideological or political language.

Nothing is to be gained by arguing for the distinctively Western character of human rights. If you win the argument, you lose the battle. That is, if you claim some special distinction for the West in this respect, or assert some inherent lack on the part of Asians, you are probably defining human rights in such narrow terms as to render them unrecognizable or inoperable for others. The synthesis of human rights concepts in the '3rd' World is to be embraced rather than resisted, for it means that the possibility of a truly global standard for human dignity is becoming a reality. In the '3rd' World, faith in human rights is a way of living, in the face of renewed barbarism and systematic oppression, with hope for the future of the human family.

The writer is an Advocate & Researcher.


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