Nov
28

Dignity & Rights: An Islamic Perspective

In seeking to democratize thinking about ethics, recent posts have covered Islamic perspectives on justice and equity, this book covers the Islamic perspective of dignity, from the book "The Dignity of Man: An Islamic Perspective" (1999) by Mohammed Hashim Kamali. A few notes:

"Islam's perception of human rights is not premised on the individual verses nation-state framework. The nation-state itself represents a superimposition which has little claim to authenticity in the authoritative sources of Islam, namely the Qur'an and Sunnah. The Qur'an and Sunnah lend support to the creation of a political order and leadership that takes charge of community affairs and administers justice. But the main actor and audience in all this is the individual, not the state." (p. xii)

"World cultures and traditions tend to differ not only in the value-content of human rights but in regard to many other variables that influence the place and priority that is given to those rights. The western tradition posits freedom in order mainly to avoid the outcome of a despotic of government, while Islam emphases virtue as a goal for both the individual and society. The west emphases individual rights and interests, while Islam gives priority to collective good in the event which the latter conflicts with the interest of the individual." (p. xv)

"Dignity in other words is not earned by meritorious conduct; it is an expression of God's favour and grace. Mustafa al-Sibai and Hasan al-Ili have similarly remarked that dignity is a proven right of every human being regardless of color, race or religion. Ahmad Yusri has drawn the conclusion that 'dignity is established for every human being at the moment of birth'. Sayyid Qutb has similarly stated that dignity is the natural light of every individual. The children of Adam have been honored not only for their personal attributes or status in society, but for the fact that they are human beings." (p. 1-2)

"It is a basic right of all human beings to live a life of dignity, complemented by peace and comfort and the freedom to pursue what brings them happiness and perfection through all lawful means. A Muslim only worships God as his sole creator and sovereign and humbles himself to no one else. The creation and enjoyment of beauty, good health and a clean environment are seen as complementary to the defined lifestyle of Islam." (p. 8)

"Another manifestation of the dignity of man in Islam is its insistence on the essential equality of every member of the human race. All are equal in the eyes of God regardless of race, color and religion. No man has a claim to superiority over another, and there is no recognition in Islam of a class or caste system, a superior race, or a chosen people or any related concept. Man's inherent dignity is sacrosanct and the only ground of superiority is recognized in the Qur'an is God-consciousness [taqwa]" (p. 45)

"Islam's perception of human dignity is predicated on the unity of the origin of mankind, and its basic quality in regard to the essence of humanity, rights and obligations." (p. 102)

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Oct
11

The Concept of Human Rights in Africa

"Human rights talk constitutes one of the main elements in the ideological armoury of imperialism. Yet from the point of view of the African people, human rights struggles constitute the stuff of their daily lives. For these two interconnected reasons, human rights talk needs to be subjected to a closer historical and political scrutiny." (p. vii)

The above quote is drawn from the book "The Concept of Human Rights in Africa" (1989) by Issa G. Shivji (Professor of Law, University of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania). Shivji writes with a fire that ignites. Parts are dated, as one would expect from a book published in 1989,  others remain provocative and topical for today. This is well worth a read for anyone interested in human rights, and in particular those looking for alternative voices on the subject. Chapter 1 (on the discourse) is reflective of the 80s, however the historical review of the legal basis of human rights remains important. The critique waged in Chapter 2 puts down "fundamental premises" and "political and ideological consequences of such a discourse on the anti-imperialist, democratic struggles of the broad masses", which inspire continued debate and discussion. The latter chapters, on the way forward and examples of dominant and revolutionary tendencies, is situated at the end of 1980s but provides examples for how analyses might be undertaken of more recent human rights agreements. This book was also published by CODESRIA (as a number of other books by African authors in the social sciences). Some quotes:

"Just as in the early Christian crusades it was legitimate to save the soul even if it meant trampling the body, so in the human rights crusade it was fair to protect rights even while napalming the humans. 'Human rights ideology' is an ideology of domination and part of the imperialist world outlook. Like other ideologies of domination in yester-epochs, the dominant human rights ideology claims and proclaims universality, immortality and immutability while promulgating in practice class-parochialism, national oppression and 'patronising' authoritarianism." (p. 3)

"Classical democracy is linked with the Western bourgeoisie which arose in Europe during the revolution that overthrew feudalism in, what have since been called, bourgeois democratic revolutions. The bourgeoisie marched apace and within a century transformed their countries of birth while marauding the rest of the world and planting its fangs all over the globe, including Africa. While unashamedly taking under its wings varied reactionary and backward social forces, from feudalists to zamindars and chiefs..." (p. 5)

"Since the second world war, human rights talk has been one of the central planks in the foreign and domestic ideologies of the United States. It is clearly expressed in the cold-war struggle with the Soviet bloc on the one hand, and in the oppression and domination of the Third World, including Africa, on the other. In some periods more intensely than others, the human rights ideology has been used by different regimes in the US on both these levels. In this regard it has played a double, if contradictory, role. On the international level, it is a rationalization for interference and intervention as well as domination of the Third World countries ('in the interest of democracy and free world') and on the domestic level it is an important element in reproducing the hegemony of imperial-bourgeois ideology by bolstering the image of the US as a country maintaining civilised human standards internationally." (p. 53)

"This should not come as a surprise to any African who has the slightest knowledge of reality beyond the thin veneer of official imperialist 'brain washing'. Who does not know that Mobutu, who gracefully presides over death and detention chambers of Zaire, was installed by the CIA? Who is so ignorant as to forget that the Lion of Juddah (Haile Selassie), who turned his country into a jungle where people in their thousands starved to death in fear and famine, was one of the greatest beneficiaries of US military arsenal? Many know that the US is one of the staunchest allies of [apartheid] South Africa; the military supplier of UNITA in Angola; the benefactor of dictators like Banda and Moi and the protector of Liberia's military nincompoop Samuel Doe. On the one hand, these facts are so well-documented that they need no repetition, yet on the other hand they have been so successfully suppressed in the mainstream human rights scholarship that they need to be broadcast from roof-tops." (p. 55) 

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Jan
31

Human Rights in Africa

Bonny Ibhawoh's (2018) "Human Rights in Africa" is a long overdue contribution to the human rights discourse. This is not only a critical assessment of the dominant narrative about the origins of human rights as known today, but also a call for revival of knowing histories that are not well known, prioritized or taught. The book outlines the "complicated story of progression and regression, inclusion and exclusion" (p. 119) of human rights across the continent and over time. The book is accessible, which makes it recommended reading across audiences.

Relative or universal rights? "The case for an African concept of human rights is essentially an argument for cultural relativism as a counter to the universalist claims of the modern human rights movement. The premise of this position is that culture shapes the articulation and fulfilment of human rights because of its formative influence on human thought and behavior. Human rights principles are therefore culturally relative to different contexts, and culture informs unique conceptions of human rights when grounded in African moral principles and cultural experiences… On the other hand, some proponents of African values in human rights interpretation premise their claim on an affirmation rather than a repudiation of the universalism of human rights. They contend that the core principles that underpin modern human rights are neither exclusive to Western liberal traditions nor alien to African cultural traditions. These are eternal and universal norms. There is nothing essentially Western or bourgeois about the fundamental rights to life, the right to personal and collective dignity or the right to a fair trial. These human rights principles have normative parallels in indigenous African moral principles and political and social practices." (p. 37-38)

On vernacularization: "the African values argument and the cultural legitimacy argument converge in what may be expressed as the vernacularization of universal human rights. The notion of vernacularizing human rights describes the process by which universal human rights norms are grounded in local communities. It requires seeing human rights in specific situation rather than as the application of abstract principles. Vernacularizing human rights is therefore a constructive process that grounds and expands the scope of human rights in different cultural contexts. It is a process whereby global impulses intersect with indigenous ideas to produce new human rights norms and practices that are relevant to local situations. The process of vernacularization connotes critical local engagement with international human rights norms with the goal of investing them with local meaning that can potentially strengthen recognition and enforcement." (p. 52)

Vernacularization (cont.): "The notion of vernacularizing human rights has been used to describe the process by which universal human rights norms become grounded in local communities. It is a constructive process that affirms and delineates the scope of human rights in different cultural contexts. Vernacularizing human rights requires seeing human rights in specific situations rather than as the application of abstract principles. In this sense, vernacularization refers to the interaction between established international human rights principles and local norms to produce hybridized legal and normative frameworks for human rights protection. This should not be confused with the cultural relativist repudiation of universal human rights, which I discuss in the introductory chapter of this book. Rather, vernacularization is a deliberate process of investing universal human rights with local meanings that can potentially strengthen human rights protection and contribute to the normative application of global human rights." (p. 225-226)

Criticism all around: "The same [criticisms of Enlightenment liberalism] can be said of indigenous African notions of human rights. The scope of individual and collective rights was often limited to community members and restricted by ethnicity, caste, gender, power and status. Prioritizing communal solidarity over individual liberties often implied the exclusion of those considered outsiders, minorities and non-conforming members of the community. The emphasis on communal well-being and the contingent relationship between individual rights and duties also meant that rights were ultimately not conferred based on the intrinsic value of each human being but, rather, based on community membership, and social status and obligations." (p. 47)

Questioning rationales: "Antislavery provided an important legitimizing rationale for colonialism and become part of the "inter-imperial repertoire of idiom and imaginaries of colonial rule." Eradicating the slave trade and granting freedom to those enslaved was a declared mission of many early European adventurers, missionaries and colonialists. Atlantic slavery and the movement to abolish it marked the beginning of Europe's conquest and colonization of Africa, provoking what became known as the scramble for Africa and one of the most pernicious land grabs in human history. Here we confront another paradox of rights discourse within antislavery. Nineteenth-century missionary and humanitarian activism that rallied public support against slavery also provided moral justification for colonization, which ultimately denied millions of Africans their right to self-determination." (p. 83-84)

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Jan
06

Human Rights and the Food Sovereignty Movement

Priscilla Claeys's "Human Rights and the Food Sovereignty Movement: Reclaiming Control" (2015) had some high level support and praise (Jun Borras, Olivier De Schutter, etc). The beginning of the abstract reads: "Our global food system is undergoing rapid change. Since the global food crisis of 2007-2008, a range of new issues have come to public attention, such as land grabbing, food prices volatility, agrofuels and climate change. Peasant social movements are trying to respond to these challenges by organizing from the local to the global to demand food sovereignty. As the transnational agrarian movement La Via Campesina celebrates its 20th anniversary, this book takes stock of the movement's achievements and reflects on challenges for the future. It provides an in-depth analysis of the movement's vision and strategies, and shows how it has contributed not only to the emergence of an alternative development paradigm but also of an alternative conception of human rights."

For those interested in La Via Campesina and the emergence of legal approaches (via human rights), this is a useful resource. With regard to international legal advocacy, Claey offers some interesting experiences (namely the role of: critical junctures, networks and allies, framing and re-problematizing):

  • "Very few 'new rights' that emerge from the grassroots find their way onto the international human rights agenda (Bob 2010b). How did peasant organizations succeed in getting support for a process of negotiation of a Declaration on the Rights of Peasants at the UN? Three success factors are worth highlighting here. First, the global food crisis of 207-8 put the spotlight on smallholder farmers and gave peasant activities unprecedented access to international arenas to advance their demands." (p. 60)
  • "Second, Via Campesina's demand for a new instrument was endorsed by a number of key actors who helped identify the 'legal opportunities' (Israel 2003) that could be seized at the HRC. The close ties, shared diagnosis and trust built between Via Campesina activists and human rights experts over the years played a central role in enabling them to move swiftly, and strategically. Without that endorsement, peasant activists would not have been able to advance their claims at the HRC." (p. 60)
  • "Third, Indonesian peasant activists succeeded in framing their claims as human rights abuses, and in bringing their claims to the attention of peasant organizations in other countries, first in South-East Asia, then the world over. Most importantly, they chose not to depict their grievances as abuses of well-accepted human rights." (p. 61)

On the latter point, the author elaborates later in the text, one quote from that:

  • "Diagnostic work is crucial because it enables 'system attributions' (McAdam et al. 1996, 9); it allows (potential) movement constituents to attribute everyday problems to global and structural mechanisms, and to overcome the 'fundamental attribution error', the tendency of people to explain their situation as a function of individual deficiencies rather than features of the system (Ross 1977). In the case of Via Campesina, diagnostic work has involved identifying injustices (appropriation of natural resources, forced rural migration, broken families and traditions, hunger, poverty and despair), victims (people of the land) and culprits (large financial institutions, neoliberal states, agribusiness and other transnational corporations)." (p. 82)
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