Beyond Humanism and Human Rights

Anoop Swarup

humanism and human rights

Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands Bleed – Rudyard Kipling

Anoop Swarup
Anoop Swarup

We need a new vision for Humanism and Human Rights! Indeed across the globe and more than anywhere in India, we all aspire to liberty and security in our lives, but few of us truly enjoy it. Indeed our world is a ‘functional anarchy’ or at best a ‘pseudo- democratic’ one, where the proclamation of universality of life, liberty, freedom, dignity and security is routinely mocked by the reality on the ground. The class differences both inherited from past legacies and the racist minutes that we still carry do create vast inequalities and indignities in our so called free societies The oligarchic democracies and the authoritarian regimes, the onslaught of regular elections, and the apartheid of a neo- power elite that promotes terrible socio-economic deprivation of the down trodden is more often than not camouflaged by cynically proclaimed commitments to human rights. Well, how and why this has come about and why we tolerate it. Perhaps the first bill of human rights was on a clay tablet during the reign of Cyrus (555-529 BC), but the real foundation of modern human rights jurisprudence lies in English Bill of Rights (1688), the American Declaration of Independence (1776), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) followed by the Atlantic Charter (1941) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 1948. The world Conference on Human Rights in 1993 in Vienna stated that human rights are derived from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person.

If we consider the two kinds of human rights: Civil and Political and Economic, Social and Cultural recognized by the United Nations in its two covenants ICCPR and the ICESCR. These interalia refer to right to life, personal liberty, privacy as also freedom from torture, hunger and the right to own property. The right to education, to vote, to adequate food, clothing and housing, adequate standard of living, social security, health and the right to work and more lately the racial, sexual and gender discrimination including against LGBT individuals (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) though subsets do require positive interventions of the state. The Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC) under Article 68 of the UN Charter is empowered to set up commissions for the promotion of human rights.

We have to plan and set out a manifesto for a better future, a place where life, liberty, freedom, dignity and security should enrich everyone’s life. The truth remains that democracy as much as autocracies do disguise the injustice and inequality at their core. And it is just not the democracies’ that have turned dysfunctional but also the so-called established global institutions that are also hurtling in the same direction, such as the United Nations. We need to forcefully counter the issues and the challenge from this emerging threat to international peace, prosperity and order. It is in this vein that I welcome the World Federation of the United Nations Associations to partner with our University at this international conference. At the United Nations, almost a decade ago where I had the privilege to represent at the UN Security Council as the United Nations Representative I was more helpless than ever before in enforcing the UN mandate and UNSC resolutions in a far off poverty, disease and war ridden country where human rights were unheard of and where killings and genocide were the order of the day. We urgently need not only a new world order but also a new vision of international peace, justice and freedom that draws from newer findings in law, human rights, political ethos and anthropogenesis and the start point has to be Nonkilling humanism.

As Nelson Mandela said ‘To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity’. Indeed, one cannot dispel the plight of millions who do get uprooted on a daily basis from their own homeland. There are refugees all over from Afghanistan and Syria to Ukraine and Europe and from Australia and New Zealand to Venezuela and Brazil on desperate journeys in search of better lives for their children and families. The situation gets worse every day and for the first time after the II World War the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and people forced to flee within their own countries surpassed 50 million and it surged to nearly 60 million last year, ‘a nation of the displaced’ roughly equal to the population of the United Kingdom. We have inspiring examples from across the globe of Mala Yousafzai on right to education and women against the Taliban in Sat valley of Pakistan, conflict in Srilanka, Kailash Satyarthi on child rights and the list goes on.

Perhaps at this point in history, there is no better theme to deliberate and for discourse than the issues and challenges to Human Rights that we face. Not only in India but for the whole world when we find glamour in Hollywood and Bollywood movies that spew violence, when drug trafficking and human trafficking is taken as a perfect plot for the dons of the underworld, when the license to kill gets ever so much glamorized by the 007 James Bond, Star Wars, Superman and the ever so popular blockbusters.

When childhood memories and later adolescence gets doses of the likes of violent revolutionaries, the adulthood becomes precarious. No wonder our twisted youthful imagination has much to do with the world we live in shaped more in our everyday lives by the human injustice and indignity, humiliation, violence and killing than by empathy, compassion and love. This holds much more true in India as in our own everyday lives we end up treating our fellow humans with much contempt and immense disregard to others life, liberty and freedom virtually all the time.

The situation is not any better when we look at killings across the globe. Today, as we look back, 70 years since Hiroshima was devastated and this single act unleashed the apocalyptic mushroom cloud that later marked the end of the World War II at Nagasaki. Despite the fortuitous decades bygone the probability of a nuclear holocaust remains as stark as ever. Reportedly 135 people were killed in an air strike in Yemen on 28 September 2015, but that remains the tip of the iceberg. There are as many killings by individuals entrenched in violent extremism. There was a summit on the sidelines of the UNGA focused on countering the ISI. It is a tragic comedy indeed from the very leaders who are supposed to take action to stop the mayhem. A recent survey in India on murders using firearms compiled by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) revealed a surprising result: nine out of every ten murders were committed using illegal firearms. This shows that a strict enforcement of the Arms Act would save thousands of lives as out of the 40,000 illegal firearms seized and confiscated in the past four years nearly half were from Uttar Pradesh followed by Bihar, West Bengal, J&K and Assam. Lets have a look at capital punishment. Well, it may come as a surprise that death row is not a deterrent! This calls for an informed dispassionate debate on abolishing the death penalty as 102 countries have abolished it for all crimes whereas 37 countries have retained it in both law and practice. The Law Commission in India has questioned ‘rarest of rare doctrine’ and have recommended that death penalty does not deter any more than life imprisonment, and has recommended scrapping of death penalty except for terror.

Some of the political thinkers of the past held a very pessimist view of individuals and their approach to humanism of Nonkilling. In the 17th century, the early British empiricist, John Locke had postulated his memory that a person’s identity only reaches as far as their memory extends into the past. In other words, who one is critically depends upon what one remembers implying that as a person’s memory begins to disappear, so does his identity. Recently researchers from the University of Arizona and Yale decided to investigate this hypothesis directly in a real-world clinical population. The investigators recruited 248 volunteers with family members who suffered from one of three types of neurodegenerative diseases. Patients had Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), each of which are characterized by relatively distinct cognitive and behavioral changes. While ALS primarily affects motor but not mental function, both Alzheimer’s and frontotemporal dementia affect cognition. However, where Alzheimer’s strongly affects things like memory and IQ, those with frontotemporal dementia tend to undergo changes in moral traits like honesty, compassion, decency, and integrity. It was surprisingly revealed that it is not our intelligence or our knowledge of the past that defines us, but instead our moral behavior or the spirituality. Thus and very essentially, identity is not what we know, but what we stand for. Perhaps coupled with genetics which is the true individuator, it is the personality and morality or spirituality of a person that is more distinct and deep rooted and not the acquired traits such as religion or the past knowledge.

Thus humans are distinct from the animals and are perfectly capable of spirituality, morals and values and in the same breadth of humanism, Nonkilling and Nonviolence as innate and not an acquired trait.

Joichi Ito, a Japanese American activist says that, if we destroy human rights and rule of law in the response to terrorism, they have won. Indeed so as rising instances of violence, terrorism, military interventions is of immediate concern as it endangers human lives globally. A recent study that was conducted by me to find how science can contribute towards a Nonkilling world a very stark fact emerged that has a bearing on human existence. The research on an interesting topic, ‘Comparative Study on Killing Vs Nonkilling approaches from around the globe to interpret a viable model for future human existence’ revealed that even in adverse situations, we may conclude:

1. Killing does not in the end bring any of the stated objectives of revolutionaries who resort to violence to achieve their goal.

2. Violent revolution does not per se result in lasting peace as the revolutionaries themselves end up meeting further violence and death

3. Any violent revolution leads to total disregard of human dignity and human rights as also leading to authoritarianism.

4. In contrast, peaceful and Nonkilling approaches and movements do bring stability and lasting attainment of set objectives through reconciliation and tolerance

5. However, any peaceful and Nonkilling movement does require a charismatic leader (leadership) who is respected by all factions for any mass mobilization and support.

Glenn D Paige, the great socio political scientist who propounded the very idea of Nonkilling observes that “The structure of society does not depend upon lethality. There are no social relationships that require actual or threatened killing to sustain or change them” How true, an effort was made through this paper to provide a rationale for a Nonkilling world on the basis of empirical data and logical interpretation of history. It may be stated that Nonkilling is not at all an utopian idea but an achievable goal for mankind. The 20th century cited examples make it abundantly clear that individuals are capable of creating a Nonkilling society. The process can be catalyzed through the intervention of the United Nations as also the Nonkilling state apart from better advocacy, organizational efforts and commitments, focused media for public opinion and other individual planned interventions. Perhaps the Rio+20 outcome document, The future we want, inter alia, does set out a mandate to establish a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) for the United Nations General Assembly at its 68th session. In retrospect as Dag Hammarskjold once mentioned ‘Freedom from fear’ could be said to sum up the whole philosophy of human rights. Perhaps the Goal 16 of the SDG lays the basic tenets for the world to ‘Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. In the end let us never forget what Mahatma Gandhi said “All men are born equal and free”. It is for our humanity to see and ensure what we do collectively and what mankind has in store for our future generations


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