Who's Right About Human Rights?

Human rights issues have become big-time concerns of post-Cold War politics -- right up there with environmental and economic matters on the list of things that people worry about, politicians talk about, and diplomats dispute.When the rhetoric becomes heated and simplistic, it seems to boil down to a plain difference of opinion -- and of values -- between two distinct groups: those who are for rights, and those who are against them. In one version of this logic, the Chinese are against human rights, the Americans -- at least those who want to link rights to trade negotiations -- are for them. Muslims -- at least Muslim fundamentalists -- are against them.But the politics of rights are never simple. They are endlessly tedious, murky and complex because rights are not objective things. Rights are ways of thinking and talking about such matters as power, freedom, and social obligation -- and different people think and talk differently. Rights are also inventions -- different societies have invented different rights.Western ideas about rights are a fairly recent invention. You won't find "human rights" as we know them in the Greek or Roman classics or in the philosophies of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. People invented human rights at about the time they invented the nation-state, which now does ironic double duty as the great protector of rights and the major usurper of them.Today, most talk about rights in international politics boils down to conflicts between individual rights and group rights. Individual rights are what Westerners usually have in mind -- involving free speech, privacy, personal property, due process. Group rights involve the claims of a group -- anything from a nation to an indigenous tribe to a spiritual cult -- to be recognized and respected and, to some extent, left alone to perpetuate its values and beliefs.Individual rights are not necessarily incompatible with group rights, but each tends to different ideas about how to run a multicultural society -- now really the only kind we have. The Ottoman Empire, for example, had a multicultural arrangement based on group rights. Christians, Jews and Muslims were self-governing, with no one group suppressing another. But, from a Western perspective, that was a long way from freedom of religion, nobody was free to be an atheist, a dissenter, or a believer in any non-recognized religion.In a multicultural world rights are important to everybody. They raise basic questions about what kind of a global civilization we are creating and passing on to our children. Will individual rights prevail everywhere, or will we have a world in which many different groups have the right -- and the authority -- to maintain their own kinds of social order?That matter of authority can make group rights an explosive subject. Western center-left liberals are most likely to get caught up in the contradictions. Anxious to preserve and protect the traditions of nonwestern cultures -- especially those of indigenous peoples -- they resist recognizing that those traditions will often override individual rights such as free speech, the autonomy of women, and religious nonconformity.Another problem is that group rights assumes a certain exclusivity and permanence in group membership -- and in our fast-moving world, this is unlikely. People change nationalities, jobs, religions and marriage partners. They are also likely to belong to multiple communities, each demanding loyalties and obligations. Moreover membership is in large part a matter of opinion. As sociologist Todd Gitlin wrote, "To a passerby or a census-taker, I am white. To an anti-Semite, I am simply a Jew. To a German Jew, I may be one of the Ostjuden; to Sephardim, an Askenazi Jew; to an Israeli Jew, an American; to a religious Jew, secular; to a right-wing Zionist, an apostate, or no Jew at all."Americans like to think that rights are fairly straightforward, things we have written down clearly in our national documents and are prepared to export to the rest of the world. They are not that at all. Rather, they are complex agreements, mediating between the aspirations of individuals and the traditions of groups, that people will have to negotiate again and again all over the world -- with some appreciation of the difficulty of the process, and perhaps with a bit of humility as well.Anderson, author of "Evolution Isn't What It Used To Be" (W.H. Freeman), is a political scientist who writes widely on technology and global governance.

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