The Besieged Other

Human Rights are universal, indivisible and inalienable. Protection of human rights is not only a sign of democracy and development but also signifies a commitment to international conventions driven by universal principles. The normative principles of human rights, democracy, and development are three international narratives that informed the political process across the world for more than 65 years.

However, these normative principles that brought universal ethics to the political process are under unprecedented threat. The core principles of these discourses have been subverted by majoritarian, populist and authoritarian leaders, and governments, in many countries.

This month, stories of mass atrocities and rampant human rights violations have been reported from Myanmar and the Philippines. Despite the killings targetting a marginalised minority that numbers barely a million in Myanmar, there has hardly been any substantive international demand for an investigation of the atrocities against the Rohingyas. The community has been at the receiving end of violence by Myanmar’s security forces and the country’s dominant ethnic groups. Myanmar’s leaders have not spoken out against this.

A recent report in the New York Times by the well-known photo-journalist Daniel Berehulk captured the extremely tragic consequences of the “slaughter them all” call given by the populist but authoritarian president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Deterrence. The call was a part of his high-profile campaign against drugs. Those who are dealing in drugs or even using them were killed by death squads. The victims included mere suspects. Apart from thousands who were killed during police action against drug peddlers and users, it is estimated that there are 3,500 unresolved homicides in the country.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights came into being in response to a number of miseries that overtook people before the World War II. These include the Holocaust and the rampant violation of human rights by dictators. In the second half of the 20th century, despite the Cold War, the world has moved towards a stable internationalism based on the broad consensus around human rights, democracy and development. Such a framework was based on a new sense of universalism. It was based on a set of normative principles and international standards to ensure peace, development, and the dignity of human beings and communities at the national and international level.

This universal framework lifted billions of people out of slavery, colonialism and poverty. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, human rights acquired global acceptance. The UN-sponsored Vienna summit on human rights in 1993 heralded a new era for human rights, democracy and development.

However, along with the international development narratives of the past 15 years, a new security-centric discourse also emerged. This focused largely on the “mistrust” of the “other” and led to a paradigm shift in national security discourses. It generated paranoia against migrant communities and people who are “unlike” the majority. This also gave rise to a political narrative based on “defensive nationalism”. This nationalism is based on insecurity and fear, instead of freedom and rights.

After 30 years of neo-liberalism and unbridled economic globalisation, driven by big multinational corporations and rich countries, the world is now a deeply unequal and divided place. Increasing social, economic and political inequalities and insecurities are giving rise to different modes of reactionary politics. This politics is based on a new form of hyper-nationalism, mistrust and hate. In many countries, the economic elites and political elites have captured the state by subverting the electoral democratic system and civic rights. Hence, there is an urgent need to forge movements of civil society and citizens within countries, and at the international level, to reclaim the substantive universal principles of human rights, democracy and development.

The writer is executive director of FORUM-ASIA, Asian forum for Human Rights and Development.

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