He threw up his hands in the air, and in exasperation and utter disappointment with my human rights this, human rights that pontification, he threw his salvos of questions:
“We do not eat human rights. What is human rights to people who are struggling on a shoe string, living in dire straits, thinking of where to get the next meal, have a sick child at home, need to send their children to the best schools, are underfed, half naked? Before you talk about human rights, we should first ensure our children have first rate education, our hospitals have affordable health care, our workers have decent salaries, etc. What is human rights to people who are thinking of what the morrow will bring, who live in fear of want? What are the values of human rights for those who do not have the adequate conditions for the enjoyment of these rights and freedoms?”
My sparring partner railed and wailed against human rights. He rubbished human rights as idealistic, as slogans we bandy about but which mock the real conditions of the people who are struggling to have the conditions for the enjoyment of human rights. He blamed the campaign for human rights as a distraction from the real cause, the fight against ignorance, diseases, poverty.
I recall, in my political theory class many years ago, of similar debates between political and civil rights vs economic and social rights, between first generation rights and second generation rights. What is right to vote to people who do not have food on the table? What is right to food or work to people who cannot have a say in what agricultural policies they have or who cannot question the price of rice or do not have a choice of the kind of rice they eat?
The dichotomy between civil-political-legal rights and economic-social-cultural rights, and/or environmental rights, is false. Right to work is reduced in significance if workers cannot band together as a union to demand for better conditions of work. Right to health cannot be effectively enjoyed when right to education is denied. Economic-social-cultural rights cannot be effectively enjoyed if civil-political-legal are denied; civil-political-legal rights cannot be maximally enjoyed when economic-social-cultural rights are ignored. The interdependence, indivisibility and interrelatedness of rights are what we should all insist on.
“Without free elections, the people cannot make a choice of policies. Without freedom of speech the appeal to reason which is the basis of democracy cannot be made. Without freedom of association, electors and elected representatives cannot bond themselves into parties for the formation of common policies and the attainment of common ends.” Sir Ivor Jennings
Without the enjoyment of human rights, the desire to live in dignity becomes difficult. Without the creation or existence of the conditions for the enjoyment of rights, the ownership over rights become tenuous. If by rights we refer to those conditions of living without which no person can be that best self he or she wants to be, then all of us ouggt to human rights defenders and advocates. Human rights complete our humanness and fulfil our dignity.
And we must ensure that the searchlight is not only on civil-political-legal rights. Our economic and social rights are mainly hidden in our Directive Principles of State Policy (Chapter XX of our 1997 Constitution) which are, unfortunately, non-justiciable.
The road to economic security by way of political dictatorship is the most costly thoroughfare that the folly of people has every created. It is not sustainable.