Human rights in the 21st century

ANY DISCUSSION on the challenges to human rights in the 21st century will be meaningful only as a part of a historical process wherein society's search for prosperity and power or happiness and freedom remained unfulfilled desires and half-finished tasks. The impulses for prosperity and power produced market, nation- state and possessive individual. This also led to major breakthroughs in science and technology. The combination of these forces engendered enormous wealth sufficient for need and even for greed. On an ideological frontier, self-interest, possessive individualism and the hunt for profit entered into a serious conflict with the collective and common good. In the competing and conflicting claims on resources and growing wealth there were several compromises, which could be seen in the concessions that capital was compelled to make giving rise to a wide range of rights. These historical forces laid the foundation to the ideals of equality and freedom. The life wire that permeates these values is continued emancipatory struggles to define and redefine the substance of what constitutes human happiness.

The 20th century witnessed a complex combination of these conflicting forces. There were attempts for both compromise and also polarisation. The first half of the century was a period of intense struggle to move to a higher point: the socialist revolutions and anti-colonial struggles of the Third World held not only immense promise but also several historical possibilities for enlarging the domain of equality and freedom. The counter forces were equally powerful culminating in world wars, particularly the Second World War. The one positive outcome of the latter was that it dealt a death blow to the forces of fascism. Given the alarming trends in the nature of governance at the present juncture, the spectre of fascism seem to be raising its head again.

The post-Second World War period provided an objective context for the birth of the Declaration of Universal Human Rights. These rights encompass civil, political, economic, social and cultural domains indicating the search for a broader societal base for the values of equality, freedom and justice. Although the Declaration was called universal, all the standards set were not that universally acceptable. This was largely due to the underlying conflict between the forces of accumulation through market forces by using or abusing the rights and counter-forces emanating from a transformative world view. This dichotomisation is evidenced in the two convenants adopted in 1966 and which came into force in 1976. This does indicate that while the 1948 Universal Declaration attempted synthesis, two separate covenants were an admission of the intrinsic tension.

During the latter half of the 20th century, progressive forces took a backseat and market forces became more aggressive. The consolidation of these forces is a consequence of varied factors which individually and collectively contributed to this disturbing process. This includes the collapse of the socialist experiment, denationalisation of the Third World elite and their nexus with the global elite, the self-adjustment that the structure of capital was able to make because of its ability to move spatially due to the advancement of techniques and uneven distribution of labour, the mismanagement or bureaucratisation of most of the welfare and development activity by the state apparatus, the overall erosion of several institutions based on collective expression and action, emasculation of the trade union movement, fragmentation of the people's movements and the advancement of notorious print and electronic media capable of `manufacturing consent'.

In the overall encounter between forces of revolution and counter-revolution, the former operated with far more dexterity. In the absence of a creative agenda for freedom and equality, individuals, groups, communities and classes have come to suffer an identity crisis as a cause and consequence of loss of meaning to the very existence. For, the wealth generated and allocated through the market could at best provide a comfortable life for those who can afford it but could hardly impart meaning to life which could be discovered and realised only in fruitful cooperation and collective expression. The higher and larger the domain of collective activity, the greater is the creative expression of humanity. It is this part of human endeavour that suffered a serious setback. The collapse of the socialist societies, which in principle were rooted in the postulate of collective existence, came to be interpreted as if such forms of social organisation were neither viable nor feasible. This is one of the most tragic fallouts of the 20th century.

In the absence of a full-blooded and concentrated endeavour for change, the forces accentuating inequalities and authoritarianism are in full play. Never in history were these forces as excited as they are at the present moment, giving rise to the notorious thesis that history has come to an end. However, the question remains whether human history has commenced at all? In fact, Marx held that human history was yet to begin.

Human society entered the 21st century through this critical route. All the challenges to human rights in this century emanate from this turmoil. The core of the crisis is basically the challenge of capital and of wealth to the labouring class, the forces of globalisation and marketisation to the social and political institutions, the crisis-ridden possessive individualism to the larger collective and common good and of comfort to the meaning to life. The sharpening of these contradictions and the absence of adequate social mechanisms for their resolution landed human collectives in a tremendous identity crisis. The unending search for identity in the absence of favourable objective conditions is causing rupture after rupture, inflicting wounds on human nature and civilisational progress. This situation has all the potential to trigger endemic violence, criminality and vulgarity reducing life to triviality.

The forces of equality and freedom beaten by the counter-forces are compelled to search for deeper meaning and content and new sources of inspiration. There are a `million mutinies'. Untiring and uncompromising struggles of human beings are there in every part of the globe. It is reported that there are 3,000 ongoing ethnic conflicts and 600 secessionist movements. Women - half of the sky as Mao put it - are on the warpath all over the world. Children today are better informed and are more questioning and curious about the universe than ever before. The youth are restless and some of them, although small in number, are giving up their lives for causes closer to their heart. In the specific context of India, Dalits are challenging the hierarchical and authoritarian stranglehold. Tribals, decent and transparent human beings, are engaged in a continuous struggle to protect and defend their lives, livelihood and environment. There are amazing assertions of democratic-minded people from every walk of life in support of social causes. The underlying common thread in this entire restlessness is the deep urge of humanity to change the context and content of human existence. The ideological propaganda that there is no alternative (TINA) is a lifeless attempt to push the struggling masses into subjugation. The successful overcoming of this impasse and the realisation of this unfulfilled pursuit of equality and freedom constitute the greatest challenge of the 21st century to the theory and practice of human rights.

(The writer is Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad.)

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