The thing about human rights

No one is born hating another person… People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

I have been thinking about this Nelson Mandela quote for a while now. It carries with it a beautiful sentiment, the values being ones that all who considered themselves ‘progressive’ subscribe to. It is such a simple idea, that the truth – that we are born loving all and sundry – of it seems obvious. As the rise of the right has slowly gathered pace after the Great Recession, the nagging thought that what Mandela said was not actually true, keeps coming back to me. I have started to think that the opposite may be closer to the truth and that we must be taught to love. If this is true, activists for human rights must stop believing in the obviousness of their arguments, and start arguing in a way that understands that people may not initially want them. Simply listing their track record is not enough. Emotions must be triggered.

Human rights have got a bad rap recently, driven by hysterical reactions to some European human rights judgments. In our post-factual, internet educated society we now live in, where people are bored of experts, it is impressions and feelings that are the most important factors in decision making, and human rights just don’t feel right. No one sees the point of them. In an age of rising nationalism, why should I care if someone who hates my country is deported? So what if they will be tried using evidence obtained by torture? He’s probably guilty anyway. This seemed to be the reasoning of the UK government when it was attempting to deport Abu Hamza. The UK government didn’t care about his human rights because he was deemed a threat to the country. This was also why the UK citizens didn’t seem to care about him. This, and the knowledge that, as citizens, their rights would be protected in the same case. The world seems to be rediscovering the politics of national identity, excluding those who are not in the nation, on a march to greatness. In this world, it is the rights of deemed national threats that are first denied, before the rights of those merely outside of the nation.

At the heart of human rights is the idea that they encompass universal values that are ensured to everyone, no matter how vulgar they are. After periods of tragedy this principal seems obvious. But people forget quickly, and when they are faced with their own issues, like choosing between eating and heating their house, the rights of someone who doesn’t even belong in their country is not high on their priority list. People can see the abuses, and feel bad about the abuses. But they can also feel that it is not their responsibility when they are struggling themselves. They can also vote for politicians who tell them that it is by caring about their own kind first that their lives will improve. This is only one example of many reasons why human rights are under threat in these times.

There is something of history repeating itself, or maybe just rhyming, here. I’m not saying that we are one small step from a new Holocaust. I only bring this up because of what Hanna Arendt learned from this. She said that it was at the time that the universality of human rights is most needed – when one state has decided to abuse the rights of its own citizens – that they were shown to be useless. It requires a state to protect human rights, and a state was denied to the Jewish people. Without European states wanting to accept them as refugees, they were dehumanised and reduced to their own bare humanity, without protection and without anything, reducing them to something below a human being to which atrocious acts could be done.

It was only out of the atrocities that the Nazis committed that the world took stock and moved towards global attempts to guarantee human rights on a universal scale. It was only once the worst things that could happen to humans actually happened that something clicked inside others which turned on their empathy. Throughout history, it is only when bare humanity is seen close up, close enough for it to be reflected in the eyes of the beholder, that progress on human rights has been made. Not only with Nazi Germany, but also with Apartheid and the now forgotten picture of Alan Kurdi, washed up on the Turkish shore.

Each and every time humans agree that universal protection of human rights are necessary – that citizen rights aren’t enough – it is after being slapped in the face with the reality of their denial. Humans have to be taught to love, taught not to be indifferent. The challenge of our time is convincing those who don’t see the obviousness of human rights. To teach love without atrocity.

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