For many peoples around the world – in countries as diverse as Britain, India and Sri Lanka – the political landscape for the new decade is bleak.
Racist nationalisms, right-wing economic fundamentalism, outdated left-wing rhetoric and the corruption of public media have suffocated political culture. Collective moral imagination seems to have atrophied.
The recent Madrid COP 25 summit showed, yet again, how governments pay only lip service to tackling global warming.
National interest, so narrowly conceived, always outweighs human rights and the global common good.
It has been left to non-state actors, mainly students and other young people (the so-called “millennials”) to champion publicly the rights of vulnerable peoples, whether women suffering domestic abuse in France (the Nous Toutes campaign), poor communities threatened by climate change (Greta Thunberg and her numerous followers), dissidents facing arbitrary detention and deportation (Hong Kong) or ethnic and religious minorities (India).
In our digitized world, protesters in Ecuador and Chile, Sudan, Lebanon and Tunisia have been learning from each other as they stand up to tyranny or fight for more economic equality.
If these millennials can move beyond single-issue politics to embrace a broader vision of social and cultural transformation, grounded in a political narrative more expansive than mere self-interest, they may provide the seeds of hope for the new decade. But that is a big “if.”
The U.N. Declaration of Human Rights speaks of us being “members of a human family.”
But the declaration assumes that national states will be the protectors and promoters of those human rights.
That has not been the case in the seven decades since the declaration was written and accepted by the members of the U.N.
States, not least the permanent members of the Security Council, have been the biggest violators of the natural rights that attach to every human person on the planet.
While the U.S. has postured itself as the global champion of human rights around the world, not only has it protected and armed to the teeth some of the biggest rogue regimes, but also human rights language has had comparatively little purchase within its borders.
Congress passes resolutions expressing solidarity with the protesters in Hong Kong but turned a blind eye to the brutal suppression of the Occupying movement by the police in many American cities.
It condemns the harsh repression of the Uighurs by the Chinese regime and of the Rohingiyas by the Burmese. But it totally ignores the massive cruelties of the American criminal justice system, with its racist biases, disproportionate sentencing and permanent disenfranchisement and social stigmatization (in many American states) of those who have served a prison sentence.
In a perceptive essay, written some two decades ago, the social anthropologist Talal Asad compared the language invoked by the militant activist Malcolm X in the 1960s with that used by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
In a famous speech criticizing the civil rights movement, Malcolm X called on his fellow African Americans to resort to human rights as a way of transcending the limitations of the American state.
“We need to expand the civil-rights struggle to a higher level – to the level of human rights. Whenever you are in a civil-rights struggle, whether you know it or not, you are confining yourself to the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam. No one from the outside world can speak out in your behalf as long as your struggle is a civil-rights struggle. Civil rights come within the domestic affairs of this country. All of our African brothers and our Asian brothers and our Latin American brothers cannot open their mouths and interfere in the domestic affairs of the United States. And so long as it’s civil rights, this comes under the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam.”
“Human rights,” Malcolm X continued, “are something you were born with. They are your God-given rights. Human rights are the rights that are recognized by all nations of this earth. And any time anyone violates your human rights, you can take them to the world court.”
By expanding the civil-rights struggle to the level of human rights, Malcolm X held out the hope of bringing the plight of African Americans before the U.N. General Assembly and a world court.
This was never realized, of course, but as Talal Asad observes, the language is remarkable because of its faithful commitment, unlike so much Western liberal practice, to the conception of human rights.
Such rights do not receive their legitimacy from states, although it is states that are their principal guarantors.
Although Malcom X’s appeal had little impact on American society and its political culture, another language that overlapped with human rights discourse was deployed by Martin Luther King to greater effect.
This was the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible coupled with the popular founding narrative of the American nation.
However, skeptical King was of the supposedly “Christian” origins of the nation and the faith of its founders, he could still publicly draw on the language of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and the narrative of liberation that went with them.
Addressing fellow African Americans, he declared, “One day, the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, and thus carrying our whole nation back to the great wells of democracy, which were dug deeply by the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
Unlike Malcolm X’s purely secular conception of legal justice, King’s political discourse envisioned the regeneration of the nation as a whole.
He sought what he called the Beloved Community, a reconciliation that went beyond justice for his own people without bypassing it.
While confronting the guilt of white oppression and repentance were necessary, the healing of relationships was the ultimate goal.
Needless to say, King’s vision also failed. But it had a greater initial impact because it embedded the language of rights in a larger narrative framework, one that struck chords in American society and stirred the consciences of a white Christian population that had lost its foundational identity.
I wonder whether the contemporary political challenge remains the same.
How do we defend and promote human rights, not as abstract concepts and without resorting to merely legalistic language, but as imaginative visions that are embedded in counter-narratives that tap into the (largely religious) cultures of our respective nations?
Secretary for dialogue and social engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He lives in Sri Lanka.