I watched this RSA video a few days ago and it got me thinking once again about human rights law and activism. [I don’t actually discuss the video in this post, though I plan to in a follow up post]
There’s a few things I want to write about, and I best get them down so this post has some kind of structure. Firstly, the significance and legitimacy of human rights law, and as an aside, career prospects.
(Secondly, [in a follow up post] the big question of how progress in human rights can actually be achieved, the role of west in that, and where I might fit in that.)
Beginning somewhat strangely with my aside, ever since I entered a human rights essay competition last year, and attending a few talks and lectures on the topic, I’ve been oddly drawn to the prospect of working in human rights law. Perhaps, it was the self important part of me, wanting to tackle the ‘big issues’ and what bigger issue is there than universal human rights? Yet, talking to a friend earlier this year, I was politely warned that human rights law isn’t really ‘a thing.’ By this he meant that nobody takes human rights lawyers seriously, and I would be doomed to a career lacking dismally in job satisfaction and any real tangible impacts. Having been convinced this probably was the case, I promptly put aside thoughts of pursuing a career in human rights law for consideration maybe in a year or two when I graduate.
However, recently I’ve come to consider the symbolic significance of human rights law. The concept is nothing new – strip back the rules and restriction of large scaled organised religion and you can find the core of universal morality based on all the same principles which human rights law is; go back a few dynasties in any civilisation and you’ll find evidence of the concepts we now call human rights. In each country, or part of the world, we have different social norms, and structures, but they are all built upon the same universal basis. It is only when we lose sight of that base, for one reason or another, that we find ourselves with problems of human rights violations.
Being born in a functioning and prosperous democracy like Australia, the luxury of stable public institutions and a well enforced justice system are things which I often take for granted. I remember meeting a family friend’s son earlier this year when I celebrated Chinese New Year back in my parent’s homeland of the PRC. He was a ‘student’ in some kind of military institution training to be a ‘public security officer’, and spoke reasonable English. Sometime into the conversation, I found myself completely taken aback by his vehement belief that America was the most disorderly and dangerous place to live on the planet. We had be talking on the topic of travel, and despite having never travelled outside of mainland China, let alone to the US, he was firmly advising me that America was just “too messy and a bad place.”
It often seems to me that laws are made to protect ourselves from ourselves. In a world were it is easier to live in certainty, with the knowledge that America is a terrible place, freedom of contradiction might feel personally like a rather unwanted evil. Yet, on a broader scale it is a necessary condition to ensuring ‘happiness,’ whatever that entails. Laws not only ensure some kind of structure under which we can organise our lives, but also provide the more intangible service of protecting both others and ourselves, from our individual shortcomings.
What exactly are those shortcomings? To what extent are they flaws we need to protect ourselves from? Ignorance, or wilful ignorance, such as that witnessed in Hitler’s reign, seems to be a indisputable evil. However, there are situations under which searching for the ‘truth’ serves little to no purpose other than to disrupt society – often times we might be searching for a truth that simply doesn’t exist or one which we create ourselves.
What does it mean to be human? What do we allow ourselves? What do we value? These are questions which I feel can never be answered, hence why law, and human rights law can never come up with anything ‘concrete.’ However, that is not to say that we should not continue trying to aim at a moving target, because through the act of asking, we remind ourselves at least of the principles upon which our temporary answers need to based on.
Human rights law to me seems like an exploration of the very essence of what it means to be human. What rights do we really need? In my essay on social media and free speech, I explored the concept of whether it was actually freedom of speech which should be a fundamental tenant of our democratic societies, or rather was it freedom of ideas and transmission of ideas? It seemed like an obvious question to me at the time, yet how often do we ask to what purpose our laws serve? If human rights law is asking those questions, the questions I wonder about everyday, and making a career out of it, why not? What’s wrong with human rights law? Why is it seen as a dismal career of nothing but despair and useless outrage?
I might explore that question and my response to the video posted above in another post. For now, it’s time to get back to the real world and do some chores.
(If you were wondering, the essay that started my interest in human rights can be found here.)