What to Do with Human Rights?

By: Carlos Andrés Baquero Díaz*


Human rights are seen as a counterweight, a strategy to limit decisions of governments and protect the weakest members of society. In this way, human rights serve as a shield against abuses, following the distinction that an activist for the rights of black people told me. For example, human rights allow individuals to oppose governments that restrict the press, or to protect themselves from changes in economic models that leave many people unemployed.

At the same time, human rights are a tool for people to demand their governments comply with some of their needs. Like a railway, human rights guide people’s aspirations and help them channel them. This is the logic behind litigation in which citizen groups request courts to guarantee their right to food or to prevent their displacement from their territories.

Although these narratives have moments of truth, reality surpasses them and makes them insufficient. This is why I think it is useful to think more about what to do with human rights and promote three modifications.

1. More human: We need to decentralize the central production centers of the human rights discourse. Following preexisting theories, I think that increasingly more people and spaces must be included in the production of what we consider is or is not human rights, bringing debates to more plazas and to fewer congresses. This would be a democratic exercise that would open up the dialogue and allow for more conversations about what people want to protect.

For example, peasant (campesino) movements have requested the recognition of a special right to be heard when governments are going to make decisions that affect their lives and lands. Until now, the international instrument on their rights that is being debated has not ensured the participation of the movement, and has not included this request. Therefore, it is becoming an insufficient project to address the goals of peasants.

2. More context: One of the key points is that human rights are universal, meaning that we all have them because we are human beings. This idea has been translated into the universalization of practies. And, therefore, to increase the effectiveness of human rights, we must question singular visions of different realities and take context into account.

Voluntary interruption of pregnancy (VIP) has been legal in India since 1971. However, when some international agencies arrive in the country to promote its legalization and a Western gender discourse, they find themselves in a shorted circuit.

In having a universal framework, they seek the liberalization of VIP without realizing that this is not a priority in India, and ignore key problems. One of them, as an Indian activist told me, is that VIP has become a tool of oppression that men use to make women end their pregnancies when the fetus is female.

3. More knowledges: Given that the State has accompanied the human rights discourse, the law has been the privileged language in this relationship. Although the economy is taking up more space in the discussion, so much so that many arguments in litigation are made in numbers and figures, it is time to promote an openness to other disciplines.

Last week, in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, Colombia, indigenous people sought to frame their requests in the language of the State, and in this translation, a large part of their vindications were left by the wayside. Their demands for participation and spiritual protection of their land turned into weaker requests for consultation and collective land titling.

To avoid such situations, I think it is necessary to include more disciplines within the language of human rights that accommodate proposals that come from traditional knowledge, music, art, or biology, and other forms of knowledge.

Protecting the life, health, territory and even some dreams of individuals is one of the fundamental purposes of human rights. To achieve this, it is time to take criticism seriously and broaden the spectrum to include more people, their experiences, and knowledge.


*Carlos is a researcher at the Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).