GYC Village

blog posts from GYC's participants, alumni, & staff

Obama’s Language and Human Rights

From the Orientation Emails for incoming GYC Rwanda Human Rights Delegations

Submission by Program Assistant Gina V.

Since we’ll be talking about what human rights means – especially in
the context of current events – I thought you all might be interested
in Obama’s latest speech about Libya; he discusses the recent events
through the lens of universal and fundamental human rights.
“The U.S. strongly supports the universal rights of the Libyan people.
That includes the rights of peaceful assembly, free speech, and the
ability of the Libyan people to determine their own destiny. These are
human rights. They are not negotiable. And they cannot be denied
through violence or suppression.”

RESPONSE from Program Director Jesse H.

Thanks SO much for sharing this Gina. Let’s see what transpires in the next day or two.

I think it is important to note that OBAMA did not say that these are the ONLY human rights that exist.
Related to that issue, I also wrote about about Obama speaking about the MDGs last year in Septmeber at the UN.
And, should you have time to read that newsletter (above), after reading it, I also am pasting here some text from an article i wrote but never published about it, which gets to some rwanda specific issues related to that speech:

Another reason why I was happy that Obama presented human rights in the context of the MDGs describing “standard of living” as a human rights is: many “human rights” organizations focus only on very particular categories of human rights, mostly civil and political rights, without referencing the fact that the phrase “human rights” refers also, and always, to social, cultural, and economic rights as well.

President Obama acknowledged at the beginning of his speech on the MDGs at the UN last week that the Millennium Development Goals have their basis in human rights doctrine that came out of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

This clarification is not only good for orienting decision makers. Such a clarification of vocabulary at the top level would really help the youth of this world as well, and in turn enable a much brighter future. I often see this in Rwanda, where many articles are written about the conflict between the highly touted “development” policies of the nation (which include access to water, food, education, health care, as well as economic development and creating a ‘good business environment’) and their so-called “human rights record” which is normally related to the world by iNGOs like Human Rights Watch, which, with all due respect for its ultimate goal and its wonderful researchers in the field many of whom I have met and worked with, tend to focus on only one area or category of human rights in its reporting: civil and political rights. Because of this constant weighting of the definition of “human rights” towards one category of rights, the Rwandan youth, and perhaps youth everywhere around the world, are growing up believing that “human rights” does not relate to the issue of universal education or health care. They say that those issues relate to the MDGs and those are “development” and those are separate from Human Rights, because “human rights” are only those rights which are promoted (and critiqued) by “Human Rights Watch”.  After all, why would an organization call itself “Human Rights Watch” if it is not going to watch out for all human rights.  As a result, in Rwanda, human rights are equated with civil and political rights according to many youth we have worked with. In our work, even after days of defining human rights in a cross cultural setting, during which all the youth normally agree on a definition that approximates an overarching framework for the full realization of human and global progress, some of the Rwandan youth, despite the fact that their country is making headway in many specific areas of the human rights framework, easily revert to making comments like “Rwanda has a bad human rights record.” Even the Rwandan representative to the UN who came to a GYC event that we had this year in New York said, “we don’t focus on human rights in Rwanda because we focus on development.” What he meant, according to my definition of human rights, was “Rwanda doesn’t focus always on civil and political rights when the rights to access to education and other rights have yet to be achieved.” If he were to phrase it in that way, then at least we’d have a debate in which we all are speaking the same vocabulary, but I am not faulting him for phrasing it in that way when the phrase “human rights” has become so divisive and negative in the eyes of so many.

If you want to know what kind of effect this has on Rwandan youth, just ask yourself!  What effect would this have on you? If you lived in a post-conflict, war- and genocide-torn nation, and your government and therefore your country was continually being accused of overlooking “human rights” by organizations that receive millions of dollars to police the world for essentially civil and political rights abuses?  Despite the fact that your government and society is making at least some headway in the realm of putting food in your stomach and making sure that if you have a daughter she is going to have some access to land, you are still constantly being fed the media byte that your country has a “bad record.” Can you imagine if every day you were thinking of your country (which you love dearly) as one that does NOT focus on human rights, as not focusing on the good of humanity, when there are so many examples of it doing so?  Very few people in Rwanda see what they are doing as being rooted in Human Rights, but so much of it is! If only the media would recognize things in the way that Obama started to here when discussing the MDGs.

I am not advocating for new rhetoric, but for the rhetoric that has at least been nominally recognized by the global progress establishment as being in place since 1948.  Let’s use “human rights” as our frame of reference and our way of life, and respect and enjoy one another enough to recognize that we all deserve water and education as well as a free press and electoral systems, and that anything that interferes with such progress should be rooted out and discouraged, including the misguided use of language which slows and even obstructs progress towards the “full realization of human rights.”



This entry was posted on February 27, 2011 by in GYC Board and Staff Blog Posts, Human Rights.

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