Thursday,23 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1320, (17 - 23 November 2016)
Thursday,23 November, 2017
Issue 1320, (17 - 23 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The state and human rights

While human rights advocates may dispute the content of certain laws, they should not break them or ignore the important role of the state in upholding law, writes Azmi Ashour

Al-Ahram Weekly

International human rights instruments, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, cover a range of mutually complementary human rights values. However, rights advocacy organisations in Egypt seem to restrict their role to only one: The defence of prisoners and detainees against various forms of maltreatment. In so doing, they ignore the comprehensive concept of rights, which includes economic and social rights. Ironically, this phenomenon could even work against the law, as has often happened when international and local rights organisations cry out in defence of individuals who might be on trial for crimes they committed against their own country. On top of this there is the complicating factor of the political utilisation of human rights issues by international organisations and in the foreign policies of some governments.

The philosophical issue, here, is that the state — any state — is entitled to use force and coercion against its citizens.

At the same time, it is required to promote development and ensure that all its people, without discrimination, receive various types of services and care (education, healthcare and other kinds of public services). The principle of the state’s monopolisation of violence is far from new. What is new are those agencies that use it as a pretext and avenue to strike at the state while it is performing its socio-economic functions. Naturally, by no means should the state’s use of force and coercion through the agencies that serve as its instruments for this purpose be taken to excess. However, beyond this framework, one cannot help but to wonder at those who entertain certain illusions regarding these functions that help secure a good many rights. For example, is it not a basic human right to feel secure and safe? Can such a right be realised in a state of anarchy? Or does its realisation require bringing violators of the law to account and using force or threat of force as a deterrent to those bent on violating public order through violence and terrorism? The consequences of the Arab Spring revolutions are not without significance in this regard, given that their detrimental repercussions ranged from the disruption of security and stability to the destruction of entire nations and peoples.

Against this backdrop, what value or purpose does it serve to hound and harass the state on the grounds of such a narrow interpretation of human rights?

Wrongs and injustices might be committed in some cases in the execution of the law, but one should not generalise from the exception to the rule. There are laws that need to be changed because they are inconsistent with certain issues regarding civil liberties and other freedoms. However, implementing their provisions, in spite of their flaws, is a victory for justice since it is a victory for the rule of law.

Herein resides a basic problem for human rights activists and organisations in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world.

It is all well and good for civil society organisations, including human rights groups, to perform services in their social environments. But it is difficult to sympathise with those that believe their rights advocacy gives them a form of absolute immunity even if they break the law, on the grounds that the law is unjust. Moreover, instead of using rational argumentation to defend the principles they advocate and to promote the amendment of the laws they oppose, they turn to international organisations to side with them against their own societies.

This behaviour has become very sensitive to Arab societies that have only reaped destruction and desolation from foreign interventions in recent years. Unfortunately, those who act in this manner, in Egypt for example, are similar to those who once urged the disastrous US invasion of Iraq. It is important to note here that the socio-political movement that evolved in Egypt during the past 10 years is a totally different phenomenon. The leaders and followers of the Kifaya (Enough) movement and similar movements have had nothing to do with that agenda and were, therefore, as surprised as others when the head of one of those rights organisations met with the UN secretary-general recently to complain against his country.

Our perspective on rights must be holistic. This is not about our reputation abroad, satisfying the organisations of the international community or conforming to the mentality of the foreign policy makers of the great powers. Rather, it is about the need to approach the question of human rights from a developmental standpoint. In other words, the concept of human rights should be fused to the development process. What value is there in the way the word “rights” is being used now, at time when people feel neither secure or safe, when they can not even find decent education for their children or proper healthcare services for their families? What right to those organisations have to put that word on par with the provision of the basic necessities of the people, which is the central role of the state and the rule of law? Where were those international organisations that are defending these rights when the situation exploded the way it did in Syria, Libya and elsewhere? How do they stand with regard to the acts committed by individuals who espouse radical ideas and kill innocent people?

There remains the question of dictatorship which is responsible for a large portion of the failure of the various types of development processes in our societies. If the preservation of the state has become an aim in and of itself in light of the current upheaval in the region, this should not become an excuse for those in positions of power to revert to patterns of behaviour from the past. Reform, the rule of law, the realisation of justice in development and rights, and the preservation of freedoms form the barrier against the traders in human rights causes who have homed in on only one narrow point, the point concerning those among them or their relatives who have been imprisoned. It is normal for them to sit with the devil.

The lessons to be learned here are many and our societies are our best instructors on events and developments.


The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.

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