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  October 23, 2000

Speaker: Human Rights Need Definition

Human rights must be better defined or there is a risk that, 50 years from now, the concept may be considered obsolete, according to Wiktor Osiatynski.

Osiatynski, the first Marsha Lilien Gladstein Visiting Professor in Human Rights, made his remarks Wednesday during the Gladstein Distinguished Lecture on Human Rights.

Addressing a full house of students, faculty and staff in Konover Auditorium, Osiatynski, a professor at Central European University, Budapest- Warsaw, said there has been a recent resurgence of interest in human rights.

Since the attempted extradition of the former Chilean dictator General Pinochet from Britain to answer for his crimes, and the international military intervention to protect human rights in Kosovo and East Timor, he said, "rights are back in vogue."

"From now on, it depends on every one of us what will happen to rights," he added. "One possibility is that 50 years from now, scholars will say that human rights was a transient idea used by people to justify their claims to better lives. There have been bigger ideas than human rights that died," he said, such as "progress," a dominant idea for at least 100 years.

Human rights should not be confused with human needs, he argued. "We will lose if we continue to treat human rights as a huge bag into which every human claim can be put," he said. "Human rights cannot be everything to everybody."

Paradoxes &Surprises
Osiatynski began his talk on Human Rights in the 21st Century by tracing the vagaries of the definition of human rights since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948.

"Human rights is to some degree an accidental concept, full of paradoxes and surprises," he said. It was not the United States, Great Britain and other great Western powers whose governments pressed most for the adoption of the Declaration, he added, but Cuba, Panama and Chile.

"The concept was embarrassing to Western powers in 1945 to 1946," Osiatynski said. "The U.S. had racism and segregation, England and France had colonies. Talking about human rights belonging to every human being was difficult when you saw what was happening."

The Declaration was a compromise, he said, and contained little about enforcement. But from then on, human rights became the subject of bitter conflicts.

Soon, human rights became tied up with the Cold War confrontation between East and West, even though "the Cold War was not about human rights," he said. "It was ideological warfare and strategic positioning. The battlefield was the underdeveloped colonial world."

The East challenged the Western notion of human rights as dependent on procedural guarantees, proffering instead the concept of material guarantees such as social ownership of assets.

Initially, the Soviet bloc gained the upper hand, he said, because communism had more to offer developing countries. Later, however, decolonization and desegregation in the U.S. were paralleled by growing opposition to communism - in Hungary in 1956 for example, and Czechoslovakia in 1968. "While the East was retreating and was more and more compromised, the West could offer something because the rights revolution took place," Osiatynski said.

The human rights movement emerged as an international movement in the 1970s, spurred by events such as the 1975 Helsinki Act when the European Convention on Human Rights - first adopted in Western Europe - was extended to cover all of Europe, and the coup led by General Pinochet. The Chilean coup, he said, was the first in which mass violations of human rights were seen on people's TV screens at home, prompting an outpouring of compassion.

Rights &Development
At the same time, some of the underdeveloped nations - most of which are in the southern hemisphere - challenged the prevailing notion of human rights. "It was the South that led to framing human rights as the sharing of economic resources," Osiatynski said, something the developed nations had failed to do.

Some countries also argued that human rights was a Western idea with limited applicability. Along with this, there emerged a cultural relativism - the notion that in some cultures individual rights may be sacrificed for societal ideals.

Osiatynski dismissed this approach: "I do not know of one example of a person who was tortured, then came to the West, felt safe and said, 'I don't mind that I was tortured because it's our culture.' It's usually the torturers who claim that."

The Next Generation
For the future, Osiatynski said, the world must define human rights more clearly, distinguish human rights from human needs, and find different mechanisms for satisfying needs. He suggested that these mechanisms might include, on a global level, redistribution of resources, a new institution of military intervention other than NATO, and an international criminal court.

At a national level, he said, there needs to be a distinction between issues of rights and matters of public policy.

Osiatynski also spoke about the relationship between rights and community.

Participatory or democratic rights, he said, "are not about the quality of the decisions made but about the quality of community. We are a different community if everyone is part of decision making."

He advocated building healthier communities by insisting less on rights and instead taking into consideration obligations as well. "Rights were created as a shield against the encroachment of the state," he said. "Sometimes we have to put the shield away and look for other solutions."

But it is at the personal level, where rights and human dignity intersect, that the future of human rights may lie, Osiatynski said.

"We should develop programs that not only talk about human rights in history, sociology and political science, but really work on attitudes and how we relate to each other," he said.

"I believe in the 21st century, our children will be learning how to distinguish between the necessary degree of freedom and the necessary degree of dignity."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu