What on earth are human rights? Part 1

Mbabane, Swaziland | 10 December 2014
Bill Snaddon

Many moons ago, in a land far, far away, I attended yet another cross-sectoral workshop (or was it a seminar?) on something called human rights.
The gathering of experts and specialists was labeled ‘cross-sectoral’ because, I assumed, there was more than one sector represented.
In this case, there were two sectors: government and non-government.
More than one, therefore, must make a ‘cross’.
I was confused however because several government and non-governmental representatives were acting as is they were in the private/business sector.
Very confusing, as the private sector makes money while NGOs/government take money (sometimes for worthy purposes).
I counted several government underlings who, in the absence of their masters, puffed their chests out just a little bit more.
The other stakeholders, the non-government sector, were also looking good in their culturally-sensitive attire as they flicked their iPad screens, checking emails and other urgent enquiries.
The junket was held at a large convention centre with fake palm trees and an empty carpark to make guests feel at home.
Conveniently for the attendees on this occasion, the convention centre was located next to a five-star hotel, complete with glistening swimming pool and relaxing day-spa.
(Don’t tell anyone I got a pedicure with the workshop per-diem; and if you do, let’s call it a ‘foot massage’.)
More convenient still, the five-star hotel was located next to a big shopping mall.
All the big brands were there, even a few I had never heard of.
The food court at the mall had something for everyone: KFC, McDonalds, Nando’s.
The human rights seminar (or was it a training?) had been arranged by a First World non-governmental organisation (NGO).
For ethical purposes I have forgotten the name of this particular NGO.
Under the shiny logo of the unnamed organisation was its slogan – written in the fashionable italicised font of the time – telling us that ‘Human Rights are everyone’s responsibility’.
I remember thinking an unoriginal thought when reading this.
If something is everyone’s responsibility, then it is no-ones responsibility.
This wasn’t to say collective responsibility is a bad thing, far from it.
But it seemed this slogan might allow people to actually hide away from their responsibilities and shirk their duties, because if it is everyone’s responsibility then surely it can’t be my responsibility.
Someone else will take care of it.
Everyone is involved so someone will do it, surely.
Who am I to take ownership of such a big thing like individual responsibility?
That would be arrogant, almost as if I’m now doing God’s job.
This might be why experiments with socialism and communism never work.
It sounds nice, but nothing gets done, apart from enriching a few at the top.
(Not dissimilar to other forms of government.)
So the three-day residential retreat went off without a hitch.
I had a foot massage, did a spot of shopping, even found time for a few sessions on human rights.
It was not lost on me though that at the end of the three-days I was not any clearer on what human rights actually are.
Maybe this is because I was busy chowing KFC and looking for the right-sized sneaker at the First World Mall.
Then there was a hint – hidden in the conference resolutions, or Communiqué.
The Honourable delegates unanimously declared that next year’s Human Rights conference would be held in a warmer climate, preferably near a beach or a major European city.
It was then that the penny dropped. We are not here just to promote human rights; we are here to go on holidays. Next week, the holiday continues with a less cynical take on human rights.

This column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland on 10 December 2014

#51_What on earth are human rights part 1_10 Dec 2014


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