Are we human enough to discuss human rights?

While working on some research for an International Relations (my discipline) course on access to essential medicines, I came across the infamous Alma-Ata Declaration of 1978 and was pleased to find exactly what I was looking for:

“Article I: The Conference strongly reaffirms that health, which is a state of physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, is a fundamental human right…”

I thought for a moment about what a group of IR students would say about the ‘right to health.’ You see, IR students like to debate this whole idea of “basic human rights” (BHR). When deciding whether or not something is a BHR, we like to put all our cards on the table: colonialism, culture, religion, historical context, socioeconomic conditions, etc.. We like to calmly indicate that we wish to speak; when given the opportunity we speak slowly, so that everyone can understand how damn insightful we’re being while demonstrating our deep, inclusive understanding of said right/region/issue. It usually goes something like this:

“I would challenge the idea that (INSERT BHR) is a universal human right. Look at (INSERT COUNTRY)- the majority of their population is/believes in/practices (INSERT RELIGION/CULTURE/SOCIOECONOMIC CONDITION) and their (RELIGION/CULTURE/HISTORICAL/SOCIOECONOMIC CONTEXT)) wouldn’t value or support (INSERT BHR,) and in fact, contradicts that right entirely.”

We then sit back and observe the effect of the incredible insight we have just provided to our peers/the points we have just scored with our professor.

What is that you say? There are human rights that are transferrable across all of these things? NUH-UH! Everything can be contested! Don’t believe me? Let me provide an example. Last term in a fourth-year level seminar we were discussing what constitutes basic human security by mining our way through dozens of definitions from various states, organizations and documents. The definitions covered everything: death, injury, reasonable access to sufficient sources of food and water, safety from political persecution, freedom from movement, the list goes on.

We contested everything: women’s rights in Middle Eastern countries (“how could we possibly say they should prosecute sexual violence, or stop public stoning? Their beliefs just don’t support that”, or my favourite, “I don’t think we can say that women’s rights are universal human rights”), Female Genital Mutilation/Circumcision  (“a bigger infringement on rights”, one argued, “would be to oppose this culturally accepted practice”), and food/ political expression/ health/ happiness (these items were the subject of many eye rolls… “duh, these are solely WESTERN values”). At the end of it, we could all agree on one basic human right: the right to life, as in, you should be allowed to walk down the street without being shot down.

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