In April 2016, a number of young Eritrean conscripts leapt out of trucks heading for a forced labour camp in an act of defiance against the Eritrean regime. Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, was crowded with family and friends, who were waiting in the market area to help the fugitives escape.
In the course of the daring escape, things turned for the worse. Several of the conscripts, along with relatives and friends, along with strangers passing by, were killed after the soldiers escorting the convoy spotted the fugitives. According to reports, four to 29 individuals were killed in a massacre that was described as such.
Various sources have described Eritrea as one of the harshest regimes on Earth. Military service is mandatory and most conscripts are forced into slave-like labour in long-term contracts. As a result, countless Eritreans flee the country every year and if they get caught, they are met with a shoot-to-kill policy by the country’s border guards.
The thousands of asylum seekers who, after successfully fleeing Eritrea, have had to redirect their routes and seek safety abroad. Most of them have moved to Israel since 2011. Israeli authorities completed a fence along their border with Egypt in 2013 in order to restrict the arrival of asylum seekers. But at least 45,000 asylum seekers remain in Israel today, and the government has made it difficult for them to gain refugee status. Hence, they face widespread social and political stigma, which has resulted in deadly incidents. Thus, it concerns Israeli authorities that their presence would threaten Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state.
Asylees, migrants, and persecuted people have been victims of atrocities and injustices all around the world, and some of the world’s most prominent and powerful institutions and individuals have invoked the human rights of these people. People of this era understand humanity as more than empathy and kindness; it is a philosophic bedrock that obligates the protection of those threatened and persecuted. But does it mask deeper ethical and political divisions?
Let’s talk about the case study presented above.
As long as Eritrea, a small country along the Red Sea in East Africa doesn’t provide the essentials for a person to live, it is violating their rights in a fundamental, undeniable way. Those countries fail not only in violating the human rights of their citizens, but they are really just failed states, incapable of providing even the most basic of necessities.
The ubiquitous language of human rights is used for expressing the most basic demands of justice. But most importantly, it should address the basic minimum right to avail food, water, shelter, medical care and education.
The dichotomy of African human rights and Western human rights can be clearly visible when you dive deeper into the life of Eritreans who took refuge in countries like Israel. Here, they are not deprived of the rights that influence their survival but they are more concerned about being vulnerable against the stigmatised cultural and political agenda of the Israeli authorities.
The Challenge of Cultural Relativism
The key problem is the progressive western ideal of ‘human rights’. It implies a similarity — as in ‘we are all human beings’ — thereby effectively homogenizing difference. The assertion foreshadows a condition that is universal, and in this there is danger. This notion of humanity is historically rooted in the celebration of the western individual and oppression of those who are not western. Thus, we need to find a way to pursue equity not by denying difference, but by honouring it.
In order to nurture our understanding of people in very different circumstances, humanity’s abstract universality encourages us to think of ourselves as similar to them. Yet, humanity claims to seek universal justice, which in reality is shaped by Western ideas about justice that have oppressed rather than freed non-Western nations. It may be time to move beyond humanity as a merely euphemistic term for emancipation or liberation and instead call for justice and recognition for those who are constructed in and deeply marginalized by past and present structures of racism, colonialism, and imperialism.
The laws we have today have been enacted by fallible humans. The question of whether they are good or bad is always open to interpretation and criticism according to independent moral principles. In spite of the difficulty in identifying human rights with existing laws, man-made laws, such as human rights law, serve to legitimize human rights that already exist before they have been recognized. Despite efforts to reach an understanding of how human rights are to be defended as objective truths, no consensus has yet emerged. Hence, the complexity of this issue provides no specific alternative to existing human rights law.
The Possibilities for Cross-Cultural Understanding
It does not matter whether I am right or not, I am convinced that we cannot maintain our commitment to human rights without a plan and rely solely on the law and our liberal democratic culture for inspiration. We cannot describe our rights in law or maintain a liberal democratic culture without explaining why we ought to embrace them. Since the 12th century, philosophers have specifically defended human rights for this purpose. The question of justification is central to the sustainability of the human rights culture. Our goal should not be to see this as a purely professional domain, but rather as a process of public reasoning that every citizen can help with.
Man’s self-understanding belongs equally to this human nature. Thus to single out one particular interpretation of it may be valid, but it is not universal and may not apply to the entirety of human nature. Instead of imposing the Western philosophy of human rights on all cultures one’s effort should be directed at searching out homeomorphic equivalents in different cultures. In other words, we should understand that homeomorphism is not the same as equivalence and strive to discover peculiar functional equivalence in different cultures.
The debate I believe should be on whether these cultural values provide human beings with human dignity. We should pose the problem in this light, rather than assuming an inevitable progression of non-westerners toward western lifestyles. If we do this then we can really begin to formulate authentic international human rights norms.