Are Human Rights Universal?
Do women’s rights mean the same thing in New York and Jeddah? Are individual rights a Western concept opposed by collective rights in Africa? Is advocating for human rights a form of hegemony by the United States and its allies? Why are economic, social and cultural rights prioritized by certain countries while civil and political rights are prioritized by others in spite of the fact that they are supposed to be interdependent?
These questions are all valid. They underscore tensions which will arise at the current meeting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. More pragmatically, they have led me to reflect on the current film festival and forum on human rights. For ten days, films, debates and exhibitions in and around Geneva and Switzerland will highlight the current state of human rights and stimulate (provoke?) reflection and discussion. Bravo to the organizers, bravo to the film-makers, thank you to the participants.
But who is the audience? Does the festival preach to the converted?
The simple answer would be yes. My impression of the March 10 opening ceremony was that it was attended in large part by members of the local Socialist and Green parties. (It would be wrong to add May 1968 alumni since a considerable number of young people were in the audience, meriting another bravo to the organizers for their efforts in this direction.)
If human rights are truly universal, the festival should have an audience from all parts of the political spectrum. Universality includes ideology. Don’t conservatives believe in human rights? Why wouldn’t an extreme right wing follower advocate that he or she had the right to speak or assembly? Wasn’t that the Turkish government’s argument for recent meetings in Europe? The freedom of assembly is considered a universal right. However, questions of security, racism and/or political campaigns abroad can limit the right of assembly. A November 8 election- night gathering by Americans in Geneva was canceled at a major hotel for reasons of security.
Wasn’t the universal right of assembly the argument of the National Socialist Party of America (derived from the American Nazi Party) for marching in Skokie, Illinois, in 1977 and 1978? Weren’t they defended by American Civil Liberties Union, not known as a conservative organization?
The marchers in Skokie were initially banned because they had swastikas on their uniforms. The argument was that “The Nazis’ march in paraphernalia is a reminder of the most destructive movement in history. They stand for the destruction and wiping out of human beings. This is not constitutionally protected.”
They were later allowed to march based on the right of freedom of assembly. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the march was constitutionally protected, including the right to wear swastikas, noting that “the display of the swastika, as offensive to the principles of a free nation as the memories it recalls may be, is symbolic political speech intended to convey to the public the beliefs of those who display it.”
To return to the film festival: If human rights are truly universal, they should be defended universally. That is in everyone’s interest. The audience at the festival should be a heterogeneous group. If the festival wants to stimulate a true debate, it should be able to invite and host members of all political persuasions. And, obviously, people of all political persuasions should encouraged to participate and attend.