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Human rights

Milan Kundera once commented ironically on the ever-expanding concept of “human rights”. Just as much economic activity can be seen as transforming luxuries into necessities, Kundera saw much political activity as transforming mere desires into rights:

The concept of human rights goes back some two hundred years, but it reached its greatest glory in the second half of the 1970s. Alexander Solzhenitsyn had just been exiled from his country, and his striking figure adorned with a beard and handcuffs, hypnotized Western intellectuals sick with a longing for the great destiny that had been denied them.

It was only thanks to him that they started to believe, after a fifty-year delay, that in communist Russia there were concentration camps; even progressive people were now ready to admit that imprisoning someone for his opinions was not just…

Thanks to Solzhenitsyn human rights once again found their place in the vocabulary of our times; I don’t know a single politician who doesn’t mention ten times a day ‘the fight for human rights’ or ‘violations of human rights.’ But the more the fight for human rights gains in popularity, the more in loses any concrete content, becoming a kind of universal stance of everyone toward everything, a kind of energy that turns all human desires into rights.

The world has become man’s right and everything in it has become a right: the desire for love the right to love, the desire for rest the right to rest, the desire for friendship the right to friendship, the desire to exceed the speed limit the right to exceed the speed limit, the desire for happiness the right to happiness, the desire to publish a book the right to publish a book, the desire to shout in the street in the middle of the night the right to shout in the street. (Immortality, 1990)

Kundera’s cynicism is understandable. But it would be unfortunate if the excesses of human rights campaigners blinded us to the grim realities their doctrine originally sought to combat. Today I read in the newspaper about a 15-year-old Indian rape victim in the state of Madhya Pradesh. A dalit (untouchable), she had been burned alive for identifying her upper-caste Rajput assailant.

There are alas cultural systems that cannot cure their own ills, and India presents a prime example. Contra Kundera, the content in this case is all too hideously real. The simple truth is that for most dalit caste creates a hell on earth of unimaginable injustice. In places like India a transcendent ideal of human rights, above and independent of the national culture, is a beacon that keeps the hope of social and political improvement alive.

Posted in For the Record.