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Human Rights: A simple guide for reflection and dialogue

I propose below a practical guide that serves as a starting point for reflecting, researching and dialoguing with respect and responsibility about human rights.

The approach and interpretation are not exhaustive, as in addition to being constantly under construction, I see the topic from my lens. I seek to offer a very simplified summary of the main points that catch my attention at this moment and, for this reason, I reinforce the invitation for individuals, experts, collectives and other social movements to contribute to the narrative and bring their perspectives and complements to the text.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights/UN: The principles of Human Rights emerged in ancient civilizations, but were codified, in the way we have it today, only after the Second World War, in 1948, considering the atrocities committed during the conflict and, especially, during the Holocaust. The Declaration arose from the commitment of signatory countries to establish universal parameters of respect, promotion and satisfaction of human dignity, in an attempt to prevent further violations and abuses. Human Rights are norms of International Law and are applied, above all, in the relationship established between States and individuals, imposing on governments the obligation to respect, promote and satisfy such rights.

To access the Universal Declaration of Human Rights click here.  

Characteristics of Human Rights: Among the various characteristics, Human Rights are universal – they apply to all human beings; they are individual; and are – or should be – enjoyed equally by everyone. The practical application of this concept brings a series of challenges, as it is essential to also consider the context in which the individual is inserted. In conflict zones or in countries that experience enormous inequality, for example, some individuals will not be able to fully exercise their rights.

Law and Property: Part of the philosophy that served as the basis for the codification of Human Rights considers the concepts of “natural state” and “social contract” brought by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Even though the arguments raised by them are essentially different, the common point observed by both is the fact that the individual in his natural state (in the absence of the law) runs the risk of having his life and property violated. The solution would, therefore, be the celebration of a “social contract”, through which individuals organize themselves into society and constitute a state with the function of protecting the right to property and moderating social relations. Because of this, historically, the notion of “right” is usually associated with the existence of property. Not by chance, it is easy to identify this concept nowadays, when we observe that those who exercise their rights more easily are also those who accumulate more properties.

French Revolution: The “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen” marked the end of the French Revolution (1789) and is usually considered one of the first codifications of human rights, invoking in its first article that “Men are born and are free and equal in rights.” Little is said, however, that the applicability of this Declaration was restricted to men, white people and property owners. Because of this, women, slaves and individuals without property were not covered by the Declaration and, therefore, were not entitled to exercise the rights provided for in the charter. Still, when discussing concepts of equality and freedom, this Declaration is frequently taken as a starting point.

Find out who Olympe de Gouges was and discover the legacy she left behind. Click here. 

Who is the Human? A common definition defended by many currents is that human beings are defined by their capacity for rationality and autonomy. In this context, who would be the individuals belonging to this class and how to classify those who, for various reasons, temporary or permanent, are not able to fully exercise these capabilities, such as children and patients in coma? Furthermore, as we have already seen, the concept of right was associated with the possession of property and, therefore, suggests that even if an individual exercises his rationality and autonomy, if he does not have property he will be able to observe, albeit silently and indirectly, the limitation in possibilities to exercise your rights. During slavery, slaves were dehumanized and objectified and did not even have full ownership over their bodies. The legacy left by slavery and other practices that violate fundamental rights confirms that it is still common for society to dehumanize those for whom it does not see value. Who is human to you?

Vulnerability as a common point? In an attempt to identify a common basis that can be universally applied to all human beings, some authors defend vulnerability. There are many theories on the subject and philosopher Bryan Turner summarizes part of the thinking by claiming that each of us experiences happiness and success in different ways, but we all experience vulnerability in a very similar way to each other. According to him, we can all identify – equivalently or approximately – what the emotions of suffering, fear, pain and humiliation are like and, therefore, it is possible to recognize these feelings not only in ourselves but also in others. Because of this, our condition of vulnerability would be the shared common element, which allows us to recognize the essence of our humanity in ourselves and others and would, therefore, be the essential motivation for defending Human Rights. Denying the other's condition of vulnerability is also denying my fragility.

Brené Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability” – Click Here to Watch the Video

Neoliberalism and Rights: Currently, the structure that encompasses most structural relationships between individuals and states is guided by some striking characteristics, among them the defence of individual freedom. In this sense, we are encouraged to exercise our freedom of choice and action towards our goals. Not by chance, it is easy to see how many of us are driven by individualistic, competitive and sometimes irresponsible attitudes. This generates a vicious cycle, in which we exceed the right to exercise our freedom of choice and action, without there being any type of commitment or consideration to the society in which we are inserted. A simple example is paying a bribe to the police officer who catches a driver driving drunk (note that both the driver and the police officer act according to their interests and ignore the impact of their actions on society).

To access a possible counterpoint to the current structure, you can read “Justice, what's the right thing to do”, Michael Sandel.

Colonialism and Coloniality: The colonization process led by European countries in much of Africa and America disseminated the notions of hierarchy of power and dehumanization of others. Through slavery, the black and indigenous population was reduced to the status of non-humans and, therefore, prevented from exercising any of their rights. The notion of coloniality argues that the impacts of colonialism are still strongly present in societies that experienced this process, such as in Brazil. As a result, the black and indigenous population, whose provision and exercise of fundamental rights were denied during the period of colonization, still experiences strong resistance to appropriating their rights and enjoying all the necessary opportunities to exercise them freely. The impacts of coloniality are reflected in structural inequality, the maintenance of privileges in the hands of a minority and the violent scarcity of rights and resources experienced mainly by the black, indigenous and peripheral populations.

For more reflections on the topic, you can read “Black Skin, white masks”, Frantz Fanon.

Narratives and Power Relations: The history of the world and its peoples can be told from many perspectives, but the narrative that prevails and takes over textbooks and most widespread discourses is precisely the one reproduced by those who had the greatest power of influence and awareness in season. In other words, the best-known story is always the one told by those who are still alive and free to tell it. A real example of this relationship between narrative and power is the context of the French Revolution itself. In 1789, while the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was seen in France as a landmark for equality, freedom and fraternity - even though it did not apply to all citizens -, it happened at the same time in Haiti, a French colony, the Revolution of São Domingos, through which the country declared its independence and became the first Republic led by a population of African descent. Very few of us heard about the Santo Domingo Revolution at school, but all of us, at some point in our school education, learned about the French Revolution and the supposed achievements for more rights and social equality. This occurs because history is constructed from the perspective of the “winner” and has always been concerned with silencing narratives that present counterpoints and arguments to what is intended to become unquestionable.

To learn more about the San Domingo Revolution, you can read “The black Jacobins”, C.L.R. James.

Chimamanda Adichie, “The danger of a single story” – Click Here to watch the video 

Intersectionality: Whenever we think about the exercise of rights by any individual, it is necessary to consider their personal, social, cultural, economic and political context. This is because our position in society, especially about gender, race and class, is what determines the possibility – or not – of freely and fully exercising a right provided for by law. Contrary to what we usually hear and what the law defines, we are not all the same and even though we share the same humanity, we experience the experience of being human in very different ways. As an example, we can imagine four candidates competing for the same job vacancy in Brazil. I, (i) a woman, heterosexual, white and middle class, am one of them and I am competing with (ii) Maria, a woman, heterosexual, black, resident of the outskirts; (iii) Mauro, a man, gay, white, upper class; and (iv) Carlos, male, heterosexual, black, middle class. Each of us, due to the characteristics that make up our identity, occupies different places in society. Among the candidates, Maria and Carlos, who are black, face the challenges of the crime of racism, discrimination and prejudice daily and can be judged by the evaluator based on their simple appearance. Mauro and I, as white, upper-middle-class individuals, are not targets of discrimination based on race or social class, but we may suffer disadvantages due to gender identity and sexual orientation since I am a woman and Mauro is gay. Maria, as she lives on the outskirts, had limited access to quality education and other essential public services, which could compromise her academic and professional training compared to other candidates. Given this, who do you think is the candidate most likely to be selected? These relationships may vary according to the context of the city or country, but must always be considered when analyzing any situation that involves the exercise, abuse or violation of rights.

To learn more about the topic, you can read “Women, Race and Class”, Angela Davis.

Noises of Interpretation and Understanding: Like countless other definitions, the concept of Human Rights can be seen as a large umbrella that accommodates different interpretations and forms of defence and application. Around the world, there are thousands of groups, individuals and organizations that find the generic definition of Human Rights the starting point for organizing their mobilizations and actions around a specific topic. Because of this, understandings and approaches vary, but most, if not all of them, share the common purpose of promoting the notion of human dignity and proposing measures so that this can be effectively achieved – at some point – for everyone. Furthermore, each individual, movement or organization that deals with the topic does so through different experiences and languages, which carry the impact of the context they experience for the message they intend to convey. The possibility of expressing oneself freely is a human right that must be protected. Because of this, it is natural and expected that some speeches may sound more pacifying, aggressive or exclusionary than others, as they are the result of the experience of those who defend them. In my case, due to my relative position of privilege in society, part of the discourse I adopt is based on the invitation to dialogue, the practice of empathy and the promotion of a culture of peace, but perhaps it would not be like this if I were a woman who faces the challenges of racism, homophobia and social discrimination. The invitation is to respect and consider all narratives and interpretations, as each of them represents a legitimate space for speech and the search for rights.

“Human rights are only for criminals”: ​​I imagine that if you've gotten this far, it's become more possible to question the basis of this type of claim, which is common to hear in different countries of Latin America. As we have already seen, the concept of Human Rights has universal application and this means that it is a right that should be enjoyed by absolutely all human beings. Among the many activists and organizations, some work tirelessly to guarantee the rights of individuals in prison, since the prison population – especially in Brazil – most of the time lacks treatment that offers a minimum of dignity. This does not mean that these groups defend illegal or criminal acts carried out by these individuals, but simply seek to ensure that the treatment provided to them, and any other subjects in a similar situation, observe basic rights and can provide minimum conditions for resocialization to these people. Furthermore, intersectionality (gender, race and class) must be considered in this case, as the historical and social context that made it easier for the individual to commit a crime and how it is received by the prison system, tells us a lot about how our society is structured and permissive with social inequalities.

Political and Partisan Ideologies: Human Rights are usually related to left-wing ideologies, as they are deeply related to the promotion of civil, social and economic rights (e.g. voting, education, minimum wage, etc.) and the search for social equality and dignity of the human person. However, the idealization, construction and respective codification of Human Rights concepts were led by countries considered to be on the right, such as the United States, France and the United Kingdom. Currently, even though there is no longer so much clarity on what defines an ideology or practice as being left-wing or right-wing, the truth is that over the decades Human Rights have come to be used instrumentally by both “sides”, but did not always promote the desired achievements.

Human Rights and Public Security: Especially in Brazil, it is common to associate Human Rights with matters of defence and public security. This is because the concept tends to be popularly reduced only to the right to life and freedom and, therefore, related to justice and security, which makes it easier to associate Human Rights only with the cause of the population in prison. These issues must be considered seriously, but the scope of Human Rights should go far beyond that, reaching all other essential government issues, such as education, housing, health, economic agreements and gender equality. The theme of Human Rights must permeate all discussions about proposed legislation and public policies because it is through this appropriation of the theme that it will be possible to address – in the long term and in a sustainable manner – the real causes of our social and economic problems. Until this happens, the government will continue to medicate headaches, without understanding why they exist.

Privileges and Responsibility: Treating Human Rights is also an invitation to self-reflection and recognition of privileges. As mentioned previously, each of us occupies different positions in society that may be more or less privileged compared to someone else. Privileges are always relative and permeate all of our relationships, opportunities and choices. When we recognize the privileges we enjoy, it is expected that we also take responsibility for putting them at the service of society, in the sense of questioning unequal and unfair structures, and actively contributing to transforming them. Individuals who perceive themselves as more privileged in relation to others are not expected to help others, but rather to exercise their obligation as citizens and recognize their individual responsibility for truly promoting justice and social equality, even if it involves the loss of status or the weakening of power relations.

Knowledge for liberation: The most valuable tool for understanding the complexity of Human Rights and any other topic that is present in our lives is the search for knowledge. First of all, we need to assume that it will NEVER be possible to know everything about a given subject, perhaps several. Recognizing our limitations, no matter how expert we are on the topic, allows us to continue searching, learning and – most importantly – dialoguing. Committing to constant learning and allowing yourself to question and review ideas and opinions already shaped is noble and liberating.

Empathy as a habit: I define empathy as the genuine attempt to access the experience of another. I insist on “attempting” because it is never entirely possible to understand a feeling or an experience that is not our own, but the attempt to do so already demonstrates our willingness to go beyond our navel. It is from the perspective of others that I can navigate the knowledge that I bring with me and complement my experience. We are individuals, but we are interdependent and it is precisely the recognition of this mutual relationship that serves as the key to seeking liberating understandings and more peaceful social relations.

I hope that the brief and simplistic ideas presented in this guide can guide meaningful reflection and dialogue, while this space – and everything else we do through the Institute – remains open to debate and respectful and honest reconstruction.



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