Are Human Rights Enough?


“To protest in the name of morality against ‘excesses’ or ‘abuses’ is an error which hints at active complicity. There are no ‘abuses’ or ‘excesses’ here, simply an all pervasive system” (Djamila Boupacha, Simone de Beauvoir & Gisele Halimi MacMillan 1962)

These comments relate to French occupied Algeria, and reflect a sense of anger and frustration, felt at that time among Algerians towards the liberal concerns of people in France, who while outraged by cases of torture, failed to take action against the causes of such violations, namely the occupation itself. It would not be surprising if the quoted remarks invited a critical response, certainly all those who advocate human rights could justifiably feel a sense of disappointment, after all they appear to attack what has evolved into an important and much valued area of activism. Campaigning for the individual rights of those jailed by oppressive regimes, opposing the suppression of free-speech, or advocating cultural, religious and educational freedoms has achieved an iconic and untouchable status within the fabric of our thinking, and rightly so, The achievements realized by those who champion individual liberties deserve our respect and recognition, offering as they do a powerful and vital voice for those facing the horrors or torture and brutal injustice.

Yet Beauvoir’s call to recognize the causal factors of such repression deserve equal respect and attention in that they warn us that abuses are not some free-floating entity, unrelated to either a political or economic process, but are simply the chosen implements of occupation to realize such objectives. The occupation of a nation, against the popular will of its people, is not implemented or sustained through peaceful and democratic process. Violence is an essential tool of any occupying tyranny, forcing upon occupied people a grim choice, to submit or oppose; not just the specific violations but broader causes, and occupation itself. From the military terror imposed upon the people’s of Latin America during the 1970s, to the currently occupied lands such of Tibet, East Turkestan, Western Sahara, Palestine or West Papua the same struggle is enacted to remove the pervasive machinery of oppression which can only operate through terrorizing into conformity a subject people.

It is precisely such a context which human rights, with its emphasis upon individual freedoms can often ignore or marginalize, a narrowness defined and shaped by the self-interested politics of the United Nations, which protects above all else the integrity of the state, many of whose members are engaged in the very violations which the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights condemns. It is such irony and contradiction which presents questions as to the efficacy of human rights actions, in that by addressing mainly specific violations, at the expense of challenging the crucible of political and economic forces, from which are forged such abuses, the corrupt and unjust causes are permitted to operate with impunity, able to perpetrate further atrocities and injustice.

This is perhaps what Simone de Beauvoir meant by suggesting a complicity that despite well meaning advocacy, if the causal injustice of occupation (territorial, political, economic or cultural) is ignored, the torturers remain in power. Tibetans in occupied Tibet, like all oppressed peoples know acutely that human rights cannot be enjoyed in a vacuum and that their abuse is inextricably bound with the wider political and economic fabric. It is such a reality that underscores the critical importance of not identifying the Tibetan cause as one of human or cultural rights only, but a struggle for national freedom, to remove entirely the political and economic chains China has forced upon Tibet.

Though written in 1962 the exasperated words of French lawyer, Gisele Halimi, have a powerful resonance still:

“The words were the same stale clichés: ever since torture had been used in Algeria there had always been the same words , the same expression of indignation, the same signatures to public protests, the same promises. This automatic routine had not abolished one set of electrodes, or water hoses; nor had it in any remotely effective way curbed the power of those who used them” (Djamila Boupacha, Simone de Beauvoir & Gisele Halimi MacMillan 1962).

It is vital for anyone involved with, or supportive of, human rights to recognize that without political, cultural and economic independence, an occupied people remain at the mercy of their oppressors. While tremendous results have been possible through human rights campaigns, which continue to be a highly invaluable lever when dealing with injustice and suppression, we should understand the more central and important objective, the collective freedom of a people, without which the tyranny persists, as it has done in occupied Tibet for six decades.

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