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Human Rights and Democracy
Ever since the organisastion of societies in different forms came about, conflicts in the manner of assuming, conferring or exercising of authority and rights and contingent duties for the accepted ideals have been considered in great detail by eminent thinkers. Accordingly, concepts like democracy, liberty, equality, fraternity, state, nation, privileges and forms of governments ranging from absolute monarchy to militarism to democratic functioning in different mores have been analyzed, given shape and systematically followed by different peoples in different climes and times in different manner. The greatest legacy of the 20th century has been to disseminate information on these aspects of civilized life to those who aspire to carve out for their communities, the finest ideas and ideals that the best minds have bequeathed to posterity and for which successive generations of mankind had struggled and shown the pathway.
In fact, the connotation of the word ‘Democracy’ itself has undergone great changes from the very early times to the present. For the purposes of this article, we will confine ourselves to the generally accepted modern usage of western liberal approach. Similarly ‘Rights’ -acquired, conferred upon or claimed to be of divine origin – has many attributes. Here, too, we will follow what has been the outstanding contribution of British Parliamentary evolution’s gift go humanity as a whole, once again nurtured by such great turning evenings of history as the French Revolution, American War of Independence, liberalism of different hues down to the claims of the proletarian revolution, Afro-Asian-Latin American resurgence and traditions of modern democratic states in general, which by mutual consent between the governed the government, have in theory at least, accepted certain rights as indispensable for the functioning of the state.
Unity of mankind
The world today largely presents a different picture from what it was at the beginning of the 20th century. Enormous and incredible changes brought about in various facets of life due to scientific advancement have touched upon the lives in all the continents, though in varying shades. Similarly information on the way of life of other people, now instantaneously reach all parts of the globe giving scope for reaction, assimilation, adoption or adaptation. Man appears to be truly moving towards the common goal of “One World’, a very distant but distinct perspective of a Tamil bard who had said several hundreds of years back, “The whole world is mine, all are my brethren.”
The economic prospects of globalization of not merely trade and commerce but educational and employment mobility and opportunities, the tremendous scope of reaching out almost anywhere in all areas of human endeavour, have given rise to globalization of thinking on human values as well. Gone are the mere talk about something happening in distant parts of the world. Along with many great strides in positive advancements, negative thinking leading to catastrophic events attempted by nihilists, terrorists and anarchists also pose a change to modern states and citizens in not just protecting their narrow domains but to think in terms of global security, growth, prosperity, sharing and a concern for the entire humanity, unprecedented in dimensions in earlier times. And as the micro will show the path for macro or the micro and macro have together to tread cautiously to elude different forms of violence, it is easier to understand the implications of a well-knit individual unit of modern state to pay attention to the human rights to its citizens, with a view to appreciate similar aspirations of people everywhere so that collective protection becomes inherent starting point of all civilised states to come together to enrich humanity. On the assumption of viable modern states and citizens striving for harmony and global peace, inevitable interaction between national and international events, we shall now concentrate on human rights in a democratic form of state.
Organisation of modern states was not a smooth task. Even in the past and medieval times, monarchy or any other type of government involved use of force to create, sustain and often enlarge the domain of the state. Philosophers from the time of Socrates down to Bertrand Russell in modern times have dwelt at length on the consent of the governed, participation of the governed, opportunities of the governed, enlargement of the scope of the governed in the process of government for the betterment of individuals and institutions, societies and the world at large. Many modern states have attempted to incorporate in their political constitutions the noble ideals of different nations so that the benefit of collective wisdom is shared and applied in detail to avoid pitfalls encountered by others.
In brief, we have to assume that a modern state has to be concerned with appropriate rights and duties of the citizens who constitute the state. After all, governments are but reflections of the people composing the state. As the heritage of humanity is common, as indeed scientific and literary delights have been shared, so too the political values need to be imbibed by people to look forward to a betterment of their lives. For we have not reached the stage of people as a community without the burden of the instrument of a state, which essentially has to have some coercive powers to enforce the collective ideals.
This brings us to the complexities of the modern organisation of state itself. It is occasionally possible for a small state to have a sense of great identity in language, religion, culture, way of living, economic moorings, racial characteristics and a desire to live together under the banner of a state. But even very small countries do have problems with minorities of various descriptions and, therefore, care is to be taken to ensure that rights are had by all who are members of the body-politic. If even the small states with great cohesion do encounter such problems, nothing need be said about multifarious constituents in larger states where diversities are the order due to historical and contemporary factors. Nevertheless, the story of the past sixty years or so, ever since the founding of the United Nations with all its shortcomings and glories, the mergence of nation-states in large parts of Africa and Asia from the clutches of colonialism and imperialism, the story of the majority of human population to rise from the ashes of the enormous burden of the past in its varying and suppressive legacy of the past, to look forward to a better life, is a pointer to the need for assigning dignified human rights to a democratically functioning state. We have enough evidence to state that such human rights in a democratically embedded state have led to all-round development of the people and an urge towards extending such benefits to every group of human beings with a view to help realize the value of not just an inherited legacy but the norms of material comforts enjoyed by advanced nations.
So we are concerned with the problem of a modern democratic state but have to address the problem of religious differences as well. For, there are many modern states where one religion is declared to be an official one. We will assume that we are concerned with those states only to the extent of these giving rights to religious minorities. There have been many states paying lip sympathy to some religion or the other, without really caring much for the metaphysical needs of the people. We shall assume that it is largely left to the individuals to cater to themselves without being bothered by the state about the pursuit of their religious beliefs. Also we have a number of states coming out with the concept of secularism, though the term is interpreted in different fashions. For our purposes this is very important because we are largely interested in giving norms for a democratically inclined societies where rights include the right to practise one’s religious inclinations without being disturbed by the members of the rest of the society or from the instruments of the state.
This is not some idealistic norm as the events in Israel and Palestinian states of any number of other tragically juxtaposed communities longing to find security and harmony would indicate. We are not for a moment suggesting that theocratic states have in-built opposition to other religious practices. But we do know that by and large, many countries with strong religious base do not come forward to accord liberal permission for citizens with different faiths to practise theirs without interference.
Accordingly we are concerned with a modern, democratic, secular state : this is a contemporary theme. A few words on modernism would not be out of place. Here we mean largely the socially accepted ideals of transition from some outdated conceptions of the past and a passion for looking forward to fresh, rational approach susceptible to the good changes coming from anywhere without necessarily sacrificing what a people consider as intrinsically indispensable for their need to protect their cultural or other identities. In this sense secularism not merely indicates a non involvement of the state with reference to religious beliefs and practices of the people but would enforce that such an approach is had by all the members of the society, whether in a majority or minority religious milieu. Secularism would imply that people reach out to others to form a state, fully knowing that individuals have the right to hold on to their cherished values. Secularism implies that these differences do not affect the progress of the state and its people as a whole towards betterment of their material comforts and other cultural pursuits so that the purpose of coming together, subordinating other variations, is fulfilled. It also encourages all its citizens to understand that the beliefs and behaviour of others in respective religious spheres should be respected, appreciated and at no stage ridiculed, denigrated or slighted. Secularism has this great positive impetus to impart so that harmony is cultivated as a mater of course and with due regards to the attitude of others.
Accordingly, a modern state has a given territory, people, a constitution to lay down the norms of relationship that fundamentally should subsist between the government and the people, a government as an instrument of state’s sovereignty to implement the policies and programmes of the people. This requires an explicit laying down the rights of the people -and correspondingly the duties as well – so that this living together can serve a better purpose. The framers of the constitution must take into consideration the unity or diversity of the people and should forge values which would hold them together. Without the guiding principles, there would be discordant notes. With specific guaranteed rights, the government of the state and the people know the respective duties and obligations so that any threat to harmonious balance is averted. All modern constitutions, therefore, contain regulatory provisions for the governance. We shall now look into the need for appropriate definition of human rights in a democracy.
Democracy, not merely a political tool
While this much abused word ‘democracy’ has the potential of distorting even good intentioned ideals, it cannot be denied that despite many difficulties, it is the best devised form of government. The reason is obvious. There has to be a sense of understanding true democratic norms. Democracy is not merely a political tool to bring together people for economic betterment but it enhances the quality of the life of the people by enabling them to pursue individual course of life to the full and integrating it with those of others so that collectively benefit is shared by all. This is a safer method of government, for in this, the rights to discuss, dissent, disseminate views are recognised and larger the participation of the people, the better for the state as a whole.
Common ideals inspire people to come together and in order that this togetherness leads to enhanced quality of life, there should be vigorous efforts to remove any obstacles. There are bound to be differences as to the methods for reaching the goals but the basic idea that others too are genuinely interested in the goals must be understood. In this context, democratic norms are not merely for just political settings but are applicable to other areas of human activities as well. They invest in the community a sense of belonging together, to understand others’ point of view so that harmonious working together for welfare of all is the concern of all. The aims are laudable. It is not mere head counting to settle vexatious disputes. It is putting heads together to find solutions to complex problems and assure that dignity, fairplay and justice would be ensured to all. It may sound platonic but it is true that very ignorant people have been inspired to raise themselves to very great heights through proper lead given by their committed leaders. When Abraham Lincoln declared that the then civil war would decide the great issue that all men were created equal, he laid down a noble norm implicitly followed by people elsewhere too. People like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and a host of others had this passion for serving the common people. We find in all the newly independent countries in the post-second world war era, people clinging to the liberalist ideals and democracy of the European hue. And to overcome violent means to sustain democratic practices, states have carefully incorporated in their constitutions the basic principles which would guide the people in active participation in community life.
Having stated that in a modern, secular state people come together for advancement of material and other benefits, we shall briefly state the rights required for such advancement and the means whereby they could be furthered. We need not go into the details of governmental machinery as we shall assume that people had chosen what has suited them best. There shall be no discrimination based on race or language, religion or any divisive force to disturb the balance. Rights, accordingly, would be qualitatively stronger and greater than mere quantity. The position of different states with reference to education, resources, constraints of the past, the cobwebs of centuries will be different. Still, the beauty of democracy is that it preaches not just a political accommodation of diverse elements but a social and cultural emancipation together with better economic advancement. To enjoy the fruits of science and technology, no social or religious past deadwood need stand in the way. That is where democratic spirit, democratic outlook, a democratic concern and democratic way of life would go a long way than any other political system which could arrogate to itself the right to tell citizens what they must do.
Human Rights postulate, therefore, the attitude on the part of the people that would enable them to blend the fine values of the past with the fine elements from contemporary world, wherever good things could be absorbed. They would be embedded in the basic structure of the constitution as rights to be enjoyed by the people. The following are indispensable in the domain of rights.
1. Right to Health Care
The right to good health needs hardly to be stressed, though surprisingly overlooked. We often come across even in the relatively well-informed government circles people gathering for an occasion provided with bottled mineral waters while those whom they are supposed to govern do not have access to clean drinking water. If this condition prevails for water, one of nature’s bounties, which must be made available to all, one can imagine situation in other basic health factors. We hear governments spending billions to explore space and go to moon but not much is done to slake the thirst of citizens! If health starts with water, then what of other medical facilities? Healthcare should be society’s concern: more so in the emerging nations where money is had for any number of fancy schemes. Waster, clean environment, food, healthcare are indispensable tools for building a better society. We cannot perpetuate inequity and inequality even with regard to drinking water and health problems. To invest in human resources is to reap the benefits for all. The tragic sequence of events in Somalia is but a reminder to the conscience of mankind. Opulence in one part of humanity and utter poverty to the point of destitution in this age of advanced technology makes nonsense of scientific progress and universal humanism. So in this subsection under health, we suggest that all the basic needs from waster to clothing to housing to recreation form an integral first step to distinguish man from animals. No effort should be spared to declare this as “right” as distinguished from philanthropy or charity or humanitarian cause. To live first as decent human beings, basic health care for all must be conceived, developed and sustained.
2. Right to Education
Man is distinguished from the rest of the species but his capacity to learn and progress. Democracy is a form of government assuring equality and liberty for all the citizens and it would be a mockery if a large number of people go with proper education. Many oriental traditions are rich in literature but unfortunately until fairly recently education, the right to be literate, the right to have access to knowledge was limited to a few. We are not here concerned with sociological reasons and surmises. We are concerned with the present and the future and if we can go the moon, certainly we can make our brothers and sisters read and write, develop skills which would be true liberation. Educational rights should not be exclusive for the privileged alone. Educational opportunities must be had by all. It is one means by which the individual recognizes and develops one’s capabilities. We may also note that in many newly emerging states gender injustice, that is, denying womenfolk to good education is denied. Education alone would pave the way for true advancement of the society. Education is a great equalizer. It clothes men and women with right attitudes, right conduct and right thinking. Education, general or technical is not a superficial acquisition. It is as important as fresh air and water for betterment. It is not a gift by a society or a government. It should be made the inherent right to gateway to knowledge. And from knowledge flows all other benefits. To deny education is to deny civilization: to deny values: to talk of democracy without assuring the citizens the right to be educated is a travesty of justice. Education is the most liberating influence on individual and society. Education truly is the guiding spirit for the success of democratic way of living.
3. Right to Employment
It is true that there are many problems confronting any society to provide all the citizens appropriate employment opportunities. However, science and technology have grown in such great dimensions, that the potentials of employment are staggering indeed. What is required is a socially conscious will to equitably apportion the work required for smoothly carrying out the functions of society. There are practically no limits to which the human mind is capable of devising measures, if the need arises, to overcome any obstacle. When such is the case, the problem of lopsided opportunities must be addressed to. When nature’s constraints in food production could be overcome by scientific application of remedial measures, is it too much to expect the best minds to sit together and find that a situation is created whereby everyone can have 6 to 7 hours work per day instead of unequal longer hours for many, no work for some etc.? It is a question of planning, not throwing our doles or curtailing some benefits but to look at humanity in a collective manner: without discrimination and the recognition of spotted talent. Here again, it is a question of proper application. If men could split atom and harness the energy for constructive purposes, they could easily split the inertia and lethargy and mindset of the past to usher in a rosy future where productive forces can be taken care of by the collective efforts of all. Planning is not necessarily an evil word: it is not regimentation. And certainly it is within the realm of possibility for people to understand that many for ever should not live at the cost of a mass of impoverished population. Work is life; idleness is death. Work is positive: idleness is negation of values.
4. Political Rights
Mere guarantee of political rights is not enough. It is undoubtedly true that political rights are hard won but they are harder still to be sustained and passed on to the future. The assumption that political rights such as equality and liberty, voting and elections would ensure permanency in the system is naïve. Any right has a corresponding duty. If people are invested with political rights, they have to be clearly told about their duties as citizens. Political rights are like two-edged weapons. Ignorance or indifference of the people would lead to disaster. Political rights of modern times largely rest upon the assumption of equality of opportunity and status for all. This equality presupposes a number of variables but for our purpose, it is enough to state that political rights have no meaning if they are just enshrined in paper. They require constant application by the people. Technically we can have a plethora of rights but when people are so disillusioned with the system, they do not care even to exercise the most elementary freedom of right to vote. Unaware of the tremendous sacrifices made by the forebears to gain these rights, indifference and cynicism of a people not appreciating their rights would invite disaster.
5. Economic Rights
This brings us to the most important right in a democracy. Economic rights are not much talked about though various ‘isms’ and theories are put for to bring about changes in the economic condition of the people. Liberty of equality or any type of political right is meaningless if a section of people to be for ever consigned to penury . The problem is deeper than mere ideological approach. It involves human values as well. Should there be a large number of people in despicable condition while some, by chance or choice, could get away with all the benefits of economic freedom? There is no need to be evasive about the answers. What must be understood is that there must be equity, opportunity for all to work and earn, curbing of exploitation, sharing of the gains of productivity by all, the right to retiral benefits, a dignified wage etc. There are realizable potentials. Technology is so developed it would be idle to pretend at this age of globalization of economic activities there should be lack of employment opportunities. What is required is a passion for social justice. Economic rights must include proper wages, holidays, right to advancement in the career, retiral benefits and finally a dignified old age. Again these are not day dreams. Some of the wildest dreams have come true. It is not too much to expect the collective wisdom of mankind to evolve conditions suitable for optimum working conditions and a respect for the right to work.
6. Social and Cultural Rights
When health care, housing, education, employment and economic rights are appropriately guaranteed by political rights, it would just be a matter of time before social and cultural rights are fruitfully conferred or enjoyed. The greatness of democracy is that it can be a great instrument in transforming the society from slumber to The greatness of democracy is that it can be a great instrument in transforming the society from slumber to The greatness of democracy is that it can be a great instrument in transforming the society from slumber to wakefulness, from inertia to dynamism and from darkness to light Political theory and thought have been enriched by great philosophers and their practice have benefited millions.
A democracy, if made to function properly, is a great tool to humanity to overcome many obstacles in the form of inherited burdens of the past or difficulties in implementing the best from the present. To sustain it we require an understanding and genuine will to confer and practice human rights. Democracy and human rights go together.
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