Large CCHRC delegation participated in the 2018 Europe-China Seminar on Human Rights

The annual Europe-China Seminar on Human Rights was held in Bruges this year, on June 28. This year’s theme is Diversity of Civilization and Human Rights Protection. The seminar was organised by experts and scholars from the field of human rights in China and Europe and focused on the human rights theory and practice in the pluralistic world, differences in the concept of human rights in East and West, human rights exchanges and dialogues under the diversity of civilization, human rights consensus in search of diversified civilizations, diversity of civilizations, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The CCHRC participated with a large delegation, as always led by Tom Zwart, who, another classic, delivered a speech during the opening session.

A lead theme of this year’s meeting was the dialogue between China and the EU. Human Rights as the concept of basic rights of human beings is so closely connected with people’s world outlook, that there must me numerous concepts of Human Rights. A number of European delegates gave a detailed exposé of the differences, even showing that the differences are increasing rather than decreasing. Harmonizing the points of view within the complex bureaucracy of the EU is not an easy endeavour.

Some Chinese delegates contended that China offers a strong alternative from its rich philosophical tradition and more than before actively seeks engagement with the rest of the world. The Chinese government has recently incorporated it in its foreign policy including the language in which that policy is promoted. They expressed hope that the EU would to be more open for the possibly that it can learn from China.

This confidence was balanced by other Chinese delegates who pointed out that this strong culture also struggles with new developments. For example, the introduction of a new concept like Personality Rights is posing quite a challenge for the Chinese legal system. It seems that the thinking on Human Rights in both regions is in an equal state of flux.

To bridge the cultural differences, a group of delegates proposes a number of methodologies.A strong one is not looking for common elements, but for differences and make those differences more explicit. Such difference can be revealed using questionnaires asking respondents how they would (re)act in various situations.

As has become a tradition in the China-EU dialogues, the participants were not seeking outcomes, but enjoyed the continuous open dialogue and the richness of the challenging statements and proposals made during the various presentations. In that respect this recurrent activity perfectly suits the principles of the CCHRC.

Extraordinary PhD thesis: ‘Every Organ of Society’: Exploring the Role of Social Institutions in the Effective Implementation of International Human Rights Law

Julie Fraser defended her PhD at Utrecht University on 31 May, 2018. Her research is exemplary for the philosophy of the CCHRC

This year we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Despite this momentum, human rights continue to be violated in all states around the world, revealing the gap between law and practice. The challenge of implementation – of making legal norms a lived reality – is now most pressing. How to address this challenge was the focus of Julie’s PhD research completed earlier this year. This research focused on criticisms of state-centricity in international human rights law, as well as its tendency to take a legalistic approach to implementation. Identifying the shortcomings of state-centric legalism, this research proposed involving informal social institutions the domestic implementation of human rights due to their cultural embeddedness and ability to guide human behaviour.

Cultural embeddedness is important as a contributing factor to the poor implementation and violation of rights is their ongoing contestation. Scholars have long connected human rights’ lack of cultural legitimacy with their violation. This relates to the longstanding cultural and postcolonial critiques of human rights and their perceived Western bias, which are as old as the UDHR itself. Numerous scholars have addressed these critiques over time, with some mapping out ways to reconcile human rights with diverse cultures. Scholars have advocated culturally sensitive approaches to human rights that include local cultural norms and actors – social institutions – in programs for effective implementation. Such approaches promote reliance upon non-legal measures of implementation, and upon the dynamism of culture and the agency of those within cultural communities. The purpose of such approaches is not only to promote the effective implementation of human rights, but also to demonstrate due respect to the broad cultural diversity around the world. On this basis, culturally sensitive approaches to human rights are argued to be both pragmatic as well as principled. On this basis, this dissertation examined in detail the role of social institutions in the domestic implementation of international human rights law.

The first part of this task involved analysing the applicable international legal framework. As a principle of international law, the human rights treaties grant States parties broad discretion in implementation, creating obligations of result and typically not conduct. This preoccupation with the law has given rise to a critique of legalism in human rights, emphasising the limitations of the law and that other disciplines provide important insights to human rights in context.

Another aspect of legalism is that it necessarily focuses on the State and diminishes the role of other non-State actors (NSAs) in implementation. These non-State norms and actors (social institutions) can be crucial in effective human rights implementation. Given the implementation gaps, violation of rights around the world, and the limitations of legislation and the State to fully protect rights, Julie assessed that further research was needed into the role of other measures and actors.

Therefore, this dissertation includes a multi-disciplinary case study examining the role of social institutions in implementing human rights in context. The study analyses the role of Islamic law and institutions in implementing women’s right to family planning in Indonesia. This is significant as often NSAs – and cultural/religious actors in particular – are portrayed as obstacles to human rights enjoyment, and not as assets in their protection. However, as seen in the Indonesian example, they can be essential to human rights’ domestic implementation. For instance, as international human rights law is inherently top-down, it is necessarily external/foreign to the local communities to which it applies. The perception of human rights as foreign (in substance and/or form) reduces their likelihood of being respected in practice, especially where rights conflict with local cultural norms. The Indonesian example demonstrated how locally embedded and legitimate social institutions can bridge this gap and present human rights as compatible with and supported by cultural norms. In this case, the work of Islamic actors complemented that of State authorities, with Muslim women using their agency to shape religious norms and practices in line with the right to family planning.

This research showed that Islamic law and institutions are central to reproductive health in Indonesia and are too empirically important to be disregarded. Despite this, they are virtually absent in the UN treaty bodies’ Concluding Observations to Indonesia, which continue to focus on the State and on legislation. Given that the treaties all recognise other measures of implementation and the involvement of other actors, the treaty bodies should adjust their approach without having to change their structure or mandate – just their practice. Therefore, the thesis advocate further consideration by the UN treaty bodies of rights implementation beyond the possibilities offered by formal State institutions and to include also social institutions. This is done on a practical basis, to secure better effectiveness of implementation measures, and also a normative one, to better respect States’ cultural diversity. As such, the thesis advocates culturally sensitive approaches to human rights implementation and to the involvement of social institutions therein. On this basis, this research relates to wider themes in human rights, such as the need for new/better narratives to connect rights meaningful to local communities all around the world, as well as the shift away from State-centricity toward actors and norms below and beyond the State.

(This post is slightly edited version of a blog Julie posted earlier; you can find other publications by Juylie on the Publications page of this site)

Address by Professor Abdullah An-Na’im

The Cross-Cultural Human Rights Centre was privileged to be addressed by Professor Abdullah An-Na’im on 30 May 2018 at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. The keynote given by Professor An-Na’im concerned the topic of ‘Decolonizing Human Rights,’ discussing some of the most fundamental contradictions and continued forms of colonialism that persist in the field of human rights.  Professor An-Na’im is known in both Human Rights and Legal circles for his scholarship on cross-cultural dialogue, and aptly started his keynote by addressing the problematic reality of a human rights monologuethat in part drives the need for decolonisation.

To start, An-Na’im emphasised the transcendental nature of human rights, whereby human rights, unlike any other system bestows rights on people by virtue of their humanity.  In this regard An-Na’im laid out that no other qualification of membership is necessary, rendering human rights a pivotal and fundamentally valuable system in a diverse world.  An-Na’im pointed out however, that these rights often conflicted with civil rights, where the latter pertains to the rights of the citizen and not the human.  An-Na’im pointed out that civil rights, though often seen as synonymous with human rights, are given by the state that qualifies who is entitled to a set of rights, whereas human rights remain fundamentally the ownership of every human being.

Following from this, An-Na’im spoke of a fundamental misnomer in current understandings of human rights. This misnomer is embodied in the widespread idea that liberal societies enjoy rights the most, hence the drive to render ‘illiberal’ societies ‘liberal.’  The reality however reflects a different scenario whereby people and communities in the so-called liberal world increasingly do not enjoy rights by virtue of their humanity. Despite these realities however, Western societies are often thought of as the harbingers of human rights, particularly as a result of their attention and emphasis on civil rights.  An-Na’im however brought these realities to the fore and questioned their very assumptions as part of the process of ‘decolonizing human rights.’ Equally, he stressed that the reality and recognition that not a single state applies human rights to all people by virtue of their being human is integral to dismantling the idea of a hierarchy of compliant states.

Instead what has emerged, according to An-Na’im, is liberal relativity that seeks to shame all other societies for being relativist, when liberal states themselves are complicit in neo-colonialism abroad coupled with internal oppression. He went on to note that, if anything, the vast majority of humanity is not concerned with civil liberties, but instead are pre-eminently focused on ensuring human dignity through the base of socio-economic and cultural rights. Undoing this confusion of human rights with civil rights should form a critical basis of decolonising human rights.

An-Na’im highlighted three core ideas, namely the importance of concept, content and context.  As applied to human rights it is the concept that is universal, the content controversial and contested, and the context often forgotten.  For An-Na’im, including these three ‘c’s into how human rights are approached is indispensible to decolonisation.  He argued that we have been led to subscribe to a simplistic notion of success, in which rights are protected only when elites are committed to certain values. The ultimate political prize, namely, the state, however, determines such values. Ensuring that the drive of human rights protection is not confused with the quest for state power is therefore essential to realising human rights that matter (and not rights dressed as human rights that are mobilised to quench the thirst for state power). Finally, as a way out of the impasse, An-Na’im proposed internally driven cultural transformation and political mobilization as the best if not the only mechanisms to achieve sustainable change and human rights protection.

The keynote address was followed up by discussants, Prof. Eva Brems, Stacey Links and Vivian Aiyedogbon all of whom pointed to different challenges to the process of decolonisation. Some of these included, the limits of ‘dismantling’ the state to ensure people centred human rights approaches, the limits of a state-focus as the ultimate site of colonisation, as well as the challenges associated with a variance of ‘content’ of human rights across societies and communities.

Professor An-Na’im’s keynote address was well received and sparked lively debate.  As a centre we thank him once again for taking the time to address and challenge our thoughts on human rights in the reality of a multicultural world. (this summary is a slightly edited version of a text kindly drawn up by Stacey Links)