Human rights is on everyone’s lips, as well as it should be, for ideas such as these are crowning achievements, or creations, of us as a species.  I say creation because these do not just fall from the sky or naturally occur like the weather.  They must be thought of, built up, put into practice, corrected, added to, revised, and put into practice again in order for it to become beneficial for wider and wider groups of people and spheres of living.

This was one of the important reminders from the International Conference of People’s Rights in the Philippines (ICPRP), appropriately held in Davao City last week.  Activists, educators, students, church people, lawyers, human rights workers, and indigenous peoples from all continents came together to share, learn, and discuss the current situation here, and the next concrete steps to be forged to address people’s rights issues in the Philippines and elsewhere.

The International Director of IBON Foundation, Antonio Tujan, Jr., set the tone early in the Conference with a discussion on the nature of “human rights”, and the importance of distinguishing a different set of “people’s rights”.  He correctly says that “human rights”, just like any social construct, has its own history, as well as usages contingent upon particular contexts. Thus, how “rights” are conceptualized and applied are not neutral in the way that a direct reading of rights’ “universality” may make it appear to be.

This necessitates the distinction of a separate set of “Peoples’ Rights” that goes beyond individual liberties and emphasizes collective rights, and that recognizes that conflicts between rights affect groups of people in different ways.  For example, a poorer nation may not be able to resist direct or indirect invasion by a stronger one, even as the latter would invoke its rights in the exercise of such intervention.  Let us remember that the US government used “democracy” and “human rights” as justification for the War on Terror, and that rich, industrialized countries continue to invoke their rights to conduct business freely in the enactment of lopsided trade deals.

As such, another distinguishing feature of Peoples’ Rights is that, following the original Algiers Declaration of the Rights of Peoples in 1976, it recognizes the formation and legitimacy of people’s liberation movements and other mass movements for change, especially in places where these contradictions are the most intense.  When talking about Peoples’ Rights, it is important to talk not just about preserving the gains of the past years, but also of ways of transforming through broad forms of struggle current societal set-ups that remain unfair and unjust.

Human rights is on everyone’s lips, including the President’s.  During his State of the Nation Address, Rodrigo Duterte had this to say:  “Human rights must work to uplift human dignity.  But human rights cannot be used as a shield or an excuse to destroy the country – your country and my country.”  Certainly, this was directed to his many critics in the matter of his regime’s war against drugs.  That in itself needs a longer treatment, but for the moment let us focus on the grain of truth that Duterte touched upon with such a pronouncement.

Human rights, as a social construct, is subject to the law of contradiction. Duterte is correct in pointing out that while enshrining rights are for humankind’s good, it can also be used to further subjugate others.  This is what the framers of the Algiers Declaration and the ICPRP have asserted:  that “rights” are not simple, neutral concepts, and they must be subjected to proper dialectical analysis in order for their truly liberative properties to blossom.

This is a formidable challenge for progressive forces throughout the globe, but one that must be met so that “rights” do not get usurped for exploitative purposes.  Towards this end, let me contribute Hegel’s notion of Notrecht, or what can be translated in the context of his work as “the right of distress”.

In his book Philosophy of Right (TM Knox translation), Hegel explains in Section 127:  “In the extreme danger and in conflict with the rightful property of someone else, this life may claim (as a right, not a mercy) a right of distress, because in such a situation there is on the one hand an infinite injury to a man’s existence and the consequent loss of rights altogether, and on the other hand only an injury to a single restricted embodiment of freedom…”

Hegel goes on to explain that, for example, if it is only through “stealing” a piece of bread that a person close to death can remain living, then this is no ordinary theft.  The potential for this man to die, namely, “the consequent loss of [his] rights altogether”, outweighs the “violation” of a single “right”, that is, the right to property of the man who owns the bread.  Note, too, that Hegel stressed that the right of distress is a right, and not a mercy, therefore making it something that should be available to any vulnerable person at any time – not some philanthropic blessing to be begged for and dispensed by some benevolent patron.

Such a perspective can guide us conceptually when we consider various instances of the rights of some in seeming collision with the rights of others.  During the ICPRP we heard from survivors of the Kidapawan Incident and Typhoon Pablo, and they shared the long period of utter desperation their communities had endured before they finally made the decision to troop to city centers in order to “claim” the funds and relief they believed to be theirs.  It was clear from their testimonies that they waited months for calamity aid, up to the point when they – through their experiences foisted upon them by the concrete conditions of natural disaster and callous government neglect – on their own came up with the same principle Hegel thought of in Section 127.  These were clear instances of asserting the right of distress on a collective scale.  (For nitpickers who may insist that Notrecht is applicable only to the individual, a lá Jean Valjean, I invite you to read Hegel’s Section 244 in the same book, wherein he talks about the “wrong done to one class by another.”)

The implication (if we are to adopt such an outlook), is that not only are rights subject to the law of contradiction, but that there are certain rights that overrule others.  In particular, supposed “rights” that could strip others of the capacity to have rights (and death is only one of the many ways that this can happen – think of homelessness, ignorance, etc.), must, at the least, take the back seat in our consideration of rights to enshrine and principles to extol.

Human rights must certainly be on everyone’s lips, but not merely as a set of quotable quotes to be, at any given time, taken as absolutes and used as an excuse for the unbridled freedom of the individual without consciousness of social obligations.  This way of thinking takes rights not just to be unreflexively “universal”, but also artificially natural (or of nature), when they are, in fact, contingent upon, and cannot have existed without, the emergence of society and all its arrangements and antagonisms.  They must therefore be worked and re-worked, thought and re-thought of in its proper nurturing ground, which is the context of social struggles, or more apt in our case, the people’s resistance.

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