Posted by: Patrick Mosolf | Sunday, 18 March, 2012

The Concept of a ‘Collective Human Rights Violation’

In this brief note, I’d like to introduce the concept of a “Collective Rights Violation”.  This is in response to the often repeated statement that human rights are individual rights, as explained by the author (Jack Donnely) of our textbook, for example, on page 20. (This refers to the book Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, by Jack Donnelly, Cornell University Press, 1989)

While it has often been stated that human rights are held by individuals, I argue that this actually obscures the reality that many rights violations affect many people at the same time.  That is, it affects a large group of people at the same time and in the same way.  Emphasizing that human rights are individual rights actually hides the fact that many rights violations affect many people at the same time, and therefore are far more serious than if we simply hold that it affects individuals.

Examples of cases which would be accurately described as “collective rights violations”:

~Blocking of certain parts of the internet, or certain pages on the internet, actually affects all users of the internet in that country at the same time and in almost exactly the same way.

~Censorship of the media affects all consumers of the media in a country in the same way, by denying them free access to information.

~Denial of labor rights, such as the right to form independent labor unions, affects all workers who might be unionized or carry out strike actions in almost the same way.

~Denial of the right to freedom of speech or the right to freedom of assembly, does not affect only those who attempt to express their opinions, or attempt to demonstrate.  It also affects many others, who are aware of the limitations on freedom of speech and assembly, and therefore do not attempt to exercise these rights, because they know what the consequences of these actions will be (i.e. imprisonment, harassment by the authorities, etc.).

~Land-grabbing, or seizures of land affect almost all the members of the group whose land is grabbed in an identical way.

~Many economic, cultural and social rights violations are also felt collectively by an entire group of people.  For example, a government’s failure to ensure adequate healthcare is felt by all people in that society, although in different ways (due for example to their individual wealth- wealthy people will be able to secure healthcare despite government policy, while poor people will struggle to do so.)

~Denial of the right to freedom of religion may also affect groups of people collectively.  For example, in Indonesia, only certain religions are recognized by the government as legitimate.  In Indonesia, there is one group of people called the Ahmadiyya, or Ahmadis, who consider themselves to be Muslims.  However, the government does not recognize the legal existence of this group, which has made them vulnerable to attacks by other Muslim groups in society who consider them to be heretical.  They have also faced pressure from the Indonesian government to cease practicing their religion on the grounds that their religion is not recognized.

Why is the concept of a “Collective Rights Violation” important?

Some powerful entities have tried to attack the concepts and the importance of human rights by saying that they are not relevant or applicable in their own societies.  For example, Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohammed*, of Singapore and Malaysia respectively, have tried to argue that human rights are not important in their Asian societies.  They argue that human rights are based on individualism, on the importance of the individual, while their societies emphasize the needs of society of the whole, and the necessity of individuals to sacrifice their own benefit for the sake of the whole society.  It’s the idea, for example, that people should sacrifice their political rights (which are curtailed in both Malaysia and Singapore), for the sake of the greater whole of society.  In their argument, the whole society will benefit from economic growth, for example.  And this economic growth will come about from individuals sacrificing their political rights.

Some of their supporting arguments would be that:

Only a few people are claiming their political rights (“claiming” their rights here means that they are actively seeking to exercise their rights, or challenging the denial of their right, through for example the legal system).  By trying to show that only a few people are claiming their rights, they are trying to minimize the problem of rights violations, and show that it is a minimal problem if compared to the benefits given to society as a whole (through economic growth for example.)

Individualism is a feature of Western societies, and therefore it does not apply to Asian societies.  Human rights are individual rights, whereas Asian societies are more collective in their outlook- they tend to consider the good of the whole as opposed to the welfare of the single individual.

The concept of a “Collective Rights Violation” is an effective response to this argument because:

It shows that while only a few people may be actively claiming their rights, it actually affects a much larger group of people who are too scared to claim their rights, or are not willing to suffer the costs associated with claiming their rights (such as imprisonment, possibly losing their job, being investigated by the authorities, etc.)  Other people might not even be aware that their rights are being violated due to censorship or the lack of freedom of information and freedom of speech (by which other members of society would be able to freely communicate to them about the existence of rights violations).  Even though many people do not claim their rights, or are not even aware of them, their rights are still being violated as part of the collective whole.

It undercuts the argument that rights actually reflect individualism, by emphasizing that some rights violations are actually experienced collectively by an entire group of people.  This makes it more difficult for human rights to be dismissed on the grounds that it reflects Western culture.

Conclusion:  I would welcome any feedback or criticism from you on this proposed concept. Please note that this is my own concept, and as far as I know, is not part of the normal dialogue or theory on human rights.

*The claims of these two individuals against human rights are especially suspect because they gained significant political benefit by denying others their political rights.

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