Human rights and political rights

First published: 18 May 2006

One of the most frequent intellectual sleights of hand carried out by apologists for imperialism is the reduction of ‘human rights’ to ‘political rights’. That is, when they claim to be speaking about ‘human rights’ they in fact eliminate most human rights and reduce these to a much narrower range of political rights – most imperialist apologists are also in practice totally selective in which countries they chose to discuss political rights in, but that is another aspect.

Consider the difference between these two issues. Human beings are real living entities. They eat, drink, get ill, raise children, are sexually active, want entertainment, have interests and hobbies. Their needs range from the absolutely vital for survival, for example food and health care, through those issues rated by almost all societies as extraordinarily desirable, such as finding friends and having partners for sexual activity, through knowledge and skills vital for participation in wider human culture and access to higher paid employment, such as the ability to read and write and education, to the desirable but less than truly essential – having a black iPod as opposed to a white one. The real ability to undertake all these, both separately and according to priorities determined by the individual, constitutes the sum of their real human rights.

Apologists for imperialism typically reduce such real human beings to one dimensional pseudo-entities,  existing only on the dimension of whether they vote, can say their opinions without fear, and certain other political rights. Undoubtedly all are desirable, all human beings wish to determine their own lives, but they are very far from constituting the whole, or even for many many people in the world, even the most important and urgent, parts of human existence.

Consider, for example India and China. Life expectancy, one of the best indexes summarising quality of life, is 73 years in China and 65 years in India – a measure by itself indicating in which country human rights are greater. In China literacy is 91 per cent, in India it is 61 per cent – the majority of women in India are illiterate. Evidently both quality of life and democracy are desirable but who has the greater human rights? A person in India who has the right to vote but dies eight years younger and cannot read or someone in China who has no vote but lives eight years longer and can read and write? Noting that reducing Chinese standards in these fields to those of India, in proportion to the population, would mean eliminating 98 million people and rendering 270 million adults illiterate gives you an instant answer.

Or take a Cuban woman. Does she have greater human rights in Cuba today – where life expectancy is now 77, only one year less than in the United States – or at that time when hundreds of thousands of women were forced by poverty under the previous regime into prostitution (and we may be certain from the experience of Eastern Europe after 1989, where many many millions of women were again forced into prostitution by poverty, that this mass fate would certainly occur again in Cuba if any regime supported by the US were reinstated)?

The reasons hundreds of millions of people in the world support Cuba, or China, is not because they welcome lack of democratic rights, nor because it is necessary to make, for example, ridiculous assertions that political democracy exists in China, but because in the real world for billions of people the ability to eat, the ability to live longer (one of the most basic of all human rights!), the ability to read and write, the ability to have a health service, are more important in their real life than the right to vote periodically.

This naturally does not mean that democracy and other human rights are counterposed principles; political democracy is simply narrower than all human rights. Each person wishes to shape all aspects of their life to the maximum in both an individual and a social fashion – which requires a democratic political system. Absence of democracy itself produces many social distortions. The best situation is where social progress and democracy are able to march hand in hand – as in the process in Venezuela today. Political democracy is not a purely ‘Western value’ but a universal human one. But it is to assert unequivocally that in the real world a Chinese woman who lives almost a decade longer, who is literate, and has a health service has greater human rights than an Indian woman who is illiterate, has no adequate health service and dies almost a decade earlier.

Real human rights relates to the totality of human existence, not simply to a far narrower political sphere.