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Are we hypocrites?

  • Published at 06:01 pm April 27th, 2017
  • Last updated at 07:36 pm April 27th, 2017
Are we hypocrites?

Human rights is a buzzword.

Yes, it is 2017, and sure, the human rights paradigm has widened considerably in the past few decades. The reality -- the bleak, harsh, and disappointing reality -- is that even today there are many who welcome only a censored and modified version of human rights.

They will support and promote human rights, maybe even fight for it, but only so long as the definition of human rights is to their liking. They have formed their own abridged version of what human rights means, and shall take the opposing bench no sooner than they find out that human rights is contrary to their subjective belief.

East vs West

This debate has kind of become a classic. The West hails itself as the harbinger of human rights, though the Cold War divided the West and consequently “divided” human rights into the civil-political (CP) and the economic-social-cultural (ESC).

Despite the superficiality of the division, it held ground, and ESC rights fell behind. Therefore, in Bangladesh, more often than not, human rights activism translates into CP rights activism.

We raise our voices against the violations caused by section 57 of the ICT Act, or section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, or voter intimidation, or banning the rallies of opposition parties, but we don’t do the same for environmental pollution, or unhealthy food, or our poor health and education system.

Some voices do get raised, and decisions like Mohiuddin Farooq v Bangladesh (relating to protection of environment) do get delivered, but they are not enough and lack prominence.

Why?

One reason is that it is easy to spot the CP rights violation, and demand rectification, whereas fighting for ESC rights requires a lot more patience, resources, and strong will. The recent Rampal power-plant issue is a good example. And then there is the issue of cultural relativism.

Since the Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas in his 1993 address to World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna talked about the clash of values between West and Orient regarding human rights, many have used cultural relativism as a shield to continue practices which the Western definition constitutes as human rights violations, but in the Orient are deemed as tradition, custom, and culture.

This is where we want to get more comfortable.

Double standards

We want rights, but we enter into commando mode when there is a demand for cultural identity of the indigenous people (small ethnic minorities). We want freedom of expression, but we start protesting when an atheist writes or says something.

We want women’s rights, but marital rape seems like a joke to us. We want health rights, but we hush up terms like menstruation.

We want family rights, but tell them to shut up when a youth talks about sex. We want health education, but we feel as though using contraceptive is blasphemy.

How do we define this double standard? Are we all hypocrites? Maybe not. Maybe the answer is much simpler. Maybe, for us, human right is only those rights accepted by the majority as OK.

This is the feeling I got a few weeks ago while conducting a session at the Commonwealth Youth for Human Rights and Democracy Network (CYHRDN) workshop on youth empowerment through human rights education held at the ASA University, Bangladesh.

It shows that words like love, sex, and desire are still taboo in Bangladesh. In such a society, how can one claim protection from domestic violence and marital rape?

With a bustling presence of 35 young people, I spoke about how the Bangladeshi youth were victims of ESC rights violations. People seemed to be having a good time, and actively participating with questions and remarks.

But when I mentioned the LGBTQ community, Kalpana Chakma, and about the Ahmadiyya community, the audience was clearly uncomfortable.

The future might be bleak

Who was my audience? Bright law students of Bangladesh, who want to be human rights advocates and defenders in the future. The question I got was straightforward: “You talk about freedom of thought, but why should I support someone if I don’t believe in what he did?”

Well, fair enough. It was definitely a good question. Freedom of thought and conscience cannot force one to support another’s beliefs. But in this question, I found two disturbing issues.

First, the participant was unwilling to clarify “what” a certain LGBT activist did. Repeatedly I asked, “what was it he did that you find unsupportable?” The answer was: “Oh, we all know, I don’t want to speak about it.”

It shows that words like love, sex, and desire are still taboo in Bangladesh. In such a society, how can one claim protection from domestic violence and marital rape?

Don’t interfere in what a spouse did to another, that’s their private matter, we keep saying. But not when it involves two consenting adults who identify within the LGBT spectrum. Only then do we make it our job to intervene.

Selective advocacy

That brings me to the second point: This apparent respect for rights is selective and majoritarian. It was hard for the participant to imagine Xulhaz just as a person. He is only a gay person, a gay rights activist. It is hard to differentiate between supporting gay rights (no one is obliged to), and opposing plain and simple murder of a human being, gay or not.

It was equally hard for some other participants to care about the enforced disappearance of indigenous rights activist Kalpana Chakma. Their argument: “You are talking about this Kalpana because you knew her (I never did). Why should we know about her, since she never fought for a national cause? It is not like she was like Ilias Ali, a national level leader.”

Again, it was hard for them to understand that enforced disappearance, be it of a mainstream Muslim Bangali male political leader or a non-Muslim non-Bangali woman leader, is the same, because both of them are human beings.

I went there to help the youth learn about human rights. But maybe it was I who learned more. I learned that most law students in Bangladesh are happy to defend human rights from within their comfort zone.

They will talk about Shahbagh, both for and against, possibly because it looks “smart.” But they will not talk about the rights of minorities, or marital abuse, because those topics are too uncomfortable.

They will talk about religious persecution of Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists, but not of atheists or Ahmadiyyas, because these groups do not follow a recognised religious establishment.

They will talk about child marriage, but not the potential statelessness of the Rohingya-Bangladeshi mixed marriages. Because many feel that all Rohingyas are, without exception, criminals, and xenophobia seems to be working well for us.

It seems as though they want to be rebels within their comfort zone.

They are not up for a tough fight. Human rights advocacy in Bangladesh still is a comfortable play zone.

Arpeeta Shams Mizan is a Lecturer of Law at the University of Dhaka, and the Bangladesh representative of Street Law Global.

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