Uncomfortable Thoughts on Political and Civil Rights

Warning: VERY Uncomfortable

[The] more I write and research, the more I feel that I am not helping the situation at all by doing so. Instead of properly lobbying, I am pouring oil into the flame of societal divisions. […] It is very, very easy to learn how to call out for people’s rights. It is much more difficult to find a path to actually help people. And I am utterly confused about how to do the latter.

Political and civil human rights are important. I think we all agree that people generally want to be able to live their lives freely, without governments restricting lives and choices in arbitrary ways. Equally important are economic and social human rights – the right to education, adequate housing, and health, for example. Economic and social human rights are often in the shadow, because the concept of human rights in Europe only arose once economic issues had more or less been solved.

I am European. As a European, I often hear that I should not believe European democracy is the “end of history”, as Fukuyama put it. I completely agree. Switzerland only gave women the right to vote in the 1970s, and France still executed criminals using the guillotine until around the same time. I am saying this to highlight that in Europe, democracy and political and civil human rights came last, after a steady foundation had been laid. Randall Peerenboom, a renowned political economist, found that “there is no significant increase in human rights with an incremental increase in the level of democracy until we reach the point where executive constraints are greatest and where multiple parties compete regularly in elections and there has been at least one peaceful exchange of power between the parties…. Put more starkly, human rights progress only reliably appears toward the end of the democratization process.”[1]

I have devoted quite some time to assessing the legal system in Bangladesh, and have repeatedly joined many others in criticizing laws that target bloggers and journalists. I have researched cases in which people are dying because they are speaking their minds, online or in person. And I know that I want to help them, and that I cannot accept that governments and societies are putting a ban on their citizen’s thoughts. However, the more I write and research, the more I feel that I am not helping the situation at all by doing so. Instead of properly lobbying, I am pouring oil into the flame of societal divisions. My articles, instead of pointing out to the government that their prosperity depends on the prosperity of its people, seem like superficial rants. I am pretty sure the Bangladeshi government knows that many of its laws violate international treaties it is bound to. The question then is: Why does it still continue to violate it?

It has been emphasized over and over again that Europe, to become what it is today, with all its prosperous laws that respect human beings, needed to lose chunks of its culture. It would be foolish to claim that for Bangladesh to develop, it needs to do the same thing. Just because history has unfolded in a certain way once does not mean it must do the same thing again.[2] But given the popular narrative that this is what needs to happen for economic development, it is only natural that people will panic and cling to their religion, a tangible component of their culture.

As a rights activist, I know that I will be hated for what I say next: People advocating for secularism in times in which people frantically cling to religion make themselves easy targets. At the same time, in a globalized world, people of course have every right to advocate for civil and political rights they know others elsewhere enjoy. But I understand the argument that a state which is falling apart socially and economically, is about to be flooded because of climate change, and is being exploited internationally because of its cheap labour, cannot prioritize protecting something as abstract as freedom of speech. Political and civil human rights, which only came into existence as a concept when Europe was economically secure, seem ridiculous in the light of war, hunger, and labour exploitation.

Last month, I was in New Delhi and stayed at a home where a ten-year-old boy was being employed to clean dishes. I was struck by how difficult it was for me to come to terms with the fact that it was ridiculous to lobby for the abolition of child labour. What I should be advocating for instead is for every child labourer to work in a nice house cleaning dishes. After all, the boy could also have found work in a factory without any protection.

What I find myself doing again and again is screaming for an independent judiciary and fair elections. And yes, many people from Bangladesh and India are with me in having these demands. For many others, however, stability is easier to achieve by ignoring many civil and political rights, and by “stepping away” from democracy. I am not saying that it is impossible to achieve stability through the current approach. However, Bangladesh has a very volatile political culture which is ultimately fuelled by political violence. A major issue in Bangladesh is that of a lack of social cohesion – society is fragmented, uncooperative, hateful, prejudiced. My inquiries have shown me that “politics” and “freedom of speech” often just involve throwing opinions at each other during election times, and avoiding conversations the rest of the year until tensions escalate and become violent protests. Recently, the Bangladeshi people voted their government. And, to be quite honest, it did not take me much research to come to the conclusion that elections are quite irrelevant to Bangladesh as a whole, as political participation does not extend beyond elections. In order to become stable, Bangladesh would either need a radical change in the way people go about politics, or a step away from democracy. As changing people is arguably more difficult than changing laws and a system, it would be easierto “step away” from democracy – if it wasn’t for the millions of people who have tasted political participation and seen better functioning democracies online or in person.

The more I think about it, the more I feel that screaming for rights just fuels the (maybe well-founded) accusation that Bangladesh “lags behind” in regard to civil and political rights. This fuels a feeling that time is running out, that Bangladesh needs to get rid of its culture as soon as possible, which again incites panic and leads people to hoard what they can before they lose it. It doesn’t matter whether the path Europe took was the one that everyone else should take – without a solid basis and stable ground on which to discuss, neither civil, political, economic nor social rights will foster. Without a predictable (not fair, just reliable) system, there will be neither economic growth, nor political stability, nor individual or collective liberty.

It is very, very easy to learn how to call out for people’s rights. It is much more difficult to find a path to actually help people. And I am utterly confused about how to do the latter.

[1] Peerenboom, Randall. “Show Me the Money: The Dominance of Wealth in Determining Rights Performance in Asia.” Duke J. Comp. & Int’l L. 15 (2004): 75-152.

[2] This approach is called “modernization theory”, and assumes that a country must go through a set procedure in order to prosper economically and politically. I find myself sliding into its rhetoric more often than I hoped I would.


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