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About the Author

Jodi Bush
PhD Student (Herts, United Kingdom)

I've had a longstanding interest in human rights, socio-economic development and the environment, and am currently undertaking my PhD in politics at the London School of Economics.


Who’s rights are they anyway?

Published 14th April 2010 - 10 comments - 1861 views -

In the course of discussing development it's easy to stumble upon controversy. Take for instance female circumcision, a topic that was recently brought to the table by Stefan. Is this a practice we should actively try and intervene in? Or would doing so amount to imposing our cultural sensitivities on what is a long-standing tradition?

Or perhaps we could take the topic of child prostitution, as raised by Johan. If a girl is considered a woman at 14 in a particular country and a British man travels over to said country explicitly to have sex with that "woman", who would in his own country be considered a child, is he doing something immoral?

I have my personal views on these two issues, but as you can see it's easy to find yourself in a moral quagmire.

What it largely boils down to is the tension between the rights of the individual and the rights of the community. In western countries the individual is given primacy, something that is evidenced in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in our way of life. In many other countries however, the community is of paramount importance.

So when I look at the issue of female circumcision, my concern is with the girl herself. The fact that her ability to make a choice over her body has been taken away, and that this is an irrevocable decision. From the perspective of the community carrying out the procedure however, safeguarding the tradition of female circumcision may eclipse the rights of the girl herself.

The act has become a cultural symbol.

So what is right, and what is wrong? Of course, there is no simple answer because the concept of rights (and wrongs) is a human construct. We have developed a system of morality, which we have shaped according to our cultures and our societies. These cultures and societies differ however, and so too do our moral constructs.

(I might add that a middle-aged man partaking of sex-tourism undoubtedly falls by the moral wayside regardless of which rights you uphold as primary).

Nevertheless, at a broader level it is key for those of us approaching development from a Western Liberal background to understand that the individual is not always considered of primary importance, and to weigh up the centrality of the community and culture within the debate.


  • Ivaylo Vasilev on 14th April 2010:

    I have problems with this ambiguity… You are suggesting there are “two” equally applicable RIGHT ways to approach this. You say ethics is conditional on your culture.

    I’ve always believed there should be one and only one, for inability to frame it better, absolute truth. This does not mean blindly judging and refusing to acknowledge reason. Rather, I say that there are core values that should be upheld and upon which should be acted. If they are core values, they can’t conflict with each other. Does this make any sense?

  • Oszkar Lovas on 15th April 2010:

    “From the perspective of the community carrying out the procedure however, safeguarding the tradition of female circumcision may eclipse the rights of the girl herself.”

    The biggest problem with this sentence is “may”. The fact is, that these traditions DO eclipse the rights of the girl herself. For instance in Ethiopia 9 women out of 10 are circumsized out of tribal or religious reasons. And since a more than thousand year custom couldn’t be changed in a week, this particular problem will stand for an other significant period of time, leaving this moral question yet unanswered.

  • John in Michigan, USA on 15th April 2010:

    I think the idea that communities have rights is flawed, both theoretically and in practice.

    To illustrate:  we understand intuitively that property can’t own property.  That is why your pet (which we will assume isn’t sentient) can’t own your house after you die.  If you tried it, it would degenerate quite quickly into a form of paternalistic nonsense (or even, oppression, if you think the pet is sentient).  Various parties (lawyers, disinherited relatives, neighbors, pet owners, etc) will assert that they, and they alone, may “speak for” the interests of the pet.  Since none of them can truly represent the pet’s interests (they can’t even communicate with it!), such assertions are nothing more than an exercise in empty formalism, designed to obscure pure politics (might makes right).

    Similarly, “the community” exists, but it is an abstract, intangible thing.  As an abstraction, it cannot speak for itself.  We don’t know what it wants or when it feels that its rights have been violated.  At best, we can only imagine that it might generally want what we want, which sounds a lot like paternalism, and in any case, isn’t good enough, it is far too vague.  Attempts to “speak for” the community are problematic, because without defining the group and who exactly is a member of it, it is impossible to gain the consent of members in order to represent them.

    If “the community” decide to form a specific, formal group (for example a local government, civic association, profession, guild, collective, commune, etc), then and only then can that specific group (and NOT “the community”) have and exercise rights in any meaningful sense.  The same holds true for other abstract groups, such as a race or “a people”.  In this way, abstraction becomes a sort of coercion; I would go so far as to say that any abstract group that operates without the formal consent of its members is a form of oppression.

    The problems you mention—circumcision (no reason to limit the question to girls, baby boys don’t consent, either, although their experience is typically much less traumatic) and prostitution—raise important and profound moral questions.  I don’t mean to minimize that…nor do I claim to know the answer.

    I support the principle of universal, individual human rights.  However, the concept of abstract community rights is problematic, as is any part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that depends on this concept.  We need mechanisms for recognition of specific, sovereign, well-defined groups (not necessarily limited to nation-states), but I don’t think there is a consensus (yet) about what mechanisms are legitimate, and which are not.

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 15th April 2010:


    Interesting questions you raised. My take? In this case, there’s no question that it’s the individual’s human rights that should be of primary importance.

  • Andrei Tuch on 15th April 2010:

    “Of course, there is no simple answer because the concept of rights (and wrongs) is a human construct.”

    Since 1948, we’ve been acting under the assumption that yes, rights are universal.

    “(I might add that a middle-aged man partaking of sex-tourism undoubtedly falls by the moral wayside regardless of which rights you uphold as primary).”

    Wait, what? Either there is absolute truth or there isn’t.

  • John in Michigan, USA on 15th April 2010:

    “it is key for those of us approaching development from a Western Liberal background to understand that the individual is not always considered of primary importance, and to weigh up the centrality of the community and culture within the debate.”

    If we are trying to support some sort of universal human rights, then yes, we need to make sure it isn’t overly dependent on a particular, Western Liberal concept of rights.

    I think that the distinction between abstract entities and concrete entities is fairly universal—looking outside of Western Liberal thought, I cannot think of any generally recognized philosophical system that fails to recognize this distinction.  Therefore I think the conclusion that abstract entities cannot have rights must be pretty close to universal.  At the very least, the distinction is as universal as the concept of rights itself.

    I mentioned that we don’t have consensus on a mechanism for recognizing specific groups.  The United Nations claims to have this ability, and in general, when the UN recognizes a sovereign state, this is honored.  However, the UN’s attempts to recognize entities other than nations, is mostly honored in the breach.

    We also don’t have consensus on a universal mechanism for resolving conflicting human rights claims between different groups, or between a group and an individual.  Supposedly, the UN and the ICC provide this mechanism; de facto, these mechanisms are almost exclusively honored in the breach.  The UN/IPCC approach is, at best premature, and at worst hopelessly utopian, or conceptually flawed.  We are better off avoiding grandiose “findings” or “judgments” regarding human rights, and limiting international law to areas of broad consensus (such as commercial law, national sovereignty, law of the sea, etc.)

    BTW to the site admins:  nice CAPTCHA, I like it!

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 15th April 2010:

    “...the concept of rights (and wrongs) is a human construct.”

    Of course it is, as is proven by its constant change in time and place. A simple example would be the treatment of homosexuality as a “crime” in certain environments.

    You touched on a sensitive issue, Jodi, as to whereas we should treat people according to our standards or theirs. As these standards are very relative, there’s obviously no simple answer. Coming from the background I come from, I’d say, To hell with traditions if they make people suffer! I’m aware, though, that they might suffer even more if they stood up against these traditions, against this abstract concept of community. But then again - communities are not super-united units, they are formed by little pieces, individuals who might have other opinions than the official ones.

    Morality is so complex! But I’m with you on the old Western males having sex with young girls - it’s pathetic.

  • Jodi Bush on 16th April 2010:

    Thanks for all the comments… I have just had a chance to read them.

    @ Ivaylo - on a personal level I think that individual rights should prevail, but I also think the “perception” of what is ethical does vary by culture. That being so, my point was not that we should take a neutral view toward morality or rights, but simply that we need to appreciate that individual rights don’t have the same precedence in all countries. It can provide us with better insight in to the other side of the debate. Not that we necessarily have to agree with it…

    @Oszkar - I used the word may because rarely is anything black and white. It may be predominately cultural, but perhaps it prevails in some areas because small subsects think it suits their objectives?!?! You say yourself that in Ethiopia 10% of girls aren’t circumcised because of tribal or religious reasons.

  • Jodi Bush on 16th April 2010:

    @ John - I’m not sure I agree with your comparison between animals and communities. We belong to communities, they are composed of us as individuals - cats however are not composed of us, nor do we belong to them in any such way. Nor are they abstract entities.

    Still, I see what you’re saying - the idea that it is difficult to isolate what are the views of a community because there will always be minority and majority views and subsequently they can’t speak as a whole. That said there are a growing number of people calling for the rights of communities to be recognised, and the international community has been trying to integrate communitarian rights into the legislative framework for some decades now. This is particularly evident in regards to minority rights (see the UN declaration on the Rights of Minorities 1992, and the Council of Europe Framework Convention on the Rights of Minorities 1992. UNESCO is also a good example of this. I do agree however, that they are still seen as secondary importance to individual rights.

    I should also reiterate the fact that I personally support individual rights above community rights. If an individual rejects a cultural tradition then I don’t think they should be forced to abide by it. I also think that certain traditions form no justifiable purpose, are brutal, abusive or archaic. That said, we are gregarious beings, we will always form communities, and our culture is vital to our identities. If the rights of the community are entirely undermined (i.e. trying to wipe out Native American traditions, or carrying out cultural genocide by taking kids away from aboriginal communities) then that impacts on individual rights. It impacts on your sense of belonging and identity. As such I don’t think collective rights can be disregarded. I also think that it’s necessary to understand that while we might consider the individual as paramount, that is not a view shared by all.

  • Jodi Bush on 16th April 2010:

    Sorry - trying to ensure I don’t lose my comments so replying in segments!

    @ Iris - I agree!

    @ Andrei - yes, since 1948 the UN has been acting under the assumption individual rights are universal, that doesn’t mean everyone abides by the same viewpoint.

    As to my aside regarding sex tourists that was just to say I didn’t think it could be viewed as defensible under collective or individual rights. But that might be just my view!

    @ Giedre - you’re right, the notion of moral standards is totally subjective and is constantly changing. On a very general level you only have to look at the evolution of what’s shown on television, or the behaviour of kids in classrooms to see that what we consider “acceptable” has changed dramatically even over recent years. Rights are not static, nor are they straight-forward.

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