Desmond Tutu: Human Rights Abuser?

It is interesting how some writers can say things that others would be utterly unqualified to say, even if they used the same words. Desmond Tutu has just written a Cif article explaining why Sri Lanka should be excluded from the Human Rights council–its record of kidnap and torture of its own citizens, a trend that is worsening.

If the same article had been written by someone from the Neoconservative/liberal-hawk spectrum I would have probably questioned, as some of the commentators on the article have, the singling out of a small developing country, with many more powerful countries with highly suspect human rights records on the council. I also think it is an extremely bad idea to use human rights as a political instrument to attack other countries. If you think about it this is a very cynical ploy that is in itself a horrid human rights abuse–the exploitation of human rights for selfish ends because it makes it extremely difficult for human rights campaigners to do their work. Because of the way the West uses human rights as a tool to try and attack and destabilise Iran, for example, human rights activists have to be especially careful in those countries if they are not assumed to be agents (willing or otherwise) of enemy foreign powers. Note that it is thoroughly legitimate that the state defend itself from such attempts at destabilisation and that unscrupulous agents will exploit the situation to crack down on human rights campaigners. The exploitation of human rights for other purposes is a human rights violation that is practiced so pervasively that we are hardly aware of it. And this is without looking at the marketing of wars as a noble effort to protect people’s human rights that has become so fashionable in national-socialist circles (Doctrine of the International Community, PNAC, Euston Manisfesto, etc.).

But it wasn’t done by any of these people, but by Desmond Tutu, one of the very last people on the planet one would expect to be beating up on small developing countries to deflect attention away from the crimes and agendas of big developed countries. And that, of course, is the whole point. Every statement gets made in a context, the context of all the other things that have been uttered previously by the utterer, as well as what is being said. If that context points to the pursuit of a goal that is quite different from the stated goal (the use of military power as a policy tool rather than the protection of human rights) then we are entitled to ask some questions and, of course, frustrate their (real) agenda.

So being forced to think about Tutu’s argument I think it makes a great deal of sense. While the issue of human rights should not be abused generally, the human rights record of the members of the Human Rights council is surely relevant, and if their record has been getting worse while they have been on the council, as Tutu points out, then something is really wrong. If Sri Lanka has the worst record then it ought to be either forced off the council or forced to take some remedial action to at least improve its record, regardless of the records of the other members. If that action is successful, attention can be turned to the next worst member. Soon the other countries will get the message: either get off the council (to avoid the embarrassment of the attentions of the Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town) or start making improvements. Either way, the cause of human rights is moved forward by the council.

So the same proposal coming from those who seek to politicise human rights can be an abuse of human rights but, from someone with a life-time’s work of courageous standing up for human rights it becomes a bold proposal for advancing the cause of human rights. You will notice that this argument would usually be called an ad-hominem argument.


2 responses to “Desmond Tutu: Human Rights Abuser?

  1. Hey – great piece, and I agree (I think!).

    I also think you should post the whole article on the CiF thread as I think it is very relevant to the post and the responses as a whole…..

  2. Arch Bishop Tutu cannot challange SL government’s right to fight against terrorism and protect it’s citizens from bus bombings, suicide attacks, forcible conscription of child soldiers etc.
    He may not understand the situation in a country where suicide bombings are commonplace.
    By making such a misguided statement he has hurt the feelings of those people whose relatives & friends have fallen victims of brutal acts of LTTE terrorism. As Sri Lankans we regret how he has forgotten the great support the Sri Lankans have given Blacks in their fight against arpatheid.

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