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Universal principles in revolutionary times

Nicholas van Praag's picture


   Demonstrating for the right to rights

I remember a Russian diplomat in Geneva in the 1980s telling me that his country believed strongly in the centrality of human rights. It was just that back in the USSR the hierarchy was different from countries on the other side of the iron curtain: individual rights mattered, but less than people’s collective rights to health, education, jobs and so on.

I was not much impressed; and the collapse of the Soviet Union soon gave the lie to that regime’s paternalistic take on the relative significance of different categories of rights – political, social and economic.  


And so it goes on. The demonstrations that began in Tunisia and have now swept across North Africa and the Middle East provide pretty clear evidence that if you cut people they bleed—both literally and figuratively. Wave after wave of ordinary people have taken to the streets to demand what they see as the fruits of freedom and an end to tyranny.


It was not that long ago that we listened attentively to representatives of, shall we say, less than open political orders and discussed politely the relative merits of different approaches to human dignity. 


No longer. If there is one thing events of the past weeks have revealed, it is that the same hopes and aspirations spring eternal in breasts the world over.


As we have seen, when oppressive push comes to the shove of injustice, universal values and standards are front and center in people’s demands for change.  


For too long some of us were cowed by those who said it is inappropriate to thrust "western" human rights down the throats of people who live in societies that have travelled different historical trajectories.


I guess it is political correctness meeting ethical relativism. How else could we have listened respectfully to such self-interested interpretations from representatives of regimes whose institutions had grown too weak and isolated to satisfy growing demands for security, justice and jobs?


In preparing the 2011 World Development Report, we have struggled with what all this means for national reformers who must build public confidence and resilient institutions in face of the stresses that bear down upon fractured, fragile states.


Respecting universal values and standards does not mean riding rough-shod over local traditions or cultural specificities. Nor does it mean applying them selectively to avoid compliance or turning a blind eye to double standards when it suits.  


The uprisings in the Middle East suggest that people want the whole package; not just their civil and political rights but economic and social opportunities too. 



Photo source: M. Soli, Flickr