The Malta Independent 3 October 2023, Tuesday
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Of gardens and jungles

Evarist Bartolo Tuesday, 24 January 2023, 09:06 Last update: about 9 months ago

On 10 December 2023 we will be commemorating 75 years since representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world published the draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). They proclaimed the highest aspiration of common people to be “the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want ...”



We are more than eight billion people living on this planet and there is still lots to be done to enable human beings everywhere to enjoy “freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want.”

Different countries weaponize their own definition of human rights, excluding those aspects which are lacking in their societies. Lifting people out of poverty is a huge step forward in terms of human rights. But it is not enough to be fed and unfree as much as it is not enough to be free and unfed. To live a decent life in dignity, people must be both fed and free.

Human rights are universal and not specific to a particular culture or political system. Promoting them globally cannot be dismissed as interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. But as we promote human rights we must be very careful not to develop a Manichean foreign policy, especially if we are self-righteous and overlook the fact that we have serious human rights issues in our own societies, and so should talk with humility when we talk about democracy in the rest of the world.

As US President Joe Biden said about American democracy after supporters of Donald Trump attacked the Capitol on 6 January 2021: “ … democracy is fragile. That it must always be defended. That we must be ever vigilant.”

Addressing the Summit for Democracy on December 9, 2021 Secretary of the Treasury Janet L. Yellen said: “ … the United States cannot be a credible voice for free and fair government abroad if at the same time, we allow the wealthy to break our laws with impunity. The idea of democracy is bound up in the idea of America. If we want free institutions to thrive the world over, then first, we must model what they look like at home.” 

Western democracies expose themselves to accusations of double standards and hypocrisy when they weaponize human rights according to their geopolitical and economic interests and where they have lucrative markets for their arms sales.

The policy of conducting human rights crusades against other countries often have the unintended consequence of hardening positions and pushing countries with elements of democracy and autocracy towards more autocratic regimes.

If we really want to promote human rights worldwide we should widen our focus on human rights and include not just the political rights to elections, freedom of expression and assembly and the legal rights to fair hearings in court but also vital economic and social rights like the right to health, nutrition, education, employment and decent accommodation.

Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus said: “Peace should be understood in a human way − in a broad social, political and economic way. Peace is threatened by unjust economic, social and political order, absence of democracy, environmental degradation and absence of human rights.

Poverty is the absence of all human rights. The frustrations, hostility and anger generated by abject poverty cannot sustain peace in any society. For building stable peace we must find ways to provide opportunities for people to live decent lives.”

Human rights imperialism?

Embracing this wide concept of human rights should help us change the way we look at, talk and behave towards the rest of the world. Last October Josep Borell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, aroused a controversy when he told European ambassadors: "Europe is a garden. We have built a garden. Everything works. It is the best combination of political freedom, economic prosperity and social cohesion that the humankind has been able to build – the three things together … The rest of the world, is not exactly a garden. Most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden."

Later he used his blog to explain himself better: "I also have enough experience to know that neither Europe nor 'the West' is perfect and that some countries of 'the West' have at times violated international legality… Some have misinterpreted the metaphor as 'colonial Euro-centrism. I am sorry if some have felt offended."

The garden vs jungle metaphor had already been used by Robert Cooper, the former diplomat and adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair. He argued that if the world had a civilized core that deserved lawful conduct, there was also a barbarous periphery that warranted “rougher methods of an earlier era.” (“The New Liberal Imperialism,” Guardian, April 7, 2002). “Among themselves,” he wrote, “the postmodern states operate on the basis of laws and open co‐​operative security” but “in the jungle, one must use the laws of the jungle.”

In his Doctrine of Discovery (1493) Pope Alexander VI decreed that “any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be discovered, claimed and exploited by Christian rulers. … and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” This Papal Bull had provided the spiritual, political and legal justification for colonization and the seizure of land not inhabited by Christians in Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the Americas. It fuelled white supremacy and gave European settlers the belief that they were instruments of divine design and possessed cultural superiority over the rest of the world. Different Popes have been asked to revoke it formally, but they have not done so.

Dividing the world neatly into two blocs, democracy vs autocracy, will be just a modern-day version of this 530 year old Doctrine of Discovery if the West continues to project itself as the only civilization in the world fighting barbarism.


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