Western Ideals

| 15/10/2008

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (it was a United Nations General Assembly resolution in 1948) has been criticised for going beyond the boundaries of basic, fundamental human rights and into the area of social engineering. It’s a fair comment.

Declaring the right to social security, free choice of employment, paid holidays, medical care – even equal rights for women – make the Declaration a very Western document. A Masai tribesman in Kenya would laugh at all those things.

But we have to bear in mind that the Declaration was written by educated, middle-class, mostly Westernised individuals who were determined to impose their ideals on the rest of the world. They believed that their social values deserved to triumph over all others.

The United Nations of today is a lot different from the United Nations of sixty years ago. Much of the Soviet/Russian empire has gone; the British, Dutch and French empires have gone; the American (US) empire has many more satrapies (protected states) than it had then. The Chinese empire is pretty much the same. No new empires have come along; all we have are a few loose regional associations that didn’t exist before.

The resistance to Western ideals today comes from communities and traditions that carried little international weight in 1948 but carry a lot of weight now. Many of them were dependent territories then, and are United Nations members now. Religious and tribal certainties are a greater factor now than they were then. Traditional leaders in Muslim nations tend to be hostile to liberal ideas, for instance, and even some Western leaders have abandoned respect for the most basic of human rights.

The Universal Declaration’s moral foundation was, and is, that every individual in the whole world is entitled to "an existence worthy of human dignity" [Article 23]. For sixty years the liberal democracies of the West acknowledged the worth of that ideal, although they never stopped promoting their individual national interests above it. This hypocrisy was exposed when the Soviet empire imploded.

Suddenly, the West’s military-industrial complex (arms manufacturers etc) found itself in need of a new enemy, in order to keep feathering their own nests.

From modest beginnings as US-sponsored tribal guerrillas against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the CIA’s Taliban allies were selected to be that enemy. By default all their co-religionists were deemed to be enemies too, and the international standards of human rights were deemed to be too precious to be wasted on people whom our leaders regarded as sub-humans.

The USA, supported by Britain and Israel, took a deliberate decision to stop being the Western world’s democratic role model and moral leader. What followed was the systematic degradation of selected Moslem communities in the Middle East. In these new circumstances the Declaration’s ideals count for nothing. Instead, only the cultural and religious majority (and to a large degree the racial majority too) counts for anything.

My human-rights essays on this website represent an attempt to explain what the Declaration says, in the context of life in Cayman. Nobody else in these Islands has made the attempt, so mine are better than nothing. However, when the Declaration has been consigned to the dustbin by the very nations that wrote it, is it worth the effort of continuing?

The best answer I can come up with is this, that Cayman doesn’t have to wait for the rest of the world. The Declaration’s ideals retain their intrinsic value, and our community leaders should continue to recognise that fact.

The proposal that Cayman’s 20,000 native Caymanians – or a section of them – should define their own human-rights standards, is a counsel of despair. The world contains three hundred thousand communities of 20,000. What a ridiculous world-vision the proposal assumes.

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  1. Just because they want to be able to retain their national identities, doesn’t mean they should reject Western Ideals. Sure, not all ideals would be good for them, but for Caymanian’s to progress, they should acknowledge and accept the fact that they need to learn from other nationalities’ progressive ways.