The question of an “advanced” human rights perspective and Western “imposition”

Yuen Po Street Bird Garden

Yuen Po Street Bird Garden - Hundreds of birds for sale here, kept in extremely tiny cages - cruelty or just business?

[About the picture: The Yuen Po Street Bird Garden is a park in Hong Kong where people bring their caged birds to put on display. In addition, there are hundreds (perhaps thousands) of birds for sale. This particular bird was a popular one. Their discomfort at the tight confines of the cage was pretty obvious as they would all be rapidly moving from one side of the cage to the other in an effort to fly. They look black out of direct light, but in the sun they are a gorgeous dark, cobalt blue.]

An excerpt from an email I recently wrote in response to whether white societies are more advanced when it comes to human rights and expounding on the debate concerning whether the concept of human rights is a Western imposition:

I contest that white societies are more advanced from a human rights perspective – studying their colonial conquests illustrates that white societies are far from advanced from a human rights perspective. I think we’ve done a great job of breaking down indigenous systems of justice and erasing history to make it look like we’re some great hope that came to the rescue on a civilizing mission. I also think that we’re extremely good at using the media to gloss over the countless human rights violations that occur across the world due to our foreign policy.

At the same time, I won’t dispute that we have a well established law system and subsequently white people are well treated in our countries. We take care of our own – the problem is, we don’t give a shit about anyone else, nor do we want to see beyond the mythology of America as great savior.

As for a Western imposition of human rights, this is the other side of the debate when maintaining that there is a widely applicable set of human rights for all people. And while I generally think the idea of human rights as a “western imposition” is a bunch of bull, there are serious issues to consider.

For instance, the idea of banning child labor is a relatively new development and began in the West. At the same time, the West has the luxury to send its children to school – Western activists who have tried to ban child labor in other countries often overlook the root problems and have been accused of imposing Western values.

Is it worse for children to work or is it worse for a family to starve because it is illegal to send their children to work? In the end, a movement can do more harm than good because there is a lack of awareness about local problems. It is not so much about banning children from working (the “Western view”, according to critics) so much as it is about creating opportunities such as schooling for children and jobs for adults so children don’t have to work out of economic necessity. So while I generally disagree with the overall statement that standardizing human rights is a western imposition, there are shades of gray and ways that efforts to apply a standard of human rights can do more harm that good.