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Czech AI director on human rights, political correctness, and Obama

Prague, 16.9.2010 16:40, (iHNed.cz)

A pack of human rights dogs, foaming at the mouth, is out there clenching their fangs into the calves of any white heterosexual taxpayer with more than two children. Is that a shocking enough opening? It’s intentional – I’m following the advice of Roman Joch, human rights advisor to the Czech PM, according to whom “you must shock people at the start and then further explain and lay out your thesis.”

In the Czech environment, two teams of players are currently debating what kind of human rights vision should be embraced here: “Activists”, who base their arguments on the principles of the indivisibility and universality of human rights, and “(ultra)conservatives”, who understand those rights through the lens of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. It is worth pointing out that both of those people were politicians, and their view of human rights (such as their emphasis on the right to own property or possess a weapon) is the view of people who need to score political points. Unlike politicians, Amnesty International views human rights through the lens of its field experience: For half a century we have been visiting conflict zones, prisons, refugee camps, and other afflicted places.

AI’s view, in addition to being based on testimonies from victims of wrongdoing, is also fundamentally based on international treaties. These are often violated by none other than politicians. I cannot imagine how Baroness Thatcher’s lens is going to be used by the Czech Government in its support for human rights projects in Belarus, for example. In my opinion, none of the local human rights defenders there are likely to be interested in such “assistance” – but the ruling elite will probably welcome it.

Here I would like to clarify the role of groups in human rights. When we claim the rights of women should be defended not just because they are women, but because they are human beings, then we must have the courage to admit that in many cases around the world, women’s human rights are violated precisely because they are female. Such violations include denial of education, genital mutilation, rape (specifically in armed conflicts), etc. Violations of the rights of various ethnic and religious groups and minorities occur similarly. This is why it makes sense to fight for the specific rights of specific groups of people.

In the context of group rights, we must take a look at the concept of political correctness. Conservatives view political correctness as a threat because it supposedly problematizes Western identity. Human rights organizations, however, see it as a tool for strengthening disadvantaged groups, who can emancipate themselves thanks to such changes in ideas and in society’s overall approach towards such groups. A classic example is US President Barack Obama, who was elected not only because of his undisputed personal qualities, but also thanks to an overall change in societal climate. Americans would never have elected a “Negro” President, but as an African-American, Obama stood a chance.

It should be clear which concept of human rights I am advocating for here, and not only because I am the director of Amnesty in the Czech Republic. At the same time, I believe a plurality of views is healthy: It helps refine the discussion and forces us to think – or at least, some of us do so.

Gwendolyn Albert, Dáša van der Horst, Director, Amnesty International Czech Republic, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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