Human Rights in
the 21st Century
-- By G. Haragopal
Any discussion on the challenges to human rights in the 21st century will
be meaningful only as a part of a historical process wherein society's
search for prosperity and power or happiness and freedom remained unfulfilled
desires and half-finished tasks. The impulses for prosperity and power
produced market, nation state, and possessive individual. This also led
to major breakthroughs in science and technology. The combination of these
forces engendered enormous wealth sufficient for need and even for greed.
On an ideological frontier, self interest, possessive individualism and
the hunt for profit entered into a serious conflict with the collective
and common good. In the competing and the conflicting claims on resources
and growing wealth and there were several compromises, which could be
seen in the concession that capital was compelled to make giving rise
to a wide range of rights. These historical forces laid the foundation
to the ideals of equality and freedom. The life wire that permeates these
values continues emancipatory struggles to define and redefine the substance
of what constitutes human happiness.
The 20th century witnesses a complex combination of these conflicting
forces. There were attempts for both compromise and also polarization.
The first half of the century was a period of intense struggle to move
to a higher point: the socialist revolutions and anti colonial struggles
of the Third World held not only immense promise but also several historical
possibilities for enlarging the domain of equality and freedom. The counter
forces were equally powerful culminating in world wars, particularly the
Second World War. The one positive outcome of the latter was that it dealt
a deathblow to the forces of fascism. Given the alarming trends in the
nature of governance at the present juncture, the specture of fascism
seems to be raising its head again.
The post Second World War period provided an objective context for the
birth of the Declaration of Universal Human Rights. These rights encompass
civil, political, economic, social, and cultural domains indicating the
search for broader societal base for the values of equality, freedom,
and justice. Although the declaration was called universal, all the standards
set were not that universally acceptable. This was largely due to the
underlying conflict between the forces of accumulation through market
forces by using or abusing the rights and counter forces emanating from
a transformative worldview. This dichotomisation is evident in the two
covenants adopted in 1996 and which came into force in 1976. This does
indicate that while the 1948 Universal Declaration attempted synthesis,
two separate covenants were an admission of the intrinsic tension.
During the latter half of the 20th century, progressive forces took a
backseat and market forces became more aggressive. The consolidation of
these forces is a consequence of varied factors, which individually and
collectively contributed to this disturbing process. This includes the
collapse of the socialist experiment, denationalization of the Third World
War elite and their nexus with the global elite, the self adjustment that
the stricture of the capital was able to make because of its ability to
move spatially due to the advancement of techniques and uneven distribution
of labour, the mismanagement of bureaucratization of most of the welfare
and development activity by the State apparatus, the overall erosion of
several institutions based on collective expression and action, emasculation
of the trade union movement, fragmentation of the people's movements and
the advancement of the notorious print and electronic media capable of
In the overall encounter between forces of revolution and counter-revolution,
the former operated with far more dexterity. In the absence of a creative
agenda for freedom and equality, individuals, groups, communities and
classes have come to suffer identity crisis as a cause and consequence
of loss of meaning to the very existence. For, the wealth generated and
allocated through the market could at best provide a comfortable life
for those who can afford it but could hardly impart meaning to life, which
could be discovered and realized only in fruitful cooperation and collective
expression. The higher and larger the domain of collective activity, the
greater is the creative expression of humanity. It is this part of human
endeavour that suffered serious set back. The collapse of the socialist
societies, which in principle were rooted in the postulate of collective
existence, came to be interpreted as if such forms of social organisation
were neither viable nor feasible. This is one of the tragic fallouts of
the 20th century.
In the absence of a full-blooded and concentrated endeavour for change,
the forces accentuating inequalities and authoritarianism are in full
play. Never in history were these forces are so excited they are at the
present moment, giving rise to the notorious thesis that history has commenced
to at all? In fact, Marx held that human history was yet to begin.
Human society entered the 21st century through this critical route. All
the challenges to human rights in this century emanate from this turmoil.
The core of which emanates from this crisis is basically the challenge
of capital and of wealth to the labouring class, the forces of globalisation
and marketisation to the social and political institutions, the crisis-ridden
possessive individualism to the larger collective and common good and
of comfort to the meaning to life. The sharpening of these contradictions
and the absence of adequate social mechanisms for their resolution landed
human collectives in a tremendous identity crisis. The unending search
for identity in the absence of favourable objective conditions is causing
rapture, inflicting wounds on human nature and civilizational progress.
This situation has all the potential to trigger endemic violence, criminality,
and vulgarity reducing life to triviality.
The forces of equality and freedom beaten by the counter forces are compelled
to search for deeper meaning and content and new sources of inspiration.
There are a million mutinies. Untiring and uncompromising struggles of
human beings are there in every part of the globe. It is reported that
there are 3,000 ongoing ethnic conflicts and 600 secessionist movements.
Women - half of the sky as Mao put it - are on the warpath all over the
world. Children today are better informed and are questioning and curious
about the universe than ever before. The youth are restless and some of
them, although small in number, are giving up their lives for causes closer
to their heart. In the specific context of India, Dalits are challenging
the hierarchical and authoritarian stranglehold. Tribals decent and transparent
human beings are engaged in a continuous struggle to protect and defend
their lives, livelihood and environment. There are amazing assertions
of democratic minded people from every walk of life in support of social
causes. The underlying common thread in this entire restlessness is the
deep urge of humanity to change the context and content of human existence.
The ideological propaganda that there is no alternative (TINA) is lifeless
attempt to push the struggling masses into subjugation. The successful
overcoming of this impasse and the realization of this unfulfilled pursuit
of equality and freedom constitute the greatest challenge of the 21st
century to the theory and practice of human rights.