Opinion: Confronting the ethical dilemmas of advocacy
by Anjali Dixit
Dirk Salomons, director of the Program for Humanitarian Affairs at the School of International Public Affairs / Nicole Schilit
Western human rights advocates who speak on behalf of individuals in developing countries are often criticized for reinforcing existing East-West power dynamics. Critics argue that human rights advocates create and perpetuate an image of a homogenous “Third World” populated by oppressed people who have no variety, thought or agency. These critics contend that Western advocates’ international work is objectifying and even dangerous (though perhaps unthinkingly so), because it can be used as an excuse to impose unwanted change on other societies in ways reminiscent of imperialism. Arguments such as these have also been applied to human rights themselves. Some question if universal human rights are truly ethically derived, or if they are actually a newer, subtler form of Western hegemony.
For example, some Westerners may feel that a woman who undergoes genital cutting is a victim of a human rights abuse, because the idea of “mutilating” a woman’s body in this particular way is a shocking concept in many Western cultures. However, in cultures that practice genital cutting, this custom may be the gateway for a woman to be accepted as worthy of marriage, childbearing, independence from her parents, or respect from others in her community. How can outsiders decide which right is more important: freedom from exposure to disease or pain, or participation in essential cultural and social institutions? Broad international guidelines on what is a right abandon the intricacies of individuals’ realities. On the other hand, it is clear that international agencies that focus on eliminating human rights abuses must exist to some extent in order to combat and avoid blatant acts of violence and dehumanization. Yet deciding what is a “blatant act of violence and dehumanization” is itself an ethical gray area, one inherently based on a certain set of values and judgments.
Western human rights organizations are acutely aware of the problematic nature of their work. At an ethics panel at the May 2010 Human Rights Impact Symposium at Columbia University, panelists from various international human rights organizations discussed one way that they avoid imposing their values on others: by “giving voice,” or asking victims of human rights abuses to recount their stories in their own words. The idea of giving voice is a thorny one, as it implies the supposed beneficence of a more privileged person willing to grant something to a less privileged one. Despite this, giving voice is important because it stems from a desire to provide individuals a platform to speak directly to the rest of the world.
Although human rights advocates have supported and implemented the idea of giving voice with the best of intentions, panelists brought up one of its unintended consequences: they wondered whether giving voice to those who had experienced human rights abuse would also re-traumatize them. In other words, in asking someone to meticulously describe personal experience with rape, murder, and terror, there is a risk of forcing him or her to mentally engage with that situation again. While it is impossible to determine the depth of re-traumatization, communicating about such horror could be at best unpleasant and at worst quite damaging to one’s mental health. Panelists did not settle on one particular way to address the idea of re-traumatization. This danger should be evaluated on an individual basis, in order to avoid the host of problems that comes along with creating broad, international standards.
Human rights have provided the world with general guidelines, which are a starting point (albeit a problematic one) to addressing a collection of basic freedoms and entitlements. It is now up to advocates to fine-tune and tailor those principles to specific situations and ethical dilemmas. While this idea may seem contrary to the idea of human rights, which are meant to be universal standards, the panelists’ discussion suggests that we are perhaps entering a new era of human rights, in which advocates more deeply ponder cultural appropriateness and the mosaic of human interactions. Maybe at some point, as advocates continue exploring the complexities of their work, the concept of universal rights will even become obsolete.
Published in RightsNews
Volume 29, no. 1, October, 2010.
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