Labeling Human Rights

“Is there such a thing as “Women’s Rights”, and if so which rights are “Men’s Rights”? Can “Gay rights” be considered as men’s rights? And if so, does not that apply to gay women? And what about transgendered people? And in the end, what about everything? And if there are so many divisions why do we keep saying “human rights” after all?

The answer should come natural to anyone: “there are human rights, not women’s or men’s rights”. Some argue that women have separate rights because they suffer more in some regions of the world. Some argue that human rights are universal and the same for everyone. Indeed, people tend to create so many labels for human rights that sometimes forget to talk about their universality.

First of all let us accept, for the sake of argument, that there are different kinds of Human Rights. We examine this notion thought two examples: “Women’s Rights” and “Gay Rights”.

Let us accept that there is a need to establish different rights for women. The ones who support this need, base their arguments on the fact that women in some regions of the world are more vulnerable than men and suffer more hardships. These regions are mostly countries in the developing world. In those parts of the world women are considered inferior and sometimes are even used in every way one can imagine. This is not just an argument; it is a fact. Thus, there is a need to protect these women. On the other hand, in the so called “Western Civilization”, even though women and men are considered as equals, inequalities do exist in the social, economic and political sectors. From that perspective, given all the above, there is a need for separate women’s rights.

Concerning the “Gay Rights”, or to put it more properly “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Rights” (LGBT), there is no doubt that there are forms of discrimination toward these people (even referring to them as ‘these people’ constitutes a ‘linguistic racism’, but makes the argument clearer). There is a rising concern recently for the wellbeing of LGBT teens after the suicide of homosexual boys in the USA due to the fact that they were being bullied by their peers not only at school but also on the internet. This kind of treatment continues in the society where LGBT individuals are being discriminated in their daily activities. Further, in some societies, mostly Islamic, homosexuality is not allowed, while the gay community is often being hunted and punished. Again, from that perspective, there is no doubt that there is a need for separate LGBT rights.

However, by saying that women and LGBTs have different needs and different rights, is the same as saying that they are different than other people. There is no doubt that in some societies inequalities exist. There is no doubt that women are considered inferior and LGBTs are treated as something different – and in some extreme cases as sick. I do not say that the above do not exist. I am arguing that there is no need to treat them differently when we talk about human rights. Human rights apply to everyone and were declared for every human being.

Yet, there is still one paradox. Even though the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, is does not stand as a legal text, which means that no one can be brought to justice for violations of human rights under it. Thus, the need to establish separate agreements in order to protect Human Rights becomes more evident.

 This takes us back to our initial examples. Women’s Rights are legally protected by CEDAW(Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) which clearly declares that: “discrimination against women shall mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field”. Despite what happens in reality, CEDAW explains that in international law women are as equal as men, and can take legal actions when their rights are being abused. At the same time, in some underdeveloped countries women are being treated as sub-humans and are being abused daily. Such abuses include, among other things, forced marriage at very young age – including child marriage – which leads to home violence and limited access to education.

 However, surprisingly so, the case with LGBT Rights is more difficult and complicated. Apart from “a cautiously-worded” condemnation of discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people”, and previous efforts made by the UN to decriminalize homosexuality, there is no international treaty that recognises LGBT Rights. In several countries it is illegal to even be a homosexual, while in extreme cases like Tanzania it can lead up to life imprisonment. Legal protection of the LGBT Community falls into each country’s legal system. Some countries only protect homosexuals from discrimination and others go one step further by granting them legal status through the same opportunities heterosexuals have. The recognition of LGBT Rights becomes more complicated in countries such as the USA and Mexico where every state has different laws. Furthermore, in countries where discrimination is prohibited by the constitution and national laws, such as Greece, there have been reports of abuses against the LGBT Community.

 Taking into account all the above, even if someone considers Human Rights Universal and sees no differences among people, they cannot ignore the fact the reality is different. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, although considered to be a perfect text, it is not a legal one and thus it cannot protect every person in the world. Thereby it becomes clear that there is a great need to establish laws that would protect everyone separately. And even though this distinction might be morally incorrect, given that every human being is equal and has the same rights, sometimes there is a need to use labels in order to make human rights violations more obvious. As Eleanor Rooseveltput it “”Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

According to Eleanor Roosevelt change must come even from the smallest elements of the international community. It may take time and a lot of effort but it is not impossible. The legal establishment of certain rights means that small steps are  slowly being taken but only when everyone ‘s rights are recognized we will be able to talk about real change and Universal Human Rights.

* This article was posted published on The GW Posthttp://thegwpost.com/2012/01/23/labelling-human-rights/

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