The rock and the magic beanstalk

2017 saw some progress made with human rights, but still not enough

Human rights are the rock from which modern civilization mines its values, its social contracts, and its entire portfolio of identities. Human rights are the very justification for our system of social coexistence and stratification. They are key to understanding humanity’s (mostly unsuccessful) attempts of balancing the logic of solidarity against the logic of economic greed, the logic of universal equality and dignity against the logic of discrimination and political power, and the logic of preserving planet Earth against the logic of exploitation.   

The idea of rights as inherent to the human being and as the foundation for social contracts is, in historic terms of development of thought, quite recent. Today’s stupendous and still-accelerating development of inalienable human rights can be traced to roots of formulations in the 17th and 18th centuries in England (Bill of Rights of 1689), France during the French Revolution (Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen), and the United States of America (Declaration of Independence).

It took quite some time for the concept of human rights to emerge out of the seedbed of natural rights as an idea of Western religion. In the 19th century, an encyclopedia published in Germany claimed that human rights inherent to man were an indeterminate concept that “has to lead to different interpretations in different circumstances and can only be valid in a Christian context.”

Not long after formation of the concept, human rights were thus often seen as vague and tied to an ideological view of man as created being endowed with spirit, and through the will of God superior to, and existentially different from, animals. In the early 20th century, another popular encyclopedia defined human rights as “the totality of the ideal requirements that man directs at the state and whose provision he demands from the state.” The “scientific” perspective on human rights of the time was declared to include the right to emigration, the choice of belonging to a state, and also rights to procreation and the use of nature.

Today, human rights arguably draw their ideological strength from the dominance of humanism—usually in its secular version—in international discourse, influenced by Western thought. UN bodies tend to describe human rights with broad strokes of proclaimed universality, declaring them to be “rights inherent to all human beings” on top of the homepage of the UN’s High Commissioner on Human Rights (UNHCR). In a speech he delivered in the fall of 2017, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres—who formerly held the office of UNHCR chief and appears to be a darling of some civil-society stakeholders—juxtaposed human rights with terrorism. He stated that human rights “are a true recognition of our common humanity,” diametrically opposed to terrorism, of which he said, “Terrorism is fundamentally the denial and destruction of human rights.”

Notwithstanding such regular bursts of ideological confirmation and unwavering adherence by highly credible human rights advocates, human rights can also be considered to be anything but universal in 2017—69 years after the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, with the votes of 48 countries against the eight which abstained, and two which voted no. 

Implementation still a dream

It would be insane to claim that human rights are applied universally today, even on the most basic level. Whether the focus is on freedoms from or freedoms to, one cannot ignore today that freedom of conscience, freedom of worship, freedom from torture, and freedom from want scarcely exist in even the most democratic or the most economically developed societies.

The same goes for additional layers of human rights, such as the right to education and health, gender equality, and protection from violence and discrimination. The human rights to work and to live in dignified social circumstances and without environmental hazards do not even see serious pretense or attempts of universal implementation. If anything, each addition of a new human right only leads to a higher count of human rights violations in the daily experiences of the ever-growing numbers of humanity. Human rights are also far from universal in conceptual and philosophical terms. This is evidenced by many changes and diverse understandings of human rights, since the first renderings of the phrase in Enlightenment-era political documents.   

Yet, despite the precarious state of their implementation and their dependence on human definition and cultural evolution, human rights are, today, inextricably linked to the social, political, and economic future. Increasingly, human rights are of economic importance and impact all areas of economic activity. Sometimes, the business community might even be more aware of this relevancy than the civil society and activist community. The old ideological divide between left and right in this regard still shines through today when civil-society stakeholders embellish their human rights appeals by  bashing transnational corporations and bad capitalists.

It is not unheard-of that transnational corporations are guilty of, or at least complicit in, human rights violations in the world of work, in the climate and environmental arena, and elsewhere. But neither make corporations perfect culprits, nor do activists—who are often at the forefront of human rights battles—make innocent and pure lambs of self-sacrifice for the good of humanity and universal rights. Activism and capitalism both are deeply human endeavors.

The human rights discourse of today deserves to be freed from the ideological definitions and 19th and 20th century  juxtapositions between an ideological left and a capitalist right. Capitalism in the 21st century is an imperfect, but adjustable economic system that reflects imperfect human behavior. It is not the 10th reincarnation of the 18th and 19th century socioeconomic and politico-ideological reality of hapless exploiters and growing proletariat that Karl Marx exposed in a visionary, but flawed, set of observations and assumptions garnished with materialist determinism.

A geo-social triangle of progression

Human rights today belong to a complex of forward-pointing qualifiers of any society’s achievement potential, with deep economic implications. This moral and practical relevance to the corporate and business world is as clear to economists and corporate leaders as the perils of the capitalist mode of our world are to civil society exponents. The relevancy of improvements in the global state of business is visible at every corner and side of the triangle composed of human rights, humanitarian principles that are expressed in international humanitarian law, and geosocial aims which are enshrined at this stage of international discourse in the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Lebanon is part of the world in the 21st century and depends on being a part of this world. This is demonstrated very convincingly from the country’s extreme sensitivity to regional and international political decisions, from the intensity of its interaction with external partners in everything, and from the enormity of the national trade deficit. Despite its humongous political and systemic inconsistencies, Lebanon does function as a society, and is not fit to be thrown to the dustbin or treated as a failed state. But it is, and has for many years, been a troubled state as far as the implementation of human rights is concerned. This year, 2017, saw some legal progress on rights of children and women, and indeed of all people in Lebanon, in the changes to the legal protection of rape victims against forced marriage, and in the law criminalizing torture. Much, however, still needs to be revised in its legal frameworks outlawing torture. From the perspective of international human rights organizations, Lebanon is still no example when it comes to the protection of human rights, and especially when it comes to social, political, and economic rights or environmental, education or health rights.

On the other hand, comments from diplomats, UN officials, and political leaders of developed countries upon visiting Lebanon from about 2012 onward were filled with praise for the humanitarian role that the Lebanese fulfilled in the Syrian refugee crisis of the last five years. The global community’s moral debt to Lebanon in this regard has been acknowledged more than once (in the speeches by World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon during a joint visit to Beirut in spring 2016), and the Lebanese people were recently described as “humanitarian and responsible,” during President Michel Aoun’s speech to the UN General Assembly this September, in which he also advocated for Lebanon to be given the role of official center of dialogue with a mandate from the United Nations.

Great opportunities await

Were it to take steps to capitalize on its potential for implementing human rights and SDGs, a whole bouquet of benefits could bloom for the country—of which at least six come to mind that are very practical and economically rewarding. First, above any economic regard, it is good for self-esteem to do what is recognized as right by time-honored moral teachings, and by present-day world consensus. Second, and better accessible to economic quantification, Lebanon has a definite opportunity to improve productivity and social coherence within its multi-faceted society by applying rights-based approaches to inheritance and personal status, by improving its human rights protections, and by upgrading the provision of education, utilities, and even infrastructures, which are all in line with human rights and SDGs.

A third and closely related benefit to making the country more livable and “leave no one behind” is to keep Lebanese from emigrating for the wrong reasons. By no indication will emigration  ever cease, but there are positive and negative economic outcomes of emigration that could well be correlated more or less strongly to positive and negative reasons for emigration. According to anecdotal evidence, many of the negative reasons seem to be related to people’s experiences of inequality, poor infrastructure, and feeling deprived of physical opportunities or freedoms. Positive reasons for emigration include a desire to advance your career and acquire knowledge for the sake of one day coming back home to share the wealth of knowledge.

Fourth is the humanitarian economy, where Lebanese entrepreneurship appears to have untapped potentials. One recent groundbreaking study on humanitarian economics—written by the Swiss academic Gilles Carbonnier partly during a stay in Lebanon—shows how the economic and political-economy dimensions of humanitarian crises and responses have risen in importance in the world. Being involved in humanitarian economic activity can be the mental opposite of profiteering from wars, but nonetheless, quite profitable.

In writing the book on humanitarian economics—which, as he told Executive, draws on both neoclassical and behavioral economics—Carbonnier states on one side that essential principles of humanity and impartiality in this economic activity “require a degree of altruism, refraining from acting only out of self-interest,” but that on the other side it is necessary for actors in this field to channel or constrain “the altruistic impulse in order to pursue greater effectiveness” and avoid negative side-effects of emotional and thus anti-economic decisions.

He shows how the dimension of this economic activity has shaped a humanitarian marketplace with an immense growth trajectory from the 1970s to the 2010s. According to his research, the international humanitarian aid sector in 2010 was “a multi-billion dollar enterprise with more than 270,000 workers involved.” Make space, carmakers, at least as far as employment growth rates are concerned.

Carbonnier cites data according to which international humanitarian aid volumes grew in the short term (more than one third to $24.5 billion from 2012 to 2014) and long term, from substantially less than $3 billion annually before 1980 to over $15 billion at the start of the current decade (in constant 2012 prices). Moreover, he finds that over the past two decades, the supply of humanitarian aid increased rapidly, but that this was caused in part by economic demand from donor countries using humanitarian assistance as a “default foreign-policy instrument” rather than by a parallel surge in actual humanitarian needs. Plus, he finds that the humanitarian marketplace has greatly diversified in terms of participants and types of services provided. For a country like Lebanon and its entrepreneurs, this has important implications. One implication is that private-sector actors can contribute to humanitarian economics and do not have to shun moral profit.

Fifth, if one agrees with the assertion Secretary General Guterres made in his anti-terrorism speech at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies in November, implementing human rights can be a preventive instrument in the fight against terrorism. This is bound to produce any number of financial and economic benefits. Guterres implied as much when he called for all parties to conflict to “respect and ensure respect for international humanitarian law and human rights in situations of armed conflict.” He pointed to short- and long-term aspects, stating that “all human rights, including economic, social, and cultural rights, are unquestionably a part of the solution in fighting terrorism,” and that “upholding human rights and the rule of law is the safest way to prevent a vicious circle of instability and resentment.”

Ahmad Barclay & Thomas Schellen

The sixth element

The sixth opportunity for growing Lebanese humanitarianism and proverbial generosity into a magic beanstalk for accessing untapped socioeconomic potential lies in fulfilling the country’s aspiration to be a hub of international peace diplomacy and conflict management. This opportunity presumably comes with the prerequisite of having stronger legal frameworks and more convincing societal practices in human rights, stronger application of international humanitarian law, and greater efforts toward fulfilling the SDG agenda in the period until 2030.

Scrutiny of and by nations of international roles with a moral dimension, such as holding a seat on the UN Human Rights Council or membership in UN organizations such as UNESCO is increasing, with reasons for protests or withdrawals existing at the opposite ends of the political-ideological spectrum. But it would not be harmful for Lebanon’s desire “to be a permanent center for dialogue between different civilizations, religions and races as an United Nations organ”—as President Aoun told the UN general assembly in September—to have a strong human-rights framework and a convincing monitoring process for SDG achievements, in addition to being “a microcosm of diversity” and practical example of humanitarianism.

Neither would it hurt for the government to clarify its position on rights of refugees, step back from harsh measures against refugee populations, and counter rumors of alleged refugee criminality—thus improving the overall positive impression of Lebanese assistance to the huge refugee population.

The country might influence the international discourse on human rights, just as it did as the UDHR was being drafted in 1946-48 through the Lebanese scholar Charles Malek. It has the humanitarian credentials to be a laboratory for the study and implementation of international humanitarian law on a country level, it is home to academics and civil-society thinkers with the mental prowess to contribute much to the global debate on geo-social goals in the SDG discussion, and it has an appetite for a culture that is a bit more satisfying to the spirit than global consumerism. 

If Lebanon were to upgrade its implementation of human rights, strengthen adherence to international humanitarian law, expand its role in the global humanitarian economy, implement the SDGs, and monitor progress of these goals, it could avail itself of a new meta-economic growth opportunity that is not dependent on finite resources or the reconstruction needs of a neighboring country. It would not be a moral failing nor an economic sin for Lebanon to capitalize on its experience as small country that, for more than six decades of its not-even-a-century-old nationhood, has been exposed to competing global interests in the center of the world’s most conflict-rich region. It would be an act of wisdom.

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years.

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