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  Human Rights and islam


In this paper I shall try and explore the evolution of the concept of Human Rights in the Islamic world in general with a special focus on Afghanistan. In course of doing so I will dwell on the question whether we can talk of a concept of ‘Universal Human Rights’: Universalism versus Relativism and in context of this debate also try and explore the nature of human rights as understood within the social-political framework of Islam with special reference to Afghanistan. 

The people of Afghanistan have been subjected to prolonged and sustained human rights violations over a period of nearly three decades as a consequence of the political turmoil that resulted from the Soviet invasion of the country in 1973. The geographical location of Afghanistan, it being at the crossroads of south and oil rich west and central Asia has played an important role in shaping political fortunes of this country.

I have chosen to focus my attention on Islam and the region of Afghanistan largely because of the recent developments that followed the 9/11 attacks and its fallout at the international level, particularly in the Islamic world. Also after 9/11 there has been a growing divide between what many perceive to be the ‘Western Christian Civilization’ on the one hand and the ‘Islamic Civilization’ on the other. Islam in popular imagination has come to be regarded as an extremely regressive and rigid religion that breed’s fundamentalism and can never be reconciled with contemporary concepts such as human rights and women’s rights. The West is gripped by what one may term as ‘Islamophobia’. Some of these notions I believe are part fact and part fiction and are largely also inculcated in our minds as a result of political propaganda and through the information which flows via the media which to a large extent is monopolized and controlled by the powerful nations of the Western world. By undertaking a study on the above issues I hope to be able to arrive at an unbiased and objective understanding of the same. 

But before I delve into any of the issues any further it is essential for us to begin by trying to understand and appreciate the meaning of the term ‘Human Rights’ and the various factors that shaped the evolution of this concept.

Broadly speaking Human rights are generally those rights, which are recognized as being inherent in and integral to every human being by virtue of his birth and are absolutely essential for sustenance and development of human life. It includes in its ambit a wide variety of rights such as right to life, liberty, equality, political rights as well as a variety of social and economic rights, with countries having a socialist orientation laying great deal of emphasis on the latter set of rights.

When we talk of ‘Human Rights’ in its modern sense, as we understand it today, we must realize that this is a concept that is rooted in western philosophical tradition. It is this antiquity, which has given rise to a fierce debate on the question of the universality of Human Rights. Very often several countries of the developing world have disputed the very idea of universal rights and often see the program to implement these rights as yet another manifestation of ‘Western Imperialism’

However certain western scholars such as Susan Waltz in their writings have 
acknowledged that though the concept of human rights is rooted in the western philosophical tradition is a fact that cannot be disputed or denied but on the other hand she points out that there is no uniformity in western philosophical thought either. Aristotle for instance argued for primacy of the state, Rousseau who is regarded as the philosopher of the French Revolution opined that individual rights were subordinate to general will. She also disputes the argument that the UDHR is essentially a product of the Great powers who were victorious in WW II does not seem to impress Waltz, who on the contrary argues that though the U.S was a proponent of the U.N Charter (1945) the highest ranking officials in the state department were not very supportive of the idea. Further she points out that Britain and the USSR opposed the idea and twice rejected the proposal that the U.N needed to promote the observance of human rights as supporting such a program ran contrary to their political and economic interests. While on the one hand the English felt that by committing themselves to such a program their empire would be threatened the Soviets on the other hand believed that it would be contrary to their domestic policies of forced collectivization, political purges, internal exiles and forced labor camps. 

In fact Professor Rifaat Hussain believes that after the demise of the Soviet Union it appears hardly surprising that The World of Islam is the West’s newfound enemy. This is a view that is also shared by Dr. Eqbal Ahmad, he argues that throughout the period of the cold war it was the U.S that turned to militant Islam to roll back communism. The Americans recruited Jihadi’s to drive out the Soviets from Afghanistan, as it was an opportunity to mobilize the Muslim world against communism. The CIA extensively armed and trained these Jihadi’s between 1981-88, to fight the Soviet forces in Afghanistan, having driven the Soviets out with active help from the members of the ‘free world’ there was a split in the ranks of the mujahideen who now scrambled for power. A long period of civil war culminated in the hard-line Taliban movement, largely comprising of the Pashtun’s, came to hold sway over almost 90% of the country including Kabul. The blessings that these hardliners enjoyed from ‘Uncle Sam’, which only emboldened their resolve to indulge in the kind of human rights violations, that Afghani people were subjected to. A fact very conveniently glossed over by the western media. 

Dr. Ahamad believes that “just as imperialism needed legitimacy to socialize people into its ethos and it did so by relying upon two things: a mission and a ghost. The British carried the white man's burden. That was the mission. The French carried la mission civilisatrice, the civilizing mission. The Americans had manifest destiny and then the mission of standing watch on the walls of world freedom, in John F. Kennedy's ringing phase. Each of them had the black, the yellow, and finally the red peril to fight against. There was a ghost and there was a mission. People bought it.
After the Cold War, Western power was deprived both of the mission and the ghost. So the mission has appeared as human rights. It's very strange mission for a country, which for nearly a hundred years has been supporting dictatorship in Latin America and throughout the world.” [1]

Some of the prominent voices in the international political circles too have raised questions on the notion of universality that underlies UDHR. Australia’s former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has termed the declaration as only reflecting the views of the Northern and Euro-Centric states. Former German Chancellor Helmut Schumidt also echoes similar sentiments. The declaration in his opinion reflects in its essence “ the philosophical and cultural background of its western drafters” and he calls for a new “balance” between “the notions of freedom and responsibility” because the “concept of rights can itself be abused and lead to anarchy.” [2]

Inspite of its flaws and the fact that the UDHR isn’t legally binding it has had a far-reaching impact on the molding of state constitutions that came into force in the post WWII period and its provisions are regarded as part of customary international law, such as the European Convention Of Human Rights, which came into force on November 4’1950. The European Convention does not incorporate social and economic rights. The convention also established The European Commission Of Human Rights and European Court Of Human Rights.
The Organization Of American States adopted the American Convention on Human Rights in 1969. This too like the European Convention has set up an Inter-American Commission On Human Rights and is a regional convention.

The African Charter On Human Rights And People’s Rights was adopted on 25 may 1963. The ACPHR comprises of a total of 68 articles. The rights under the charter can be broadly studied under the following heads:

I. Articles 3-14- civil and political rights
II. Articles15-18- economic, social and cultural rights
III. Articles19-24- people’s rights 
IV. Articles25-26- duties of state parties to respect promote and protect human rights.
V. Articles 27-29- duties of individual towards family, fellow beings, society and toward security of the state.

This arrangement too has provided for the establishment of an African Commission on Human People’s Rights, however in effect the commission lacks the requisite power and autonomy for it to be truly effective.

Besides the above mentioned regional arrangements for promotion and protection of rights several important declarations have been made across time and space such as the Singapore Declaration, 1971, Lusaka Declaration, 1979, Vienna Declaration, 1993.

An important landmark in the development of Human Rights strategy was achieved on 16 December 1966, when the U.N General Assembly adopted both the International Covenant on Civil And Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights by a unanimous vote. These two covenants along with UDHR form the International Bill Of Rights. The economic, social and cultural rights are also referred to as ‘second generation’ rights as they largely draw upon the socialist ideals. However it is significant to take note of the fact that in spite of the idealism that followed WW II and a greater amount of political rhetoric for the protecting and fostering human rights another decade lapsed before the covenants were ratified by a sufficient number of countries to bring them into force (minimum 35 ratifications were required for each covenant). 

Shifting our focus back to the whole debate on the issue of universalism v relativism in the human rights discourse, A.H Robertson who argues in favor of the universality of human rights draws our attention to the remarks made by the Shah Of Iran at an International conference on Human Rights in Tehran in 1968: the precursor of the celebrated documents recognizing the rights of man was promulgated in his country by Cyrus the Great about 2000 years earlier. Though the charter of Cyrus the Great has been regarded as being ‘revolutionary’ in its time, however we must not read too much into the Shah’s statement, as his regime was one, which had strong American patronage. I therefore would like to be more cautious as it is difficult to be able to precisely ascertain if such a statement was made to appease the Americans or does it truly reflect The Shah’s political commitment to the idea of contemporary human rights? Political circumstances of the period in my opinion seem to be more favorably inclined towards the former.

Robertson says that the idea of individual worth can be found in the works of sages, philosophers, prophets from varied regions and religions such as India, China, Persia, Japan, Russia, Turkey, Egypt. Thus human rights have been a cherished ideal in all cultures. He argues that “contemporary human rights as they have evolved today manifested in the political traditions of western democracies is not because these nations have a monopoly over the subject but rather they according to Robertson have produced the best known formulations and instituted the most effective systems of implementation.”

Vijay K. Gupta believes that evolution of contemporary human rights is closely linked to the social setting. In his opinion individual rights have acquired centrality in the contemporary human rights discourse as articulated and understood in the west primarily because in western societies the traditional sources of moral conduct like communal ties and communal bonds had all withered away leaving men to define themselves as free individuals with no ties to each other except those which they had chosen to establish no duties other than those entailed by such ties. Non-Western societies on the other hand in his opinion are yet to reach a stage where rights acquire a monopoly over moral legitimacy. “Traditions, customs, community and family ties even today provide the code that guide social relations and individual ties and so long as such a situation persists rights in order to be accepted will have to be couched in values conducive to these societies.” [3] 

I believe that this argument holds true to a large degree for Afghanistan where tribal and kinship ties and associated customs and traditions down to this day play a key role in shaping norms of social behavior.

Samuel P. Huntington in his controversial article “ The clash of civilizations” argued that cultural and religious differences lead to differences over policy issues such as human rights and this in turn leads to civilizational clash. Further he argues that “ universal human rights” having roots in the liberal western philosophy are individual based, which is in contrast to Islam where rights are duty based and interdependent on duties one owes to the god and community.

Thomas Frank links the evolution of contemporary Human rights to recent developments such as industrialization, urbanization, the communication and information revolutions that are applicable anywhere. Frank says if we go back in time even the notorious Taliban will seem to be “Western” in their practices. Alcibiades, a commander of the Athenian army was sentenced to death for impiety, as was Socrates. Blasphemy was an offence to be punished with stoning and Tudor England showed no trace of religious tolerance. Frank points out that the entry of women into the teaching profession in England was a consequence of the eighteenth century industrial revolution that fuelled demand for quality primary education, thereby paving the way for the entry of women into the field. Similarly in the U.S the demographic changes propelled by the civil war gradually facilitated the entry of women into the field of medicine and law. Thus Frank is of the opinion that human rights far from being a manifestation of Western cultural imperialism are essentially a product of modernizing influences that are not culturally specific.

The argument developed by Frank is referred to as the ‘modernization theory’ and has been keenly debated in political science circles. Infact one could argue that human rights
violations by the state took place systematically in a industrialized and urbanized Soviet Union or for that matter even Germany prior to having fallen under Nazi domination had
experienced the phenomenon of industrialization, yet we see that the Jews were murdered
and for identification purposes made the Jews wear yellow badges, as if history
somewhat seemed to have repeated itself the Hindus too in Afghanistan were made to

Wear yellow badges under the Taliban and though targeted the brutality of the Nazi’s remains unparalleled. Though undeniably rights of religious and ethnic minorities were violated under the Taliban yet their attitude towards them seemed to be far more humane than that of the Nazi’s, which was nothing short of barbarism. Thus, I would not completely agree with what appears to be a rather simplistic correlation drawn by Frank between the development of notion of certain modern humanistic notions and modernizing influences.

Kevin Boyle raises a very critical point in this debate he says that ‘relativity, objectivity, impartiality and consistency in treating human rights problems are concomitants of universalism’. The Middle East and Islamic countries have very vehemently objected and drawn the worlds attention to the blank check given by the U.S to Israel in the region and the failure of the United Nations to respond effectively to the continued occupation of West Bank and Gaza Strip, though not very much has come of it. Boyle also points to the sorry human rights record of the West during the cold war- vividly reflected in their adventures in Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea and several Latin American countries where they ignored dictatorships and conveniently toppled regimes, which did not suit their ideological and economic interests. Afghanistan is not only of geo- strategic importance for the west as it was a gateway to the oil rich Central Asian Republics but also became a ideological battleground between what appeared to be two diametrically opposite political and economic systems.

More recently the refusal of the U.S to grant P.O.W status to suspects from Afghanistan held captive at Guantanamo Bay, the degrading and humiliating treatment meted out to the prisoners and have further undermined the credentials of the West as a champion of human rights and have only helped to increase hostility, by further fuelling the idea of a clash between the decadent and immoral Christian civilization of the west and the Islamic civilization which while struggling to preserve its identity and cultural values is under attack from the west. This has increasingly sought to divide the world into two hostile blocs pitted against each other, reflecting the resurgence of the mentality that characterized the period of the cold war.

The Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumartunga however argues that “ the free market has become universal, and it implies democracy and human rights” she dismisses the arguments about a “clash of values” as “ an excuse to cover a multitude of sins”. [4]

The former U.N Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali opined that there “ is no one set of European rights, and another set of African rights…they belong inherently to each person, each individual.” 

I think it would be foolish to deny the existence of a concept of individual worth in any society, as Robertson too points out, it has existed in all societies with degrees of variation. Thus the ‘idea’ of human rights has existed in all societies but the concept has evolved and come to be understood in diverse ways in different cultures. In the Islamic tradition for instance there is greater emphasis on community rather than the individual and this was reiterated at the international level by the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad who in1997 stated that the contemporary ‘human rights norms focus extensively on individual rights while neglecting the rights of society and the common good.’ Though we certainly cannot allow for legal, social, political or religious abuse of individuals under the cloak of ‘cultural values’ yet on the other hand we also cannot allow for relativism in human rights policies as being professed by several of the countries of the west. Human rights also should not be used as a tool to arm twist weak political regimes of the ‘third world’ into making political or economic concessions to their ‘first world’ counterparts. There is a great deal of hypocrisy that underlies the human rights policy across the political spectrum. Given the very nature of international relations where states have to take into account several political and economic interests in other words states give in to the demands of ‘real-politick’, with the economics assuming immense significance in light of developments like globalization. A good example of Human rights being increasingly governed by economic and political rather than humanitarian considerations is demonstrated by the U.S bestowing on China the Most Favored Nation (MFN) status despite her refusal to improve upon her human rights record or for that matter it would be interesting at this juncture to point out that human rights violations in the areas which were under the control of the united front in Afghanistan which also persecuted civilians on the basis of their ethnicity and political affiliation. Large numbers of those targetted by United Front commanders belonged to the ethnic Pashtun tribe who because of their ethnicity were suspected to be sympathisers of the Taliban. However human rights violations by the United Front have niether been extensively documented nor reported in the media. For after 9/11 attacks it was in the west’s interests to back the United Front if it was to tame the ‘Frankenstien’ called Taliban which it had nurtured. The onus lies upon members of the international community to help break this vicious cycle of impunity that continues in Afghanitan to this day which has allowed perpetrartors of gross human rights violations to go free.

However I would like to believe that objectivity and impartiality in their true sense are difficult to achieve though not impossible. If we are to truly promote human rights throughout the world we have to do away with the hypocrisy that surrounds the subject and take effective measures to prevent exploitation of human rights issues to achieve political ends.

The real issue at stake with regard to cultural relativism is as stated by John Rawls is where to draw the line and where not to, rather than whether a line is to be drawn at all. I think that the criticism voiced by several nations about the character of the UDHR, which in their opinion reflects western philosophy, is not completely unfounded. The political scenario has undergone a drastic change in the last 56 years and perhaps to reflect upon the scheme of contemporary human rights, as they exist in their current form is after all not such a bad thought. We need to evolve international human rights instruments based on inter-cultural consensus, which while respecting cultural sentiments of societies has a universal code for facilitating exchange between people from different cultures in an increasingly globalized world.

Islamic law draws upon a variety of sources such as the Koran which or the Book of Revelation which Muslims believe to be God's Word transmitted through the agency of Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad; Sunnah or the practical traditions of the Prophet Muhammad; Hadith or the oral sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad; Fiqh (Jurisprudence) or Madahib (Schools of Law); and the Shari'ah or divinely given code of law which regulates the diverse aspects of a Muslim's life. The term Shari’ a means path or way and the Shari’ a drew largely upon two primary sources: the Koran and the Sunna. The interpretation of this divinely given code is largely in the hands of the Ulama who have largely given a conservative interpretation to Islamic Law and often portrayed it as being an immutable and unchangeable body of sacred law, which I believe also has to do with political compulsions. The Syrian writer Aziz-al-Azmeh believes that the often given call for application of Islamic law is a ‘political slogan’. However here too it would be quite erroneous to talk of a uniform tradition in the Islamic world, for instance the Shari’ ah has been given a more liberal interpretation in Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey as opposed to a orthodox interpretation given in Afghanistan (under the Taliban regime), Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran to name a few. 

Another document pertaining to human rights was adopted known as the Cairo Declaration that was adopted at the Organization Of Islamic Conference held at Cairo in 1990. It comprises of a total of 25 articles and like the UIDHR, this too has strong religious underpinnings. Let us look at some of the key articles, which shall highlight this aspect of the Cairo Declaration:

Islam is the religion of true unspoiled nature. It is prohibited to exercise any form of pressure on man or to exploit his poverty or ignorance in order to force him to change his religion to another religion or to atheism. 

Every man shall have the right, within the framework of the Shari'ah, to free movement and to select his place of residence whether within or outside his country and if persecuted, is entitled to seek asylum in another country. The country of refuge shall be obliged to provide protection to the asylum-seeker until his safety has been attained, unless asylum is motivated by committing an act regarded by the Shari'ah as a crime. 

(d) There shall be no crime or punishment except as provided for in the Shari'ah

(a) Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari'ah.
1. Everyone shall have the right to advocate what is right, and propagate what is good, and warn against what is wrong and evil according to the norms of Islamic Shari'ah. 
(c) Information is a vital necessity to society. It may not be exploited or misused in such a way as may violate sanctities and the dignity of Prophets, undermine moral and ethical Values or disintegrate, corrupt or harm society or weaken its faith.

All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari'ah.

The Islamic Shari'ah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles of this Declaration.

Like the UIDHR the Cairo Declaration too has been set in the framework of the Shari’ ah and not in a ‘secular’ framework, thus this is the very first thing that makes UIDHR and the Cairo declaration unacceptable to a large number of non-Muslim countries. More often than not such provisions as enshrined in the UIDHR and Cairo Declaration within the framework of the Shari’ ah have been used as a cloak to commit gross human rights violations such as execution of political dissidents, long periods of pre-trial detention under harsh conditions, persecution of religious minorities, oppression of women, carrying out public executions, inflicting corpal punishments, severe restrictions on freedom of expression so on and so forth. Several such human rights violations have taken place in countries like Afghanistan or Iran for that matter; have been often justified on theological grounds.
A often heard slogan for the continued societal discrimination against women is that the ‘Western countries intended to impose on other societies their own social and ethical decline, to which they themselves confess, within the attractive package of human rights.’
However though one can certainly not deny the existence of human rights violations in theocracies, but we must adopt caution while dealing with the subject as it is difficult to ascertain with absolute certainty the precise degree of human rights violations since the flow of information from ‘independent sources’ is essentially very limited. Further the tendency that has evolved to pick only on certain countries because of their ideological and religious beliefs is wholly unjustified. There has been a tendency particularly in ‘Western’ media and political circles to target Islamic countries in particular and certain other Asian countries in general as it is part of a well orchestrated campaign to achieve larger vested political and economic interests that are at stake. For why is it that the same west, which had armed and trained the Taliban militia to roll back communism (a fact which is usually very conveniently glossed over in western political circles) didn’t make a whimper about the human rights abuses by the Taliban, till reality hit them on 11 September, 2001. 
As for the position of women is concerned many Islamic nations have sought to voice their opposition to international norms of non-discrimination on the basis of sex as reflected in the U.N Convention On The Elimination Of All Forms Of Discrimination Against Women on the ground that some of its substantive provisions are contrary to the Shari’ah. Another argument advanced is that they do not want to see the gradual wearing out of their social fabric as has been in the case of the west. The discriminatory plight in the social, economic and political sphere in most of the Islamic states has more to do with the patriarchal male dominated societies rather than it being something strictly sanctioned by the Islamic faith. Shirin Ebaadi I believe very aptly stated with regard to the position of women that:
“This culture does not tolerate freedom and democracy, just as it does not believe in the equal rights of men and women, and the liberation of women from male domination (fathers, husbands, brothers...), because it would threaten the historical and traditional position of the rulers and guardians of that culture.” [5]

Hooma Hoodfar says that while in the west philosophers like Locke, Hobbes and Kant rationalized the exclusion of women from political life, in Islamic world on the other hand religious and political leaders have merely given a new twist to the interpretation of the Koran to exclude women from the political life of their country. 

Thus, the conservatives to restrict the role played by women in society conveniently used religion as a foundation. Further she argues that women’s rights activists have used feminist Islamic theology and jurisprudence as it is these historically male dominated institutions and their male centered understanding of Islam that has held women hostage.
Thus, I feel that this is something, which has more to do with power politics and the strong patriarchal set up that we encounter in this part of the world rather than Islam as a religion. 

Also restriction on free political activity has not been not peculiar to Afghanistan or Iran we see this in Saudi Arabia as well though its another matter that their isn’t extensive debate on the political situation in Saudi Arabia as it is very crucial ally of the U.S in a very volatile yet crucial region where the Americans have made more foes than friends. I personally feel that one of the major challenges one faces while talking about reform in the political system in the Islamic states is to bring about a separation of religion and state, Turkey serves as an excellent model for the same, it has a secular constitution and Shari’ ah has no place in law.

Another factor that explains the absence of democratic institutions has to be understood in light of the social setting; in most of the Islamic societies even today there is the presence of a strong feudal element. This is something that is clearly demonstrated in the works of the fourteenth century classical thinker Ibn Khaldun, who talks of asabiya (asab means to bind) acting as a cohesive force for binding society together. This force is particularly strong in tribal communities and creates resistance to outside control and government. But in cities this cohesive force is weak or non-existent, thus society is bound together by force exerted by the ruling dynasty. But Ibn Khaldun states that dynasties also need asabiya to maintain their power but they often decline, softened by the luxuries of city life, and will be conquered by outsiders who enjoy the dynamic cohesion of the tribe. According to Malise Ruthven this tradition explains the strong feudal element in societies with strong kinship ties where asabiya rather than institutions remains the principal cohesive force. Further, Ibn Khaldun while talking of the political tradition in Islam distinguishes between two forms of government- that founded on religion (siyasa diniya) and that founded on reason (siyasa ‘aqliya). The latter form of government being based on rational principles rather than dan divine authority, which can be understood without the benefit of faith. Khaldun goes on to state that such secular politics is a sign of moral decline rather than progress as it leads to a decline of the asabiya. [6]

Thus in the history of the development of the Islamic political thought an emphasis has been placed on divine basis of political authority. This explains to us the close link between religion and state in Islam since its early days. It is this close link between state and religion, which I feel, is an impediment in the application of concepts like human rights, in their contemporary sense, in Islamic societies.

As Paine put it, " The adulterous connection of church and state, wherever it has taken place, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish [Muslim], has so effectually prohibited by pains and penalties every discussion upon established creeds, and upon first principles of religion, that until the system of government should be changed, those subjects could not be brought fairly and openly before the world; but that whenever this should be done, a revolution in the system of religion would follow. Human inventions and priestcraft would be detected; and man would return to the pure, unmixed and unadulterated belief of one God, and no more ". 
It was this adulterous connection between state and religion under the Taliban, which sought to impose a rather militant and regressive interpretation of Islam based on the rural pashtun tradition, which was used as a cloak to commit massive human rights violations which included targetting religous and ethnic minorities such as the Shia’ Hazara ethnic group and the complete exclusion of women from public life.

Another factor that explains the weak roots of democratic institutions has to be understood in light of the social setting; in most of the Islamic societies even today there is the presence of a strong feudal element as a consequence of which civil society in Afghanistan remains weak. However this should not lead us to believe that there was no semblance of any democratic tradition in Afghanistan. Interestingly inspite of the fact that Afghanistan was never politically united as a single entity until the reign of Ahmad Shah Durrani, it had a tradition of convening what is referred to as the loya jirga a pashto term which translates into ‘ grand council’. It’s an institution unique to Afghanistan in which tribal elders largely drawn from Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazara and Uzbek tribes meet to settle matters of national concern through debate and trying to build a consensus around the issues at stake. This tradition is regarded by some historians to be over 1000 years old and is quite akin to the Islamic concept of Shura or consultative assembly. Keeping with this tradition in December 2003, a 502-delegate loya jirga was convened in Kabul to debate and reflect upon the proposed Afghan constitution. Issues such as education, women’s rights and the nature of political and economic models to be adopted were keenly debated. It proved to be a fertile ground for deliberation and debate. Finally on 4 January 2004 the assembly finally endorsed the provisions of the draft constitution.

However the movement for a change in the social and political culture has to and I believe is coming from within society, it cannot and should not be imposed from outside as this will set a dangerous precedent and shall provoke violent reaction from amongst these societies as we see today in Iraq for instance. Any attempt to impose a set of dictated values will never go down well with the people of any country and Afghanistan in particular has a tradition of fierce resistance to any kind of political domination by a foreign power. This is vividly reflected in the firm resistance of the Afghans particularly the pathans to submit to the British who tried to hold sway over the region to ward of Russians as part of what came to be known as the ‘Great Game’. 

The role that should be played to promote and make countries adhere to concepts like human rights, democracy and women’s rights should be moralistic in nature. The international community should exercise ‘moral’ pressure rather than resorting to political, economic and military tactics as the first resort. Further, this pressure should be used with as much ferocity against U.S when for instance it mets out inhuman treatment to its prisoners of war in gross violation of all the international instruments to which it is a party, it should also be applied to Saudi Arabia and Israel as against Iran or Afghanistan, if we want to truly strive in the direction of attaining a universal code of human rights. Idealistic though it may sound but an essential pre-requisite for moving towards a universal human rights order is that the double standards that surround the subject of human rights must be eliminated. This point was made very strongly by Shirin Ebaadi at her Nobel Prize Lecture at Oslo on 10 December’2003:
“A question which millions of citizens in the international civil society have been asking themselves for the past few years, particularly in recent months, and continue to ask, is this: why is it that some decisions and resolutions of the UN Security Council are binding, while some other resolutions of the council have no binding force? Why is it that in the past 35 years, dozens of UN resolutions concerning the occupation of the Palestinian territories by the state of Israel have not been implemented promptly, yet, in the past 12 years, the state and people of Iraq, once on the recommendation of the Security Council, and the second time, in spite of UN Security Council opposition, were subjected to attack, military assault, economic sanctions, and, ultimately, military occupation?” [7]

While instruments like the UDHR were undoubtedly an important step in the evolution of human rights as we understand them today but I feel that probably the time is ripe for a reflection on the contemporary human rights principles as they are currently reflected in international human rights instruments and try to evolve a set of contemporary human rights which while facilitating greater exchange between people from different cultural backgrounds in an increasingly globalized world respect the cultural sentiments of the family of nations. However this is not to say that the answer to the above lies in documents like the UIDHR or Cairo Declaration, which also reflect only a particular point of view. What is required is an inter-cultural consensus to bridge the divide that exists and such steps I feel will probably help us engage in a more fruitful process of enriching the concept of human rights. We also need to very seriously question the idea of cultural relativism being used as an excuse to commit human rights violations as also end the relativism practiced by certain nations in their foreign policy with regard to the human rights discourse. Human rights violations under the garb of cultural relativity need to be questioned and action needs to be taken but then we cannot limit ourselves just to the cultural relativists. We also need to deal with equal seriousness human rights violations that have been committed by some of the codifiers of the UDHR under the cloak of the ‘war on terror’ and this point is aptly demonstrated by the plight of prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Gharib prison, who have been meted out inhuman and degrading treatment and have been subject to various kinds of physical and physiological torture, in blatant disregard for the principles enunciated in the UDHR, ICCPR, Geneva convention and The Declaration on the Protection of All Persons From Being Subjected To Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman Or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. It is indeed both shocking and unfortunate that the U.N has remained a mute spectator to the above developments. The line to tread between universalism and relativism is indeed very thin and to be able to strike a balance indeed difficult but not impossible. Although these thoughts may seem to be too idealistic or utopian for that matter but human civilization progresses to a certain extent through utopia.

What we need to also understand is that the human rights discourse isn’t entirely governed by humanitarian considerations, political and economic ends exercise a considerable influence which explain why human rights violations in Afghanistan under Taliban or Syria assume greater significance than violations in Saudi Arabia, Israel, U.S.A. Thus the focus of human rights watchdogs and the media on particular countries and the tendency in certain quarters to link up such violations as something inherent in the religious and cultural milieu of that region is not really true. With globalization, the information and technology revolution and industrialization I feel that the awareness of human rights in the twenty first century is far greater and ideals such as those of human dignity are something that people across cultural barriers aspire to attain.
I would like to conclude by quoting Shirin Ebadi once again: “One has to say to those who have mooted the idea of a clash of civilizations, or prescribed war and military intervention for this region, and resorted to social, cultural, economic and political sluggishness of the South in a bid to justify their actions and opinions, that if you consider international human rights laws, including the nations' right to determine their own destinies, to be universal, and if you believe in the priority and superiority of parliamentary democracy over other political systems, then you cannot think only of your own security and comfort, selfishly and contemptuously. A quest for new means and ideas to enable the countries of the South, too, to enjoy human rights and democracy, while maintaining their political independence and territorial integrity of their respective countries, must be given top priority by the United Nations in respect of future developments and international relations.” [8]

The challenge before us is to bring the perpetrators of such crimes against humanity to justice, there should be no selectivity in approach while doing the same, and in Afghanistan a step in this direction has indeed been taken with the initiative taken by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). Strengthening civil society and promoting the role of women in a post conflict Afghanistan and establishing a crimes tribunal under the aegis of the U.N are some of the other steps that can be taken to restore people’s faith in concepts such as rule of law and human rights, which make that fine distinction between savage tribes and what we understand as a ‘civilization’.