Talking about the Human Rights of Older Persons

작성자 admin 시간 2022-09-27 13:43:10
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The ninth meeting under the theme of ‘Talking about the Human Rights of Older Persons’ took place online on August 11, 2022, with Dr Andrew Fagan. He is Senior Lecturer at the School of Law and the Director of the Human Rights Center at the University of Essex, UK. His research focuses on the normative, political and cultural challenges to human rights. He is particularly interested in the contributions that radical philosophies and politics can make to defend human rights against multiple challenges. He has taught and lectured on human rights across the world, including Central Asia, East Asia (Korea and Japan), Europe, South East Asia and North and South America.

During the meeting, he shared his personal story about his upbringing and how he became interested in human rights. Then, he introduced and shared his thoughts on the limits of human rights projects in addressing real social issues, particularly its ‘class-blindness’, how to make human rights meet its moral objectives by adopting radical political approaches and the need for a UN Convention on the Human Rights of Older Persons.

1.    Personal Story and Human Rights

Contrary to the belief of many, Dr Fagan holds the view that the concept of human rights is highly political. This view is strengthened and confirmed by his experiences of working in Korea, Japan and Myanma in the early 2010s: human rights enter into highly politicized discussions and policy stances between North and South Korea and in the context of Asia’s relations to the West. Especially Dr Fagan is interested in human rights campaigners and groups of people struggling from the bottom up, rather than the UN’s top down focus on human rights. In this respect, his standpoint is at the grassroots level, being interested in how human rights influence the way the people think about what they are entitled to, how they campaign and pursue it.

Dr Fagan’s standpoint on human rights is shaped and influenced by his life experience and the environment he grew up in. Growing up in an economically and socially unprivileged neighborhood in postwar London as a child of a multicultural family he was exposed to racism, economic poverty and violence. Uninterested in schooling, he left school at the age of 14 and returned to education only after he was twenty years old. While he continued to be in education since and became a university lecturer, he came to discover that many human rights scholars are overwhelmingly from middle class backgrounds and often fail to address real life issues. By opening up his background to students, he wishes to be a role model for those who are from underprivileged backgrounds and turn his life experience to delve into areas of human rights that are often lost sight of. For instance, human rights scholars in high-income countries tend to focus on its violations committed overseas and on formality issues such as criminal justice systems, while paying less attention to deteriorating and increasingly impoverished living conditions of many people in their home countries, which in fact amount to violations of human rights. Many people in the UK, the fifth largest economy in the world, will be in the situation of having to choose between food and heating in the coming winter. It is important to understand that poverty is a disablement that affects people across different social identities such as sex, sexual orientation and race.

2.    Tensions and Contradictions of Human Rights

Dr Fagan came to the field of human rights via critical theory (the Frankfurt School) and scholars critical of international law, with a primary interest in social justice. He believes that there are different routes to achieving social justice apart from the advocacy of human rights. Human beings as a species have developed immense capacities to inflict serious harm on one another, but at the same time many have also developed and showed an irrepressible urge and desire to pursue a better life on the basis of dignity and autonomy. The human rights community claims that what distinguishes itself from other routes, or, what sets itself above any other routes to social justice is its universality, that is, its claim that all human beings are ultimately entitled to social justice, as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains and expresses the essence of the desire of many to lead an autonomous, dignified and just life, the problem is that the concept of human rights came to monopolize and define such desires and aspirations, and has been an instrument of their colonization by the West, which has often been elitist and hypocritical. Human rights projects are often set out by those privileged both globally and domestically.

This critical view on the ways in which human rights operate today is also related to Dr Fagan’s research interest in the relation between capitalism and human rights. Human rights can provide critical perspectives on one of the worst forms of capitalism (e.g. neoliberalism). However, many human rights scholars tend not to question capitalism and accept it as a fact of life, and many human rights projects have entered into alliance with global powers. Dr Fagan thinks that this move is fundamentally incompatible with the social justice impulse. Being a true human rights supporter should mean being far more critical of the global system and of the claims that the West makes about itself, as well as the ways in which the West characterizes non-Western societies as being invariably unfriendly or hostile towards human rights without reflecting on the fact that some actions of the West have been harmful to human rights. In short, human rights express and capture the continuing desire of human beings as a species for living in a just world, but the ways in which they are institutionally and conceptually configured and arranged prevents that. On this basis, Dr Fagan encourages those who are already uncomfortable with some aspects of human rights to critically reflect on these and begin to develop a different way of thinking about human rights. The human rights community largely ignores social class issues, poverty, the capitalist dimension of social class, and human subjects are assumed to be isolated, separate, sovereign individuals. However, human agents interdependent on each other and identities are formed through interactions with and relations to others. In this sense, human rights mischaracterize what it means to be a human being. Unless human rights projects are fundamentally rethought and reformed they will become much less influential in the next twenty years than they are today.

3.    Human Rights, Culture and Politics 

Human rights have often been criticized for being ‘imperialistic’ in that they originate from the West and serve the interests of the West, particularly by authoritarian governments in non-Western countries, and at the same time they are accused of failing to challenge the violations of human rights committed in the name of unique cultures and regions. To the question on the relation between human rights and culture, Dr Fagan expressed the view that whether or not one supports human rights, inside or outside the West, we should recognize as a matter of fact that human rights are unduly shaped and determined by Western sensitivities. For instance, individualism, a core Western value, is a fundamental and unnegotiable component of human rights projects. However, this can suggest that non-individualistic societies, cultures and religions will encounter great obstacles to embracing human rights, whereas some societies that are not hostile to human rights might utilize human rights as a means to pursue their own ways of securing social justice. He then added that we have to distinguish the objectives and motivations of the critics of human rights: we need to distinguish between those critics who are simply seeking to legitimize their own powers and those who are concerned with and aligned with social justice projects.

Dr Fagan also argues that the human rights community in the West should be reflective on the ways in which many Western societies and institutions have been treating others: they often displayed judgmental and harsh criticisms of some societies and cultures that they think were not aligned with human rights principles, without realizing that their own actions had actually breached them. In fact, this way of judging other people and societies does not work as a means of persuasion and rather results in opposite consequences. Unfortunately, many Western powers have employed such strategies by forcing other non-Western societies to change their institutions to comply with human rights as a conditionality to have access to aid and the Western market. It should be recognized that Western understandings of human rights are not necessarily and fundamentally universal. In fact, they do not express the genuine identity of the West: the West is too diverse and fragmented to represent one single unified value.

One of the reasons why this reflective approach is important is also to do with the fact that the human rights community is diverse politically, being supported by those on the center-right all the way through to the hard-left. Some are interested in identity politics, others prioritize civic and political rights, or social and cultural rights. Despite this diversity and wide political spectrum that exists within the human rights community, what bind them together is hostility to criticism. Many people seem to think about human rights in a very narrow sense, being concerned about the protection of prisoners, asylum-seekers and terrorists. However, human rights affect ordinary people and are related to all aspects of life, from housing, transport, education and healthcare to employment. Likewise, securing a dignified life for older persons in their final stage of life is a fundamental aspect of human rights.

Dr Fagan thus called for fundamentally and critically reassessing and reformulating human rights: we have to rethink what we understand what human rights are to be, not merely applying what exists today to wider areas. For example, we should not simply expand more human rights to more individuals, who are assumed to exist as separate and sovereign beings, but challenge the individualistic assumption itself.


4.  A ‘Responsible’ Critique and the Human Rights of Older Persons

Concerningthe argument for the need of a UN convention on the human rights of older persons, Dr Fagan offered the view that while it is true that the UN human rights system and international law have many flaws, we need to be critical of it in a responsible way. Being responsible here means that we need to think about alternatives to the existing systems and instruments, in order words, we have to question how bad things would be without those limited protections. Undeniably, though limited, the existing human rights treaties and systems have benefited some people. Similarly, a (liberal) version of human rights that is insensitive to color and gender brings about only limited benefits to people. It is thus important to specify the different needs of groups of people within the human rights framework. In this respect, it is crucial and necessary to have a UN convention or treaty that addresses specific challenges that older people experience. However, at the same time, it is equally important to recognize that a treaty or convention cannot be the ultimate goal – the aim should not be having a treaty but ensuring its proper implementation and monitoring, understanding that a treaty amounts to only the beginning of securing the human rights of older persons.