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5 February 2016 Posted by No Comment

Once the shoe fits                                                     Don’t speak of rights

The foot is forgotten                                               Just focus on duty

–  Chuang Tzsu                                                        – Mahatma Gandhi 

By Sajeeva Samaranayake
human-rights-day 2These thoughts are based on more than a decade of experience in observing how the “rights based approach” (or RBA) favoured by international development agencies has been understood and applied in Sri Lanka. Its unskillful application has led to a muddle and sense of confusion within development circles. The responsibility for this muddle lies with all of us in the development community who have used and abused rights and sacrificed the meaning for the word.

The rights based approach treats reality as less important than the ideals it represents. In thus separating the problem from the solution a situation is created where the two can never be brought together. The reality is simply an unsatisfactory state of affairs – “a rights violation” to be manipulated and brought into conformity with the ‘standards’ that the international norms represent. An oft repeated mantra in project documents, studies and reports goes like this:

“the children and adolescents are subject to rights violations. The adults must be educated on socially accepted behaviours.”

The logic as we can see – is faultless. It is rationality epitomized.

Consequently the reality is fused with negative energy and is labeled and stigmatized to be corrected at all costs. The criminal remedy is very popular among rights activists. What could be more symbolic of ‘justice’ than bringing the ‘perpetrator’ before the almighty law?

And so several decades of very expensive human rights work has finally taken us to the apex of justice – the international criminal court. This is in many eyes the panacea for many of the ‘egregious’ violations of human rights. In this negative approach, what the RBA misses is very significant. It misses the actual hierarchies and social relations that define and shape life as it is lived when it is not temporarily suspended for a donor funded meeting, workshop or project activity. It misses the ties of patronage and dependency including the web of patronage weaved by its own presence and intervention.

As you must do as the Romans do when in Rome – the development agencies are quick to assess and identify the powers that be and find their niche within the existing patronage system. In theory what the donors do is ‘rights based’ and they ‘promote rights’. In practice their support is simply a more attractive form of patronage. Very often the well meaning young professionals who carry the burden of ‘implementation’ believe they are bringing rights into being. There is a total silence on the historical context including colonization (believed to be a touchy subject with the white masters – though this may not be so in fact) and the real laws that govern social interaction in third world societies.

Consequently it is open sesame for ‘rights’ because there does not seem to be any opposing ethic in sight. Everyone is in love with ‘rights.’ It happens most often that it is only the word that is imported and little else. The very proliferation of the word ‘right’ in documentation satisfies all – from supervisors to donors that all are agreed on this self – evident truth. Just as the Buddhists are anxious to surround themselves with Buddha statues and the Muslims with Mosques and Christians with crosses – the development community is swathed in a blanket dotted with all kinds of rights.

Within this artificial world there is a failure to understand that patronage in its positive connotation is also the ‘spirit of brotherhood’ referred to in Article 1 of the UDHR; that the right is simply the final change of identity and fulfillment of a negotiated human relationship that acknowledges respects and works through social separation and distance to narrow the gap between two human beings.

This is the protracted process that half baked human rights advocates degrade, ignore and overlook in favour of an abstract and disembodied right or result. Eventually it is the human relationship that defines the right – not the other way about. The RBA has got tied up in knots due to this reverse logic by which it asserts that rights must define relations. This is to overlook the social realm altogether and colonize it with legal logic.





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