‘Human Rights’ a Disguise for Human Wrongs

Editorial by Philip Ochieng, The Nation (Nairobi), 20 May 2001

What explains the crying contradiction that, although lawyers are some of the loudest advocates of “human rights”, they are also some of the crassest thieves from clients? It is that the neo-liberal has only the narrowest understanding of human rights.

To him, human rights are confined to distilled politics and law—distilled, that is, emptied of all economic, cultural and intellectual substrata.

As long as individuals can vote, assemble, speak and move without let or hindrance and are “equal” before the law, they are as free as the birds above us!

Politics and law have become ends in themselves, to be pursued in total isolation from whatever else society is doing. The question is never arises: Why does society need to govern itself?

Sociologists have long provided the answer. People agree to submit to governance only because they are convinced that it is what can optimise and rationalise the production and distribution of their wherewithal.

Econo-material relationships, then, should be the subject matter of all politics and law. This is the whole scandal of liberalism. Although tenure and appropriation are increasingly irrational, and the situation explosive, the need to resolve this tension is never on the agenda of political debate.

That is, indeed, the system's definition. Modern liberalism is economics “liberated” from politics. Capital has been privatised, freed from public policy. What remains public is “pure” politics. Politics has been reduced to procedural issues, a ritual of electing a government, whose job it is merely to police.

To the classical liberal social scientist—from Adam Smith to David Ricardo—there was no separation of economics from “political science”, where “political science” is no more than civics. Politics and economics were studied together as political economy (economy as the content of society and politics as its container).

But once politics has been divested of all material content and the Abstract Individual declared its only beneficiary, society—the political state—has neatly absolved itself from all responsibility for the Concrete Individual.

Because the state has confined all rights to the politico-legal arena, it is easy for it to remain silent on the economics of those rights, namely, their affordability. Liberalism proclaims rights but shirks all social duty to implement them.

The right to sue, for instance, is as useless to the concrete individual as is the claim that Kenyans are free to eat in any Nairobi restaurant. The mass can enjoy these rights only through social action. As individuals, they cannot eat anywhere even if you proclaim a thousand laws. The abstraction of law allows them to enter Allan Bobbe's Bistro. But their poverty is the concrete barrier.

However, since their faculty of thought is so inchoate, the people imagine that they are free as long as they have the licence to bark at the Government, take it court, even vote it out.

As I say, the freeing of economics from political inspection and social responsibility ineluctably results in Grand Canyons between poverty and wealth. Yet these gaps never unduly rankle the consciences of the affuent.

It is what enables our lawyers to speak incessantly about their own “right” to gallivant to pour forth embarrassing political stupidities and, when accosted for it, to whine about their “human rights” being “abused”.

For a liberal is just that: a hollow gut given to eternal meaningless chatter, an empty tin which—as long as his property is safe—makes the loudest noise about freedom.

Democracy is his daily singsong. But, as soon as anything really democratic threatens his wealth, he drops democracy like hot iron. He is totally unmoved by the groaning that his own thick skin occasions at the bottom of society.

Our professionals are not merely untouched by the penury that swallows our people like Okot p’Bitek's “pythons of hunger”. They even descend upon them with the ferocity of Jaws.

More and more of our lawyers are pocketing their clients' money even without intending to represent them in court. They hastily deposit their customers' court awards in their own bank accounts.

Many clients are very old people. Often it is their only money. Some have been saving it all their lives against just such an adversity. Then one day a lawyer calmly grabs it all.

He then attends his political party's rally to utter a whole jeremiad about the Government violating this and that “human right”, his conscience fully at home.

Human rights? Is a human being's humanity important only in the abstraction of gathering for speeches and voting? Does his humanity cease to be important in the concreteness of hunger, disease, nakedness, shelterlessness and the complete ignorance of the choices that may be open to him?

Isn’t free choice meaningful only when the person making the choice enjoys some leisureliness to enable him to become aware of his real self-interests? How can a person who spends all his energy trying to keep death at bay ever enjoy such a freedom?

In practice, such rights as the lawyer is talking about can be enjoyed only by his class. His old client cannot enjoy it because he doesn’t know how to dupe the people with the political abracadabra of many a NCEC. He has never heard of “the civil society” or a “people-driven constitution”.