[Column] Human rights concept: Is it relative?
Jinyoung Kwak, Director, Human Asia
(Professor of Political Science and Diplomacy, Kunkuk University)
One day, my eldest son, who was a middle school student at that time, brought a questionnaire from his school, which asked parents’ views on the regulation against corporal punishment. He seemed very worried while I was answering the questions. All of sudden, he shouted “Corporal punishment is a serious violation on human rights!” and insisted I should never view the physical punishment in school in a positive way. Then I responded that there were more severe cases of human rights violations going on around the world, so this was too big a matter for him to be upset about. Then he resented corporal punishment was the most severe case of human rights abuses that students had to face these days.
A few days later, I read an article that included a picture of North Koreans living miserably in a concentration camp. Although this was not my first time to know about it at all, the vivid black-and-white picture of their suffering made me feel depressed on the way to work. However, people in the picture seemed to have neither will nor thought, even power to ask for their ‘human rights’ which they deserve. I have never heard of any news that North Koreans stand up for people in the camp, claiming their rights in the camp are seriously being infringed, even though many North Koreans are well of what is going on inside the camp.
When the news about those young girls in some African tribes suffering from a tradition of genital circumcision came out, the movements calling for stopping such a horrible practice were spread worldwide, blaming the practice for seriously violating human rights. However, still many African young women are living in enormous fear because of the practice they have to face as a rite of passage. If they reject it, they would suffer the consequences directly linked to their survival such as not being able to get married. They accept it as their own cultural practice they have to endure rather than view it as their human rights being abused.
Human rights violations which took place in the past are more likely to be ignored. Take “comfort women” under the Japanese colonial rule. We readily accuse sexual harassment on female workers of human right violations, but we do not seem to pay due attention to the human rights that sex slaves were denied during the war time. Some even say such kinds of human rights violation are natural in war time.
Is the concept of ‘human rights’ relative? Can we say one case of human rights abuse is more serious than another? Whose human rights were more infringed, young women’s in Africa or ‘Comfort Women’ in the past?
We usually think human rights issues should be dealt with based on the region’s history, culture, awareness of local people and socio-economic development which means the issues are recognized as a relative concept. This suggests that we should not condemn or try to change some situations occurring in other nations by applying our own standards. We must not force people in other cultures to change their practices and customs simply because they seem wrong from our own perspectives.
As we are all aware, we equally deserve ‘Human rights.’ We must not turn a blind eye to those cases of human rights abuses just because it happened somewhere else, to someone else or under certain circumstances. It is still someone’s rights being trampled, abused, neglected and taken away. Therefore, our human rights are no different from those of people living in small villages in other Asian countries. Some people might argue when we have not solved our own human rights problems in both North and South Korea, there is no point of dealing with human rights violations in other Asian countries. They might reason that human rights of our own should be primarily focused before thinking of others.
The concept of ‘Human rights’ can be different from place to place. However, there is only one goal that we want to finally achieve in human rights. Human rights are equally important for everyone. In fact, the reality reflects different aspects of human rights depending on its social environment. That is why human rights protection should be accomplished with concerted efforts, beyond national boundaries or ideologies and regardless of rich or poor countries. In doing so, we can act together more comprehensively to prevent human rights violations from taking place. In this respect, the existence of Human Asia that transcends nations, people and time has more significance as a human rights watchdog. I hope that human Asia continues to succeed in playing a great role as a cornerstone of improving human rights conditions in Asia in the future.
Translated by Koo Young-woo, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies GSIT