until the late 1970s, my view of human rights was quite simple- and until 2001 I strongly supported the concept of “universal jurisdiction”: but thereafter I became quite skeptical at the distance between practice and theory.
human rights in theory
my perception came from political activities, as a political activist in the early 1980s, with a strange pluralist “blend” that I described before (catholic+communist upbringing, European federalist by choice, in favour of a meritocracy built upon sound foundations of equal opportunities for everybody, whatever their origins).
being at 14 a reformist has an added value: most fellow leftists who disliked my aversion to “instant” solutions (be it a revolution or a coup), started shifting to the right as soon as they started earning a salary or received a promotion- also those who went into professional politics and are supposedly “on the left” became de facto defenders of the “status quo”.
instead I kept following the same principles, both when this was convenient and inconvenient.
as any good European, I believed that we had the best of all- as we had removed the death penalty, and we had formally enshrined human rights in our basic law.
but, of course, at 13 I never had had personally any need to use the legal system (albeit I had already seen some “cracks” in the Wall of Justice when I was a kid).
theory and reality
my political activities between the late 1970s and early 1980s showed that, at least from my observation point in Italy, we did not really “walk the talk”.
but I assumed that those were just limited incidents, due to the incomplete transition from fascism to democracy, transition that used the Cold War as a fig leaf to justify some practices that did not match our formal declarations.
after 2001, as I had already been abroad for few years, often staying just few days in a row in each European country, I had a chance to observe the practical application of our principles.
and, frankly, without delving in boring personal or observed or reported (by others I met) or published (by traditional news media) details, I must say that I have been virtually striking out line after line.
not because I changed my ideas, but because my job changed the way I “absorb” political statements and any grand-standing: hot air does not replace observable facts (yes, the “walk the talk” principle), and I do not consider that “we” are a special case, when it comes to human rights.
I started recently re-reading a pile of old books on the history and genesis of fascism and nazism: complementing that with a cultural and historical perspective, as, despite what we were taught in school, neither of them happened in a vacuum.
to the extreme, but they shared some “superiority” concept that was widespread across Europe- ranging from the lingering antisemitism, to bogus concepts of “levels of development” associated with racial distortions, that supported colonial policies.
if fascism and nazism had really been such an oddity, both would have been stopped immediately- instead, both were de facto supported as a lesser evil and useful tool.
and their erosion of human and civil rights did not happen overnight.
human rights in Europe post-9/11
why I set the threshold at 2001, if my observations started well before?
because after 9/11 I observed, through the sources listed above, a constant, daily erosion of basic human rights- and I came to see our nominal support (and lecturing to friend and foe alike) as a cheapskate approach to power politics.
if you observe recent events, you can see why we still are unable to accept that with our economic power comes also a moral and political responsibility (and the need of setting up a standing joint army, at least until all the armies will be disbanded)
our conflicting economic interests are a re-hashing of our post-WWI and pre-WWII divisions (or even further back in history): we haven’t yet developed a shared, common purpose to which our individual national interests can play second fiddle.
basically: the whole is still smaller than the sum of its components.
and this brings the issue of human rights: 2001 and the war on terror showed that we are far from the “perfect” practitioners of human rights, even within our own borders.
if you add the imperfect transition from various shades of fascism to democracy, with the added power of intrusion, you obtain a dangerous combination: witness how our integration within the European Union is increasingly generating new databases that collect anything about anybody anywhere- with no real democratic oversight.
human rights convergence
privacy is said to be the XXI century basic human right.
and often, in various European Member States, I heard a statement, with slight cultural variations, that could be summarized as: “we work for the State, and the State is right, therefore whatever we do is right, and any information that we collect, for whatever reason, can be used for whatever purpose we, as representative of the State, decide to”.
and, in some cases, this distortion of the Data Privacy Directive and the role of civil servants is even slowly being enshrined within the law.
but also going back to “traditional” human rights, we do not fare that well.
I had the chance to talk around Europe with immigrants from non-European countries and, in Brussels, to work with them for few months, and listen to their stories (most of them had lived in various European countries, Italy included): and that removed further bricks from the wall of my once solid belief in our “moral superiority”.
under the pretense of “protecting them” or “protecting everybody from terrorist infiltrations” constant harassment is widespread and also collecting data on specific ethnic groups is not uncommon: as if databases and harassment could replace investigations and vigilance.
as if the “protection” role were to justify anything- e.g. see what has reportedly happened in Genoa during the G7 (see the investigation from the Italian Parliament): if true, worth of Argentina under the dictatorship.
as I wrote few years ago on my blog: I observed a curious convergence on human rights.
basically, privacy is lost everywhere there are the economic means to retrieve, collect, store data- privacy law is practically just a figment of imagination, moreover when officials are involved.
as for our traditional rights, while no formal legal change has been enshrined in our basic law, the attitude that I summarized above is becoming widespread.
interestingly, while in the US there was a public debate before the Patriot Act was voted, we gradually introduced administrative actions to the same effect- without any real democratic debate: and the trend is confirmed day after day.
I do not know if you know it- but I have been reported more than once that in Italy, when you open a banking account you are requested since few years ago to state if you are politically active, while even the US State Department expressed concern on how the information about ethnic communities is collected (including, as reported by newspapers, those who hold an Italian passport- it is 1930s-style “ethnic profiling”).
and we are not above the movie-style tracing and tracking of citizens or the use of Stasi techniques: an interesting perspective on the “free” Europe.
as for the other rights- well, we are converging: hopefully aiming to improve, as in the OECD guidelines for multinational companies (that I would like to see applied also in Europe, not only in the Far East), and not converging to the bottom.
anyway- the current debate on the abolition of the death penalty in countries ranging from China to the USA, is a good sign, as the global reconsideration of rights to include health.
human rights in the XXI century
paraphrasing was said in a movie about another country, our European Union is, for the time being, an economic entity, not yet an ethical entity, and therefore we could at least focus on applying basic economic rights and the associated legal system- using economic democracy to foster a real democracy.
why economic rights? because economic rights actually cover what has been considered traditionally part of basic human rights, but requires to quantify them, not to just state formal rights that cannot be exercised- unless you can afford it (directly or through the “shield” of an organized group).
therefore: individuals’ quality access to law, education, health, information channels and sources; access that is not dependent on pre-existing economic means or relationships, or any ethnic or social background.
“universal jurisdiction” on human rights is not a “menu” where you can choose what is convenient to you, and ignore the rest: until we can walk the talk, maybe we should first see how we apply them- for the humblest immigrant as well as for the most powerful person in the land.
setting an example for others to follow, instead of sitting on the fence and preaching “do what we say, not what we do”.
incidentally: this post is the number… 1776 on this blog: happy 4th of July to my American friends.