Who's watching the human rights watchers?

opinion September 09, 2015 01:00

By Tulsathit Taptim
The Nation

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Can you be a political activist and a human rights advocate at the same time? The answer is no - simply because a political activist can discard innocent human lives if needs be. This is not to say that all political activists are bad. This is to say that

There is no such flexibility if you are a human rights advocate. You have to care about everybody’s basic rights, full stop. And the right to life is the most fundamental and undisputed standard. When the lives of innocent people are taken, it’s the biggest deal as far as you are concerned. Nothing is bigger, not even what laws are applied to hunt down, arrest and interrogate the suspects.
Don’t get me wrong. A human rights advocate can condemn the ways suspects are hunted down, arrested and interrogated. But the same rights advocate must also condemn, in an even stronger manner, the incident that triggered the manhunt in the first place. No suspect in the Erawan Shrine bombing has been blown to pieces or had loved ones taken away from them so violently. We fight for the rights of suspects if they are unfairly treated, but we also have to fight for the lost innocent lives, especially if we call ourselves defenders of human rights.
Many political activists mistake themselves for human rights advocates. Again, it’s not wrong to be a political activist, fighting for or against people you like or hate. It’s just not right for political activists to double as champions of universal rights. Try to live that double life and sooner or later you will be found out as a hypocrite. But worst of all, by attaching basic liberties to a political agenda, you give human rights a very bad name.
How many red-shirt protesters were killed and injured during the uprising in 2010? Political activists ask this question, whereas a human rights advocate must ask this: How many red-shirt protesters were killed in 2010, how many yellow-shirt protesters were killed and injured in 2008, and how many including children were killed during protests against the government of Yingluck Shinawatra?
All lives must be equal if you are a human rights advocate. If you can’t live with this principle, political activism is your best bet. It’s not easy to be a genuine human rights advocate, I know. But as they say, if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.
Thailand’s political conflict has spawned political activists. Do you know why? It’s partly because it’s so easy to be one. You log on to Facebook or write a blog to condemn assaults on protesters, blocking of websites, blackouts of TV programmes, military detention or application of controversial laws, and there you go. You may even manage to convince yourself that you are a hero. There are a lot of bad things going on out there for us to criticise, and to feel good about doing so.
You can take sides. That’s what political activists do. They can be “selective”, or even hypocritical, and nobody cares. When red-shirt leaders are silent about deaths of yellow-shirt demonstrators and vice versa, people understand. When a human rights advocate is silent about a deadly incident and then suddenly turns vocal about less serious incidents, serious questions are asked.
You can voice your “personal opinions” if you are an activist. If you advocate human rights, your “personal opinions” must be in line with the principle that all innocent lives are equally sacred.
Wikipedia has this definition: Human rights are “commonly understood as inalienable, fundamental rights, to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being, and which are ‘inherent in all human beings’ regardless of their nation, location, language, religion, ethnic origin or any other status. They are applicable everywhere and at every time in the sense of being universal.”
Activism, meanwhile, “consists of efforts to promote, impede or direct social, political, economic or environmental change, or stasis”.
The distinctions are stark. It’s clear what is easy and what is hard. Yet the aforementioned points are not what makes advocating human rights the hardest thing to practice. Most of us can’t be human rights advocates because we can’t adhere to the overriding principle. That is the requirement that we accept what other people think, even if we don’t agree with them. Why? Because they have the basic right to be different from us.
But we have the right to be imperfect. We have the right not to accept what other people think. We have the right to block access to our online accounts or scream from the top of our lungs against “silly” or “undemocratic” or “barbarian” ideas. We don’t have the right, however, to do all that and call ourselves supporters of human rights.