Hi, my name is Lisa, a Healthy Discussions Project Officer from the Office of the Public Advocate. This is part two of my interview with Dinesh Wadiwel, an Associate Professor in Human Rights and Socio Legal Studies from the University of Sydney. What does dignity mean?
Dignity is one of the hardest concepts to unpack. It's actually quite essential to the human rights project though rarely expressed, and it's not expressed as a right. It's a principle about how individuals should be treated. So firstly, dignity appears in human rights treaties all over the place, but actually the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has probably one of the highest number of mentions of the word dignity, which tells you something about the kinds of exclusions that people with disability routinely face in relation to dignity.
There's some different ways we could think about dignity, and it relates to how we view human rights. So I mentioned one view of human rights is, this is something intrinsic to us and all human rights do is just recognise something that's intrinsic to us. So this relates to one view of dignity, which is we, as maybe as humans, have a certain amount of, certain quality which marks us out and in comparison to other beings, maybe other animals or whatever. And this is our dignity. And human rights say, to protect this by saying, if you possess this dignity, you should be treated in particular kind of way.
Dignity might also be a different thing. So this is, dignity might be a kind of social or political status or rank. So to give you an example, if you, if we were living in ancient Rome, only a small section of the population had citizenship, and they were pretty much just men. Everybody else didn't have citizenship. Typically citizenship in Rome meant, it didn't necessarily mean rights to vote, because, of course it was an emperor who controlled everything. It was typically rights to respectful treatment that everybody else did not get, particularly rights not to be, for example, crucified or tortured. So this is this is what actually citizenship was right.
In some ways, the modern human rights project, what it does is democratise this status. It says well, this shouldn't just go to, say, white men. It, this status, should be applied to everybody. In some ways, this is an example of dignity as a as a form of rank or status. It's not about something inherent to us. It's actually, as a community, we acknowledge that those who participate in this community are granted a particular set of rights or privileges, because of their participation, so it's a kind of rank that everybody has. I would favour the second version of dignity because I think that's what human rights does. It does this sort of. It democratises an elite privilege that was, previously was elite and, available only to a small population, but human rights to me - modern human rights project - seeks to democratise this and make this available to everyone.
Just one more thing I should note is that typically we see both playing out in the human rights treaty system, both conceptions of dignity. And certainly in the Disability Rights Convention we see both. Though one way to view the Disability Rights Convention is that it seeks to both say to the international community, ‘Hey, this group of people who you presumed have have no dignity, actually do have intrinsic dignity’. And simultaneously it sets the program and says, if we're going to recognise this dignity, this is what we need to do to change society, to fundamentally recognise it and support people with disability to have their dignity recognised by others.
What is derogation?
So derogation means kind of exception in law. So when is there an exception granted? So human rights... the thing that's interesting about derogation as a word is that there are a number of human rights which are treated as non-derogable, meaning that under no circumstances can these rights be violated.
A prominent example of this is the right to freedom from torture. So torture is an example of, torture and ill treatment, are examples of actions that now under international law, whether it's in peace or it's in war, torture cannot happen. That's just full stop and there's no derogation, meaning the state can say, ‘Oh, it’s an emergency’ or ‘The suspect had vital information and we needed to get it out of him’. The state cannot do that anymore. Under international law, it is forbidden. There's no derogation permitted.
If they're so fundamental and we're supposed to treat each other with respect and dignity, why then the need for them?
It's a good question. I think there's some complex answers we can give to this. Let me give you two different way to think about it. First is that we need them because they're routinely violated. So one way to look at the human rights project is... It's only, so if we think about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1945)... What this means is that it’s less than 70 years since, for the first time in the history of humanity, we agreed globally on how humans should be treated.
This project is in its absolute infancy. If we think about human history, it's in its absolute infancy. And if we think about the histories of different human communities and the dramatic inequalities and violations of human rights, then one way to view it is that we're actually at the starting point of a process. A conversation about humans should be treated that is global for the first time and maybe we need to just be realistic, that the reason that we need human rights is firstly that they're constantly violated, and also that we are at the starting point of the process of change. So that's one view.
The second view - and this comes from a German scholar called Hannah Arendt... So Hannah Arendt, people may know, is a philosopher who trained in Germany then had to escape this Jewish background, had to escape during rise of the Nazis. She found herself in New York and she authored a number of important texts in political philosophy. But one of the most important was a book called ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’. In that book, she makes a point about human rights and she says, We've created a world in which we have these nation states and nation states grant rights to individuals through citizenship. But as we know, nation states work in such a way that they grant citizenship rights to individuals on a really arbitrary basis.
Why do we need human rights when they should be self evident, if you like? Hannah Arendt says, Well look, let's look at the history of recent history of the world. We've parceled off the world into these neat nation state containers. Each nation state has its own government and it grants rights to individuals who they see as part of that community.
Typically these citizenship rights involve quite extensive rights, rights to social security, etc. But then there are lots of people who fall outside of the protection of the nation state. These might be, for example, asylum seekers. They could be whole populations, often populations marked out by difference such as ethnicity, who are treated by nation states as hostile to the mission of the nation state.
She points out that in the system we've created, we have created whole classes of individuals who cannot be guaranteed the protection of the political community that they’re within and, almost as a symptom of this world, we've created a need for a body of rights that protects those who don't have rights and don't have citizenship rights. So in a sense, what Arendt is telling us is that actually maybe the human rights project is a response to the way we've organised the world.
So we've organised the world in a way that means that if you are a refugees or asylum seeker, or you belong to a political or ethnic community that is at odds with your nation state, or you're a political dissident, the state now has the power to exclude you in ways that mean that you almost have, you have nothing.
And at that point, that's when human rights become important. So from that standpoint, we need human rights because of the way we've structured the world politically. And in some ways it's a it's a less happy, it's a bittersweet, story about human rights. But it's important to keep in mind that maybe we need human rights now because we've organised the world in a particular way, that they're the last line of defense for some people.
And as we know for how groups of people, human rights is the only thing they can ask for at this point in time.
Thank you very much. It was excellent. Thank you very, very much.