The language of rights 1

February 20, 2004

Bikhu Parekh's article ("Love is... desirable but it's by no means a 'right'", February 6) is a mish-mash of unjustified claims, both to knowledge and to moral certitude.

He includes in human rights the laws of asylum and patients' rights. This assumes that human rights are any rights attached to a human being, whereas they are the "Rights of Man", or, in modern parlance, rights pertaining to each of us by virtue of our being human and living in society. Not all humans are patients or asylum seekers.

He is particularly exercised by cultural difference. He claims that Muslim women are struggling for equality "in the thick vocabulary of their traditions" but that the words "human" and "right" are too confrontational for them. He implies that the human rights they "struggle" for are different from those we might struggle for in western Europe. How does he know, and how can he speak for them? And "struggle", surely, involves confrontation.

Parekh then says that when the doctrine of human rights is transformed in this way, it is difficult to decide whether those involved do or do not subscribe to human rights. But if he has no difficulty in gaining insight into their ways of thinking, why should the rest of us?

The relativist argument is not only wrong-headed, it is also notorious for being used by oppressive regimes to deny their people human rights.

David Lehmann
Department of sociology
Cambridge University

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