Is marriage a human right?

February 1, 2002

Next week, Oxford University will host the first in a series of Oxford Amnesty International lectures - sponsored by The THES - on sex rights and the difficulties of promoting such issues in non-western regimes. Mandy Garner reports.

Campaigning for lesbian and gay rights might be seen by some as a controversial arena of human-rights activism," says an Amnesty International document. "It is. But no more so than any other. All human-rights activism is a bid to transform society. The promotion of the fundamental rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people belongs squarely on the human-rights agenda."

It took some time for sexuality to come under the international human-rights umbrella. Amnesty, which begins a series of lectures on sex rights at Oxford University next week, has been working on discrimination against gays and lesbians only since the mid-1990s. Its original brief was to focus on prisoners of conscience, but since it started covering abuse on the grounds of sexuality, there has been no shortage of cases - from gay men being sentenced to death by having a wall demolished on top of them in Afghanistan to Romanian parents who, disapproving of their sons' relationships, arrange for him to be raped as a punishment and "cure".

Amnesty's move to embrace the gay and lesbian-rights movement follows a switch from a narrowly political remit to a broader civil-rights agenda, encompassing racism and women's rights. It is one that is echoed by other campaigning groups and, though controversial, is working its way on to the United Nations agenda.

As with abortion and contraception, many countries with strict religious regimes are opposed to international experts criticising their beliefs. "They believe that recognition of same-sex partnerships is inconsistent with the right to start a family," says one human-rights academic who works with the UN.

Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is not specifically prohibited by international law, but vague wording of legislation has allowed lawyers room for manoeuvre, and the UN Human Rights Committee to side with victims of such discrimination.

The move to take on such discrimination is part of a general shift in the human-rights agenda, from the public to the personal. Most academics agree that the personal is more controversial and needs careful handling. Whereas state torture, killings and unlawful imprisonment are seen as belonging to the public realm, issues such as domestic violence or rape within marriage have only recently been seen at an international level as matters for government intervention.

Speakers at Amnesty's Oxford lectures include writer Jeanette Winterson on "translating love, sex, sexuality and gender" and Robert Wintemute, lecturer at King's College London's school of law, on same-sex relationships and human rights. The agenda also incorporates ethical relativism. Susan Muller Okin, professor of ethics and society at Stanford University, will talk about multiculturalism and women, and Alan Sinfield, professor of English at Sussex University's School of English and American Studies, will lecture on the limits of cultural imperialism.

The last issue is particularly sensitive given the events of September 11. Many academics on the left have blamed western cultural imperialism and inaction over the growing gap between rich and poor for the attacks on the United States. This could make efforts to push what is interpreted by some as a western morality all the more difficult.

The ethical relativist argument has had a huge impact in the field of human rights. Arguments about whether the UN Declaration of Human Rights is universal or a western construct, given that many developing countries were still under colonial rule at the time of its inception, have become commonplace. In a recent Unesco debate, philosopher Richard Rorty summed up some of the issues. "Moral universalism," he says, "is an invention of the richI Moral idealism goes along with economic successI Free universities, a free press, incorruptible judges and unbribable police officers do not come cheap."

Other academics have hit back, saying that basic human rights are issues on which all countries and religions are agreed. Kirsten Hastrup, professor of anthropology at Copenhagen University, for example, argues that human rights must be universal if they are to mean anything. But she adds that it is vital that human-rights culture be inclusive of all people so that it can represent a standard by which all peoples and cultures can measure their own performance.

Such fierce debate has led to a shift in emphasis at the UN away from the stress on individual rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and towards economic and cultural rights.

Paul Hunt, director of the human rights centre at Essex University, is among those who welcome this shift. A member of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, he has worked for a civil-rights group in the West - the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty) - and for a human rights group in Africa, the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.

"There has been a definite shift in the past five years (from political to economic, social and cultural rights)," he says. "And it is long overdue. There is more of an attempt to be balanced. We have got to recognise that rights overlap and that to divide them is to give a false dichotomy. There is a serious attempt to redress a historic neglect."

At the same time, the human rights discourse has broadened, to such an extent that some, such as Carl Wellman, author of The Proliferation of Rights, have argued that it is in danger of becoming meaningless. Subjects that came under other headings are now being mixed into the human rights soup. For example, equal opportunities is now seen as a human-rights issue. The result has been a growth in research that crosses the boundaries between subject areas and a rise in specialist areas.

Academics are also attempting to work more closely with non-governmental groups. For example, the Centre for Research in Human Rights at the University of Surrey, Roehampton, has an international advisory board made up of senior figures from NGOs and academics from different countries. The centre is based in Roehampton's education faculty and staff come from various backgrounds, including sociology and philosophy.

Education is a particularly blossoming area: the inclusion of human rights on the UK's new citizenship curriculum is part of the effort to disseminate human-rights culture more widely as well as to re-engage young people in the democratic process. The aim is to mobilise the masses, to move human rights out of conferences and summits and to create a human-rights culture that is inclusive and progressive and that balances the political and the personal.

The THES will run edited versions of some of the Amnesty lectures.

We've come a long way but there's still much to do

In a 50th anniversary report on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations commissioner for human rights reported on the "wide gap" that "continues to exist between the promise of human rights and their reality in the lives of people throughout the world", writes Liam Gearon .

A great deal of discussion in recent years about the universality of human rights has centred on the inequality of their distribution.

Human-rights discourse since 1948 shows massive failings in the international community to establish equitable access and structures in relation to rights. If education, health and economic development are rights - the UN declaration defines them as such - many individuals are denied their rights on a daily basis.

There is, too, considerable irony in the timing and construction of the 1948 declaration. Many of the players who composed it - a small and somewhat unrepresentative committee, including a former US president's wife - were from major colonial powers, such as Britain and France, that retained their dominions way after 1948.

Yet talk of the domination of particular interests - superpowers and multinationals - while of relevance, obscures the picture. The genocidal horrors revealed as the second world war came to an end were the desperate motivation behind the 1948 declaration - even if subsequent decades delivered their own atrocities.

We should not forget the motivating force behind the declaration's ideals, however far we've fallen short of these.

The representative nature of the UN has also changed dramatically since its foundation on October 24 1945. Then it consisted of 51 countries committed to international collaboration and security. Today it consists of 189 nations. The UN is rightly sensitive to claims that it represents the cultural imperialism of particular regions or traditions. But without a benchmark of international rights, there is little chance of addressing the complex issues that arise when politically motivated cultural interests challenge supposedly universal norms.

Such international tension came violently to the fore on September 11 and is still present in its aftermath. Yet the tension created by deeply felt inequality and injustice has existed for decades.

The diversity of rights highlighted by subsequent UN conventions and conferences - most recently in Durban, South Africa, in September 2001 - continues to provide for a growing international awareness of the complexity of rights as realities.

Rights discourse has itself diversified beyond the disciplinary confines of law, politics and international relations and into debates on economic development, world health and education. Internationally, universities are providing for interdisciplinary and critically independent debate. But they still struggle with the tension between scholarship and advocacy. The challenge to develop intellectual debate on rights is a powerful element of a university's potential to transform communities, and one that can present challenges to governments and vested international interests.

Liam Gearon is director of the Centre for Research in Human Rights at the University of Surrey, Roehampton.

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