Date: Thu, 12 Oct 1995 13:29:39 -0700
From: "David Bubna-Litic" [email protected]
Subject: Re: Some observations
I have had huge problems with email and have not been able to participate in this conference as I would have liked. I have some comments, beyond those in my paper, which Iwould like to offer at this late stage in events. I hope they may be useful.
Although there are a lot of problems with the idea of a social contract in any formal sense, social relationships do involve some form of transaction. This is not to detract from bagage that comes from the genesis of this concept, which was used as a "skillful means" by propertied groups to prize power from the monarchy/aristocracy, particularly in Britian, in the 18th and 19th centuries. Social transactions are largely symbolic, but they are also physical and material. Social transactions imply many of the elements of a contractual arrangement including some degree of trust, reciprocity and shared meanings. Simply translated individuals live peacefully in a society on the trust that the society will do the right thing by them in return e.g. provide some basic level of existence. This is a sort of tacit contract.
History however, has shown that the powerful have used their position in a number of ways to distort this transaction. For example: direct action, such as brutal suppression by force; neglect, such as not acting to stop a wrong; and distortion through propaganda, lying etc. The most salient example of this was the genocide of the Jews by the Nazi’s. This was not a completely one way interaction, as the use of showers to gas people showed that right up to the very end, the Jews cooperated. They cooperated to a large extent on the basis that they were unaware of the real transaction being undertaken. Of course in other cases, anything else besides cooperation was not a choice. The Nazi holocaust would not have been what it was had the real intention been openly communicated. Where direct action is involved in this way what rights do the powerless have? The answer is of course none – their tacit agreement has been broken and the contract is void.
The reality at that moment is they are powerless, anything else is like arguing with a bankrobber – a dangerous activity. When one is being tortured or mutilated, there are few avenues for action. Personal resistence is rarely an option. Help must come from outside the present moment or from others. Only outside parties can negotiote a stop to the present action. Later the abused can ask for retribution, or compensation. Human rights between the abused and the abuser are thus not contractual except as retribution. When they involve a third party HR have a strange status in that they are more of a proclamation of an intention to act. They are not really negoitiated. That intention is something of the form of " if you abuse that person we will come to their aid, or seek retribution or compensation."
A basis for such a contract can be found in Buddhism, to quote the Enmei Jikku Kannon Gyo:
" With Buddha we have direct affinity with Buddha we have indirect affinity affinity with the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, realizing eternity, joy, self and purity.
From a Buddhist perspective we are not seperate from the tortured or the torturer. Thus whether or not human rights has ever been thought of or mentioned in the entire accumulation of Buddhist writings is irrelevant. The existential reality of the true mind is not no existence. What would make a unique contribution to HR is that Buddhism is its position on the torturer – the postion of interbeing. Thus although we abhore the actions of that person we have something incommon with them. Furthermore, we can’t ignore the part that we play in HR abuses. There is also a collective component, e.g. we perpetuate a state of affairs in other countries which are conducive to the extremes in social conditions which produce poverty. Joanna Macy and Fran Peavey are examples of how easily people can produce positive change in third world countries, as well as in the US.
Human Rights are therefore both complex and involve dilemmas. The key issue for me is how do we go about enforcing human rights? Is it a goal, a basis for retribution, or an excuse for military intervention? I think we need look at the impact of non-legal modes of action as well.
I apologise if I am treading on old ground here. I would certainly appreciate any feedback on my paper in the ensuing weeks.
University of Technology, Sydney