29 June 2009

occupational hazard

the following are reactions that i encountered to human rights work on my recent trip to india (ok, the trip was three weeks ago; it's taken me this long to calm down and write about it):

-what do you do? human rights? why?
-you know, this human rights stuff is all spouted by rich countries, by america. they're just trying to interfere again.
-did you hear about that lady? she was opposing project x, causing a lot of problems for the state government, and in the end they found she was paid by some western groups to make a lot of noise.
-these so called human rights groups, all they do is oppose development projects.
-is your organization doing anything about all the human rights abuses committed by america? by other western countries? are you complaining to the australian government about the indian students who were recently killed? why are you focusing on india, on asia?
-after reading this report on burma's poor response to cyclone nargis, you're going to write an article? for who? will the burmese government care?
-look at the issue of nuclear weapons. why shouldn't india have nuclear power if everyone else does? america talks about non-proliferation, but refuses to destroy its own nuclear arsenal. what about our rights?

when i told some sri lankan friends about how frustrating an experience i had, they commiserated by sharing their own similar experiences. friends from korea, australia and elsewhere had other anecdotes to share, all of which underlined how dirty and unpopular a phrase 'human rights work' is.

they also show how little understanding there is of human rights, of the actual principles -the rights to life, to food, to shelter, to expression and opinion, to be free from arbitrary arrest, detention or punishment.

suddenly, i realize that my work involves not only fighting against the systemic abuse of human rights, but also the cultural attitudes and misconceptions surrounding those rights. (okay, not suddenly.. but i have to say that my india encounters were a bit of a slap in the face.)

in india, i also came across the opinion that corruption is normal; there is no harm in paying bribes to get your work done; it is what makes the world go round. under that mentality, rights can simply be bought, so what they are exactly and where they stem from is totally irrelevant.

on a lighter note: "A friend felt oppressed in the US. He returned to Delhi so he can ignore laws, be loud, yell at people, & smoke anywhere. Now, he is happy."

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