A variation on the Primat der Mensenrechte, BWV 2, or: the particular vs. the universal

220px-The_Foul_King_film_posterThis is a variation on the theme of the previous post, a variation as Bach would have understood it: part of the same opus. The basso continuo is provided by the appropriately heavy theme of human rights.

The notion of human rights has often been invoked hypocritically, in particular by those whose past transgressions have set the standard against which we measure the severity of human rights infringements today: the European colonial powers (and no, I am not suggesting that human rights infringements are something peculiar to or pioneered by Europeans: everyone, everywhere has always been capable of making a fellow human being suffer). After loosing its colonies, the notion of human rights abuses may well have been the most efficient – and certainly most popular – way of reigning in the former colonies – and their ambitions, which must have seemed all but sacrilegious to the former masters of the colonies in Europe, recently and reluctantly decolonized (my spelling check didn’t recognize this word and offered the suggestion ‘decomposed.’ The software for this comes from a former colony, so I’m suspecting more than coincidence at work here).

The discourse is a staunch Eurocentric one. It has retained colonialist reasoning, but clothes itself in a less offensive language. It is the kind of discourse I thoroughly abhor and am loath to be associated with on account of its inbred racist assumptions and a bunch of other irrational assumptions dressed up as products of Enlightenment thinking. Hence, in my view at least, the importance of Area Studies and the notion of  ‘(reflexive) positionality’ to counter these discourses which posit their respective essences as universal and hence authoritative.

Despite the fact that the human rights discourse, at least in the media, seems to have been hijacked by sanctimonious finger-waggers, it is still undeniable that North Korea has human rights issues the likes of which are perhaps without parallel today. I should probably rephrase that, since North Korea’s massively scaled politico-ideological autodafe (yes, I know what the word means and yes again, I am using it in accordance with its historical context (this is what the be-all-and-end-all authority of the net says – you figure out the link for yourself:  “An auto-da-fé (also auto-de-fé, auto de fe, meaning “act of faith”) was the ritual of public penance of condemned heretics and apostates that took place when the Spanish Inquisition or the Portuguese Inquisition had decided their punishment, followed by the execution by the civil authorities of the sentences imposed.” Sound familiar?) is nonetheless often denied to be that serious. It is not, as I was told, as if “the prison camps are the average North Korean’s daily reality.” Shee-it. And how else to explain the fact that Michael Kirby’s UN COI report is still not getting the attention it should? Future generations will not understand why we stood by in silence, our acting restricted by the limits, willingly, gladly, even jubilantly (“They talking to us! Let’s not rock the boat!” Of course they’re talking to us: does Pyongyang really have any choice in it?) accepted by us, set on it by the North Korean state. Hence my own insistence on the primacy of human rights, knowing full well that this is a notion too often abused by the hypocritical, sanctimonious invoking it suffers from those who know better. It is rather like the WMD argument. Even while it is true that North Korea possesses WMD, the arguments proposing to do something about it are usually politically motivated and serve political goals only. Political goals outside the Korean peninsula, that is.

So despite my status as a regional expert who is familiar with the local discourses in the local language and historical context, I see no other option than to advocate universal human rights here. Bummer, but there you are.

Talking about the particular versus the universal: I am inclined to always pick the particular (I am a historian, remember? We’re just hardwired that way, I guess). And having been more or less forced by a reality that is too gruesome to bear true contemplation to opt for the universal re: human rights, I can choose the particular in a different matter regarding the not-so Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Wouldn’t it be about time if the notion that has been prevalent in academia for rather long time now not to respect national borders when doing research and understanding how people act withing and understand their own communities, to try and do the same in ‘real life.’ (just to be clear: I am being sarcastic here. If you’re the kind of irredeemable nitwit who thinks life in academia isn’t real life, I challenge you to take your iPhone’s earplugs from your ears for a moment, stop syncing FB and take a break from your daily job as an account manager, games designer, sanitary rules for aquatic animals implementation process coordinator or Netflix salesperson and try life at the university for yourself.) If we would do so (look beyond the state for salvation, that is), it would be much easier to leave the state vs. state confrontation shite to people who actually get paid to deal with this (way above my pay grade if not my ambitions) and focus on a kind of confrontation that is much smaller but also seems to be much more frequent these days:  group vs. group confrontations.

Methinks that we need to find ways of dealing with this. While we are at it, we might as well try and find ways of dealing directly not with the North Korean state, but with North Korean people, in spite of this state that is after all flouting just about every rule ever devised for any state – with the except of those in The Prince of course. Give the state’s sovereignty’s wide berth (to put it in diplomatic terms: screw the state) and respect that which really matters: the physical and mental integrity of the people that make up the state. Not possible, you say? Well, then you’d be wrong. Very much possible. Let’s start with providing information, through radio broadcasts, make internet access possible through very strong wi-fi emitters (at the borders, in embassies, using balloons: Google, are you listening?), et cetera. We are needlessly harnessed by the rules of a system that doesn’t play by the rules. Did I mention by the way that this is my favourite Korean movie? Just so you know where I stand with regard to respecting the rules.

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