Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Human Rights and Communitarianism

I have begun to wonder if it is at all possible to have human rights and communitarianism; is it possible to preserve the communitarian nature of Timorese societies while respecting human rights? I have drawn the tentative conclusion that it is not. Human rights are based on a respect for the individual and their expression as unique human beings. Communitarian societies on the other hand are highly stratified, with men usually on top and women, children and animals in descending order below. There is a strong and overwhelming culture of conformity and any sign of difference is severely dealt with including excommunication (and in more extreme societies (outside of Timor) even death). Moreover, in order to preserve the community there can be no questioning of the prevailing order and therefore, people strictly adhere to customs and norms without question, even if they can and do result in human rights abuses. Any individual, who questions, is a threat to social cohesion.

If Timor is to seriously embrace the idea of human rights then its societies will continue to change and evolve away from their communitarian nature. Certainly for women and children, this is to their advantage. Although I deplore the atomized societies that the countries of the West have become, I know that my life as a white Western woman is much more preferable to the life I see of most Timorese women.

I attribute this to my culture’s history of moving from a premodern to a modern state with its attendant focus on the individual and their human rights. With this transition comes the demise of communitarianism and the rise of the individual. I believe that communitarian societies have little to offer individuals (particularly women and children) and what little there is is worth giving up in order that individuals’ human rights are respected. The big losers in the transition are men, whose inherent power and status is questioned by individuals no longer willing to toe the line.

I wish to state that in no way do I think that the West is some sort of human rights paradise, particularly for women and children, indigenous peoples, some immigrants and asylum seekers. It isn’t. But it is further along the path of human development which most individuals when given the opportunity want to travel.

You can also probably tell that I am no cultural relativist and proudly so. I became thoroughly disillusioned with my university studies in gender because of the undeservedly high prominence postmodernists have in the academy. I don’t wish to turn this post into a dissertation of why I think postmodernism is wrong, but I will say that while it has offered us a more critical perspective on the world, it has unfortunately taken things to such an extreme that my bearing witness to human rights abuses (deemed culturally appropriate), results in my feeling paralysed and depressed. Its worst offence is that it won’t criticise culture because according it its theory all are valid and equal. I completely disagree. I am a firm proponent of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (a thoroughly modern document) and all other such treaties (CEDAW, CRC etc). I believe in the universality of human rights regardless of culture. There will always be something distinctly Timorese about the culture here just like there are distinct cultures in Australia, the USA and Sweden. However, if a societal practice violates the human rights of its members, then it must change. Education, health, women’s and children’s rights, employment and opportunity are the main tools in this process – although governments must protect vulnerable people in the meantime!

I did not realise how much I took for granted my thoroughly modern sense of individualism before coming to Timor; my right to express my gender and sexuality without condemnation from my society for not conforming to some norm that ultimately benefits men. Now I feel like its greatest proponent, much to the displeasure of Daniel who jokes that I’ll soon forgo voting Green in favour of the Liberals (Conservative/Tory/nasty).

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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