A Case Against Human Rights

As you may be able to guess from my last post, I approach issues from a very ideological standpoint. As a disclaimer at the beginning of this post, I would like to state that I do not expect policy makers to take the same view as I do, it just isn’t realistic. I do not think that my views could be adopted by states and put into action effectively right now. These are more hopeful musings, a critique of how things are, thoughts spoken aloud. My goal is not to prove the wrongness of the way things are done, but to question them, and to engage others in a thoughtful discussion. Enjoy!

As a student in a few feminist international politics courses in my fourth year, I was no stranger to critiques to the liberal approach to politics. In terms of feminism, liberalism is often critiqued as the “add women and stir theory”. No structural overhaul is required, as if more women take part in various institutions, their views will automatically be reflected in those institutions.

Now, I’m no radical militant feminist (haha….ha), but this didn’t quite click with me. Structurally, our society places women at an automatic disadvantage. For example, adding women to higher ranking jobs seems like a good idea at first. But women who make it to these positions generally embody traditionally male traits. That is wonderful for them, but what about the women who chose to have babies, but would also like a career? It seems as though society should be a little more accommodating to the gender that’s carrying the species’ young, especially when women have so much to offer! So yes, you can add women to high ranking jobs. But this will not guarantee women’s interests being represented. Women who reach such positions embody traditionally male traits, hence, women who would like to hold such positions but are structurally prevented from getting there are excluded either way. As a woman who potentially would like to have a child without forfeiting her career, this seems like a pretty bad deal.

After that brief explanation, I move to liberalism’s crowning glory on the global stage. It’s highest achievement, the most widely accepted standard of goodness that the modern world has: human rights. It’s used by organizations such as the UN to measure a state’s treatment of it’s people, despite an uncritical look at where these rules come from. Being that human rights standards stem from the ideals of a patriarchal, Western society, they of course reflect these values. For my purposes today, I will focus on the patriarchal aspect rather than the Western bias.

The best example of the inherent bias of human rights is the issue of healthcare. Although it is generally accepted that everyone should get equal healthcare, this is approached from a formal equality point of view. Yes, everyone should get vaccinations, emergency care, AIDS medication, etc. But, because everyone doesn’t require maternal care, birth control, or abortions, they’re often not considered under this umbrella statement. Despite the statement that everyone is entitled to equal healthcare, the outcome is not equal. Major gaps in necessary care are left for women when human rights are approached from a patriarchal perspective.

I struggle to explain this well. In terms of substantive equality, it recognizes that not everyone starts from the same level. So if women are to be equal, they require maternal healthcare and other services. Even though men do not require this sort of care, it doesn’t mean that it should be excluded from the human rights platform. It’s a necessary service to humanity.

Because it mainly focuses on the direct benefit to needs possessed by every member of humanity, human rights is not the most powerful tool for feminism. You could argue for the indirect benefit for everyone of women-specific healthcare, but there are many arguments within the human rights framework against this. For example, where do we stop? The slippery slope argument is popular because it wonders where we draw the line as to necessary services. If we give women this… then what will other “special interest groups” ask for next? Furthermore, when approaching things from a liberal, formal equality point of view, it’s near impossible to understand a feminist argument, as everyone appears to be starting from the same place. I would wonder if feminists can change the concept of human rights enough so that it still serves the vision of liberals, while also being inclusive of women’s needs? Is there any point in using human rights to achieve equality for women?

Although human rights seems on the surface to be a model to govern by, I don’t think that it’s as effective as it comes across. It glosses over structural inequalities, and not exclusively those felt by women. Let me know your thoughts on this, and perhaps some potential solutions! I’d love to hear them, and thanks for reading another long-winded, rant-y post.

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