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Monday, January 14, 2008

The slave trade of our time

Welcome back to the first blog of the year 2008!

I have been preparing a lecture for The Hague University and the cultural week this upcoming Tuesday. I am aware that it’s a privilege to be able to stand in front of 200 students, that (whether they like it or not) will have to listen to what I have to say about such an important subject as human rights. It’s also a challenge to compose a comprehendible introduction to the entire international human rights system – in only 45 minutes. I have been thinking a lot about how I can make maximal use of this time; what aspect of human rights is the most crucial to emphasise, what is it that I want people to know about human rights?

One crucial and always relevant point I will emphasize on Tuesday is that the international human rights system as we know it today is the result of historical processes and it is thus changing over time. The norms and values underlying it, including the concepts of rights and which groups we consider human enough to be granted these rights, are dynamic. It is therefore crucial that we always continue to evaluate and criticize this system and the groups that we consider ‘humans’ and thus should be granted rights.

Throughout history, human rights have been violated in the most atrocious manners; we have raped and murdered and enslaved people; but at the time it was often not considered a human rights violation. We have justified the enslavement of native Africans, the wiping out of entire indigenous populations, the repression of homosexuals, women, disabled, political opponents, the persecution of the Jews, just to name a few, legally, morally and scientifically.

Women are too stupid to vote or attend university, homosexuality is a disease that can be cured, Africans and Native Americans needed to be saved by the ‘civilized’ Europeans, and the Jewish conspiracy was reaching such dangerous levels that the holocaust almost should be considered collective self defence. These have all been arguments that have justified the infringement of rights for certain groups, and they were more or less accepted by the public at their time. Today, it sounds horrific. Today, we think we know better. But do we?

We have seen a scary development, in particularly after 9/11, moving towards a system where human rights become relative and depends on your belonging to religious/ethnic groups, where torture and arbitrary arrests are being justified in the name of ‘war on terror’.

So, two questions I am looking forward to discuss on Tuesday are:

What is the slave trade of our time? And who are the 'Jews' in 2008?

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