By Tongun Lo Loyuong
November 3, 2013 (SSNA) — Previously it was underscored that towards overcoming peace-building absurdity in South Sudan can be greatly enhanced by pursuing a peace-building model that contrary to the prevailing, alien, largely inept and counterproductive one, is inwardly rather than outwardly oriented. On this account, it was suggested that while the promotion of universal human rights values matter and democracy-building is important in South Sudan, what matters the most is the appreciation of cultural specificity of these values (see the previous sections of this debate easily accessible on the blog: http://tloloyuong.wordpress.com/). In other words, the concern with what was hitherto ruled as the failure of peace-building processes and activities to genuinely appreciate local South Sudanese socio-cultural dynamics is the topic at hand to be unpacked at this juncture of towards overcoming peace-building absurdity in South Sudan reflections.
This is examined here from the perspective of “cultural relativism” of human rights debate, particularly as human rights violation remains a pressing concern in South Sudan as its practice continues unabated with impunity. The recent unfortunate and unprincipled tragic butchering of unarmed civilian population in their hundreds that was accompanied by pillaging and scorch-earth practice in Jonglei State is a glaring case in point. It was no coincidence that while the massacre was unraveling in Twic East, the government of South Sudan (GoSS) was busy conducting business as usual by welcoming and rolling out the red carpet for the visit of one of the most internationally acknowledged and notorious authors of human rights violations, ethnic cleansings and genocides in the Sudan in recent human history. Despite lip-service on commitment to protect human rights that has repeatedly been paid by GoSS, and scant public condemnation that in the last case of Twic East, for instance had to be squeezed out of the office of the president, plenty of other incidences of human rights violations can be cited.
Disappearances, selective application of justice and prolonged arbitrary imprisonment without due process, intimidation, torture and in some unfortunate cases even lynching of political opponents, human rights activists and journalists, among others, are well-documented. The failure of GoSS to protect the right to security and the violation of the right to life, among numerous other litany of failures to provide basic human rights, from civil and political rights to economic, social and cultural rights to safeguard human dignity in South Sudan remains but the naked truth.
Flatly stated, human rights protection is alien to governments of the day in the greater Sudan. The same political culture of human rights violation has now been inherited, and the practice of which has been exacerbated in South Sudan thanks to the normalcy of the practice that has developed in the SPLM’s reign of terror and heinous human rights abuses in the bush years. This is an organization that is very well-reputed for its gross human rights violations in the bush for sheer ideological political opposition by fellow South Sudanese, of its New Sudan Vision in favor of the more popularly favorable independent and sovereign South Sudan for which they are now claiming credit and enjoying its fruits.
Why go to such great lengths so as to summarily kill and repeatedly flog their unburied remains into decomposition only to later claim the ownership of the Southern liberation and independence for which they have advocated from the get go? Sadly, under these circumstances, accountability for human rights abuses in South Sudan will remain a forlorn cry for some time. Only the small and helpless fish which were only following orders are the ones to receive the politically motivated and unmitigated wrath of “justice,” while the real culprits get away and enjoy their political office with all its looting with impunity privileges.
But to be sure, impunity as such is equally encouraged and nurtured in an even greater culture of global impunity and selective application of international criminal law in the face of recurrent unspeakable human rights violations not only in South Sudan but in most violent conflict environments around the world. In addition, and as a mechanism for towards overcoming peace-building absurdity, one of the favorable explanation of the resistance to embrace human rights culture in South Sudan is to cognate this reality not within some perceived absence of human rights values in the local cultures, but as the result in part of the continued cultural relativism of human rights problem. A cursory perusal of this debate is telling to this end.
In this context, the universal human rights norms have come a long way from its articulation first in various world religions, then to its more secularized version as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations Charter on December 10, 1948. It is generally agreed therefore, that human rights ideals and conceptions in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam and by and large all the major religious traditions of the world have invariably and immeasurably contributed the cornerstones of the UDHR ideals.
At the center of Hindu Sacred Text for example, is the command to modestly conduct oneself by a moral campus that leads to an altruistic and outward-orientation in lieu of inward and egotistic preoccupation with the self. The moral and spiritual value here is to inculcate and nurture an outward-orientation that is geared towards a genuine concern for the other. Hindu believers are implored to feed the hungry, attend to the sick, shelter the homeless and do no harm to others.
Similarly, Jewish Scripture equally abound in injunctions on the moral worth of the human person and the importance of social justice. “You shall not oppress. You shall do no injustice. You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is the crux of the Jewish Scripture. As Martin Buber, a Jewish theologian is cited by Paul Gordon Lauren in his lucid presentation of “The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen,” to have aptly underscored that Solidarity is therefore, one of the fundamental moral and spiritual principles of the Jewish faith. “Such a process,” as Lauren quotes Buber, “‘is a matter of leavening the human race in all places with genuine We-ness. Man will not persist in existence if he does not learn anew to persist in it in a genuine we.’”
Likewise the Buddha—Siddhartha Gautama, emphasizes cultural and social inclusivism and criticizes the caste system by “urging his followers to renounce differences ‘of caste and rank and become the members of one and the same society.’” Buddhist morality and spirituality sees the alleviation of suffering in overcoming the desires of the self as the prime duty of the Buddhist practitioner. This is to be practiced in tandem with “charity,” “lovingkindness,” and compassion towards the needy. Indeed the Dalai Lama commendably sees the final resolution to the plight of human suffering as rooted in the global embrace of these Buddhist morality and spirituality. He asserts that only by showing a genuine concern for each other as fellow human beings can the world’s problems be brought to finality.
By the same token, the teaching of Confucianism is one that primarily promotes and encourages harmony between human beings as brothers and sisters. If there is one command that a person must hold dear on a daily basis is to abstain from “impose[-ing] on others what you yourself do not desire,” Lauren writes. In short, the following dictum cited in Lauren, embodies the essence of Confucius belief system and what the world would look like, if an inward approach rather than an outward approach to peace-building defines peacebuilding interventions around the world. “If there be righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character. If there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home. If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation. If there be order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.”
And who is not familiar with the spiritual and ethical ideals of the Christian faith, with its all too familiar injunction on love to the neighbor and the enemy alike as the centerpiece of its spirituality and morality? In Christianity, humanity in its entirety is of equal value and moral worth before God. Solidarity with those who are suffering and extending generosity to those who are in need overwhelms the Christian Scripture. “There is neither Greek nor Jew, nor slave nor free, man nor woman, but we are all one in Christ,” is one of the main pillars of the Christian Gospel and faith tradition.
Finally, while some leading Islamic states, such as Saudi Arabia continue to resist embracing universal human rights claims as promulgated in the UDHR by branding them as Western innovation, the fact remains that like most of the world religions, Islam too embodies the ideals of human rights, despite Khartoum being a poor reference to this fact. But again Khartoum has distorted all sense of morality and spirituality, and has rendered that which is normative, an exception. That notwithstanding, solidarity and charity to meet the basic demands of the poor is one of the four pillars of the Islamic faith. “The scripture of the Qur’an also speaks to matters regarding justice, the sanctity of life, personal safety, freedom, mercy, compassion, and respect for all human beings as rooted in the obligations owed by believers to Allah, or God,” affirms Lauren. In fact Lauren further asserts that it is widely held that “the first charter of freedom of conscience in human history” is reflected in Islamic promotion of human rights to freedom and equality, particularly as practiced by Muhammad toward other religious traditions under Islamic rule.
Sadly, and this is the gist of the failure with genuine human rights representation and appeal in traditional societies, such as South Sudan for example, is that human rights norms have been reduced to not being able to overcome mere payment of lip-service to its protection by day, while being grossly violated by night. It is particularly notable in this regard that human rights values and perceptions as articulated in our traditional cultures, religions and philosophies, have largely been marginalized from the global human rights discourse and perceptions. John Mbiti, in his seminal philosophical work on “African Traditional Religions and Philosophies” for example, has shed considerable light on human rights ideals in the African cultures and philosophical thought but apparently with little bearing on informing the human rights pursuit and understandings of external actors in our societies.
Discussing the uniqueness and significance of African notions of kinship and communalism, for example Mbiti compellingly notes that in our cultures, customs and traditions: “the kinship system is like a vast network stretching laterally (horizontally) in every direction, to embrace everybody in any given local group. This means that each individual is a brother or sister, father or mother, grandmother or grandfather, or cousin, or brother-in-law, uncle, aunt, or something else, to everybody else. That means that everybody is related to everybody else.”
If it is true therefore, that the works of prominent African philosophers and thinkers of John Mbiti’s caliber rarely feature in global human rights discourse and the strive to promote these essential values in our societies, how can it then be expected that a sense of urgency and ownership of human rights principles can be invoked, while local folks fail to even recognize what these rights that are being promoted are? The same applies for local concepts and understandings of peace. Only few are attempting to seek for and uncover cultural and traditional conflict resolution mechanisms in traditional societies and conflict settings to guide their peace-building interventions. More on this will be examined on a different occasion.
What is evident with this in mind is that, there is little wonder that our political elites have had it their way in manipulating the human rights state of affairs with impunity as a result. For this reason, the argument is being made here that the promotion of universal human dignity-preserving values must appreciate local socio-cultural dynamics, and find expression in local cultures and idioms in the theory and praxis of current peace-building interventions, if they are to augur well with South Sudanese and find local ownership and hence sustainability of the effort.
Towards overcoming peace-building absurdity in South Sudan must appreciate local ideas about peace and rights. A starting place would be to acknowledge the religious identity of human rights values not only limited to the world religions but also in traditional cultures, belief systems and philosophies. This is particularly helpful in light of the steady increase of religious significance in our world these days. In emphasizing the religiosity of human rights in diverse faith traditions and doctrines, a consensus on the universality of human rights can begin to be built. Such a consensus-building through the recognition and acceptance of human rights as intrinsic to every culture will not only enhance the protection of human rights in places like South Sudan, but will also serve as an important unifying platform in an increasingly fragmented world on the basis of socio-cultural divides across identities, race and ethnicities.
It is therefore, clear from the foregoing discussion that religious contribution to the foundations of universal human rights claims is not only remarkable, but inalienable. In this regard, human rights norms as enshrined in the United Nations Charter did not emerge in a vacuum or in a particular geographic location like the West. And as such, the promotion of the Western human rights typology in traditional societies must be shunned. Human rights as presently developed results from the tireless efforts of thoughtful and dedicated persons some of whom were religious theologians and others were enlightened philosophers or both/and from across centuries and from various cultures around the globe, who reflected on how to better the human condition. Their ideas in turn were refined and exchanged widely throughout history, before finally being consigned in the aftermath of the World War II in the UN Charter and other binding international and regional legal instruments, treaties and conventions. Perhaps the only crime of “Westerness” of human rights norms is that human rights values are guilty of being institutionalized in the West, which makes the argument for their localization in traditional societies even more pertinent and appealing.
However, until that happens, the credibility of the universality of human rights as postulated in the UDHR and promoted in traditional societies will remain questionable and seen as a colonial or a Western construct. This will in turn continue to provide the pretext for its resistance in places like South Sudan. Local authorities and political power wielders may find non-compliance with such unrefined Western values easy, while in truth such ideals of guaranteeing basic rights to equality and freedom, solidarity and collective sense of existence are embedded in most of the major world and traditional religions, even more so one would argue in the more communal cultures and societies of the likes of South Sudan. “The moral worth of each person," as Lauren held, "is a belief that no single civilization, or people, or nations, geographical area, or even a century can claim as uniquely its own. The issue of human rights addresses age-old and universal questions about the relationship between individual and their larger society, and thus is one that has been raised across time and across cultures.” Authoritarian regimes must not, therefore not be provided with an excuse to find solace and pretext to continue in human rights violations and violent repression of their citizens at will for the perceived Western and alien nature of human rights as crudely promoted across the globe at the present.
And yet, despite the cultural relativism challenge, and as Jim Ife in his “Human Rights and Peace,” has concluded it is important to applaud the contribution of human rights, and acknowledge that “the world would be much poorer place without the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the many other international declarations and human rights covenants, the UN Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the bills of human rights which have found their way into the constitutions or statute books of most nations…” But what is beautiful in principle, is ugly in practice.
Therefore in summation, in order for human rights to be taken seriously and locally owned in traditional societies as a token towards overcoming peace-building absurdity, the diverse cultural reality of our world and the availability of human rights values in its various faith traditions, including as found in South Sudan traditional religions and cultures must be embraced and guide efforts to foster respect for human rights. No more one-size-fits-all peace-building approach. “What is needed is a more sophisticated and nuanced position, which seeks to incorporate both the power of universalism and the diversity of relativism,” in rediscovering effective and sustainable peace-building and human rights cultures and structures from within the conflict settings, not least in South Sudan. More on local and cultural conceptions of peace and rights will be elaborated next up.
Tongun Lo Loyuong is reachable at [email protected]; and can be followed on twitter @TongunLoLoyuong. Numerous other food for thought and intellectual exercise on South Sudan’s issues can be found at: http://tloloyuong.wordpress.com/