Alma Sheppard-Matsuo artwork

The Praxis of Human Rights from Ferguson to Guantanamo

By Shayna Plaut, Contributing Editor, Human Rights

Praxis is the intersection of theory and practice and, as we commemorate international human rights day, it is only fitting that we examine the praxis of human rights. How can we have laws – international laws, ratified by the vast majority of countries – outlawing discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity, laws requiring states and communities to take proactive steps to ensure that all children are safe and laws that ban torture, at the same time that young black boys are being beaten and shot by police with impunity? Or at the same time that reports are being released, nine months late, detailing the systemic targeting and torture of Muslim men by US government officials? Does the failure of implementation mean the promise of human rights is false?


It means that we must, once again, recognize that human rights are not above politics; human rights have always operated in a political arena. Sovereignty is not a license for abuse. What is unique about the human rights frame is that it ensures that no one is above the law. No head of state. No head of police. The issue is not to bemoan the politics but to work with the politics to ensure the human rights for all people are protected. This is especially true when it comes to ensuring that all people are safe from torture.

On December 10 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was signed in San Francisco by 48 countries with eight abstentions and none against. It was a declaration, an aspiration, it was not law. Between the Cold War hostilities and emerging independence movements there was no way that Soviet aligned and capitalist aligned countries could publically agree to mutually binding law. Real poltik would not permit this. What countries did agree to was a standard definition of what “human rights” means. It is from the UDHR that international human rights law covering a vast array of issues and people was born including the Convention Against Torture and other forms of Cruel and Degrading Treatment (CAT), which came into force in 1987.

But the Convention Against Torture (CAT) is unique. Whereas other human rights conventions and covenants seek to set standards for human rights compliance within the various social and political contexts – it is understood that a fair hearing or free education or protection of trade unions or birth control may look different in different cultures or political systems – the CAT does not allow for such nuances. The CAT defines torture not only on the basis of the abuse (i.e. “cruel inhumane and degrading treatment… for the purpose of extracting information from a person, or a third person…or based on discrimination of any kind”) but also on the identity of the abuser – is the person who committed the abuse an “agent of the state” (does he or she represent or work for the government)?

For an abuse to be considered torture the abuser must be an agent of the state or the abuse must have taken place with the acquiescence of a person who is an agent of the state through direct permission or a failure to intervene. What this means is that torture takes place at the hands of military officials, intelligence officers and police officers, among others. Such abuse by agents of the state is always illegal and if a government hears about such abuse it must take all measures to stop it and to bring the person to justice. Period.

Torture is an internationally recognized crime. Neither countries nor police forces can hide behind sovereignty. Nor can they hide behind security. Nor can they hide behind fear and all countries have the responsibility to act once they become aware that torture is taking place on their soil or that there is a torturer in their midst.

Die-in 12/5/14 Kalamazoo, MI (photo credit Jonathan Romero)

On this human rights day, let us aim to bring theory into practice. There is no excuse for torture. Whether it is torture in Ferguson, Missouri or Staten Island, New York or Cleveland, Ohio or Guantanamo Bay or Abu Grahib or many of the hundreds of undisclosed locations. Those who are in positions of power have the responsibility to not abuse that power and all of us have the responsibility to demand that human rights for all people are being protected.

There is power in language. And there is power in law. Police who abuse their power and cause physical and/or mental and/or emotional abuse for the purpose of extracting information or based on discrimination of any kind are committing torture. Intelligence officers or military officials who abuse their power and cause physical and/or mental and/or emotional abuse for the purpose of extracting information or based on discrimination of any kind are committing torture. If we aim to hold our governments accountable, human rights are always politics. Because it is the politics that often justifies the abuses, but also because politics – taking a public and active stand against police violence, torture and all human rights violations and working to create viable systems and structures – can provide the foundation for strengthening human rights for all people.


Some links:

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in 439 languages)

UN panel slams US for police brutality, torture, botched executions

Torture a widespread problem ahead of International Human Rights Day

Ex-Guantanamo prosecutor: ‘US must practice what it preaches on torture’

The Center for Victims of Torture

One thought on “The Praxis of Human Rights from Ferguson to Guantanamo

  1. I cannot disgree with your idealism, nor the pursuit of universal human rights. What we are seeing now, as a civilization is the use of these catch phrases, often by completely opposing sides, accusing the other of violating them. To site recent examples, we have the Police in Ferguson saying that the victim never held up his hands and indeed, tussled with the police and went for his gun. We are seeing the Press and protestors state that the victim put his “Hands up” and said “Don’t Shoot”.

    We have Hamas stating Israel violates human rights. And we have Israel stating that Hamas launching rockets into schoolyards is a violation of human rights.

    So it appears that the world is evolving, or at least their social media Campaigns are evolving to the point that the emotional reaction to the wrong or the perceived wrong is moving faster than the actual event or wrong!

    Another common practice is to raise the violation of the “opposing side”’s perceived violation, while completely ignoring one’s own violations. So we’ll see Iranian sympathizers yelling: “Republicans want to take us into war with Iran!” meanwhile forgetting that it is lawful in Iran to lop off a person’s hand for thievery or shoplifting. This sort of selective amnesia of course gives the entire idea of “human rights” a bad name.

    Regardless of how we come to realize it, like other theories, ideals, or paradigms, human rights is a term that could in fact become too overused. Like the word: “Racism” .. It seems that anyone who doesn’t agree with our political views is now a “Racist” when in fact, that is probl the most vial and despicable adjective we could toss around.

    A real human rights violation should cause widespread reprimands, and public outcry, and yet, everyone wastes their outcries on false issues, and made up issues, so even the outcry is more like an outburst, and dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic, activist, or over enthusiastic emotional person.

    Social Justice is an evolving and fluid concept. So are Human Rights. It makes us even wonder, in light of the beheadings by ISIS if the old definitions of Human Rights is workable, or has any meaning aside from the Acadamics who study it. When a group, ANY group cuts off heads for the simple purpose of making a video to scare people? It appears as not only human rights, but human life is devoid of value. Groups like that want to die violently, and want to die at gunpoint, so they can reach their version of nirvana. There is no human rights, ideal, committee, or value system with groups like ISIS other than their own selfish destiny of reaching Heaven by violence.

    And then you see the Iraqui soldiers committing the same offenses that ISIS commits.

    Are we to bring the entire weight of the worldwide “Human Rights” System to bear on the Iraqui Soldiers who are mimmicking their ISIS enemies? How do we deal with that as the human race, how is civilization to punish the one, but not the other? Should we kill them all, both ISIS and the IRAQUI Soldiers? What if we violate Human Rights when we sentence them to death? What if we make a mistake, and kill the wrong person?

    I tweet At PronetworBuild and I am Editor and Publisher of Social N Worldwide, Inc.


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