How a French philosopher nailed why human rights matter

Today is Human Rights Day. What are human rights for, and why do they matter? Believe it or not, Michel Foucault has the answer, and it’s really simple.

The best case for human rights I have ever read comes from a short statement made by French philosopher Michel Foucault at a press conference on the plight of the Vietnamese boat people on June 19th 1981 (French version here).

Michel Foucault

In less than one page, he perfectly summed what human rights activism is all about:

1. We are all governed — we are all international citizens

First, Foucault says, we all have one thing in common — we are subject to power, so we should stand up for people who fall victim to abuses of power. That common factor makes us all international citizens.

“There exists an international citizenship which as such has its rights and duties, and which is obliged to stand up against all forms of abuse of power, no matter who commits them, no matter who are their victims. After all, we are all governed, and, by that fact, joined in solidarity.

2. We have a duty to confront governments…suffering must never be a silent residue of policy

As international citizens, he said, we cannot let governments turn a blind eye to the results of their action:

“Because of their claim to care for the wellbeing of societies, governments arrogate to themselves the right to treat in terms of profit and loss the human suffering which their decisions cause and their negligence allows.
It is a duty of this international citizenship to always confront the eyes and ears of governments with the human suffering for which it cannot truthfully be denied that they bear responsibility.
People’s suffering must never be allowed to remain the silent residue of politics.
It grounds an absolute right to stand up and to challenge those who hold power.”
Foucault’s statement was made at a press conference on the plight of the Vietnamese boat people — a chilling preview of today’s refugee crisis.

3 Ordinary people have a right to confront governments

Finally, he said that we don’t have to leave everything in the hands of governments, who want us to complain and them to rule. That’s where international organisations like Amnesty International came in (disclaimer, I work for them, but he said it, not me!):

“We must refuse the division of labour which is so often proposed to us: individuals are allowed to be indignant and to talk, while it falls to governments to deliberate and to act. It is true that well-intentioned governments appreciate the sacred indignation of the governed, providing that it remains merely lyrical. But I think we must be aware that it is very often those who govern who talk, are only able to talk, or only want to talk.
Experience shows that we can and must refuse the histrionic role of pure protest which governments would like to offer us.
Amnesty International, Terre des Hommes, Médecins du Monde are initiatives which have created this new right: the right of private individuals to intervene actively and materially in the order of international politics and strategy.
The will of individuals must be present and expressed in the order of reality which governments have sought to monopolise. Step by step and day by day, their purported monopoly must be rolled back.

A simple powerful message for Human Rights Day. What do you think?

Read the full speech here: