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Legal enforcement of international obligations under domestic law is a contradiction in terms because the same state that has the conclusive obligation to protect human rights also has exclusive control of the means of legal enforcement under domestic law. The impulse for the state to obstruct or hinder the domestic enforcement of its international obligations under routine trade and international relations is effectively precluded by fear of retaliation by other states and/or international organizations that have the power and resources to secure their economic, trade, security, and other interests under international law. Unfortunately, human rights treaties are unlikely to have similar benefits for states when they implement or enforce the treaty or international custom on which a human rights claim is based.1
The conclusion I find appropriate and credible for this book should be about practical action instead of theoretical abstraction. With human rights as the ultimate measure of our humanity, our focus should be on strategies for action by the most inclusive measures. Working on cultural transformation requires engaging issues of public ethic and socializing children to instill appropriate values of transparency and accountability in public service. The key factor in this process of cultural transformation is the intuitive and spontaneous manner by which the promoters of these values practice what they preach. The object should be to internalize and promote values of compassion and empathy with minorities and marginalized communities. Yet, the objective should never be to excel or prevail over others because that will diminish the communal values needed to accomplish the task.
The premise of this book is that, like everything else in life and human experience since the beginning of time, evolution is the key for understanding how the world works. For me, as a Muslim, only God is the permanent reality, while everything else evolves with time and in response to changing circumstances. Since human rights are rendered in the service of human beings, they must evolve with the life experience of their subject, namely, human beings on the ground everywhere, for each person and community on their own terms. This is the true meaning of universal human rights which are worthy of global struggle for their realization and protection. By the principle of the concept itself, no other person, group, or entity can impose their view in defining, interpreting, or elaborating human rights norms and institutions for others. The way remains open for respectful debate, contestation, suggestions, and recommendations, but these should never violate the dignity and freedom of the human subject. This is what we all know as the Golden Rule, or the principle of reciprocity. If in doubt as to whether a debate or challenge is in violation of this fundamental principle, imagine the situation with you as the subject of violation of human dignity and freedom.1
In this chapter I will highlight and explain how, by their nature and practice, cultural transformation and political mobilization are already the means for sustainable social and political change for all societies relative to their own context. This does not mean that the nature and outcome of social and political change is the same in all societies. Rather, the point for this book is that the manner and process of transformation and mobilization for each society happens on its own terms in relation to its own history and context. Societies can neither be “tricked” nor “coerced” into accepting ethical or cultural change or submitting to whatever political mobilization seems to produce at the time. The outcome of these processes may not be to our liking or satisfaction, but we all have the tools and opportunity to join and attempt to influence the outcome of these processes. The emphasis on the human agency of people in their communities and through socially appropriate strategies reflects the interaction of ends and means in the protection of human rights by human beings in their communal context. The only way for sustainable defense of human rights is through cultural transformation of underlying values and political mobilization for the political will to defend these rights. This is also the only means to experience the responsibility of defending these rights by themselves in their own experience.
As illustrated by the case briefly discussed in Chapter 2 (see “The Supreme Hypocrisy of US Human Rights Policy”), the United States gets away with minimal ratification of human rights treaties while claiming global leadership of the entire field. The United States of America also imposes extensive reservations and other limitations on the scope of the few treaties it cares to ratify. Yet, the massive propaganda at all diplomatic, civil, cultural, and academic levels, as well as in official and political circles in the United States, makes it difficult for readers to recall that this apparent American compliance with domestic civil rights does not equal conformity with international human rights norms.
In his extensive body of work, Professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim challenges both historical interpretations of Islamic Sharia and neo-colonial understanding of human rights. To advance the rationale of scholarship for social change, An-Naim proposes advancing the universality of human rights through internal discourse within Islamic and African societies and cross-cultural dialogue among human cultures. This book proposes a transformation from human rights organized around a state determined practice to one that is focused on a people-centric approach that empowers individuals to decide how human rights will be understood and integrated into their communities. Decolonizing Human Rights aims to illustrate the decisive role of human agency on the subject of change, without implying that Islamic or any other society are exceptionally disposed to politically motivated violence and consequent profound political instability.