In the echoes of our great chambers, from the Houses of Commons to Capitol Hill, we hear of the importance of ‘Human Rights’. They are inscribed in our grand legislature, in our constitutions and in our national guilt. Yet increasingly, when I hear of ‘Human Rights’ I hear of them in the context of their violation. Any news channel on any given day of the year, we are subjected to a bombardment of numbing atrocity, of gross barbarity.
I’m not just talking about the latest villain in our pop-news world, Daesh (ISIS). I’m also talking about kids floating face down in the Mediterranean. I’m talking about Dr. Maria Santos Gorrostieta, the mayor of Tiquicheo in Mexico, kidnapped, burned and murdered. I’m talking about how members of parliament referred to disabled people as “stock”. I’m talking about Untermenschen. Louseous Japanicus. Men referring to women as ‘damaged goods’. I’m talking about parasites, pigs and dogs.
I’m talking about you and me.
Dehumanisation as a psychological phenomenon is likely never to go away entirely.Recent research has demonstrated that this undeniable feature of our species is intimately related to facilitating and promoting aggression against others. Indeed, there are times when dehumanisation of others feels justified. When Daesh burned to death a Jordanian pilot (and filmed it), who was there who did not feel that these people were not truly human? They seemed like grotesque caricatures, more monster than Man. Dehumanisation is not a rare phenomenon, by any measure. In fact, when you look a little closer, you see it everywhere.
You see it in how some leaders describe refugees as a swarm and some newspapers describe them as a horde. You see it in the fourteen-year-old Sudanese boy, arrested for bringing a clock to school; his teachers reducing him to a “terrorist in the making”, unable to see a teenage nerd in a NASA t-shirt. In extreme forms, you see it in the way Daesh describes Yazidi women as their property, to be bought and sold, used and abused. You see it in how, during the Rwandan genocide, Hutus described Tutsis as “cockroaches”, to be stamped underfoot and eliminated.
Dehumanisation acts to deprive an individual of their human status and thus of the rights they are obligated. A society obsessed with rights is, more often than not, a self-obsessed society. This is because we demand our rights from others, but use dehumanization to escape fulfilling the rights of others. So what can be done about this psychological phenomena that stands as a roadblock to peace in the world today?
The answer came to me from what some might consider an unlikely source: a Muslim Caliph, renowned for his advocacy of peace and reconciliation. Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the fifth Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, speaking on this very point, said at the annual UK Peace Symposium that people of the world should not only be concerned for their own rights, but should also look at their own obligations and be concerned for the welfare of others. This principle should apply at an individual level, a national level and an international level… Without this, any effort that takes place will only have a temporary effect, and will not guarantee permanent peace.
Re-framing the rights of others as our responsibilities changes the focus entirely. By linking the welfare of others to the recognition of your own status as a human being, and the responsibilities that entails means that dehumanisation isn’t given a chance to flourish. Why? Because it’s no longer about what other humans deserve from you but about what you owe them, as a human. How you see others becomes an irrelevancy when your focus is on what your responsibilities are.
What was it about Aylan, washed up and breathing sand on a beach in Turkey, that forced David Cameron to change his stance and quadruple the numbers of refugees the UK would take? It was because that dead child tore through the subconscious veils we had erected in which refugees were the ‘other’ – from a different country, ethnicity or religion. Suddenly, it was your child and my child. Suddenly, the refugees werehuman. But it shouldn’t be like that. It shouldn’t take images of dead children to wake people up to their responsibilities.
A charter of Human Responsibilities rather than simply of Human Rights is, I believe, the next stage in establishing peace in society. As Mirza Masroor Ahmad emphasized in another address this year, the ultimate goal should be to reach a point where one sacrifices one’s own rights to fulfill responsibilities owed to others.
Until this becomes the norm in society, we will never achieve such peace as the world is, quite literally, dying for.