March 25, 2006, Indo Asian News Service
New Delhi, March 25 (IANS) Human rights ‘is a practice’ and not akin to legal rights, contended Nobel laureate Amartya Sen Saturday.
Describing human rights as ‘an enormously powerful canvas’, the well- known economist said two ‘distinctions’ needed to be made about it which ‘have caused an enormous problem by not recognising them’.
Sen, speaking after the release of his latest book ‘Capabilities, Freedom and Equality’ during a ‘conversation’ with Chicago University economist Martha Nussbaum, elaborated on the ‘distinctions’.
‘One is that the claim to human rights is not a claim to a legal right from which flows a certain obligation of the state.
‘Secondly, rights are the child of the law. Without a legal right you cannot have any entitlement to rights,’ he added.
‘Thus, do human rights translate the same way as legal rights do? The answer is no,’ Sen asserted, and proceeded to elucidate:
‘Human rights is a practice. There are lots of different ways of perceiving human rights situations: When there is no law but nevertheless you can say there are violations and you bring these to the notice of the public and pressure is built up to stop them,’ he explained.
Noting that the human rights issue had legal sanction in India but was taken up by a NGO in Pakistan, Sen said: ‘In the skilful hands of people like (National Human Rights Commission of Pakistan chief) Asma Jehangir it has been able to achieve a lot of things without legal backing.’
‘It is on an enormously more powerful canvas that we have to deal with the issue of human rights,’ he said.
Nussbaum took a slightly different approach on the issue, speaking of ‘cultivating a way of imagining the situation of other people and (developing) sentiments of compassion for other people’.
‘This has failed in America. For instance, studies show people in America simply don’t have compassion for the poor because they think the poor have brought their situation on themselves,’ she lamented.
‘One thing that I don’t like about some human rights approaches is that they rest on the notion of negative liberties. Some people take it that rights they have secured from the state means the state has to keep its hands off (on that issue),’ Nussbaum said.
‘Capabilities…’, a collection of Sen’s works from a gender perspective, has been jointly edited by Bina Agarwal of Delhi University, Jane Humphries of Oxford University and Ingrid Robeyns of Amsterdam University.
Renowned for his humanitarian approach to economics, Sen’s contributions have been crucial to the development of feminist economics and gender analysis. The book outlines the range and usefulness of his work from a gender perspective and also explores some of its silences and implicit assumptions.
The book is a collection of groundbreaking and insightful essays covering major topics in Sen’s work such as the capability approach, freedom, social choice, justice, the issue of ‘missing women’ and development and well-being.
Significant highlights include a wide-ranging conversation between the book’s editors and Sen.
Copyright Indo-Asian News Service