Whose Rights and Who’s Right?

Muse Magazine June 2009

Late last year the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights turned 60. Written in a war-weary world that had witnessed some of the most atrocious human rights violations of the 20th century, six decades later they endure: Darfur, Tibet, Afghanistan. The act is often ignored in the interests of a country’s own human rights. For example, “[t]he puerile and vicious ill treatment visited upon the detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib amounted to a shocking breach of the UDHR and the Geneva Conventions,” writes leading British human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robinson in a recent issue of Intelligent Life. Who’s right?

In February this year sod was turned on the world’s first museum dedicated to human rights, and its committees will be faced with endless controversies like these. It’s going to be a tall order for the architecturally dazzling Canadian Museum for Human Rights at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers in Winnipeg. How can controversy be handled? Is it possible to take an apolitical, unbiased and independent view of human rights? How should selection committees stay neutral? How can humans reconcile the rights of one group, in protecting its own rights, perpetrating violations on others? Can human rights violations be understood by putting them in the context of the times? Questions go on.

Margaret Somerville, founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, says it’s inevitable that our own backgrounds, values and culture will influence some of our views. “The requirement is to be aware of that and to try to take it into account in deciding about human rights,” she says. “It’s a fact that we may be genetically programmed to favour those genetically related to us. But respect for human rights can require us to ensure that doesn’t wrongly affect our judgment.”

Somerville believes that human rights are an articulation of deep moral principles common to all humans—they’re not created but expressed. Where there’s a conflict of values we need to invoke an ethical analysis, because “all values can’t be honoured. That means values must be prioritized. The essence of ‘doing ethics’ is justifying the breach of the values that will not be honoured. As well most things taken to an extreme can do harm. I think that's true of political correctness at present which is often marketed as a human rights issue.”

And decisions taken in times past with the best of intentions can still be considered wrong. “There is an old saying in human rights,” says Somerville. “Nowhere are human rights more threatened than when we act purporting to do only good. What happens then is that we are blind to the harm doing that good entails. We always need to be self aware and self critical even of our best intended actions.”

How can these principles be incorporated in a museum, where the traditional way has been to present an artifact and interpret it on a panel? Clearly a fresh, non-traditional approach is in order.

“As we go into developing the content for the museum over the next couple of years the most important thing probably is we won’t be telling stories the same way we’ve seen in museums to date,” says Patrick O’Reilly, CMHR’s chief operating officer.

O’Reilly says the CMHR will be more of an idea museum, based on multiple perspective story lines. It’s crucial that tackling biases and opinions be at the forefront. “First and foremost we all have to acknowledge that we all have biases. One of our biggest and most important challenges is to ignore those biases—we have to identify them, point them out,” he says. “And secondly because of those biases there can’t be a single point of view; often there is no single truth. There has to be many perspectives. Particularly in issues that affect human rights, morals, views and [people’s] honour.”

He acknowledges that people who look at cases from different perspectives will believe different things. In the case of Israel and Palestine in 1948 and the ongoing related issues that have been occurring since that time he says, “there might be even more than just two perspectives. There’s no single Palestinian perspective necessarily, and there’s no single Israeli perspective necessarily. People will have many different perspectives on what could have been done differently then or in the future.”

The museum is planning to present all perspectives using a multi-pronged approach. “We’re hopeful we can bring more points of view with multimedia so it’s not a question of how much wall space you have,” says O’Reilly. “We’ll actually have people telling first hand their stories, their oral histories, their recorded voices, videos, maybe holographic images, to engage visitors.”

That other important question—can we transplant decisions in time and still judge them fairly—hasn’t been overlooked by the museum’s planners either. “An important part of the analysis is recognizing that we’re looking at events through a historical lens,” agrees O’Reilly, “and considering how that affects our impression of them.”

A topical Canadian issue in that regard is the native residential schools. Apart from the cruel treatment many students received, was the original intention of assimilation a valid one in the late 19th century? “We’re going to have to face that,” says O’Reilly. “What we have to make sure we’re aware of is that when we present it we’re presenting it in modern times. We’ll be analyzing decisions and thoughts that were made in the past, so the key is to help the visitor set themselves in the past and understand motivations—what caused people to do the things they did.”

And it’s not to say it was always for the right causes. “We might be able to present the perspective that residential schools were done for altruistic reasons. If we base our presentations on sound research and sound scholarship, which is very much our intention, we will probably also demonstrate that maybe they weren’t always done with the best intentions.” He says the key will be to bring the visitor from the presentation back into the present, allow them to reflect on these views and think what it must have been like for people at the time.

For example in the early 90s the Smithsonian Air & Space museum recanted on a proposed exhibition on the Enola Gay (bomber) and Hiroshima bombing because there was so much unhappiness and feelings about the story. O’Reilly said the CMHR would show something like that. “That sort of discussion has to happen,” he asserts. “We’re not going to come out and say that was wrong or that was done for the right reasons. We’re going to put the visitor in that experience and encourage them to have debates among themselves. That’s what will differentiate us as a very modern variety of museum.”

Not just modern but post-modern in its approach. “We’re not going to display just a single truth,” reiterates O’Reilly. “We’re not going to seek to be the arbiter or the accurate interpreter of a single event, a single point of view. We’re going to be building exhibitions that encourage dialogue, where visitors will turn to each other and discuss and debate and challenge.” Nor will the museum give in to protest when that happens, but it won’t seek to avoid controversy either. “We acknowledge that we will be controversial,” he says. “We acknowledge that some of the things we talk about will open old wounds. It will be difficult for us, it will be difficult for some of our visitors and it will be difficult for the public at times.”

One of the challenges the CMHR will be facing in its early days is that people have an incorrect impression of a human rights museum, “that it’s going to be depressing,” says O’Reilly. “We don’t think it will be. But it will be thought-provoking, it will engage people in debate and dialogue and cause people to re-think.”

When they re-think, “we’ll be providing a mechanism for our visitors to appeal what they’ve seen,” he says. “And where we’re wrong and if we’ve made a mistake we’ll apologize and adjust. Because of the incredible sensitivities we’ll be facing we’re not going to shy away from debate.”

That debate may carry on to the future—because we learn from past mistakes, some of what we’re doing in the present will be the ‘past mistakes’ of our future. “Looking back we can see where we were blind to wrongs that we now recognize,” says Somerville. “I think in the future we will look back on some things we’re doing now—for instance with reproductive technologies…and the serious imbalance between individualism and community—and recognize that we were wrong.”

- Calgary-based freelance writer Graham Chandler (http://www.grahamchandler.ca) holds a PhD in archaeology and is a frequent contributor to Muse.

Whose Rights and Who's Right?

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