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Right to self-determination

Liz Carr has written an ‘open letter‘ to Noel Martin, a neo-Nazi attack victim, regarding his decision to commit assisted suicide following being paralysed by his attackers.

In the past month or so, thanks to the US election, abortion and gay rights have come to the fore of public consciousness, and frankly, this is yet another instance of people’s attack on a right to govern one’s self.

Carr tries to tell Mr Martin several things:

1) that he has wonderful memories of life before his attack/before his wife died (of cancer a few years after his being attacked), which should sustain him

2) that he is now an inspiring figure in the fight against neo-Nazism

3) that there are plenty of places where disabled people can visit beaches and see the world

4) that he has been erroneously convinced by the media that as a disabled person, he is a second-class citizen and should want to die.

I find these points rather insulting and insensitive coming from anyone, even another disabled person. (Carr’s disability is the result of an illness at age 7, not a brutal attack as an adult, so immediately she is in a different situation to Martin.) She essentially tells the man that he hasn’t been making enough of his life; that he should live his life to be an inspiration to others; that he has foolishly allowed himself to be convinced by the media that he should want to die.

She met Martin for half an hour, and this is her basis for writing such a patronising and public response to his choice. It is a choice, he has a right to it, and she is not respecting it. Instead, she seems to be trying to force Martin to approach his disability in the same way that she has, the way that she declares is the right way.

She makes a very interesting claim that shows a total lack of compassion towards Martin:

“Until the day when good quality health and social care are universally available regardless of age, impairment, race, gender or location, I believe there is no place for legalised assisted suicide.”

This seems to say that Martin must continue living as he does—and he wouldn’t have made this choice if he wasn’t convinced this was not a way worth living—to put pressure on the government and society to repair all inequality.

Carr should respect this man’s choice. Although Martin will be making a trip to Switzerland to end his life, I fully support a (regulated and overseen) legalised euthanasia system in the UK. Carr’s behaviour shows that these rights are opposed not simply by people ignorant of the situation terminally ill and crippled people live in. Frankly, Carr is opposing ill and disabled people’s rights just as much as people who discriminate against them. Martin deserves the right to take control of his own life and body, and no one, particularly not Carr, should not be able to stand in his way.

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Human Rights Scholars

Thursday saw the first meeting of my Human Rights Scholars Seminar, and it’s taken me a few days to mull over the readings and the discussion.

Our texts* were critiques of the entire human rights corpus (HRC); the general gist was that the human rights movement (HRM) was a new form of colonialism.

This was hardly a new argument to me. The patronising, ‘let’s save the African/Chinese/Mexican children’ attitude that you can run into every day in the streets wherever there is a liberal arts college seems to me to at least partly prove the point, and there are a few of those people taking part in the seminar, whose response to the critique was solely, ‘Well, no, in my experience as an activist… No, it’s just not true… You can’t label… You know, it’s just not true.’

But some more cogent people managed to raise a substantial point: that these people are the misinformed do-gooders who do not form the larger population of human rights scholars/advocates. Those actually serious about working in the field are fully aware of the ‘savage-victim-saviour’ (SVS) mindset that is a significant pitfall waiting to trap them. And I hope that this is true and that those running Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are aware of and avoiding the pitfall.

But that doesn’t seem to answer the larger critique: the West (particularly the US nowadays), still makes the rules and plays at being the bully in the school playground. China, Africa, Latin America, all these places need to pay lip-service to the West’s formulation of the HRC because otherwise there will be much head-shaking and reproval from the West. There is no larger forum where global inequalities do not make themselves felt and influence countries’ responses to human rights instruments. We can hardly deny that the West is bolstering up the savage-victim-saviour image of human rights issues when, for example, we see the US sweeping into Iraq to ‘save’ the people and ‘repair’ the country, committing their own atrocities in the process.

The criticisms of the HRM and the SVS mindset remain unsettling and unanswered; perhaps they are unanswerable because they conflate the saviour and the savage, and no Western mind can possibly disentrench itself from its own cultural milieu to see the full implications or properly rebut the criticism.


* Texts, for those interested:

Makau wa Matua – Savages, Victims and Saviors: the Metaphor of Human Rights

Jack Donnelly – The Relative Universality of Human Rights