Social tyranny keeps Japan far from U.N. rights ideals: expert

by Eric Johnston

Staff writer

KOBE — Human rights mean freedom from tyranny, and, while today’s Japan has broken the bonds of political tyranny, it still has a ways to go in breaking the bonds of social tyranny, said the keynote speaker at a United Nations University symposium that began here Tuesday.

In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the U.N. Human Rights Declaration, the U.N.U. Global Seminar ’98 Kobe Session chose human rights and the future of human-rights development as its theme. The first day of the four-day seminar drew about 90 participants, including students from universities around Japan and local citizens.

In his keynote address, Yoichi Higuchi, a law professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University, noted that the U.N. declaration was heavily influenced by the U.S. But he added that, immediately after World War II, words like “democracy” and “human rights” came into broader use, although both words often meant different things to different nations. “Like the idea of free markets, human rights can be read in many different ways,” Higuchi said.

Tracing the history of the human-rights movements, Higuchi said that the current idea of human rights owes its origin to John Stuart Mills’ work “On Liberty,” published nearly 150 years ago. This work emphasized freedom from the state, or political tyranny, and freedom from social tyranny. “In today’s Japan, for example, the threat of the state to the individual has been minimized compared to the situation during the war. On the other hand, when the Emperor Showa was dying, the Japanese government had to tell the public not to restrain itself. This suggests there is still some progress to be made in overthrowing social tyranny,” he added.

In order to eliminate this social tyranny, a society must be made up of individuals who are willing to bear the solitude and loneliness of marching to their own drummer, he said, warning those in attendance that they would be ostracized by other members of their society for such actions.

Following Higuchi, Janusz Symonides, director of UNESCO’s human rights, democracy, and peace division, spoke on the role of scientific and technological progress in promoting human rights. “The donation and selling of human organs and organic materials raises a number of questions linked with human rights, including consent for donation, respect for the bodies of dead people, conservation of organs and tissues, and the very definition of death posed by the danger of harvesting organs prematurely, which could be qualified as murder,” Symonides said.

On the other hand, the introduction of new information technologies, especially the Internet, has had a generally positive impact on human rights, the director said.