Common standards are applied, not just within the United Kingdom, but across the world in the form of human rights. Both of these sets of standards, however, necessarily treat people differently. The law and rights centre on the idea of equality for everyone, without realising that this in an impossible goal, and, most importantly, without recognising that our differences should be celebrated, not condemned.
True equality cannot exist unless our differences are understood and embraced; without it we are all compared and likened to the western, wealthy male.
Common Standards: International Human Rights
Internationally, regarding so called human rights as a common standard across the world, the western world could be said to receive fulfilment of these rights, although not because of these rights but in spite of them. However, those in Africa and the rest of the developing world do not receive any rights, not just because they are poor but because they were born into those countries and into those conditions.
A South African during the apartheid regime or a political dissident in China today could correctly claim that they have 'the right not to be discriminated against'. However, no such right exists: 'right' refers to a claim about what morality demands, not what is legally enforceable.1
Human rights claim to create common standards that unify everyone; however, an illustration of how the common standard of human rights treats people differently can be seen through the response to the Haitian earthquake in January 2010. The earthquake not only exacted a massive toll in lives and livelihoods, but also destroyed infrastructure: the effects exacerbated by previous conditions of poverty, instability, and feeble institutions. International organizations and the international community had pledged to help Haiti beyond the immediate relief efforts to sustain effective development policies and improve access to good services.
For this, initiatives supposedly had to be anchored in human rights, ensuring that the root causes of vulnerabilities, namely poverty and discrimination, could be addressed. The paramount goal was to ensure that Haitian people achieved their rights in full, and this could not be postponed until more favourable conditions prevailed. Instead, it should be accepted that the developing world needs more assistance, as they have no rights, rather than attempting to facilitate for what does not exist.2
The delegates to the Human Rights Council special session did not refer to the fact that, although dependent on food imports in 2010, Haiti had been self-sufficient in its staple of rice until import tariffs were lifted and subsidised US rice began flooding in.3
If human rights, as a common standard across the world, treated everyone the same, there would have been no need to ensure their right to not live in poverty, which was caused by the old Government. The conditions 'resulted from policies such as that of the Duvalier regime which forced people from rural areas and farmers from rice fields to the capital to provide cheap labour for Haiti's elite.'4
Despite the claims and the first sign of aid, the millions raised by the people of the western world never reached Haiti, and no progress has been made over the year. This demonstrates the serious lack of effort from the privileged, developed world.
Any way of realizing equality would assign tasks to the developed states that go beyond anything their leaders might accept. Effective reduction of hunger and severe poverty worldwide would require real determination costing perhaps as much as $230 billion annually for several years (1% of the affluent countries' gross national product). When the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations asked all developed states to provide a mere $6 billion annually for modernisation of agriculture in the developing countries, the US showed that $2.6 billion would be enough instead.5
Helping the world's poorest populations emerge from poverty tends to strengthen their states and thus to weaken our own; not something that any developed state is willing to do.
For the first time in human history, around the year 2000, it was quite feasible, economically, to wipe out hunger worldwide without inconvenience to anyone. When we could save so many millions from hunger we shouldn't have haggled over $3.4 billion, as the US did in the aftermath of the World Food Summit, but should have been willing to spend 1% of our gross national profit on poverty eradication.6
Crises demonstrate how human rights do not exist and how there is nothing that can be done about helping penalised countries out of poverty, without damaging our own living standards. The countries of the western world will never give up their wealth and power to bring others out of poverty; to make true common standards a reality, with everyone being treated equally. Instead, we will keep them there by continuing to appropriate their own resources that could have enabled them to be self-sufficient, or at least give them a head start.
Common Standards: Wealth and Background
Within education, the application of most University entry requirements as common standards treats people differently: there are the same entry requirements to Universities for those who were publicly or privately educated. It has been argued that, as private schools receive more funding and have more dedicated teachers due to higher pay, pupils are better equipped to attain the grades that will get them into the top Universities and so should be subject to higher entry requirements than those that have been publicly educated; eradicating the common standards in order to achieve a sense of equality, by accepting that both types of education are different. Just over 7.2% of pupils in England attend private schools but make up over a quarter of the intake at the twenty-five most selective universities, and 46.6% at Oxford.7
Universities' Minister David Willetts has released an early draft of a guidance letter to the Director of Fair Access, stating that the remit of the Director of Fair Access is to promote and safeguard fair access to higher education. This should be achieved by requiring institutions that wish to charge more than the basic level, over ï¿½6000 a year, of graduate contributions to agree new Access Agreements, setting out how they will promote access by under-represented groups.8
Plans are also being examined by Lord Mandelson where positive discrimination will be used so that children from poorer backgrounds applying to university could be given a two-grade 'head start'.9
Such schemes are, not surprisingly, fiercely opposed by independent schools. Geoff Lucas, secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents public schools, said: 'Fair access can only be achieved with individual universities making individual choices based on individual pupils. Any blanket policy would be inherently unfair to many pupils and would harm the university system in general. In a sense this is social engineering, but the instruments it is using are far too blunt to do justice to individuals.'10
Bristol University has previously introduced an admissions policy designed to recruit talented students from underprivileged schools: an "alternative admissions scheme". It meant that students who achieved good, but not outstanding, results from schools where A-level scores were low were considered alongside those with top results from high-achieving schools.
But the admissions policy upset representatives of public schools, who believe that high-scoring public school candidates could become victims of positive discrimination and be passed over in favour of state school applicants with lower grades. University spokesman Don Carleton said: "A student who happens to be excellent at a subject in an under-achieving school may have the same academic potential as somebody in one of the best public schools in Britain, but without the libraries, laboratories and devoted staff may not achieve the same A level grades."
In contrast, a way in which common standards should treat people the same is with regard to the system of criminal law; people of all backgrounds being equals in the eyes of the law. However, as we have recently seen with regard to the aftermath of the MP expenses scandal, MPs may receive the same sentences as the general public but will not serve the same term; a privilege that has been previously shared by celebrities.
It has been seen that the ex-Labour MP, David Chaytor could be released as early as May 2011, despite receiving a prison sentence of 18 months for fiddling expenses in January 2011. Many are saying that this is too short a period in prison; amounting to only a third of his sentence. This is emphasised even more since the judge extended his sentence because of the breach of trust involved.
As his offence is neither violent nor sexual, he is eligible for Home Detention Curfew and electronic tagging for 16 weeks. He could reduce his sentence even more on appeal, though it is doubtful that he has time to get an appeal into court. He is still unlikely to serve no more than 20 weeks.11
This further confirms that, even within the realms of the criminal law, common standards privilege some, the rich, and penalise others, the poor.
Common Standards: Women's Rights
Common standards with regard to men and women have the aim of treating them equally, however, rights have been written by the white, rich male, and do not apply to women. The route international law has taken to attempt to bridge this gap and afford some rights to women, is through the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). It has been said that this gives extra rights to women that they are not entitled to, abolishing common standards. However, the statute, in reality, by not applying common standards, helps to make men and women more equal in their own roles. CEDAW is meant to be about providing the same set of right to women as normal human rights to men: the main problem being that from the moment of her birth, the girl child confronts a world which values her existence less than that of boys.12
Closer to home, women suffer from being treated the same at work when they should be treated differently, for example, successful executives of both sexes are characterised by a constellation of stereotypically male traits such as competitiveness, assertiveness, and willingness to take risks. This is because the role is in itself masculine, requiring women to adapt to that role; women should be accepted as different and accommodated for rather than being forced to act like men. Achievement of the highest positions typically takes decades of single-minded devotion to career, including long hours and frequent relocations; something that men are much more likely to be able to commit to.13
Women sacrifice climbing the career ladder in order to start a family and are penalised for this instead of encouraged. This choice is factored into account in recruitment processes for high flying jobs that want long-term commitment from their employees.
The Government counters this argument regarding pregnancy by emphasising that the Sex Discrimination Act 197514 explicitly provides that less favourable treatment on grounds of pregnancy or maternity leave in the field of employment and vocational training is direct sex discrimination. This is taken further by stating that an expectant or new mother who is treated less favourably in relation to those areas on grounds of pregnancy or maternity may be able to claim that she is the victim of indirect discrimination through tribunals.15
The Government has also argued, with regard to equal pay, that the common standards do create equality between the sexes, using the example of the National Minimum Wage, which has contributed to a 2% drop in the pay gap since 1997. Currently British law on discrimination between women and men in relation to pay and benefits is covered by the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975; every employment contract being deemed to contain an equality clause which broadly entitles a woman to the same pay and benefits as a man if she is doing the same or similar work, or work that has been rated equivalent in terms of the demands made in areas such as effort.
These changes to the law, according to the Government, are significant advances in giving individuals the right to fair treatment, bringing equality into the heart of policy making and public service delivery, changing social attitudes.
However, human rights and the legal instruments that protect them were developed primarily by men in a male-orientated world and have not been interpreted in a gender-sensitive way that is responsive to women's experiences of injustice. This will not change unless rights are given specifically to women, like CEDAW, but perhaps legislation that functions closer to home and is more applicable to real life situations would suit better.16
The application of common standards is not always a bad thing. One way in which the law treats the genders differently, when they perhaps should be treated the same, is with regard to female circumcision. The western world condemns the practice as a form of mutilation, despite the milder forms being very similar to male circumcision, a practice the western world embraces.17
According to the experts it is an age-old practice which is perpetuated in many communities around the world simply because it is customary. The mutilation forms an important part of the rites of passage for some communities, marking the coming of age of the female child, but the mutilation is meant to impose on women a catalogue of health complications and untold psychological problems. The practice violates, among other international human rights laws, the right of the child to the "enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health", as laid down in Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.18
One problem with female circumcision is that most of those who undergo the 'treatment' consent, and critics argue that that consent is meaningless; they claim that the cultures that approve are barbaric and deluded.19 This comes close to the liberal idea of positive freedom, freeing people from themselves, making people what they rationally ought to be by taking away their right to do with their bodies as they please and the right for their consent to mean something.
It is hard to understand how this view can be taken when the practice is compared to male circumcision, a practice that used to be carried out in communities for the same reasons and is now a recognised medical procedure. By treating men and women different in this respect, purely because some cultures to not match that of the western world, women go to women with little training in an unsterile location, where, if the law accepted other cultures, the operation could be carried out by trained professionals in a safe environment.
The World Health Organisation has further tried to manipulate the view on female circumcision through using the word 'mutilation'. It could be said, therefore, that we mutilate our bodies with piercings and tattoos, but these are not banned because the developed world carries out these practices.20
The 'mutilation' is known to be practised in at least 25 countries in Africa and, outside Africa, a certain form of female genital mutilation exists in Indonesia, Malaysia and Yemen. Recent information has revealed that the practice also exists in some European countries and Australia, among immigrant communities.
It is difficult to see why, if the procedure is so widespread, it cannot be carried out under the protection of the law.21
Every individual is different and so, by definition, common standards will treat people differently. Examples have been seen with regard to both the gender and background divides, where the law and rights have tried to eradicate discrimination, failing at every turn. Human rights have been the most significant attempt at creating worldwide common standards and, in this way, can be seen as the biggest failure. Human rights privilege their male creators in the western world, penalising women and the poor, most tragically those in the developing world.
The only way we can maintain our living standards in the west is through the damnation of the rest of the world, emphasising our differences rather than embracing them: this will never change.