(by Giovanni Moro)
What about human rights in developed countries?
This paper does not aim at taking the floor on the theoretical debate on human rights and on the epistemological basis of a sociology of human rights. It is rather devoted to highlight a problem that, prima facie, such a sociology should address.
The problem is that both scientific research and policy activity on human rights in well-based democratic regimes seem to have a relatively poor empirical content. It seems, indeed, that in these countries human rights fit just with far rare and extreme situations, such as arbitrary deprivation of life, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention. To give an example, we can use the list of topics of the US State Department report on human rights in Italy: denial of fair public trial, violations of privacy, lack of freedom of speech and press, restrictions to academic freedom and freedom of association, lack of freedom of religion, obstacles to the free movement, lack of respect for political rights, governments’ refusal of international and nongovernmental investigation, discrimination based on various factors, lack of workers’ rights, trafficking in persons.
As everyone can see, whatever criticism can (and should) be addressed to developed countries, these phenomena are definitely (and fortunately) marginal.
Of course, these negative phenomena, made visible thanks to human rights, in any case are very important benchmarks for the assessment of the quality of public life in these countries. They are also a warning against any possible deviation from the rule of law or any temptation to take shortcuts on governments’ and other actors’ side. They are, finally, a tool of crucial importance in order to deal with new kinds of problems, such as those related to biomedical research or to information technologies.
The point is that, with the relevant exception of the question of rights of immigrants as individuals and as groups, human rights discourse does not regard the everyday life of common people of rich and well-established countries. It therefore risks to be considered suitable only for developing countries or for some transnational, global issues, with, among others, a paradoxical ethnocentric effect.
Apart any political evaluation on this point, it must be stressed that this situation affects not only public policy making, but also scientific research, since it could make difficult to use the human rights discourse as a heuristic apparatus to increase knowledge on rich societies.
In order to favor the discussion on this point, this paper reports an experience of use of human rights documents and norms involving common citizens and one of the most important welfare service, that is, health care.