In a Wednesday night talk in Wellman Hall, Professor Aquiline Tarimo spoke about changing the international approach to human rights.
He said it needs to change its focus from what is mostly political pragmatism and academic discussion-without-action to addressing the needs of the poor and fighting poverty.
“Unless the human rights debate recognizes the needs of the poor, it will dissolute its relevance and meaning,” said Tarimo, a Jesuit priest and human rights scholar from Africa, citing a slum in Nairobi, Kenya, where the poor lack clean water, health care and sanitation services. Unemployment is high and the“lack of proper sewage system creates stagnant water, [which] becomes a breeding ground for [disease-carrying] mosquitoes,” he said.
“The animals in Kenya National Park live in a much better environment than [the] slum dwellers,” Tarimo said.
Tarimo, originally from Tanzania, is currently a visiting scholar and professor at Santa Clara University. He is the founding director of the Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations in Nairobi, Kenya, and is an associate professor of social ethics at CUEA University, Kenya.
“The international human rights debate has been declining because the plight of the poor has not been adequately addressed by academics and politicians,” he said.
While academics deal with the issue theoretically, politicians approach human rights in a way that will fulfill their own personal interests, Tarimo said.
“The separation of civil-political rights from socio-economic rights has rendered human rights ethics impotent,” Tarimo said in an e-mail interview before his presentation.
“…If economic rights aren’t being addressed, the rest of the debates [on human rights] are simply rubbish,” he said in his presentation.
In the e-mail interview, Tarimo said the human rights debate persists not only because of the dualism approach to socio-economic rights and civil political rights, but also because [scholars and politicians] tend to present communal rights as opposed to individual rights.
“Such a situation has obstructed concrete engagement in addressing issues related to human rights violations such as genocide and the economic rights of the poor,” he said.
After his formal presentation, Tarimo engaged the audience in a question-and-answer session, where he responded to such issues as the role of the United Nations in human rights and increasing the need to strengthen women’s rights in impoverished nations.
“Responsibility towards the poor is not an option, but an obligation of everybody on the planet,” Tarimo said.
Tarimo said cultural mindsets must be changed in order to make progress in the human rights arena. When asked by an audience member about how to approach this, Tarimo said the status quo will change only if we create “a positive attitude towards common good. [This ] must be well promoted at home as well as abroad.”
“If we are consumed by our own ego and self-interest and our accumulation for material wealth, we have no time for common good,” he said.
It is also important to consider the culture and conditions of the region that is in need of assistance, Tarimo said.
The event, which attracted an audience of approximately 60 people, was presented by the office of ASUCD Vice President Molly Fluet.
Audience members seemed to respond well to the question-and- answer-session.
“I liked it [the presentation],” said Jan Pherson, of Sausalito, Calif., who traveled to Davis to attend the event. “His formal presentation was very academic, but when he responded to questions, I felt I understood what his idea was. I liked the questions, I liked his responses-they brought him forward.”
Christina Robinson, a first-year international relations major, also said she felt Tarimo made his point most effectively during the question-and-answer session.
“What I’ve taken away from [Tarimo’s presentation] is the need to seek out individuals who [will work] for positive change,” she said.
ANNA OPALKA can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.