31.03.2004 - SHS Newsletter 04

Interview with Ioanna Kuçuradi, Turkish philosopher

in SHS Newsletter 04

President of the International Federation of Philosophical Societies (1998-2003) and organizer of the 21st World Congress of Philosophy, Turkish philosopher Ioanna Kuçuradi is a leading personality in the world community of contemporary thinkers. She is also known for her efforts to promote human rights and human rights education both in Turkey and internationally.

When talking about human rights, you often refer to the notion of “evaluation”. Why is this important?

Evaluating is a human phenomenon. We don't do anything without first making an evaluation. The problem is that every day, we encounter different, quite divergent or even opposing evaluations of the same things, the same actions, the same persons, the same events, the same situations.

What is your approach to this problem?

Evaluations are carried out in at least three different ways. One of them is to impute value to an individual object, action, situation or person, in accordance with a culturally valid judgement which is based on what people in a given group think is good or bad. Another way of evaluating is to ascribe value to the object according to the special connection which the evaluator sees between himself or herself and the object in question. It is natural that something which happens has different results for different persons. But neither of these modes of evaluation leads the evaluator to the knowledge of the value of the object he or she evaluates. A third mode of evaluation is what I call “right evaluation”. This is a cognitive activity, which presupposes different kinds of knowledge on the part of the evaluator and at the same time takes into consideration the specificity of the object. For instance, in the case of an action, the person who evaluates it has to understand why the agent has carried out this given action, i.e. to find out the causes and reasons that led the agent to act as he or she did. This “why” also includes his/her value experiences, beliefs, world-view and so on. This action has subsequently to be compared with other possible actions in the same situation. This allows the evaluator to identify the specificity of the action. And it is precisely this specificity that determines the value of the action. One further step is needed to be able to grasp the ethical value of this action – its being right, wrong, valuable or valueless. One must relate this case, with its specificity, to the value of the human being, to what this action means for the human being, for humanity. Thus the ethical value of an action, I think, lies in its significance for the human species.

What are the implications of this theory with regard to human rights?

Human rights are first of all ethical principles. They are ethical norms for the treatment of individuals. But human rights are also principles for action. For example, when human rights are worded in the passive in international instruments, such as "no one shall be subjected to torture", this also means that no one should torture. This is where I connect human rights with action, and consequently with the question of evaluation. Looking at human rights in this way has important implications, particularly for the education of human rights. You have to be trained in making “right evaluations”, so that you can find in most concrete situations in which you have to act, what you should or can do for the protection of human rights. This is something that my pupils learn, including policemen who must often decide very quickly – for instance during a non-peaceful demonstration – how to act. There are general rules of course, but the rules are not sufficient. In order to choose and apply the appropriate rule at a given moment, you must also be able to evaluate the development of the events.

You have introduced the notion of the ethical education of human rights…

At present human rights education is conceived as teaching human rights instruments and, sometimes, as intercultural education or civic education. But in my view, the aim of human rights education should be first and foremost to awaken in people the sincere will to protect human rights. This can often be achieved by helping them become aware of what human rights are –of what they demand–, by helping them to settle accounts with themselves and look at themselves first of all as human beings, by helping them become conscious of their human identity and the identity or the “sameness” of all human beings, which is also the base of human rights. The second aim of human rights education is to provide people with knowledge of the concepts of human rights, that is, what a human right practically demands and why it demands it. And a third aim is to train people in evaluation, so that they become able to decide, in concrete situations, how to act in order to protect the human rights of those to whom their actions are directed or to avoid damaging others’ rights out of ignorance.

You distinguish between directly protected rights and indirectly protected rights. Could you briefly explain this distinction and its implications? Why is this distinction important?

Human rights are also premises for the deduction of law at all levels. The directly protected rights are rights like the right to life or the right to freedom of thought. To protect them means to put them under the guarantee of law. But indirectly protected rights – such as the right to food, the right to education or the right to health – can be protected only through public institutions and through economic and social rights which are limits delineated by laws. It is important how these limits are delineated and whether a law is produced in accordance with human rights or not. When you enforce an economic or social law, you should take into consideration its foreseeable implications for the citizens in the existing conditions of the country at that moment. There are implications which are foreseeable, if you look at things with clear concepts and you know the conditions of the country. But due to a lack of distinction between different kinds of rights of the individual, the attempt to protect economic rights, or what people call “economic freedom” is spreading at present in a way that only directly protected rights can be protected.

Does this mean that you disagree with the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, which considers all human rights and fundamental freedoms as indivisible, interdependent and interrelated?

I don’t disagree with the acceptance that all, and all kinds of human rights are indivisible and interrelated. In fact they are. But I strongly disagree with the existing classifications of human rights, their division in “civil and political rights” and “economic, social and cultural rights”. I disagree with their fashionable division in “generations” and also with considering so-called “cultural rights”, in one sense, as human rights. Clearly conceived human rights are rights of the individual and are universal: they bring demands for the treatment of every human being, whatever his or her other specificities might be. But all rights of the individual are not human rights. I may claim that I, like every human being, should not be ill-treated when I am under detention anywhere, but I think that I may not claim, as a university professor in Turkey, that it is my right to get the same salary as a professor in the USA or Germany.

Why do you see a problem with cultural rights?

There is a confusion between two meanings of “culture” which is reflected in the way that “cultural rights” are understood. “Culture” in the singular, denotes activities such as philosophy, the arts and literature, which help people develop their human and humane potentialities. If we understand culture in this sense, access to and participation in culture is a human right. But when people speak of “cultural rights” they often mean certain group rights. Cultures consist of different and changing world views, life-styles, conceptions of what is good or bad and norms in general. And in many cultures there are world views and norms that are in contradiction with human rights. Group rights, or co-called collective rights, are important when they derive from human rights. If they do not, there is a risk of confusing interests with rights.

You have even said that the promotion of respect for all cultures is a “trap” for human rights.

The differences of cultures is a fact. But these differences should not cause discrimination. I have nothing against people living as they like, so long as their world views, ways of living and norms do not prevent themselves and their children from developing their human potentialities. The unconditional promotion of respect for all cultures as an attempt to fight discrimination is well-minded but very problematic. Many cultures have norms that are incompatible with human rights – take as an example polygamy or blood feud. This escapes attention, probably due to the importance of culture in the singular. That is a trap for human rights. What we need to respect are human beings – not cultural norms. Cultural norms must be evaluated.

What is, for instance, your stand on the claim of schoolchildren or employees to carry symbols of religious conscience?

When I was a student more than 40 years ago, there were no girls wearing a scarf in Turkey, neither in school nor in the university. Today there is a revival, all over the world, of world views and norms that prevent people, and children in particular, from developing as human beings. This revival is closely connected with the promotion of “respect for all cultures”. The best way to solve this problem is through education. The concept of laïcité is often misunderstood. It does not simply consist in the separation of religion and the State. Laïcité is a negative principle which demands that religious and cultural norms in general do not determine the establishment of social relations and the administration of public affairs. This is why laïcité is a precondition for human rights and the reason why it is very important. Those who agree with the claim of schoolchildren to carry religious symbols are probably not aware that they push children to give priority to one of their various collective identities, that they push them to give priority to their cultural identity and not their human identity, and that by doing this they promote discrimination. There is a philosophical problem behind all this. The premises from which universal human rights and cultural norms are deduced are different, and so are the ways in which they are deduced. So to better protect human rights we need a philosophical understanding of their concepts and foundations. Unfortunately, I still see it missing internationally.

What do you recommend concretely?

Philosophy can make an important contribution because concepts, and what I call the “cognitively justifiable conceptualization of ideas”, is the job of philosophy. Something else which is missing, is more awareness about ethical relations. Today there is, for example, a tendency to adopt an economic approach to everything… I read some materials for police training prepared by the Council of Europe. And I was astonished to read there that I, as a citizen, am a “client” of the police! This is something that I don’t understand. I am not a client of the police and students are not my clients! For a public officer there is no such thing as clients. This is a mentality that we find in many places and which reduces everything to economic relations. Everyone has become a client because of the promotion of free market. People think that if they are considered as clients, they will be better treated. But what does this really mean? It means that we reduce all kinds of inter-human relations to economic relations, while inter-human relations are basically ethical relations. This is why human rights should be taught as ethical principles first of all.

You have written about the relationship between the State, the forming of legal norms and Human Rights. What is your approach to this relationship?

If human rights as ethical principles are to be the premises for the deduction of law, the constitutions must be based on human rights. It is not enough to enumerate human rights among other principles in a constitution. The constitution as a whole must be based on human rights and for this we need clear knowledge and a different classification of human rights. We also need a different approach to the concept of the State. At present the State is considered as an entity in itself which oppresses the citizens, though in some societies it is almost conceived as a “father”. But the State is a human legal institution consisting of various organs and institutions. Its raison d’être is to protect the citizens from each other and to administrate what is public in accordance with justice. The way of doing this is by protecting the human rights of the citizens.

But in many cases human rights are regarded as a means to protect the citizens from the State…

Yes, this is a prevailing conception which has to be changed. I’m very happy to bring together in my courses policemen and people from human rights organizations, who become friends. We are all human beings. For a long time NGO people were considered as terrorists and all policemen as terrible beings. These conceptions have to be changed. The State is here in order to protect human rights. You can imagine the difference between public officers who do their work with this consciousness, and those who think that their job is to protect “the State” from the citizens.

You have criticized the idea of a minimal State. Why?

I say that free market economy can work among States that are on the same level of economic development, but it is a trap for developing countries, where the State has to offer public services, in particular services related to human rights, such as schools and health services.

But developing countries are the ones who can least afford those kinds of services…

Very often they can afford it to a certain extent. Also, we tend to think of social injustice as unequal distribution of what exists. But social justice also implies that we equally share what does not exist.

How do you apply this idea of social justice to international relations?

The way that aid is given to non-affluent and poor countries has to be changed for at least two reasons. First of all, aiding poor countries is not charity. It is above all a humane duty. This implies that it is not enough for us to give what remains or what can be spared in an affluent country, but we must give people what they need. Secondly, we have to change the way in which we give the so-called “development aid”. This aid is given usually as loans on the grounds of political interests. But there has to be a new development policy based on donations for human rights related services – that is, for education, health, etc. – and not loans aimed at promoting the private sector. We need to put human rights as the main objective of all policies, both national and international.

Interview by Jeanette Blom


Ioanna Kuçuradi
was behind the introduction of human rights as an obligatory course at the philosophy department of Hacettepe University in 1981. As a teacher of human rights she became more and more involved in practical human rights work through the 1990s. In 1994, she was elected chair of the newly established High Advisory Council for Human Rights in Turkey. Under her leadership, the Council introduced the teaching of human rights in primary and secondary education and prepared reports, notably concerning the abolition of the death penalty, the fight against torture and ill-treatment, freedom of the press and the protection of journalists. In 1998, she visited many prisons and detention places in different parts of Turkey in her capacity as advisor for the President of the Human Rights Commission of the Parliament. The same year, she succeeded in launching an MA programme for Human Rights at Hacettepe University. It was, and still is, the first of its kind in Turkey. A great number of people from professional life, including police officers, have joined this programme. Ioanna Kuçuradi is also Chair of the Turkish National Committee of the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education, which was established in 1998. This Committee organizes human rights seminars for vice-governors and district governors who chair the Human Rights Councils established throughout Turkey. It organizes, in collaboration with various ministries and international organizations, human rights courses for police officers, judges and prosecutors, teachers of human rights and members of the media.




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