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Ethnic Massacre in Kosovo

This was a province of Yugoslavia before its split. In this province the population was overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian. But in the entire country, Serbs were in majority. A narrow minded Serb nationalist Milosevic (pronounced Miloshevich) had won the election. His government was very hostile to the Kosovo Albanians. He wanted the Serbs to dominate the country. Many Serb leaders thought that Ethnic minorities like Albanians should either leave the country or accept the dominance of the Serbs. This is what happened to an Albanian family in a town in Kosovo in April 1999:

74-year-old Batisha Hoxha was sitting in her kitchen with her 77-year–old husband Izet, staying warm by the stove. They had heard explosions but did not realise that Serbian troops had already entered the town. The next thing she knew, five or six soldiers had burst through the front door and were demanding, "Where are your children?" … They shot Izet three times in the chest" recalls Batisha. With her husband dying before her, the soldiers pulled the wedding ring off her finger and told her to get out. "I was not even outside the gate when they burnt the house" … She was standing on the street in the rain with no house, no husband, no possessions but the clothes she was wearing. This news report was typical of what happened to thousands of Albanians in that period.

This massacre was being carried out by the army of their own country, working under the direction of a leader who came to power through democratic elections. This was one of the worst instances of killings based on ethnic prejudices in recent times. Finally several other countries intervened to stop this massacre. Milosevic lost power and was tried by an International Court of Justice for crimes against humanity.

Think of the victims in each example: the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, women in Saudi Arabia, Albanians in Kosovo. We would perhaps desire a system where security, dignity and fair play are assured to everyone. We might want, for example, that no one should be arrested without proper reason and information. And if someone is arrested, he or she should have a fair chance to defend himself or herself. We might agree that such assurance cannot apply to everything. One has to be reasonable in what one expects and demands of everyone else, for one has to grant the same to everyone. But we might insist that the assurance does not remain on paper, that there is someone to enforce these assurances, that those who violate
these are punished. In other words, we might want a system where at least a minimum is guaranteed to everyone – powerful or weak, rich or poor, majority or minority. This is the spirit behind thinking about rights.

Rights are claims of a person over other fellow beings, over the society and over the government. All of us want to live happily, without fear and without being subjected to degraded treatment. For this we expect others to behave in such a way that does not harm us or hurt us. Equally, our actions should not also harm or hurt others. So a right is possible when you make a claim that is equally possible for others. We cannot have a right that harms or hurts others. We cannot have a right to play a game in such a way that it breaks the neighbour’s window. The Serbs in Yugoslavia could not have claimed the whole country for themselves. The claims we make should be reasonable. They should be such that can be made available to others in an equal measure. Thus, a right comes with an obligation to respect other rights. Just because we claim some thing it does not become our right. It has to be recognised by the society we live in. Rights acquire meaning only in society.

Every society makes certain rules to regulate our conduct. They tell us what is right and what is wrong. What is recognised by the society as rightful becomes the basis of rights. That is why the notion of rights changes from time to time and society to society. Two hundred years ago anyone who said that women should have right to vote would have sounded strange. Today not granting them vote in Saudi Arabia appears strange. When the socially recognised claims are written into law they acquire real force.

Otherwise they remain merely as natural or moral rights. The prisoners in Guantanamo Bay had a moral claim not to be tortured or humiliated. But they could not go to anyone to enforce this claim. When law recognises some claims they become enforceable. We can then demand their application.

When fellow citizens or the government do not respect these rights we call it violation or infringement of our rights. In such circumstances citizens can approach courts to protect their rights. So, if we want to call any claim a right, it has to have these three qualities. Rights are reasonable claims of persons recognised by society and sanctioned by law.


We need rights in a democracy. Rights are necessary for the very sustenance of a democracy. In a democracy every citizen has to have the right to vote and the right to be elected to government. For democratic elections to take place it is necessary that citizens should have the right to express their opinion, form political parties and take part in political activities. Rights also perform a very special role in a democracy. Rights protect minorities from the oppression of majority. They ensure that the majority cannot do whatever it likes. Rights are guarantees, which can be used when things go wrong. Things may go wrong when some citizens may wish to take away the rights of others. This usually happens when those in majority want to dominate those in minority. The government should protect the citizens’ rights in such a situation. But sometimes-elected governments may not protect or may even attack the rights of their own citizens. That is why some rights need to be placed higher than the government, so that the government cannot violate these. In most democracies the basic rights of the citizen are written down in the constitution.


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