Georgia Lederman: Respect for Particularity: A discussion on Friendship Ethics, Children’s Rights and International Law


Respect for Particularity: A discussion on Friendship Ethics, Children’s Rights and International Law


“Everyone befriended me based on his conjecture.

None ever sought from me what the secret of my heart is.”[1]


Created in 1989, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was produced to address an international desire to protect the dignity and well being of children across the world. The treaty was signed and ratified by 20 countries, all members of the United Nations.[2] In this paper I will discuss both Human Rights and International Law. These two concepts are directly related in that notions of Human Rights inform the composition of International Laws. In this paper I will explore the advantages of universalizing acceptable and unacceptable treatment of women and children. I will then acknowledge the tensions between individualistic Western Human Rights and traditional societies in which solidarity and community supersedes individuality. Finally, I will propose a paradigm shift in humanitarian aid initiatives: humanitarian aid should occur through a process of friendship and trust, rather than a process of top-down imposition of universal morals. Though International Law has been critical in the decline of inhumane practices, adhering to a moral sense of acceptable human behavior can become exaggerated and disruptive when full understanding of another society or community is underdeveloped.

International Law and the concept of Human Rights protect women and children from abusive practices and behaviors. The CRC undoubtedly plays an important role in keeping children from exploitation, poverty, abuse, malnutrition etc. In “The Legislative Reform Related to the Convention of the Rights of the Child”, a report put forth my UNICEF collaborators, Kofi Quashigah articulates an example of hardships as they occur in Ghana:

The demands of modern economic pressure have compelled parents to push their children into socialization processes that have lent themselves to abuse. Children are often hired out by their own parents to people who use them as domestic labourers, hawkers, and even for very dangerous jobs such deep river diving for fishermen masters. This last occupation often results in death by drowning. Trafficking is one of the processes used to advance this exchange.[3]

This citation demonstrates the desperate conditions that push children into traumatic and destructive conditions, primary in developing countries but in developed countries as well.  Similarly, as the award-winning 2013 documentary Girl Rising articulates, young girls around the world are sold for labor at an early age—they are deprived of an education and often mistreated and abused.[4]

Similarly, when describing the impetus for the establishment of the CRC and implementation programs, Quashigah articulates the upsetting prevalence of female genital mutilation and sexualized violence that should be addressed through humanitarian interventions.[5] It is in the face of these problems that we recognize the value of International Law and Human Rights; they are useful in that peacemaking organizations and national governments use such institutions to help justify, guide and implement interventions. For example, in Ghana, children face many obstacles to the achievement of the rights outlined by the CRC. When Ghana, a member of the UN, ratified the CRC, the Ghanaian government and UNICEF crafted the Master Plan of Operations and Programme Plans of Operations 2001–2005. UNICEF agreed to fund the cost of implementation, estimated at USD$60,000,000.[6] The Country Programme was set up to address the wellbeing of children with a specific focus on the six-year-old landmark. The program sought to assist children in reaching the age of six mentally and physically well, with equitable access to basic education. The program also specifically targeted “children in need of special attention” which means working children, children living on the streets, mothers living on the streets and children that experience exploitation and abuse.[7] Therefore, rhe Country Programme in Ghana is an example of how International Law and Human Rights notions can instigate and assist the development of humanitarian aid.

Additionally, the CRC recognizes to a certain extent that implementation of Rights should differ depending on cultural context. For example, the political and social structure of Ghana is different from many Western democracies. Since the termination of British control, Ghana has had a democratic government as well as traditional authority systems in which Chiefs and “Queen Mothers” reign. Not surprisingly, the democratic government holds the majority of power.[8] In his report, Quashigah states: “…the Constitution recognizes the customary laws of the various peoples of Ghana as sources of applicable law…Customary laws and practices are therefore accorded constitutional recognition.”[9] In other words, Quashigah recognizes that Ghana has a two-tiered political system in which official governing bodies function in tandem with traditional customary law. Quashigah goes on to state:

Nevertheless, even though the Constitution provides that ‘Every person is entitled to enjoy, practise, profess, maintain and promote any culture, language, tradition or religion subject to the provisions of this Constitution,’ it also stipulates in the same article that ‘All customary practices which dehumanise or are injurious to the physical and mental well-being of a people are prohibited.”[10]

This passage is important because it marks an inherent tension between indigenous communities and governing powers. There seems to be an ambiguous line between protecting other societies from oppressive practices and imposing the dominant morals upon people of more traditional cultures.

Furthermore, despite the advantages of international systems, universalized ideologies can be destructive. Though the CRC has lead to important humanitarian initiatives and has guided powerful bodies to protect woman and children, it is important to underline the disadvantages of such laws. Firstly, Quashiga underlines the limited scope of the Country Programme: “some traditional practices that do constitute outright infractions upon the rights of children still persist even in the face of legislative provisions that seek to proscribe them.”[11] This passage is illuminative because it suggests that policies and laws rarely affect everyone successfully—and often times the most desperate situations are the ones left out. Additionally, International Law is limited in its ability to enact lasting peace because of the literal and figurative distance between law-enacting officials and traditional societies. For example, the Executive Board of UNICEF is comprised of 36 government representatives that are elected usually for a three-year term by the UN Economic and Social Council.[12] Though UNICEF works with representatives from local communities, this government is significant in that its members are often oblivious to the anthropological and sociological underpinnings of the communities that their decisions will impact.

It is important to acknowledge the pertinence of economic stability when implementing human rights, because unfortunately survival is often dependent on exploitative practices. Though hazardous work is by no means acceptable, UNICEF programs and other governmental policies need to account for lost revenue that occurs when abolishing such practices. This is essential in communities like traditional Ghanaian societies, where families depend upon child labor to survive. In other words, unless intervention programs can propose alternatives to the way resources are obtained, or even provide monetary compensation, the programs are unlikely to last. Furthermore, peacebuilder Simon Chesterman underlines how funds are often supply-driven, rather than demand-driven, problematic in that donors’ wishes influence the projects rather than the communities’ goals.[13] Thus, economic realities pose an obstacle to the implementation, viability, and sustainability of third party interventions.

Furthermore, Ghana’s traditional societies are communally oriented and children are not viewed as distinct from adulthood in the same way that they are in a Western worldview. I argue that the CRC fails to recognize the very real contribution children play to their families’ survival in certain communities. For example, child labor, while viewed as criminal in the West, is at the heart of many African and nonwestern economies. In an article titled: “International Child Welfare: Deconstructing UNICEF’s Country Programs”, Siobhan Laird, Sociology professor at the University of Sheffield, delineated the disruptive nature of UNICEF’s presence in Ghana. Laird argues that, “Country Programmes promulgated by UNICEF to improve children’s welfare reflect ethnocentric conceptualizations of the family.”[14] Laird states: “typically in Ghana, as in other African societies, households are multigenerational, comprising the extended family which functions as a complementary portfolio of domestic and commercial activities in order to sustain household livelihood.”[15] In other words, children contribute to the functioning of the household and therefor to its survival.

Another flaw in many so-called peacemaking institutions is a failure to prioritize local agency. Johnson highlights economic peacemaking initiatives that have caused more harm then help. He cites esteemed scholar Joseph Stiglitz, who asserts that “Structural Assistance Plans” such as the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund caused harm to developing countries in the 1980’s and 1990’s.[16] Johnson claims: “…these American-directed global institutions, far from being able to alleviate the suffering of the three billion souls living under two dollars a day, actually contribute to world instability.”[17] Accordign to Johnson, “the unemployment rate was up fourfold in Korea, threefold in Thailand, tenfold in Indonesia” after Western “Structural Assistance” was deployed. Lastly, in Strategies for Peace, Chesterman underlines the importance of modesty and the ability to listen to local voices.[18] Most importantly, he states that sustainable peace is dependent on opening up space for local action and organizing.[19]

Another important aspect in humanitarian initiatives is the tension between individualism and community. In an article titled “Rethinking Human Rights: A Common Challenge for Muslims and Christians”, David Johnson asserts that whereas the West see Rights as an individualistic concept, most other societies locate rights within communal networks. Johnson writes: “…the concept of human rights is based on a Western individualistic view of the human person. Most other cultures—unlike the modern secular view adopted since the Enlightenment—see people as primarily part of a network of community relations, from family and clan to village, ethnic, religious, and national groupings.”[20] Furthermore, Heyking and Avremenki illustrate the historical increase of individualist thought: “At the dawn of the modern state, the beginning of the scientific revolution, the outset of the spread of universal principles of rights and freedoms, and the advent of international truck and trade, friendship as a political concern nearly drops out of sight.”[21] In other words, the Enlightenments’ individualism informed the Western notions of human rights. This discrepancy is critical in understanding the extent to which international law, created from an individualist perspective, can be antithetical to the worldviews of traditional societies. For example, Laird articulates the customs that govern traditional Ghanaian society which stand in contrast with individualist ideologies. Laird articulates that a certain “moral economy” plays a critical a role. This term refers to a sort of shared sense of wellbeing, which engenders borrowing, lending, donating and sharing between households and families. This type of sharing is antithetical in many ways to neoliberal ideology and a Western sense of individuality.

How should peacemakers balance Western notions of Human Rights with community-oriented conceptions of humanity? To understand an alternative to individualistic human rights conceptions, we turn to scholars of Friendship Ethics and Interreligious peacemaking. In the introduction to Friendship & Politics: Essays in Political Thought, John Heyking and Richard Avramenko articulate the importance and disappearance of friendship in politics. They cite Hans-Georg Gadamer: “while justice needs only one book, friendship ‘fills two books in Aristotle’s Ethics [but] occupies no more than a page in Kant.”[22] This marks the loss of value attributed to friendship within philosophy. Similarly, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a religious scholar and Professor of Islamic studies calls attention to the decreasing value attributed to friendship. With an eye towards religious and political conflict and violence, Nasr states: “…the current belittlement of friendship at the global scale has turned the serious attention of many to the need to revive it….”[23] Thus, scholars have opened a dialogue about adhering to a paradigm of friendship in trying to construct lasting peace.

An ethic of friendship could help contributors to international law to consider the necessity and difficulty of addressing cultural particularity. Nasr asserts: “Now when we look upon civilizations, we find that every civilization was founded by a religion or by what the great English scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, Marco Pallis, called ‘The Presiding Idea’. Over every civilization, there presides an Idea about the nature of reality.”[24] In other words, every society adheres to some sacred worldview that determines morality and ethics. Nasr continues: “we must consider [the other] as cultural, spiritual, artistic, literary, human structures, not only as political entities.”[25] Similarly, in a section of Johnson’s essay titled “Moving Talk to Action”, he articulates the importance of listening to other voices, especially in areas of conflict, like Israel/Palestine.[26] Understanding the sacred worldview of recipient communities of peacemaking initiatives is critical for peacemakers. How else can they begin to determine universal morality?

Thus, because of the rift between conceptions of Human Rights, humanitarian aid organizations would benefit from a shift in paradigm. David Johnson proposes that a solution to the abyss between western and nonwestern conceptions of Human Rights is religious hermeneutics and interreligious dialogue. Johnson believes that Islam and Christianity both paint a conception of human dignity in which humans see themselves as connected to others and to God. This notion is a part of what Johnson refers to as “holistic human rights.”[27] Additionally, I propose that a dialogue needs to exist between NGOs, governments, local authorities and religious leaders in order to establish “proximity”. To draw an American parallel and emphasize further the importance of cultural understanding, I turn to esteemed scholar of the criminal justice system within the U.S., Bryan Stevenson. Though the context in which he writes is quite different than the international peacemaking context, his objectives are similar: to make the world more peaceful and to reach communities in which human rights are compromised. He has come to be associated with is the notion of “proximity”. In defining proximity, Stevenson asserts that getting close to a struggling community is the only way to gain trust. Trust is critical in information sharing and establishing understanding between two different parties. Stevenson states: “Get close to the things that matter, get close to the places where there is inequality and suffering, get close to the spaces where people feel oppressed, burdened, and abused…see what it does to your capacity to make a difference, see what it does to you.”[28] In the context of Ghana, policy makers and UNICEF representatives should spend time with the Chiefs and Queen mothers, not to convince them of international policies, but to learn, absorb and understand.

In conclusion, the situation in Ghana and other developing areas suggests that the Convention on the Rights of the Child is problematic because it speaks to unalienable and unilateral rights but nowhere does it discuss responsibilities and contributions that children possess. In societies where children participate, this upsets tradition and society’s ability to function. My suggestion to peacemakers who strive to bring peace to children, the future generation, is to invest in an ethic of friendship and invest in a religious conception of holistic human rights—learn others’ stories deeply, and believe in the power of mutually beneficial relationships. As Rumi implores, seek out the secrets of the heart.


Works consulted

Hernandez-Truyol, Berta E. A Critical Moral Imperialism Anthology. NY: New York University Press, 2002. Print.


Muldoon, James P. “Nongovernmental Diplomacy: Revitalizing Mutilateral Diplomacy” in Multilateral Diplomacy and the United Nations Today Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2005. Print.


O’Rourke, J. Education for Syrian Refugees: The Failure of Second-Generation Human Rights      During Extraordinary Crises. Albany Law Review [serial online]. April 2015;78 (2):711-738. Available from Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed May 13, 2016










[1] Rumi qtd. in Nasr, Seyyed Hosseun Nasr, “Friendship between Religions and Cultures: The Foundation for Friendship between Civilizations” in M. J. Mahallati ed., Rethinking Friendship in Muslim Cultures


[3] Quashigah, Kofi. “Legislative Reform Related to the Convention on the Rights of the Child: the Case of Ghana” in Legislative Reform Related to the Convention on the Rights of the Child in
Diverse Legal Systems. United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Gender, Rights and Civic Engagement Section, Division of Policy and Practice, New York, 2008. p 73

[4] Girl Rising.

[5] Quashigah, 73

[6] Laird, Siobhan E. “International Child Welfare: Deconstructing UNICEF’s Country Programmes” Social Policy & Society 4:4, Cambridge University Press (2005). 457–466 doi:10.1017/S1474746405002642 p.459

[7] Laird, 459

[8] Quashigah, 59

[9] Ibid, 64

[10] Ibid, 64

[11]Ibid, 59

[12] UNICEF website

[13]Chesterman, Simon. “Whose Strategy, Whose Peace? The Role of International Institutions in Strategic Peacebuilding” in Strategies of Peace by Daniel Philpott & Gerard F. Powers. Oxford University Press. 2010. pp119-141. p125

[14] Laird, 457

[15] Ibid, 462

[16] Johnson, David, “Rethinking Human Rights: A Common Challenge for Muslims and Christians” in Abu-Nimer and Augsburger, Peace Building chp 18 p 215-233. p218

[17] Johnson, 219

[18] Chesterman, 129

[19] Ibid 137.

[20] Johnson, 218

[21] Heyking, John von and Avramenko, Richard. “Introduction: The Persistence of Friendship in Political Life” in Heyking and Avramenko eds., Friendship & Politics: Essays in Political Thought. p 2

[22] Ibid, 2

[23] Nasr, Seyyed Hosseun Nasr, “Friendship between Religions and Cultures: The Foundation for Friendship between Civilizations” in M. J. Mahallati ed., Rethinking Friendship in Muslim Cultures p 3

[24] Ibid, 10

[25] Ibid, 10

[26] Johnson, 228

[27] Ibid, 223