Human rights in politics and academia is ubiquitous and the literature on it ever-expanding. Yet much of what I hear and read is much of a piece, which is why I thought it would be interesting to highlight three (relatively) recent books that, I think, are developing the most interesting studies and new understandings of human rights. The texts don’t represent a cohesive agenda but rather reveal lines of connection through three (at least) different disciplines – and as I suggest below, collectively they contribute to an important and emerging way of rethinking human rights, particularly for those who are critical of the role human rights play in justifying the actions of powerful states and coercive interventions.
My own research on human rights is in global ethics and international political theory, but I have found myself increasing dissatisfied with the account of human rights as a political practice offered in many contemporary works. Within philosophy and political theory, empirically grounded human rights research is particularly lacking, but even within political science and international law there is a dearth of good critical work based in historical or contemporary analysis of how human rights are actually put to use.
Even where theorists defend human rights via an appeal to their place within world politics as an important ethical practice, the practices referred to are invariably elite focused. It seems international lawyers, foreign policy decision makers from powerful states, international bureaucrats and, if we’re lucky, representative of Western (i)NGOs are the exclusive inhabitants of the world of human rights. For example, Charles Beitz recent work The Idea of Human Rights (2009), is better than most but still lacking.
There are of course notable exceptions: Brooke Ackerly (2007), Stephen Hopgood (2006), Lynn Hunt (2007), and Sally Engle Merry (2006), working across a variety of disciplines, have all produced work that is critically informed, innovative and gets beyond a focus on conventional narratives and elite-actors. This sort of work should influence normative thinking on human rights, but this isn’t the case, which is a shame. I suspect (and in fact in my research I make this argument at length) that this has much to do with conventional approaches in ethics that inform most of the work being done on human rights – but I’d be interested to know what others think.
Turning to the books highlighted in this post – all three present challenging critical work on human rights (based in anthropology, sociology and history) which examines the current and past use of human rights by political actors. What is especially important in all three books is that there is an attempt to not only understand and present how marginalized people have used human rights, but also to highlight the paradoxical nature of the idea itself. Not only do we see struggles to win recognition within the social category of “humanity”, but by attending to the history and actual social contests that use human rights, we can see that the meaning and scope of “humanity” as a privileged status is not stable nor given.
This links to what Stammers calls the ‘paradox of institutionalisation’, which highlights the process by which novel and revolutionary claims to human rights become part of existing and emerging structures of social power – for example, the political settlements that followed early revolutions in the United States, France and Haiti constrained their radical promise, as existing and emerging social powers resettled after a period of disruption. Both Stammers and Shilliam & Bhambra examine these historical tendencies. So even as we get a compelling picture of human rights as a potential element in a radically emancipatory politics, we also see how they can become political tools of dominant social actors. For example, after the first rights revolutions, despite deep and broad social agitation by marginalized groups (slaves, women, religious minorities), the social practice of human rights (the rights of man; secularised natural law) offered justification to emerging nationalist states that limited citizenship and rights to white, Christian males who owned property.
In the text by Goodale & Merry, the collected authors present a number of contemporary studies of the ways political actors use human rights norms (and laws) – both through vernacularisation and re-articulation – in social struggles. The value of the collection lies in the detailed analysis of what it means when human rights advocates claim that human rights are a common ethical language in world politics. And what the collection reveals is the depth of plurality within human rights, generated by their use in diverse social situations. At the same time, many pieces in the collection point to the limits and impositions entailed by using the human rights language – these occur at the level of ideals, for example the notion of the self implied by rights practices, and practical institutions, where the role of human rights as an ideological component of powerful liberals states presents practical problems for those social movements making more radical rights claims – which we see in the recent assertion in the UN General Assembly of a right to clean water and sanitation, lead by Bolivia. This highlights the importance not only of attending to the sorts of political arrangements towards which human rights politics tend, but also the subjectivity entailed by the highly individualised rights-holder presumed within dominant liberal accounts of rights.
It seems blindly obvious to me that anyone interested in evaluating human rights as ethical principles should deeply engage with this literature, after all it is only by attending to the neglected history of human rights movements and the particular role they have in both enabling and limiting social transformations that we can get a full sense of their consequence and potential – but evidence suggests that an enormous gulf persists between philosophers, political theorists and many academic advocates of human rights and these important attempts to understand the reality of what human rights are as social practices and working ethical ideals. This criticism also applies to many of the critics of human rights, as the standard lines of argument suggesting that human rights are merely the moral prejudices of Western (or liberal – the conflation is endemic among critics) powers, which are at best ineffectual, and at worst provide moral justifications for forms of neo-imperial oppression. It turns out that for advocate and critic alike the reality is a bit more complicated than that. Human rights scholarship in this vein also presents normative theorists with what I think is a pressing challenge, which is to respond to the complex reality of human rights as a social practice without crudely insisting that practice confirms theory (which it doesn’t) or that practice should conform to theory (which is a dubious assertion, to put it politely).