Human Rights Contested – Part II

This is a continuation of my previous post

Who Are Human Rights For?

All of the authors take account of the ambiguous history of human rights, in which they can be said to have inspired the Haitian, American and French revolutions, while also justifying the counterrevolutionary post-Cold War order dominated by the United States. Yet recognising this ambiguity without also acknowledging the distinctive reconstruction of contemporary human rights that makes them part of a neo-liberal international order and the unequal power that makes such a quasi-imperial order possible would be irresponsible. A primary contribution made collectively by these texts is that they clearly diagnose the way human rights have been used to consolidate a particular form of political and economic order while undercutting the need for, much less justification of, revolutionary violence. Williams says of Amnesty International’s prisoners of conscience, who serve as archetypal victims of human rights abuse,

the prisoner of conscience, through its restrictive conditions, performs a critical diminution of what constitutes “the political.” The concept not only works to banish from recognition those who resort to or advocate violence, but at the same time it works to efface the very historical conditions that might come to serve as justifications – political and moral – for the taking up of arms.

Human rights, then, are for the civilised victims of the world, those abused by excessive state power, by anomalous states that have not been liberalised – they are not for dangerous radicals seeking to upset the social order.

This does more than limit human rights to a moral minimalism, it creates a damaging division between liberal nations who are already civilised and illiberal states beset by evil barbarism and in need of salvation, by limiting the claims for justice that can be backed by force to those underwritten by the authoritative institutions of the powerful. This is the demand that liberal human rights make for the avoidance of evil. As Meister notes, ‘Unlike earlier versions of human rights that sought to hasten the advance of social equality, today’s commitment to human rights often seeks to postpone large-scale redistribution. It is generally more defensive than utopian, standing for the avoidance of evil rather than a vision of the good.’ This is a powerful construction because it becomes very difficult to oppose the limited vision enabled by human rights – who, for example, wants to argue against the prevention of cruelty and the avoidance of evil – but it also cynically uses beautiful revolutionary dreams of human rights to uncritically legitimate a political order still beset by violence in many forms, and still calling out for greater justice.

     The liberal account of human rights impoverishes our understanding of politics; as Williams suggests it renders the politics of human rights as a morality play between saviours, victims and savages, which obscures the pervasive hierarchy and force that uphold the ideal and institutions of human rights.

As an increasingly critical legitimizing instrument for contemporary imperialism, human rights, and its imperial modes of intervention – humanitarian war and humanitarian aid – relies heavily upon the production of subjects in need – in need of rights, in need of democracy, in need of rescue. This subject-in-need, in turn, interpellates, organizes, and mobilizes subjects who come to see themselves as bearers of the responsibility to rescue – good humanitarians who, however critical of imperialism, come to participate in the ethos of empire. (2010, p.64)

It is the way that human rights fit into a wider imperial politics that is at issue here, not the failings of particular individuals trying to do good. Of special importance is how the victims that human rights are supposed to protect are treated. Meister, for example, is excellent at analysing the way victims along with perpetrators of human rights abuse must be pacified, as the experience of repression and exclusion may give victims reason to demand the upsetting of the established order. Therefore, it becomes important that victims are seen as needy and powerless, not active and engaged. Victims, constructed in this way – abused, in need, voiceless, without agency – then require particular types of saviours, not only who are empowered by the existing order of things but also who are not to blame for the excesses and violence of that order.

That Human Rights Discourse addresses us as bystanders, and not beneficiaries, is indicative of the transposition of human rights itself from the register of political mobilization to that of global popular culture. In this culture, apathy – our natural response to the pain of others – is to be replaced by empathy, the morally induced ability to feel the pain of others as our own. If consumers of our popular culture only felt less apathy toward (and thus empathy for) victims, the argument goes, they would hold themselves responsible for what they allow to happen. The culture also assures them, however, that they were not really responsible – that their true failing did not arise in any particular relation to perpetrators or victims but rather from a simple lack of compassionate feelings combined, perhaps, with willed inattention to the facts. (Meister 2011, p.213)

Goodale traces a related obfuscation in the misrepresentation of anthropology’s resistance to the idea of human rights, which he argues is not based on crude moral relativism, but rather on the very real danger that universal politics, through their assimilative tendencies, present to marginalised peoples. Ironically, rejecting the real concerns about assimilation as immoral and irresponsible relativism does not prevent privileged consumers of human rights culture from ignoring the suffering of others, such that universal morality guarantees assimilation but not concern. The stability of the contemporary liberal international order depends on that passivity, which is not easily or quickly converted into action, as indifference to everyday human suffering punctuated by outrage at those events presented as exceptional evils both preserves the status quo and justifies forceful interventions.

The practical import of this construction of the moral drama of human rights is that the fundamental architecture of international politics is affirmed and made incontestable – the exclusivity of the nation, backed up by violence, is rendered necessary; the violence inherent in the legal order, both domestic and international, is privileged and rendered legitimate; the deprivation and inequality wrought by capitalism is removed from public view, as its effects are the consequence of private transactions. The harm of this architecture is also felt most severely, and predictably, by those who are from the under-class, from ethnic minorities and victims of patriarchal social structures (it is worth noting that the issue of gender is under-examined by all the authors discussed here, which is unusual because similar pioneering works have focused on this issue to great effect). Baxi’s examination of the difficulty and promise of a human right to development is an important illustration of this. Claiming a right to development must not only contest the idea of what can be made an appropriate object of rights, rejecting the notion that rights are injunctions against the actions of others rather than claims to positive improvements of one’s condition, but such a rights claim must also contest the meaning of development itself. Baxi argues that a right to development that was drawn from the experiences of the impoverished and not beholden to ready made myths of developmentalism, would imply a reconsideration of the relationship between public and private control of production and exchange to guarantee greater welfare and opportunity (both domestically and internationally), as well as a move away from the notion of a single model of development as increasing national wealth.

All these texts dwell on this difficulty, on the dangers and possibilities of engaging with human rights for people struggling against and subject to power – and their reflections converge on the necessity of recognising and naming the complicity of human rights; the struggle to reclaim human rights, understood as a set of ideals about the best way to be human, is as much a matter of how we think as it is of political action. Goodale locates the imperialism of human rights as much in their abstract universalism as in the practices of powerful states and non-state actors, and Baxi suggests that giving up theories of human rights is an act of emancipation in itself, both suggesting that how we think must change if we also want to change who human rights are for and address the violence and injustice not only unresolved but enabled by a quasi-imperial liberal human rights. Williams goes farthest in his critique, suggesting that

Given this, it would seem that we need some means of advancing a new episteme of political violence, one that affords us better ways through which to recognize and map acts and conditions of violence and, we hope, to develop more effective means and strategies through which to confront and contest the global fields of brutality. To these ends, it is useful to reengage the history of postwar human rights praxis and examine in a more critical fashion what other ways of knowing and responding to violence have been used and developed, concurrent with those of human rights, yet largely out of view and grossly underappreciated.

What Do Human Rights Promise?

Given the challenges addressed in these texts, what can human rights achieve? A central line of Meister’s critique is that human rights as we know them today are explicitly intended to limit the promise of justice – both because the horrors of the twentieth-century suggest that such promise might come at too high a cost, and because the promise of justice as greater political and social equality is opposed by the post-Cold War powers. If he’s correct, is the opening that Goodale and Baxi see in human rights practice adequate to restoring the revolutionary promise of human rights? When analysing the importance of the ideal of self-determination, in opposition to colonial domination, Baxi’s suggest that human rights may be adequate to the task.

Far from emerging as any mimetic reproduction of the Enlightenment ‘values’ and its associated progress narrative, movements for national self-determination mark a world-historic rupture, in turn resulting in alternate visions and paths of development.

This claim is, in essence, the wager that all of these authors make: that actually opening up the idea of human rights to all of humanity, rather than a privileged minority that uses the idea to divide up the world, would rupture our political and moral understandings in a profound way. But questions linger in light of such optimistic pronouncement. How can they create such a rupture? Can we break so cleanly with the order of things which define and are defined by human rights?

The ruptures enabled by human rights, the authors suggest, are driven by the tension at the heart of human rights: the affirmation of the moral and political salience of our common humanity, which is itself defined by pluralism and profound difference. As Goodale suggests, ‘It is, rather, a normative response to suffering that reflects a wisdom of a very different and (we might say) anthropological sort: that which comes from an acceptance of the complicated and (to some) endlessly frustrating fact of human multiplicity.’ And while the recognition of profound difference may motivate the well-intentioned to challenge the imperial dialect in which human rights are articulated, there is still a question of what motivates resistance to the order of things. As Meister suggests, seeing in human rather than more particular terms opens the possibility of seeing injustice. ‘Once we recognize that the many unequal advantages in society could not be justified starting now, an obvious question arises: “Why not socialism?”’ Or, given the inequalities of our current world, why not something else? Why not revolution? The idea that human rights can inspire a new pluralist ethos of global order, what Goodale describes as ‘a future transnational or postnational normative framework that is based on the imperatives of ethical restraint, humility, and legal pluralism’, and can motivate a revolutionary politics, which Williams, drawing on Frantz Fanon, insists human rights must do in order to remain relevant for emancipation, creates as many questions and controversies as it resolves. While the call to think more critically and expansively is valuable as such, perhaps the most important contribution these authors make is giving us some markers to use in taking that project forward – as it is not a well-marked or easy path.

While it may be curmudgeonly to end on a pessimistic note, the project of reconstructing human rights requires serious-mindedness. There are two important warnings that we find in these texts. First, human rights is indeed a culture – while this culture is contested and plural, it also dominated by the interest of the powerful and a pervasive social discourse that constructs its subjects in particular ways. Therefore, there is always a risk in taking up human rights, in engaging the language of power. As Goodale presciently warns,

it is much easier for people to appropriate the idea of human rights for specific legal, political, or social purposes than it is for them to embrace the – at times – radically alternative conception of the person that forms the basis for this idea. In other words, in many cases the coming of human rights demands something of identity that the practice of identity is not prepared (or able) to give.

With this warning in mind, our optimism about the potential for human rights to open up the moral and legal order of world politics, and to provide vision of substantive justice, must be tempered by the challenge of building an alternative culture and an alternative political order – especially one that is open to plurality and contestation.

     The second limitation of human rights is that they may have too much historical baggage, they may be tools that are too dull to serve their purpose. Human rights not only inspired struggles to create a secular and national polity, they were also formed by those dynamics and there is an open question of whether than can be reconstructed to serve radically different visions. Meister wonders

Does the present unthinkability of a past wish (for example, to exterminate a perceived enemy) mean that it is gone? Where did it go? In whom do we believe it now resides? Twenty-first-century Human Rights Discourse does not welcome such questions. Its most positive achievement has been to insist that someone is to blame for human rights violations and to reject excuses that deflect blame onto the victim. This technique of keeping the paranoid anxieties of beneficiaries at bay leaves little psychic energy available for a turn toward greater justice. If Human Rights Discourse is what comes after evil, something must come next.

If the limits of human rights can only be overcome by a turn toward the pursuit of justice, the language of human rights and the idea of a universal human subject of politics may prove too limiting – as Baxi suggests in his consideration of what human rights may mean in a posthuman world. The only answer given in these texts, and perhaps the only responsible answer, is that human rights have no claim to be the exclusive mode of political ethics and no guarantee of their future progressive value. In contesting dominant understandings we can explore the possibilities of human rights, but those explorations themselves must be contested, and they may be found wanting. Contesting human rights insists on the possibility that a world without human rights be a better one – which is among these authors’ most significant contribution.

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2 thoughts on “Human Rights Contested – Part II

  1. Pingback: Sunday Reading « zunguzungu

  2. Pingback: Human rights and World Orders « violenceandworldorders

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