Upsetting the Theory: Rights for Housing and Queers

The second post on our forum on Joe Hoover’s Reconstructing Human Rights, from DoT’s Anthony Langlois. You can read Joe’s opening post here and Karen Zivi’s commentary here.


 As I was reading Joseph Hoover’s fabulous new book, a critical debate was going on at the peak human rights institution of the global political system. The Human Rights Council, an institution to which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon suggests “all victims of human rights abuse should be able to look…as a forum and springboard for action”, was debating a resolution to establish a UN Independent Expert on Protection Against Violence and Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. On June 30, 2016, after extensive debate, in which much opposition was expressed, the Human Rights Council voted in favour of this UN Special Procedure, establishing the office of the Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI).

It is a harsh reality that in many countries around the world, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans* and others of queer and diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (LGBTQ) are not able to look to human rights institutions for support and protection, or, those institutions find themselves constrained and unable to offer such support and protection openly, or at all. The creation of the SOGI expert by the UN is in part a recognition of this, and it is seen by many as a critical further step in the UN’s recent activism on this routinely neglected area of human rights concern.

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But as well as allegedly being “progress” in the human rights agenda of freedom and emancipation, it should cause us to pause and think. What does it mean that Human Rights have only come lately to queer communities, if at all?

Hoover does not directly consider this question. But the debate about gay rights, human rights for queers more broadly, and their place in IR, plays a role like that which Hoover shows the right to housing to play. Hoover uses the right to housing to destabilise, challenge, pluralize, democratize and reconfigure our received ideas of human rights. I would suggest that this is also precisely what happens, or, at least, what can happen, when human rights meets sexual orientation and gender identity expression, as well. Continue reading

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Pinkwashing Apple

The gays, we love our Mac toys – and now it seems that our conspicuous consumption of such has paid off: Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, has come out gay. And we are never going to hear the end of it. The hyperbole has been extra-ordinary. He is, in short, the new messiah: “Tim Cook’s announcement today will save countless lives.” That, from Human Rights Campaign (HRC) – the same people who also think same sex marriage will dissolve homophobia and cause the LGBTs to be treated equally. Clearly, there is a lot of wishful thinking going on. How should we navigate it? Well, we have an excellent guide over at A Paper Bird. Scott Long, who authors the must read blog on “sex, rights and the world”, has written a “medium length read” on the matter, and you really should read all of it. Here’s a few highlights (but go on, read it in full on your IOS device when time permits!)

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Tracing the Threads: Queer IR and Human Rights

Originally commissioned by the Editors of E-IR, who have very kindly allowed it to be cross posted. Click here in order to view the E-IR version.


International politics understood as a fabric of the world is shot through with queer threads. Relatively few IR theorists look for and recognise these threads; fewer still explicate the forms and patterns such threads constitute, or discuss their varied significance and meanings. These threads are not somehow marginal to the fabric of international politics – like ornamental figures in out of the way corners. Rather, they pattern the day to day matters of the discipline. A project in which I am presently involved (and from which this post is derived) seeks to show that when we are willing to trace these threads, a whole set of new understandings opens out before us (Picq & Thiel, 2015).

This is the queer claim that when we study IR directly through sexuality and gender politics, the conceptual realignments and reinterpretations which follow will have general significance for the field; that if we don’t analyse in this queer way we will misinterpret the putative subject of the discipline. The study of international sexuality and gender politics is of consequence for IR in general, not just those activists and academics concerned about specific cases of cross border human rights abuse of queers, or the like. Indeed, the always already present nature of these elements applies to both sexuality and gender politics, and human rights: both often get pushed to the margins and are dismissed as specialty interests. Both, however, suffuse the “routine” subject matter of IR as an academic discipline. IR as a discipline however neglects or resists queer theory, and so the analysis takes place elsewhere. A putative concern with the human rights of LGBTQ people – in foreign policy or via human rights programmes – is often as far as IR gets with its concerns for international sexuality politics. But such gestures – however well meant and executed – are tokens; they are indicative of an intellectual failure to grapple with the full strength of the claims made about the centrality of sexuality politics to international relations.

Scholarship on this topic within IR is becoming more prominent. (Readers should keep an eye out for a forthcoming forum on Queer IR in International Studies Review (Sjoberg & Weber, 2015)) To this point, the claim has been explored most directly and pointedly for IR theory by Cynthia Weber in a recent article in the European Journal of International Relations. Weber engages in a sustained critique of IR scholarship, utilizing a diverse array of resources from queer theory. Let me outline the starting point of her argument against IR. Continue reading

Resistance to Global LGBT Norms

International Relations is not normally thought of as the go-to place for lessons on the protection of gays, lesbians, trans, bi and queer people. But in recent times, it has been possible to get the impression that something about the practice of international politics has changed; that norms regarding sexual orientation and gender identity were gaining prominence and exerting discernible influence. In politics and policy making, one could point to the Yogyakarta principles. In mainstream IR theory, one could assess the steady stream of work that has arisen from theories of norm change and entrepreneurship and consider how they might apply to the LGBT case.

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The Secretary General of the United Nations has launched a campaign for the protection of the human rights of LGBT people (with its own Bollywood movie clip!) He has said that the protection of human rights is “one of the great, neglected human rights challenges of our time.” In 2011, the UN released its first ever report (pdf) into the human rights of LGBT people. It states that:

a pattern of human rights violations emerges that demands a response. Governments and inter-governmental bodies have often overlooked violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The mandate of the Human Rights Council requires it to address this gap: the Council should promote “universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind and in a fair and equal manner. (see here, paragraph 2)

The question of how “Governments and inter-governmental bodies” might go about looking at and responding to violence and rights abuse against LGBT people is a complex one. Knee-jerk responses that impose aid conditionality measures, such as that suggested by UK PM David Cameron in the case of Uganda, are probably the least helpful route. Nonetheless, some form of conditionality, or assessment of the rights afforded to LGBT peoples, has become a standard within the repertoire of pro-LGBT rights states and their foreign policy advocates. Continue reading

Human Rights In Crisis?

UPDATE (8 September 2014): Anthony is now with us permanently, but originally wrote this as a guest post after a stint as a Senior Visiting Fellow at the LSE in 2010, where most of us met him. It was in London that he presented an early version of this argument to the IR theory seminar. A response by our own Joe followed shortly afterwards.


One should not judge a book by its cover, but it is certainly possible to get some sense of the state of a field of study on the basis of the titles of recent books. In the case of the study of human rights, this is quite an interesting exercise: at a time when many claim that human rights proponents have never had it better – the term now has great political respectability and legitimacy; human rights NGOs are thriving; the study of human rights takes place in all the great centres of learning and is taken seriously by previously sceptical disciplines (philosophy, anthropology, international relations). At such a time, one of apparent triumph, there has been a spate of titles which give precisely the opposite impression.

Can human rights survive? What is the future for human rights? Who believes in human rights? Does God believe in human rights? At least two titles claim that human rights are in crisis with one of these playing telos off against demise in questioning the end of human rights. This theme is continued with the important but ironic idea that human rights have been silenced – ironic and paradoxical given their loud presence in all manner of global fora. For many, the success of human rights is a triumph of appearance over substance, and what is often most disturbing to commentators (apart from the obvious hypocrisies of human rights politics) is the absence of a coherent theoretical basis for human rights – a question which in turn can only really be answered by going back to more basic questions regarding the idea of justice.

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