What We (Should Have) Talked About at ISA: The Politics of Humanity and The Ambiguous History of Human Rights – Part II

In part I of this series I outlined an alternative analysis of human rights – one that focuses on rights as the institutionalisation of particular values and relationships, specifically as responses to the question of what obligations and privileges grant political authority legitimacy. This leads to a focus on the act of claiming rights as a way of reconstructing the social order. To clarify and develop this analysis of rights I look at the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which is taken by supporters and critics alike as the foundational text of the international human rights regime. This historical inquiry is intended to achieve two ends: first, to clarify how an account of rights that takes contestation and ambiguity as inherent and productive aspects of the idea of human rights alters our understanding of the development of human rights; and second, to use two key conceptual debates that dominated the drafting of the UDHR to further develop my agonistic analysis of rights by illustrating the way that claiming human rights  generates contestation over the moral significance of humanity as a political identity and the reconstruction needed to produce a legitimate international/world politics.

Narratives of Consensus and Imposition

The fundamental debate over human rights has been, and continues to be, over whether human rights are universal or not. There are clearly identifiable camps on both sides of the issue – those convinced of the universality of human rights and anxious to move past such basic questions on one side, and on the other those who think human rights are a compromised project born of an assimilative Western universalism that is best overcome or abandoned – and these opposing views of human rights strongly affect how we understand their historical development. History does not speak for itself, this much we know, but the history of human rights in particular suffers from a lack of awareness – an awareness of how our understanding of what rights are and how they are justified affects our understanding of historical events.

In the paper presented at ISA I trace out these contrasting narratives more carefully, but the broad strokes can be made in terms of consensus and imposition. In the consensus narrative, the UDHR, and the post-WWII period more broadly, represent a moment of consensus in which a fundamental moral truth was discovered (or constructed), which affirmed a comprehensive list of rights possessed by all members of the human family and which served (and continues to serve) as an ideal we should strive to implement through reform of international politics. The counter narrative of imposition re-frames the consensus achieved in the UN General Assembly vote in 1948 as a moment of Western liberal imposition, suggesting that the victors of WWII declared the universality of liberal values and politics by fiat,i mposing them upon the rest of humanity. Continue reading

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Remembering Charles H. Malik

As the recent protests kicked-off in Egypt two weeks ago, I was working on a thesis chapter about the history of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In particular, I was looking at the drafting process and the intellectual debates that defined the famous human rights document. A key figure in that debate was the Lebanese representative, Charles Habib Malik, and I thought it worth pausing to remember an important figure in the contemporary human rights movement, who did much to develop human rights both intellectually and politically.

“They want justice… They want freedom… They want a sense of equality with the rest of the world.”

Malik defined himself as Lebanese, Christian and Arab – identities that importantly influenced his thinking and defense of human rights as a moral and political project. Despite claims that he was “Westernized” and that he was clearly a strong opponent of international communism, Malik was not a conventional Western liberal. In particular, he clearly saw himself as a fundamentally religious thinker whose political project was not only the defense of individual rights but ensuring the equal standing of Arab countries in world politics, which went together with a more general concern for securing the independence of colonized peoples and the protection of small states from great powers.

Independence springs from the Arab sense of the difference from others, a sense that has been sharpened in recent centuries by the relative isolation of the Arabs from the rest of the world. Unity takes on many modalities: from the mild form of general community and consultation enshrined in the Arab League to the extreme form of complete political unification desired by certain nationalist movements, particularly in Iraq and Syria. But regardless of its modality, every Arab feels an immediate mystical unity with every other Arab.

Lack of love. Strategy, commerce, exploitation, securing an imperial route: these were why the West for the most part came to the Near East, not because it loved us. Add to this the immense racial arrogance of modern Europe. The West has not been true to itself, and therefore it could not have been true to us.

(Charles Malik, “The Near East: The Search for Truth,” Foreign Affairs, 30, 1952)

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