This post (presented in two parts) is drawn from a review article that will be forthcoming in The Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, which looks at a recent set of critical writings on human rights in order to consider the profound limitations and evocative possibilities of the contested idea and politics of human rights.
Human Rights in a Posthuman World: Critical Essays by Upendra Baxi. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Surrendering to Utopia: An Anthropology of Human Rights by Mark Goodale. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.
The Divided World: Human Rights and Its Violence by Randall Williams. Minneapolis, MN and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
After Evil: A Politics of Human Rights by Robert Meister. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2011.
The central tension of human rights is that they propagate a universal and singular human identity in a fragmented political world. No one writing about human rights ignores this tension, but the most important question we face in judging the value of human rights is how to understand this tension and the divisions it creates. The expected divisions between good and evil, between moral universalists and dangerous relativist, between dignified interventionists and cowardly apologists, have long given shape to human rights, as both an ideal and a political project. Seeing the problems of (and for) human rights in these habituated ways has dulled our capacity for critical judgment, as few want to defend evil or violent particularisms or advocate passivity in the face of suffering. Even among serious and determined critics our inherited divisions are problematic (and increasingly over rehearsed), whether we think of human rights as the imposition of Western cultural values, or in terms of capitalist ideology serving the interests of neo-liberal elites, or as an expression of exceptional sovereign power at the domestic and global levels. The ways that these divisions deal with the tension at the heart of human rights misses the ambiguity of those rights in significant ways.
Rather than trying to contain the tensions between singularity and pluralism, between commonality and difference, in a clear and definitive accounting, the authors of the texts reviewed here allow them to proliferate. Rather than trying to resolve the problem of human rights, they attempt to understand human rights in their indeterminate dissonance while exploring what they might become. To create and invoke the idea of humanity is not a political activity that is unique (either now or in the past) to the ‘West’. The people most dramatically injured by global capitalism sometimes fight their oppression by innovating and using the language and institutions of human rights. Political exceptions – the exclusion of outsiders, humanitarian wars and imperialist conceits – are certainly enabled by the same sovereign power that grants rights to its subjects, which is a metaphorical drama all too easily supported by human rights, but it is only a partial telling of the tale, a telling that leaves out how human rights can reshape political authority and enable struggles in unexpected ways. The work of these authors pushes us to reject the familiar divisions we use to understand the irresolvable tension at the centre of human rights and see the productive possibilities of that tension. If human rights will always be invoked in a politically divided world, and will also always create further divisions with each declaration and act that realises an ideal universalism, then our focus should be on who assumes (and who can assume) the authority to define humanity, the consequences for those subject to such power, and the ends toward which such authority is directed. Continue reading