The first in a forum on Joe’s recently released Reconstructing Human Rights: A Pragmatist and Pluralist Inquiry in Global Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2016). A number of commentaries will follow in the coming days.
Earlier this year I visited Sylvia’s Corner, the home of the Focus E15 campaign, to give a talk about the human right to housing. As I shared my research, based on work I had done with housing campaigns in Chicago and Washington DC, I was struck by how this specific moment illustrated what I most hope Reconstructing Human Rights might accomplish—namely, helping to reconstruct human rights as a more democratic idea, and practice.
In London, Focus E15 has been fighting for the human rights of those struggling to secure a decent home for themselves and their families, often struggling against the very public agencies who should be assisting them. Their work not only draws on an ethical and political language of human rights, but it also remakes that language, renders it suitable to their needs and responsive to their experiences. I have witnessed this same process with other campaigns, such as the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, and with community organising groups like ONE DC in Washington DC. It was revealing to act, even briefly, as a conduit through which the experiences of these distant groups could be relayed. Human rights are constantly being remade, repurposed—reconstructed—to serve the ends of those suffering from injustice. It is this reality that motivates my book, which is at its core an attempt to understand how human rights can be both an instrument of the privileged and powerful, and also a weapon for the oppressed and disempowered. I wrote this book because I wanted to know, what should we make of human rights?
ISA 2012 is just around the corner, and it will doubtless be as hectic and awkward and joyous as ever. Robbie and I will be appearing at an event on #occupy and its relevance for IR on Tuesday at 7 in Indigo 204 at the Hilton Bayfront. We’ll be joining Lucian Ashworth, Lara Coleman, Nicholas Kiersey and Wanda Vrasti (all chaired by Jason Weidner) for what I’m sure will be an exciting roundtable discussion. More importantly, it will be brief, with most of the session given over to a General Assembly-style discussion of what IR can learn from #occupy, what #occupy might get from IR, and how we might take the spirit and organisational form into the discipline itself (or not).
The hope is that the slightly later starting time will allow people to go both to the various Section receptions and meetings (briefly) and to come to this, whilst still leaving reasonable evening time for food and the rest. Please do get involved over at Facebook (see also the #occupyirtheory group and #occupyirtheory blog) and let interested IR-types know. Readers may also be (should also be!) interested in a recent forum from the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies on ‘Occupy IR/IPE’, featuring Nick and Wanda (as well as Colin Wight, Michael J. Shapiro, Patrick Jackson and others), which I’ve parcelled together as a single pdf for your delectation here.
Hope to see you there!
Hot on Roberto’s heels, and the third of us to achieve doctorhood since the inception of The Disorder Of Things, our very own Meera today survived the critical questioning of Robbie Shilliam and Christopher Cramer. She is henceforth Dr Sabaratnam, certified by virtue of her thesis: Re-Thinking the Liberal Peace: Anti-Colonial Thought and Post-War Intervention in Mozambique. For the record, I’m assured that any violence inflicted was purely intellectual.
Last week (Friday 22 July), a man brought a brutal plan to its grim conclusion in Oslo and Utoeya. After years of festering in resentment and roiling with anger, he worked up the conviction to act on his beliefs. He methodically worked out how to make and plant a home-made bomb. He coldly calculated an ambush of young women and men participating in a political summer camp.
He detonated his car bomb and killed 8 people, as well as damaging the prime minister’s office and several buildings in the area. While the city reacted to the terrifying scene, this man calmly made his way to a summer camp on the island of Utoeya dressed as a policeman, armed with an automatic rifle and enough ammunition to carry out an hour-long attack on the residents of the camp. He killed 68 people before surrendering.
Lie No. 1:
As shocking as the attack in Oslo was, it was apparently less shocking than the identity of this angry and violent man. Right-wing media outlets predictably lead with the unconfirmed story that the attack was carried out by Jihadists. But even mainstream commentators and more responsible media outlets ran with the Islamic terror story without evidence and have pushed the angle even after it was revealed that the perpetrator was a white, Christian, “nationalist” from Norway.
Why did the press so quickly and thoroughly misrepresent the story? We can talk about a knee-jerk response or blame faulty reporting, but there’s a simpler and more troubling dynamic at work here. That answer is that “we” expect angry and violent men committing these type of attacks to be Muslim, non-white, non-European.
Even as the true perpetrator of last Friday’s attacks was found and his own racist views made public, the media and the public struggled to accept and understand Anders Breivik because of their own entrenched racism. The hands that commit such violence are supposed to be brown hands, hands that pray to a false and violent God, hands raised in angry protests in far away countries, hands reaching out to choke white victims. Our image of violence reveals the violence of our images.
The blithe accusation of Muslim extremists and the immediate belief that the attacks in Oslo must have been perpetrated by Al-Qaeda, or some other shadowy network, reveal how deeply racist narratives are embedded in “our” understanding of the world.
Monday 17 January marked the official US holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. While watching Monday’s Democracy Now! program, featuring substantive excerpts from King’s speeches, the clarity with which he connected the domestic fight for equality to international politics, in particular poverty and war, struck me. The international aspects of King’s thinking, I believe, are important for two reasons.
First, it challenges the interpretation of King as an insufficiently radical leader offered by some critics, and the co-option of King’s legacy not only by “moderate” liberals but also by conservative political figures in the US. King has become a symbol in the public consciousness of a safe reformism and a favorite icon for the type of liberal who abhors radicalism above any other political sin. As Michael Eric Dyson says, “Thus King becomes a convenient icon shaped in our own distorted political images. He is fashioned to deflect our fears and fulfill our fantasies. King has been made into a metaphor of our hunger for heroes who cheer us up more than they challenge or change us.”
A personal anecdote to illustrate the point: a couple of years ago while handing over the editorship of Millennium to the incoming editorial team, one of the new editors commented on the large poster of Che Guevara that hangs on the Millennium office door. The Che poster, so far as I know, predates most of us currently associated with the journal, therefore I suggested it should stay. I then asked why Che should go. My colleague suggested that Che’s participation in revolutionary violence made him an inappropriate icon – in many academic disciplines this might be a rather devastating point, but International Relations is full of characters far more violent and less admirable than Comrade Che – see Paul’s post on Kissinger, for example.
When asked who might better grace the walls of the office my colleague suggested Martin King or Mohandas Gandhi (a political figure subject to a similar post-hoc liberal deification), with their key qualification as acceptable iconography being that they had not participated in political violence. While I have a great deal of sympathy for non-violence, my own introduction to both King and Gandhi came through the study of non-violence political strategy, the liberal (and I think my colleague would gladly accept that identification) embrace of King or Gandhi, paired with the repudiation of Che, is (unintentionally?) disingenuous.
It’s a disingenuous embrace because it insists that the first rule of acceptable political action is a renunciation of physical violence, while at the same time turning a blind eye to the violence institutionalized in the state through everyday police brutality and legalized/legitimized imperial warfare, as well as the structural violence inherent to global capitalism. This misses the radical content of non-violence as practiced by King and obscures the link that exists between non-violent agitation and armed resistance. The political commitments and motivations of King and Che are remarkably similar, even as their fundamental orientations (Marxism vs. Christianity) and tactics (non-violent direct action vs. guerrilla insurgency) diverged. Continue reading
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.
The Practice of Human Rights: Tracking Law Between the Global and the Local, edited by Mark Goodale & Sally Engle Merry (Cambridge University Press, 2007)
Human Rights and Social Movements, by Neil Stammers (Pluto Press, 2009)
Silencing Human Rights: Critical Engagements with a Contested Project, edited by Gurminder K. Bhambra & Robbie Shilliam (Palgrave, 2009)
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. Continue reading