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