Rescuing Human Rights?

by | 16 Sep 2009

Natural and human rights were conceived as a tool against the despotism of power and the arrogance of wealth. Their co-option by governments means that they have lost much of their critical force and their initial aim and role has been reversed. (Douzinas, 2007: 24). As my dear blog-partner knows well, to err is human. We humans err all the time as we stumble along life’s paths trying to find the ‘right’ way, and this is also the case with the interpretation and implementation of human rights. But – and this is where I differ – the fact that we mess it up continuously does not negate the powerful potential inherent in the idea/l of human rights.

There seems to be no doubt that human rights have the radical potential to serve as powerful tools of legal, political and socio-economic transformation as they hold the promise of a better world where individuals and groups are no longer oppressed, dominated or degraded. However, the tragedy lies in the overwhelming international evidence that the idea/l has largely failed. Human rights have been turned by some elites into tools of despotic power, and so rights have begun to lose their utopian end as instruments in the struggle against poverty and tyranny and have instead been used to further a form of moral and political imperialism.

Costas Douzinas (Human Rights and Empire 2007) has recently joined a number of concerned voices addressing the problem and paradox that human rights and humanitarianism (such a strange concept: the ‘law of war’) are currently the ideology of a new emerging Empire. In other words, the powerful have tended to institutionalise and colonise the discourse of human rights. Simone Weil (1990) has also echoed these sentiments by pointing out that human rights have adopted a ‘commercial flavour’, where rights are exchanged and bartered for as if in the marketplace. And so the industry of human rights has grown and flourished.

As the industry grows, human rights begin to lose their critical, radical edge. As rights become more and more institutionalised, they also become more and more resistant to challenge and critique. Worst of all, human rights tend no longer to serve the purpose of defending the poor and marginalised against power, domination and oppression. In fact, the opposite tends to happen: when governments ‘hand out’ rights as if they are some kind of narcotic flavour-of-the-month, people become ever more dependent, apathetic and politically pliable.

The discourse of human rights does indeed have the dangerous potential to allow certain individuals and nations to claim the moral high-ground as the self-proclaimed saviours and do-gooders of the world. The most extreme examples of this kind of ‘pursuing of the good’ in the name of human rights are the ‘humanitarian interventions’ that have taken place in Kosovo and Iraq. In such instances, ‘civilised man’ offers his ‘charity’ to the hopeless and helpless victim and, should this charity not be welcomed with opened arms, it is “imposed on the victim with fighter bombs and tanks” (Douzinas, 2007: 80). Accept our freedom or die (?)

In a nutshell, when human rights are used as tools to civilise, to save and to ‘deliver’ freedom, then they become a form of global currency, lose their utopian ends and become a justification for force and hegemony. And it is this neo-colonial exploitation of human rights discourse that has led to the ability of governments to conduct ‘just’ wars.

But (and there is always a ‘but’…), the Platonic ideal – the utopian dream – never disappears altogether, as the language of rights still remains available to the poor, the oppressed and the tortured as an instrument in the struggle towards a more hospitable world. If human rights are to be recognised as a way in which something simple like happiness can be pursued, then they need to be understood as a defence against the excesses of power.

The aim then should be to (re)claim the radical potential of human rights – the protection of the rights of those who have been reduced to ‘inhumanity’ – and not to wait with outstretched arms and cupped hands for the powers-that-be to ‘grant’ rights when resources eventually become available.

Or, is that just a touch too radical?

This is Syndicated from the Dia-Blog ‘Not the Jurisprudence Blog,’ for the previous blog to which this addresses itself please follow this link.


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