How Do We Rescue Human Rights from Rhetoric?

The human rights discourse today needs to introspect on how it can visualise competing degrees of resolution of human rights ideas advocated by different agents, without harming the principles that are worth retaining. 

Human rights can be seen as a discourse of public persuasion that brings forth sociopolitical recognition, and normative formulations of the subject  as a rights-bearer (Hesford 2011, p 283). Certain paradoxical particularities arise within this discourse too, from conflict, and this poses a methodological challenge. More than tracing an inclusive human rights history, the problem arises in terms of the largely ignored differences in geopolitical scale, and the scope of rights movements, and the differing and often contradictory rhetorical constructions of subjectivity under the human rights discourse (Hesford 2011, p 289). Achtenberg observes how, theoretically, the very existence and perception of an “other” means that in one aspect, relationships flow towards an “essential violence” (Achtenberg 2014, p 25). She bases this on the formulation given by Levinas, that in our relations with others occurs a “rupture” of the self to make space for something that was not present prior. This is different from violence as it is commonly understood, and refers to an initially disturbing but ultimately desirable break from the original—an opening up, or vulnerability to another being (Achtenberg 2014, p 38). Working with multiple conceptions of violence and the ‘other’ are essential to human rights theorisation.  

During the post-Westphalian era of the 20th century came to pass the "Enlightenment Wars," seen as exercises to liberate the commoners from the oppressive rule of the monarchy and nobility. War in this form was justified according to Enlightenment scholars, whereas before now, it had only been futile and undesirable an instrument to execute the will of the oppressive regimes. This conviction became the guiding ethos of the French Revolutionary Wars and inspired Napoleon to lead his forces through Europe under the banner of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity." This launched a series of battles for the liberation of the Greeks, the Italians and the Balkan states from oppressive regimes of the Ottomans or the Austrians. 

Woodrow Wilson would realise this concept again later, as he led the United States into World War-I with the declaration of protecting not merely the national interest but also democratic values, the rights and freedoms of oppressed peoples and small nations, and world peace (Howard 2008, p 57–58). Thus, numerous states fought "Enlightenment Wars" to protect or uphold peace and security of freedoms among themselves. The needs of our time dictate the justifications we employ in support of and the means we use to fight our wars (Howard 2008, p 60). 

Enlightenment Wars Today

In the modern world, states have had to fight to preserve the interests of an interdependent, international “civil society that transcends states” (but is imperative to a well-functioning global order), against non-state actors that pose a threat to it. This viewpoint implies, for example, that the perpetrators of acts of terrorism such as 9/11 must be considered not in isolation, but as “transnational criminals” against whom a strict, sustained military force must be deployed (Howard 2008, p 59). Sir Roger Scruton says that the idea of exercising “corporate agency” is fundamental to an understanding of war and the processes of politics. Any war requires the action of a sovereign state; this action emanates from the same corporate decision-making strategy with which a state is governed. Thus, how a state is positioned militarily can be significantly inferred from the features of its internal politics (Scruton 1987, p 305–06).

Political attitudes towards international-legal principles are hardly dictated by moral principles alone; more frequently they are brought into practice with an eye to power (Donnelly 2002, p 97). In international relations, states declare their sovereignty to be a natural condition or "right," something that is viewed as sacrosanct and supreme in their dealings with other states. In reality, this is brought into praxis only by mutual recognition, which may be subject to certain conditions. A state is expected to govern its sovereign territory and take part in affairs of the international system, to say the least. Through the course of history, separate tests to merit this recognition have been applied: in the 19th century for instance, complete sovereign rights were acknowledged only for states that met certain Western standards of "civilisation." Western states extended the concept of sovereignty to China, Japan, the Ottoman Empire and Siam, but held them to be impaired and unequal in terms of civilisational benchmarks. It is important to look at this phenomenon with a view to evaluate not just the long-run consequences of these applications, however good, but also the intentions guiding them (Donnelly 2002, p 98). 

The state is conceived as an entity that both guarantees and is the subject of human rights.  But underlying this tenet is the belief that the state is a behemoth that, if unchecked, can prey upon and diminish human freedoms. The conventional international human rights law perspective, thus, envisages the state as the “classic savage.” However, we must not overlook the fact that it is not the state in itself that is predatory—as such the state is a construct that serves as an organ to execute the will of the people, and acts as a “repository for public power.” The composition and modus operandi of that power is not fixed, but is largely fluid. Yet described thus, the state appears as a vacant apparatus, compelling us to locate the savage outside of its machinery (Mutua 2001, p 220). Mutua also observes that the symbolism of the saviour in human rights language is assembled through two closely interconnected features—Eurocentric universalism, and the missionary zeal of Christianity. The mission of universality and proselytisation works towards recreating the “other” in the “image of the converter” (Mutua 2001, p 233). The history of the human rights regime can be seen as an enterprise created to “respond to both the potential, and [the] actual victim,” and to put in place socio-political and cultural provisions to restrain the state. The metaphor of the victim as someone who essentially suffers from powerlessness (against the culture or state), has tremendously propelled movements for human rights. In the absence of the victim , neither savage nor saviour can be identified, and the whole initiative breaks down (Mutua 2001, p 227–29).

Guarding Humanitarian Interests

Donnelly also observes that an “excusable act reflects an underlying norm with which we have considerable sympathy.” It is possible that we may want to command such a norm to our advantage, that is, to justify our behaviour. The precept behind what is seen as a “merely tolerable act” is not of any use, to be applied to a wider context. We might be grateful for optimistic, humanitarian results, but this requires a cautious appreciation: they are more a case of serendipity, than they are a  credit of those who caused them to come about (Donnelly 2002, p 102). For example, one of the most blatant shortcomings of the democratic paradigm has been its failure to reconcile the “rhetoric of empowerment” it espouses with real-life conditions of marginalisation (Tabraz 2014, p 21). Democratic transitions throughout history have been seen to arise as a result of the interacting forces of competitive markets, political representation, and a thriving civil society. The application of the analytical lens in the form of the “Modernisation Theory”  came after the historical process of development itself; it postulated the occurrence of economic liberalisation as an impact of modernisation of the state, and saw in it the roots of democracy (Tabraz 2014, p 19). In International Relations theory, Idealism considers that there is a sole ideal, a “universal political morality,” which is the goal we must aspire to. On the other hand, Realism advocates the non-existence of such a morality, and the power struggle stemming from competing moralities and interests. However, the power-morality duality can be harnessed in both directions, that is, morality can also be used as a tool of power. This is because the use of power to promote one kind of political morality is no different in principle from the furthering of self-interest via strength. A political psychology perspective would even caution that we are prone to rationalising the use of power using moral arguments, even though the ultimate end may be self-seeking (Barkin 2003, p 337).

Postmodern theorisation marks a departure from concrete, limited illustrations of multiplicity, and removes from them, the philosophical tendency to be traced back to a transcendental core. The foundations for moral judgment, describes Veena Das, can no longer be situated in “either the faculty of reason or in common corporeal experience.” Space for the recognition of the other needs to be found in theory, without uncritically claiming that diversity must be pursued for the sake of it, and without working from preset conditions to evaluate divergent claims. One must ask what would comprise a withdrawal of recognition of the other. When difference is cast outside of normative standards, it produces a scenario where no progress can be made via language because it is rendered inoperative. A sceptical perspective along these lines will produce a betrayal of contextual grasp, and distrust of all categories, transforming live forms into dead, obsolete ones (Das 2001, p 107). Das argues that most “people in the world learn to live as vulnerable beings among the dangers that human cultures pose to each other,” and this reveals that most conflicts do not emerge just from rigid, unbending values. A more endurable peace could be accommodated if the violence of everyday life was acknowledged and attended to, the fallible aspects of all of us were admitted, and it was realised that differences arise over conflicting interests, which need to, and can be renegotiated. Indeed, democracies can be deepened by involving those who have been excluded, and eliminating divisive vocabulary from the public sphere. There is an immense chasm between the sort of vulnerability described above and the fraught instinct to destroy the other (Das 2001, p 111). Processes of violence that emerge in the society due to the differences in affiliations, individuals have must not be viewed as naturally as something like the “unfolding of human destiny.” These are cultivated processes, for it cannot be held that the “civilisational identity” (religious, communal, regional, national) of an individual necessarily predominates every other affiliation (Sen 2007, p 12–13).

James Buchanan notes that it is worthwhile to conceptualise politics as tragedy in several acts. Politics as a set of complex institutions can be viewed as consuming value that could, in ideal conditions, be utilised for our benefit (Buchanan 2003, p 189). We are not angels however, and this implies that we must take up the daunting task of discovering what kinds of behaviours might lead us to this “idealised anarchy” of no loss of value. Given our weaknesses, by virtue of being human, the tragedy of politics is never fully absent from our lives, but different regimes of “better” and “worse” degrees do exist in political realities we participate in (Buchanan 2003, p 190). To deal with systemic inequality, and introduce responsibilities towards rights, human rights vocabulary as well as legal and institutional frameworks must work towards a critical examination of the difficult choices under paucity-ridden conditions, instead of naturalising them. They must tackle the crucial question of why it is so cheap to cause harm to so many repeatedly, cruelly, and why the capacity for this is rewarded rather than being checked (McCluskey 2015, p 32). Numerous examples of how the human rights discourse is used reflects a broader sense of “ethical rights,” rather than strictly legal rights. Amartya Sen argues that in case the government of a state is accused of human rights violations, and it cannot adequately defend itself by claiming the absence of any legal protection for those rights in its political establishment, it can be held accountable to fulfil anyway the respective human rights, even when rules for their preservation are not strictly established in law (Sen 2012, p 93). The approach outlined here is one that accords a great role to public reasoning to discern right from wrong, and interpret the language of rights. This reasoning can be applied across a non-localised context to save our moral judgment from the traps of parochial norms by exposing it to critical engagements “sans frontiers” (Sen 2012, p 100). 

Losing the Individual to the Bigger Picture

Upendra Baxi asserts that often legal activist performances  appropriate human rights justification—which is structurally adjusted to suit the type of discourse being generated. This endorses what he terms as the “paradigm of trade related, market friendly human rights” over the model of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Baxi  2003, p 21). For instance, this selective paradigm ensures that an incident of terrorism becomes worldwide news, while at the same time, it takes no notice of a farmer's suicide. The market of human rights, as composed by globalisation forces, often guides the purpose of Indian rights movements elsewhere to distinct channels and platforms (Baxi 2003, p 26). 

Freedom cannot be fully depoliticied from deprivation by classifying the latter merely as a result of lack of development. This would indicate that the agency of the state is not complicit in creating want, and then transferring the related responsibility for human security to “impersonal market forces.” Circumstances of underdevelopment are often aggravated by bad state policies, the entrenched corruption of state elites and cosmetic agendas promoted by the state to mask real issues (Howard-Hassmann 2012, p 104). The potential harm in the human security discourse is also that it might be invoked to “privilege threats to collectivities over threats to individuals,” and lose its way in the ambiguity that resides with references to “people.” Such a formulation does not clarify that the individual as a subject possessing human rights assumes priority over a group (Howard-Hassmann 2012, p 105). Lastly, the human security agenda undermines the strategic role that civil and political rights play in securing social, economic and cultural rights with a view to achieve individual-centric development. How rights are realised in reality, separate from a development model that favours the state or a subgroup, is largely and mistakenly ignored when this crucial idea is constituted within a holistic interpretation of human needs (Howard-Hassmann 2012, p 108).

Rethinking Human Rights

The human rights project is primarily, if not essentially, a political endeavour, and in order for it to triumph, it must be “moored in the cultures of all peoples” (Mutua 2001, p 208). A great tool for such politics is rhetoric, and the analysis of rhetoric can supply a great deal of information about the characteristics and limitations of the cause it serves. The human rights model must desert the metaphors of the savage, the victim and the saviour to make way for a genuine global discourse on rights. In the final analysis, human rights theory must be rooted in internationalism, and be responsive to diverse cultures to be better equipped to deal with the inequities of the international order. In doing so, the discourse must part ways from the historical continuum envisioned in grand narratives of human rights that subtly preserve parochial, hierarchical relationships (Mutua 2001, p 243). Faith in human rights ideas must denote the need for acknowledging that at the heart of the move towards a rights paradigm is not the intention to organise a “tournament for human rights contests” where players (as subjects) are always defined in opposition to differentiated categories, but the need, when we embark on journeys of development, for refining our polity and policy with a larger perspective that promotes the liberty and flourishing of human life. 


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