Human rights activism, the moral imagination and the politics of spectacle

V. Nagaraj
20 March 2014

On the eve of the Sochi Olympics, New York’s Barclays Center—“a showcase venue for the world’s most thrilling entertainment and sports events”—hosted Amnesty USA’s ‘Bringing Human Rights Home’ concert, highlighting human rights concerns in Russia.

Amnesty billed it as ‘human rights in high definition’ and the venue certainly lives up to it. Barclays Center is part of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards redevelopment, which followed a familiar urban renewal script, involving “an egregious violation of democratic process; the obliteration of vibrant communities through colossally-scaled and instant gentrification; and a massive transfer of public wealth to a giant developer far in excess of any putative benefits. 

After community organisations were co-opted and resistance undermined though not entirely defeated, the redevelopment was ‘bailed’ out by transnational capital. First, in the form of Russian mining billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov who bought into the Center (and the Brooklyn Nets basketball team) in 2010, enriched by the largely unregulated sale of Russian extractive industries in the 1990s.

The second came in the form of China’s state-owned property developer Greenland Holdings Group, which bought a majority stake in Atlantic Yards late last year. In the meantime, and almost predictably, reports have emerged of Barclays Center’s workers being underpaid and affected by union issues

To me, Amnesty USA’s choice of venue, despite its complex but clearly discernible geography of intersecting human rights concerns, signals just how fragmented and partial global human rights advocacy has become. The irony of Amnesty holding a global human rights event at the Barclays Center/Atlantic Yards and claiming it “grounds the universal struggle for dignity and freedom in the injustices we see every day in our own backyard in the United States”, was certainly not lost on Brooklyn residents and activists fighting the redevelopment. Can actions that are so abstracted from their social and physical context pass for human rights activism?

The event also points to the dangers of ‘institutionalised advocacy’ underlined by some members of Pussy Riot in their critique of the Amnesty concert. What are the ethical implications of ‘activism’ that highlights human rights concerns in Russia while rendering invisible human rights concerns at the very site of the action in Brooklyn? What kind of human rights worlds and political visions are being fostered and erased by such ‘activism’?

Part of the problem, as I see it, is being beholden to the imperative of keeping messages simple in a hyper-sensory world. In the battle for eyeballs, mouse clicks and credit-card numbers, activism risks being led by a politics of spectacle. When complex human rights realities are parceled into easily digestible and appealing morsels to focus campaigning and generate the spectacle of impact, truth can be a casualty. There is a danger of sacrificing attention to detail and context, preferring the comfort of sloganeering instead. 

Consider the case of Amnesty India’s campaign on Sri Lanka, especially its petition urging the Indian Government to support an international investigation into human rights violations during the war, which has gathered more than a million signatures. This has led to it being held up as successful because of the pressure it ostensibly builds on India to support action at the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council. But while the petition suggests, correctly in my view, that “India owes a duty to the people of Sri Lanka” there are claims for justice implicating India that the campaign/petition renders invisible.   

It does not, for example, call on India to take steps to ensure that fishing in Sri Lankan waters by Indian trawlers does not undermine livelihoods of Tamil fishing communities there and their marine environment. Nor does it urge the Indian government to do more to ensure that beneficiaries of its Housing Project in Sri Lanka’s north do not fall prey to indebtedness and economic insecurity. Arguably, progress on these fronts, almost entirely in India’s hands, could make a critical difference to communities in Sri Lanka’s north, including strengthening them in their fight for justice.

My point is that it is convenient not to speak out on the fishing issue or the Indian Housing Project, because it will muddy the campaign waters. It would run against the grain of popular notions, especially in India’s Tamil Nadu state, and make it harder to enlist supporters.

The extent to which this campaign has become hostage to popular sentiment is further evidenced by the deeply troubling decision to allow the petition webpage to carry a number of comments from ‘supporters’ calling for the execution, and worse, of those allegedly responsible for human rights violations in Sri Lanka. 

This is not merely a populist but also a reductionist approach to justice claims and human rights. It is in this context that I take issue with Amnesty India’s ‘Go Geneva’ initiative, a “lucky draw” contest in which a winner will be selected after interviewing 50 randomly chosen contestants from India who enter by providing a phone number. The ‘prize’: a two-day orientation followed by an all expense paid trip to Geneva to witness the UN Human Rights Council debate the resolution on Sri Lanka in late March.

This brings us back to the question of activism as spectacle. Isn’t human rights ‘activism’ of this sort really just consumerism by other means? ‘Market-friendly’, and demanding gimmick after gimmick, because it takes for granted that one must compete with rather than change the mindsets fashioned by dominant political-economic forces, in turn further legitimizing both. Far from being creative, it is in fact imitative. 

Finally, if these are successes, then I prefer failure. For success on these terms threatens to distort the ethical horizons and political possibilities at the core of the human rights imagination.

As Arvind Narrain, (speaking about the human rights work of the late Dr. K. Balagopal) has astutely observed, the challenge before us is to fuse “thought and action and chart out ethical and principled ways to constantly broaden the moral imagination of human rights.” A failure to do so is to betray the very idea of human rights. Those of us committed to defending human rights, especially organisations like Amnesty, have an enormous responsibility in this regard because how we do so is as important as what we claim to stand for.  

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