Global Human Rights: For futures unlike the past

Vijay K. Nagaraj responds to Aryeh Neier, criticising his construction of social justice. Neier’s discomfort with mass mobilization, he argues, reveals an uncomfortable truth about the global human rights movement. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Emerging Powers and Human Rights.

Vijay Nagaraj
31 July 2013

Neier’s commentary reflects his long and distinguished commitment to the idea that an open society is a just society.  Taking up the invitation to respond to him, I focus on unpacking his construction of social justice and what this tells us about global human rights—the dominant ways of doing and speaking associated with international human rights organisations.

At the outset, it is important to note the significance of Neier’s reduction of social justice to “the distribution, or redistribution of wealth and resources.” In contexts like South Asia and Latin America, social justice has meant much more. It has encompassed ideas of dignity, fairness, social inclusion, political participation, and crucially collective, rather than only state, responsibility. Long before global human rights discovered the existence of non-state actors, social justice advocates in India, for example, were calling for individuals guilty of untouchability and other forms of caste-based discrimination to be punished.

Neier’s reductionism not only betrays a discomfort with economic redistribution, but also underlines the biggest blind spot in global human rights—political economy. According to Neier, advocates of social justice are “partisans” who not only seek and wrest power but also “frequently [use it to] violate human rights.” However, “methods traditionally used by HRW are less susceptible to abuses.” But what made this method matter? After all, careful monitoring, documentation and reporting of violations was not invented by Human Rights Watch. The key was using the “government of the United States as its surrogate”, especially “its money, its power and its status” in dealing with other countries.

It does not matter that the money, power and status of the US was accumulated through a politics of dispossession, often violent, and involving many human rights abuses abroad and the entrenchment of the military-prison-financial complex at home. Even when these abuses were critiqued, in typical global human rights fashion it was purely incident-based and structurally adjusted. So “defying communism”— the title of a chapter in Neier’s latest book—is non-partisan, whereas a political-economic critique of US (western) power is partisan. This is unsurprising, for the “core” human rights Neier champions “is not an ontological account of what human beings need to enjoy life, but rather a political-economic account of what markets need to thrive.” (Wendy Brown)

There is more to it, however. Neier’s reductionism and discomfort with social justice must also be seen in the light of his suspicion of and discomfort with mass mobilization. This is not to suggest that global human rights does not seek to mobilise people. It does, but always under the watchful eyes of the guardians of the international legal apparatus. Unlike social justice, the global human rights movement has regulators and gatekeepers; those who can decide what are “core” human rights and what are not, who will be its subjects and in what order they will be placed.

Alongside various United Nations bodies are positioned the likes of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Institute - all allies in not just defending but also regulating and ordering our human rights. So even as the latter lobby governments, others lobby them, to “take up” cases and issues. Actually, if Neier is to be taken seriously, we must all be grateful that “rights of the disabled” have been accepted into the hallowed portals of “core” human rights.  So now persons with disabilities can rest assured that they too can rightfully claim to experience human rights violations, in the “core” sense of the term.

Underlying the discomfort with mass mobilization is the allergy to politics as collective power that marks it as different from the elite consensus on which the architecture of global human rights rests. And so long as it relies on the manufacture of elite consensus, which then naturally comes to be seen as the most efficient route to change, there is little hope that global human rights will ever stand up for the meaningful redistribution of any sort of power. At least not so long as it remains within what Upendra Baxi has termed a “trade related, market-friendly paradigm”.

Global human rights is at great pains to reassure the elite that it has no intention of effecting any transfer of power, which social justice partisans are guilty of, but is only trying to ensure power is exercised in keeping with certain internationally agreed standards of civility and order. Thus, on the very day that the UN Human Rights Council was politely telling transnational corporations that they had some responsibilities but not obligations, hundreds of men, women and children in some villages in coastal Orissa, India, were defying the forced acquisition of their lands for the South Korean steel giant POSCO. They were, and still are, asking POSCO and the state to “get out”, not simply to behave responsibly. This is a struggle that continues, like so many others elsewhere.

Let me clarify that I am not of the view that international human rights organisations must embrace the social justice paradigm. I have no desire to see social justice, an inchoate, high-energy and politically rich discourse, being taken over, ordered and boxed into elegant little standards by global human rights.

This brings me to another set of related issues underlying the Neier-Hopgood conversation that needs addressing. This debate is taking place in the context of a political economy of global human rights shaped by a competition for influence, visibility and funding. We are asked to believe, a priori, that deepening and expanding the influence, power, and money of the likes of AI or HRW is good for human rights.

Frankly, the potential “success” of Amnesty’s relocation or HRW’s globalisation or the Ford Foundation’s investment in seven human rights organisations in the global South concerns me more than the possibility of “failure”. What does it imply for the many micro- and macro-practices of human rights and even social justice? Why should this be a blessing for the global South? Why should one not see this as a new wave of occupation, with global human rights in its search for greater influence, power, and money, trying to plant its flags, franchises and not to mention fund-raisers, all over? 

None of this is to suggest that politically informed transnational human rights activism and solidarity is absent or irrelevant. Moreover, global human rights organisations are also sites of internal contestation, with practice tending to be more uneven than is admitted or apparent. There is a critique from within, including of the sort of views Neier espouses, and (hopefully) even insurrectionist voices. And they need to be strengthened, for this contestation too will play a role in shaping human rights futures.  



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