Human rights from the bottom up: beyond the ideological export model

How do we understand the transformation of the global human rights movement in a multipolar world? "Endtimes" as Stephen Hopgood argues? On the contrary: the demise of human rights will only come when activists no longer seek to own them. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Emerging Powers and Human Rights.

Anthony Tirado Chase
12 August 2013

I have three interlinked challenges to offer to the wonderfully provocative pieces in this series. These challenges flow into one overarching point: human rights have greater impact when they are less a Western ideological export, and more a dynamic, legal-normative current seized and reinvented by peoples around the world. The degree to which this has been (or can be) the case is the question.

My own sense is that many commentators underestimate how much human rights have been transformed in recent decades, and overestimate the North-South binary regarding their relevance and definition. This risks reifying Western-centric theories of human rights despite the decentered, multipolar regime that has emerged in recent years.

The first challenge would be to the notion that human rights impacts should be measured in terms of “popular mobilization,” as Ron et al. argue. Their important study can be read as either glass half full (knowledge of human rights is global), or glass half empty (such knowledge is more “'toproots' than grassroots”). In either case, however, their surveys speak only to a narrow slice of the broad range of ways in which human rights norms are diffused and can inform politics around the globe.

Beth Simmons’ work aptly points to how both qualitative and quantitative studies show human rights’ differentiated impacts at domestic levels. The rights of minorities and the marginalized - precisely the populations to whom human rights are meant to be most addressed - are always contentious, and will rarely win popularity contests in any locale, Western or non-Western. Nonetheless, scholars such as Ryan Goodman and Katerina Linos have been particularly convincing in showing specific ways in which diffusion of transnational norms, international legal instruments, institutionalizaiton, and global political pressures can, at times, intersect in significant ways with local politics. This is quite distinct from the expectation that human rights should be the ideological basis for popular mobilization in order to have an impact.

A second and related challenge would be to Samuel Moyn’s comment on Ron’s piece faulting human rights for not offering the world “breviaries, flags, or anthems.” This is particularly problematic, pushing much further a notion of human rights as successful only to the degree they are a populist ideology. This is part of Moyn’s misconceptualization of human rights as utopian in his otherwise historically insightful The Last Utopia. To the contrary, human rights are powerful precisely because they are anti-utopian in a way that, at their best, can serve as an antidote against ideology (or, per Moyn’s terms here, against his desire for “breviaries, flags, or anthems”).

We should not take seriously the idea of human rights as some sort of potential successor to the grand ideological traditions of the past. Indeed, human rights success can be better measured by the degree to which they counter utopian meta-narratives and, in their place, open space for pluralistic politics.

These two challenges to the notion of human rights as a populist ideology lead to a third. Stephen Hopgood, quite dramatically, argues that we are in “the endtimes of human rights.” He draws this conclusion from a periodization in which he places human rights’ “zenith” from 1977-2008, when a 1% based in New York-Geneva-London could call the “global shots” for human rights. The supposed problem leading to human rights’ imminent death is that we have now moved into a “post-western, post-secular, multipolar world” in which this 1% can no longer maintain power to define human rights.

As evidence, Hopgood cites the difficulty for so-called “gatekeeper” organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in accommodating a more multipolar world. The problem is both empirical and conceptual: while human rights have never been, and never will be, a triumphant ideology, neither have they ever been owned by a global 1%. Returning to Ron et al., if nothing else, their study shows a much wider diffusion of human rights than Hopgood assumes.

But while other quantitative studies and empirical indicators contradict Hopgood’s bald caricatures, his West-centric conceptual frame that denies agency to any non-Westerner who claims human rights is even more problematic. Hopgood notes the difficulties organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty have in globalizing themselves. In his words: “Amnesty has yet to build a mass southern membership. And this was during decades when there was no other human rights organization to join. Now there are tens, hundreds, even thousands of human rights NGOs in southern countries.”

Are Amnesty’s difficulties really solid evidence for Hopgood’s conclusion that we are therefore in human rights’ endtimes? To the contrary, these “thousands of NGOs” around the world to which Hopgood refers are indicators of progress in how human rights have come to be owned by varied actors in new ways across the North-South divide.

Marsha Freeman’s comment in response to Hopgood is spot on in this regard. The “women’s rights are human rights movement” to which she refers is a classic example of how over the decades, human rights have both been seized by previously excluded groups and, in the process, also been fundamentally changed. As Jean Quataert comprehensively documents, this did not come from the U.N., states, or even so-called gatekeeper institutions; it came through transnational civil society interactions beginning in the 1970s that eventually came to see human rights as a legal and institutional anchor for local activism around the globe on women’s issues. And, simultaneously, this movement also insisted that to resonate, human rights had to be transformed to speak to the differing positions of women around the world. Hopgood’s non sequitur response that he is discussing power does not respond to the substance of the critique that he ignores non-Western claims for human rights. 

A second example of this continuous process of human rights reinventions speaks to Aryeh Neier’s and Jack Snyder’s insistence in their contributions that “economic rights are not really human rights at all.” Each is entitled to this view, of course, but it is worth noting that few human rights lawyers, scholars, or practitioners now agree, be they in the West or elsewhere. It is true that under both Mr. Neier’s leadership, as well as Ken Roth’s, Human Rights Watch tenaciously resisted working on economic (and social) rights, as did Amnesty International. But eventually these supposed gatekeepers gave way to pressures spearheaded by voices from around the globe insisting that human rights be reconceptualized to take into account the inseparability of civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights.

The point with both these examples – and one could continue with many others – is that the impetus in defining human rights has long since ceased to be unipolar, if it ever was. And, more importantly, this multipolarity is a problem only if one insists that human rights is one immutable entity, unchanging and defined into eternity by a few gatekeeper groups.

What these examples show is something quite different: the dynamism that is necessary if human rights are to stay alive and relevant. In short, the evidence Hopgood cites as leading to human rights coming demise is, in fact, among the more promising signs regarding human rights continued relevance. Human rights’ endtimes will only come when states no longer bother rebutting them and activists no longer seek to own them.


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