Stephen Hopgood’s hard-hitting article, ‘Human rights: past their sell-by date’, is one that I have long awaited. In a clear and honest voice, Hopgood critically analyzes the existing Human Rights framework, and sees it for what it is. He rightly describes “universal” human rights as a monotheistic form of secular religion, based on the western assumption that there really is a singular, global, Human Rights movement. His analysis of a different reality - one in which there are deep, internal inequalities of resources, objectives, priorities and influence - is a wake-up call long overdue to all of us involved in human rights work.
Many warn us not to be too critical of what Hopgood calls “Human Rights,” the elite, globalized community of leading inter-governmental institutions and international norms that define the contemporary human rights agenda. After all, these Human Rights norms and actors may be the only thing keeping the world from deteriorating into violence, barbarism and crisis. Human Rights, in their vision, safeguard the “minimum standards,” the rules of the game.
A Palestinian youth waves his national flag as people protest against the possible closure of a checkpoint in Ras Khamis near the Shuafat refugee camp in east Jerusalem. Demotix/Mahmoud Illean. All rights reserved.
But this is exactly the problem. Mainstream Human Rights thinking lacks that essential something that makes a struggle worthwhile: it lacks political commitment. Human Rights is not innovative and responsive to change, and its institutionalism and professionalism forces its members to spend too much time reporting on what they do, instead of just doing it. This professionalism keeps them on the sidelines, instead of joining activists.
As a result, Human Rights does not respond to the needs of the very people it claims to serve, something they could not, in any case, ever do alone.
The problems are known, and they are global – between south and north/western countries, and within countries themselves. The poor see Human Rights as yet another academic discipline detached from their reality; they see Human Rights professionals as people who remain uninvolved, who “play it safe.” Although Human Rights professionals write nicely about the right to housing, few of us are ever under a threat of eviction ourselves. You rarely, if ever, find us tied to the gas balloons of an apartment to protest its tenants’ eviction. This kind of thing is left to the grass roots, “radical” activists, or to those who are slated for eviction themselves.
The strengths of the big Human Rights organizations are also known. They enjoy high international esteem, and their brand recognition can be used to arouse international pressure, and launch transnational campaigns. But to be effective and true to our original mission - or one that I wish to see as our true mission - we must be more humble. Human Rights organizations should listen to, protect, and serve marginalized communities. We must – to use Hopgood’s words – move towards human rights activism. We must not speak for or instead of communities, but must rather lend our reputations and status to their genuine concerns and struggles. Otherwise, we should evacuate the stage all together.
In Israel, this means that Human Rights organizations should no longer simply “report about,” or “advocate for,” the rights of Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, as if their struggle is somehow separate from ours. We must no longer be content with demanding respect for their right to health, or even freedom, in international or local fora. If the Palestinian struggle and their needs are to be taken seriously, we must learn how to truly and humbly engage with them, together.
This is no easy task, certainly not when the difference in power between us and them, between the have and the haves not, is so great. It is, however, a task worth trying.
The same applies to the debate over migration, one that is now taking place in the western (developed) world. How can the west – Israel included - keep on speaking of human rights when so much of the abuse we see is because it uses globalization to make profits at the expense of poor countries, at the same time that it objects to and rejects migration – caused by that same poverty - from those same countries?
Some may say that if we do evacuate the political stage, it will be overtaken by violence and bloodshed. This may be so, and it is indeed a danger we must consider. But we must also consider the possibility that by stepping down or aside, we will create space for others to make themselves heard and introduce new methods of change.
Moreover, we should admit that violence and bloodshed already happen daily even when we are on the case, and that a lot of that violence – one that destroys millions of lives – is within and by democracies. The real human rights people desperately need – like protection from the “free” market economy – are left largely unaddressed by the mechanisms of Human Rights.
This should be our political struggle, our mission if you like. Human Rights will never succeed in this mission unless it – we - become part of a larger social movement for real change.