Neither held together by a coherent ideology, liberal or otherwise, nor entirely fluid, our knowledge and practice of human rights is structured among other things by “best examples”, taken-for-granted reference points that implicitly shape what is perceived to be a human right, a human rights violation, or human rights work. The right to property and the right to free speech have been among the most influential of such best examples among rights, and the prisoner of conscience has been an emblematic victim, but these are not the only privileged reference points, and certainly not the only possible ones.
“Legal rights have been the building block of western law since early modernity modelled on the right to property, the first and still most significant right,” Costas Douzinas has argued in this forum. With this he points at an important pattern in the world: while national constitutions and international declarations present us with a long and growing list of rights, not all rights are born equal. Some rights carry more weight than others and those rights, often linked to the image of a specific kind of violation, shape how human rights are imagined more broadly. But it would be misleading to try to aggregate privileged reference points into a coherent ideology that provides hidden unity to disparate practices.
Psychologists, starting from the micro-process of cognition, call privileged reference points for a category of objects “prototypes” or “best examples”. These are clearly affected by social, cultural and historical context. Professional communities have their own best examples. Biologists routinely focus attention on specific animals such as the fruitfly, or the mouse, which serve as stand-ins for a broader category of organisms. They call these research objects “model systems”. The literary canon plays a similar role: it focuses attention on some works rather than others, which then shape how whole genres, such as poems, or novels, are read and imagined.
Like in other fields, the salience of best examples of human rights is sustained by specific professional communities and with that by specific practices; these practices are diverse and they are changing over shorter time frames than the term “liberalism” would have us believe. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion were perhaps the best examples of human rights in the 1970s and 1980s, and prisoners of conscience the most exemplary victims of a human rights violation. We might call this liberal but by doing so we would draw a too easy line from this phase of the Cold War all the way back towards the classics of liberal political philosophy.
To the extent that human rights discourse existed before this period—Samuel Moyn has most forcefully argued it was much less prominent then—free speech was not at its core in the same way, and free speech is no longer that central today. The focus on free speech was favoured by a specific geopolitical constellation; it was also buttressed by an infrastructure of organizational practices, built by Amnesty International, the OSCE, Helsinki Watch and PEN International. Amnesty's focus on individual prisoners of conscience was not just an ideological choice, it was tightly linked to its organisational innovation of linking members to each other through the adoption of particular victims.
Not all prototypes for human rights are liberal or individualistic. Business and human rights, for example, has become an important area of human rights practice – a new and distinct genre, so to say. The typical cases in this field—the explosion at the chemical factory in Bhopal, India, prominently among them—are ones where victims are groups of workers and communities who depend on specific ecosystems.
Thinking about prototypes highlights questions about how concrete situations are assimilated to the categories that are read in light of different best examples. There is an internal inequality among cases in terms of how well they fit “their” prototype and a risk of reducing what is specific about each case. But as other assumptions change, new realities can fit old prototypes. LGBT rights were once thought to be a cause of special interests quite separate from the mainstream of human rights work but are now quite a central part of it. Because sexual orientation is increasingly accepted as part of who people are rather than a choice that can be legislated against, victims of anti-LGBT legislation have newly become assimilated into the category “prisoners of conscience”. In some ways victims of anti-LGBT legislation play a role similar to emblematic victims of past periods: they are used to construct broader lessons about the way everyone becomes vulnerable when there are no protections for those who are different.
Prototypes in human rights tend to bring a right, a victim and a perpetrator together in a powerful image. Perhaps because the image that comes to mind lacks a perpetrator, the starving, the sick and the unemployed as such have never quite become emblematic of human rights violations. Best examples also sometimes add a specific response to the image of right, victim, and perpetrator.
The historian Paige Arthur has shown this for example for the case of “transitional justice.” She argues that “transitional justice” came to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s as a new field in the repertoire of international human rights practice. As an approach, it linked the atrocities associated with dictatorships, the promise of a democratic future with an emphasis on prosecution—as opposed to say redistribution—as a response. This linkage was all the more remarkable because it pushed human rights activists into a role they were initially not used to – working with states, instead of against them. Though Arthur stresses that this new area of work was transnational and comparative in its inception, we can ask how it was influenced by some cases more than others, such as Argentina and South Africa.
Best examples don't explain all the selectivity of human rights, but it is worth remembering that ideology is not the only other alternative hypothesis available. Mundane logistical constraints as well as inequality of power and resources also play an important role in the process by which indeterminate and contradictory values are translated into practice.
This article is part of the Human rights strand of the Liberalism in neoliberal times series that OurKingdom is running in partnership with Goldsmiths, supported by the Department of Sociology. You can read Kate Nash's introduction to this strand here. You can read Gholam Khiabany's introduction to the whole series here.
Liberalism in neo-liberal times - an OurKingdom partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London
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