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Who is the human in human rights?

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Human rights discourse relies on an abstracted human who is too often male and white. The challenge is to develop a human rights politics that is inclusive without obliterating differences.

Anne Phillips
26 August 2014
Statue of Thomas Paine
A statue of Thomas Paine, author of the Rights of Man (1791). Flickr/porteous. Some rights reserved.

Who is the human in human rights? In principle, of course, this is anyone and everyone—that’s the whole point of claiming rights as a human rather than as a citizen of a particular country—and the rights of this human must apply equally, without hierarchy or discrimination. The language signals the inclusive equality of all human beings, and yet in practice the scope of human rights has been far more limited. Some of the failure reflects a resistance to recognising all humans as genuinely equal. Some reflects a continuing tendency to pattern images of the human on particular sub-groups, to see men, for example, as generic humans, but find it much more difficult to see women in this way. The greatest difficulty, however,  is that the language of the human offers us equality at the price of abstracting from all our differences. It tells us that it shouldn’t matter whether we are male or female, Hutu or Tutsi, Muslim, Christian or Jew, for we are all of us human beings. This is a powerful ethical ideal, and the world would surely be a better place than it currently is if people really acted on it. Yet the injunction to set our differences aside falls a long way short of what is ultimately needed to achieve the kind of equality promised in the language of human rights. In the conventional liberal version, the human in human rights has to be an abstraction in order to deliver equality: we have to abstract mentally from everything we otherwise know in order to recognise others as our equals. The problem with this is that it too often remains an empty ethical imperative,  incapable of dealing with the institutionalised power relations that currently mark us as unequals. What we need, rather, is to be able to hold together – often in tension – the requirements of both equality and difference. 

When the French revolutionaries declared the Rights of Man and the Citizen, they were at least honest enough to specify their own restrictions. They did not commit themselves to the view that all humans are born free and equal (it was men and citizens), and though in the fervour of the revolutionary years, they subsequently voted to extend the rights to Protestants as well as Catholics, Jews as well as Christians, and to freed black slaves from the colonies, they continued to resist the suggestion that French women could be as fully citizens as French men. With the later declarations, made explicitly in the name of the human, one might anticipate an end to all restriction, but as feminist critics of the human rights industry have repeatedly argued, even here there have been question marks over who qualifies as human. One element in this is scope. Human rights clearly include the right not to be tortured; but can we seriously claim it as a human right to be able to vote when convicted of a criminal offence, sleep with someone of the opposite sex, or live amicably with one’s partner without facing daily violence? Those contesting the extensions point out—with some justification—that human rights may lose their weight and significance if stretched to cover everything we consider desirable; they then arbitrarily apply this dictum to exclude what they regard as too trivial or private to count. Much of the feminist engagement with the politics of human rights has then centred on the failure to recognise ‘private’ violations of rights as of the same status as ‘public’ ones; and many of the advances of recent years have occurred around the growing acceptance that rape, for example, is a violation of human rights when perpetrated by private individuals as well as by agents of the state, or genital cutting a violation of human rights even though performed in the privacy of the home.

The other element is a continuing resistance to recognising women as generic humans. Violations of the rights of women or children are taken far more seriously today, but note how often they are described precisely as that: as violations of women’s rights, or children’s rights, as if these fall into a different sub-category from violations of the rights of the human. When women and men alike face torture or arbitrary imprisonment, we talk of violations of their human rights, and may well conjure up images of men as the typical victims. When women are the only victims of a particular violation, we tend, rather, to talk of violations of women’s rights. Even today, that is, after many years of campaigning under the slogan ‘women’s rights are human rights too’, it is easier for men than for women to serve as the generic human. 

One might plausibly think that if this is the problem, the solution lies in more rigorous abstraction, and that we should now set out about stripping away all remaining remnants of ‘maleness’, or ‘whiteness’, or whatever other dominant  characteristic has illegitimately crept into the supposedly generic human. The problem is that this may also deprive us of the resources we need to address inequalities, for the separation between abstract 'human' core and supposedly inessential difference commonly works to shore up relations of power. Iris Marion Young argued in Justice and the Politics of Difference that when we call on people to bracket out their particularities, to think beyond their markers of difference and 'merely local’ grievances and concerns, we usually end up affirming the dominance of the already dominant. It is those on the margins who are most characterised by and preoccupied with difference, and the power hierarchies that trouble their lives do not disappear when they invoke the notion of the human. Liberal conceptions of human rights sometimes seem trapped between overly substantive notions of the human that serve to exclude (or occlude) major sub-sets of humanity, and overly abstract notions that wish away the significance of difference. The challenge is to develop a human rights politics that delivers on the inclusive equality of all human beings without, in the process, obliterating the differences or rendering us all the same.

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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