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Human rights aren’t revolutionary? Good!

Human rights are no longer “revolutionary”, but that’s a good thing. EspañolFrançais


Recently on openGlobalRights, Joel Pruce and Doutje Lettinga lamented the non-revolutionary—even anti-revolutionary—nature of human rights. Success has made rights-focused NGOs “soft”, earning reproach from critics such as the Russian musician-activists Pussy Riot. More harshly, some say international groups such as Human Rights Watch are now complicit in US imperialism and militarism.

These critics are wrong in their conclusions even if their observations are correct. Yes, human rights are “no longer revolutionary”, but this is a good thing, not a weakness. Human rights concepts are being incorporated into the language and practices of powerful states and big corporations, helping to make the world a better, safer place.

The achievements of human rights groups are myriad. Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 vague, aspirational notions of what is necessary to preserve human dignity have been integrated into the discourse not only of progressive activists and academics, but also of conservative campaigners, state officials, the media, and corporate moguls. The ubiquity of human rights illustrates how the concept, possibility, and protection of rights have, in fact, persevered. No longer the territory of a handful of “radicals”, human rights have gone mainstream; they are no longer a concept for revolutionaries to use but, instead, for everyone to internalize.

Human rights have gone mainstream; they are no longer a concept for revolutionaries to use but, instead, for everyone to internalize.  Pruce is right to point out many outside the human rights field are using the term “rights” to characterize their causes. True, some of these uses may not align with the history of human rights, such as when religious or pro-family groups use rights language to deny LGBT rights or promote hate speech. It is inaccurate, however, to say that rights “[seem] to stand for nothing at all” because they apply to everyone or are seemingly used by everyone. Instead, one can see this broad mundane usage of the term “rights” as their universalization. Rather than denying another group’s rights, these groups are asserting their own. Although there are certainly questionable appropriations of the term “human rights”, the misuse of the term also, perversely, demonstrates the power of the human rights idea.

For example, Clifford Bob has studied the use of rights as weapons and the deployment of rights language for nationalist or other non-universalist causes. Why do these people use the term “rights” when they could frame their causes in any number of different ways? As James Ron and his colleagues have discovered through opinion polls, people often have positive associations with human rights and view the term with favor.

For better or for worse, human rights have become the vocabulary for many contemporary global and local movements.

There is no single human rights movement. There are human rights movements that claim alternative ways of defining human rights, which means determining the essence of being human—which itself should be “apolitical”. Yet this does not signify the defining process is apolitical and uncontroversial. Note how far the human rights field has progressed up until today: since 1948, the UN has supported nine additional binding treaties and nine optional protocols mandating state action to protect human rights.


Flickr/hobvias sudoneighm (Some rights reserved)

Free internet at the Toronto Reference library. "We have expanded our human rights lexicon, and we continue to add to it. Who would have thought digital privacy and Internet access would one day be debated as a human right in the mid-20th century?"


We have expanded our human rights lexicon, and we continue to add to it. Who would have thought digital privacy and Internet access would one day be debated as a human right in the mid-20th century? Or consider states’ use of particularly deadly or inhumane weapons; once, these were protected from non-state critique. Today, activists have mounted international campaigns such as the to ban or curtail the use of anti-personnel landmines (the Ottawa Convention), Cluster Munitions, the international Arms Trade, and nuclear weapons in the form of the Global Zero campaign. Even businesses have begun to incorporate human rights into their daily practice through corporate social responsibility efforts such as the UN Global Compact; private monitoring efforts such as Goldman Sachs’ Environmental, Social, and Governance Report; the rethinking after the tragedy of Rana Plaza; and the call for the private sector to address mass atrocity crimes and other human rights abuses.

Yes, some of the claims couched in human rights language are probably misguided, but human rights belong to everyone. As a result, some understandings and uses of the concept will be uninspiring for some but incredibly rewarding for others.

Let's not act as though anyone has a monopoly on the correct use of the term, or that "human rights" or concept stretching is only happening from the political right. For some, defining poverty as a human rights abuse could be helpful, as it lends an urgency to welfare, growth, and redistribution policies. For others, however, classifying poverty as a human rights problem may be reductionist, unwise, and misguided, since poverty can be so deeply rooted and multifaceted. Rejection of this framing of poverty can happen from left and right. So who is “right?” There is, in fact, no entirely correct answer, so let’s not pretend that any of us “really know” what is, and what isn’t, the correct definition. What we do know is that rights seem to be a very attractive frame for all kinds of groups making political claims.

The take-home point is this: human rights are increasingly part of our moral discourse, and as such, are debated, used, and misused in all kinds of ways. If this means that human rights are no longer “revolutionary”, that is more than acceptable—even a positive. I will take “accepted and discussed” over “subversive but dismissed” any day.

A version of this article was first published on the Duck of Minerva.

About the author

Wendy Wong is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Trudeau Center for Peace, Conflict, and Justice, Munk School of Global Affairs, at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Internal Affairs (Cornell) and is working on a new book on the authority of INGOs with Sarah S. Stroup.

Wendy Wong est professeur agrégée de sciences politiques et directrice du Trudeau Center for Peace, Conflict, and Justice de l’école Munk des affaires internationales de l’université de Toronto. Elle est l’auteur de Internal Affairs (Cornell) et elle travaille sur un nouveau livre au sujet de l’autorité des ONG internationales avec Sarah S. Stroup.

Wendy Wong es profesora asociada de Ciencia Política y directora del Centro Trudeau para el Estudio de la Paz, los Conflictos y la Justicia de la Escuela Munk de Asuntos Globales de la Universidad de Toronto. Escribió el libro Internal Affairs (Asuntos internos) (Cornell) y está trabajando en un nuevo libro sobre la autoridad de las ONG internacionales con Sarah S. Stroup.

ويندي وونج هي أستاذ مساعد في العلوم السياسية ومدير مركز ترودو للسلام والصراع والعدالة، كلية مونك للشؤون العالمية، في جامعة تورنتو. وهي مؤلفة الشؤون الداخلية (كورنيل)، وتعكف على تأليف كتاب جديد عن قوة سلطة  المنظمات غير الحكومية الدولية مع سارة س ستروب.

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