Human rights are revolutionary—in principle not practice


In her compelling article, Doutje Lettinga prompts us to critically consider the relationship between transnational NGO advocacy and revolutionary grassroots activism, and the contrast is indeed stark. When activists Nadia Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina departed from the band Pussy Riot and later appeared at the 2014 Amnesty International benefit concert, “Bringing Human Rights Home,” it was a far cry from their radical origins with the art collective, Voina. Attending an event hosted at a pro-basketball arena, sponsored by multinational corporations, and accessible only to those who could afford the costly price of admission was not exactly an act of resistance. Indeed, the remaining members of Pussy Riot called out their comrades for joining the mainstream, pointing out that “institutionalized advocacy” clashed strongly with radical movements for emancipation.

But one initial, knee-jerk response to Lettinga’s probing question of “How revolutionary are global human rights?” may be “Very revolutionary!” After all, human rights demand a confrontation between citizens and the state. Human rights check the arbitrary exercise of power and correct market excess. To claim that the dignity of individuals should be prioritized in political and social decision-making is a subversive act. Only true radicals would even attempt to require the powerful to be transparent and accountable. And human rights seek to do precisely that by undermining traditional hierarchies and remaking society in line with their lofty aspirations. Human rights marshal resources and legal reform to better respect physical integrity, protect vulnerability and administer justice equitably. Constructing an ideal-type rights-bound political order would entail a fundamental transformation of any state that has ever existed. If human rights express a utopian vision, then they must be profoundly revolutionary.

If these principles capture the essential nature of human rights, then why would radical activists like the remaining members of Pussy Riot distance themselves from such a noble enterprise? What explains this tension and how do we understand its origins and impact?

Stephen Hopgood describes Amnesty International as having “no building blocks”: no prerequisite for membership, no philosophical litmus test, no audition, no faith commitment, no blood oath, no party affiliation and no barrier to entry. From the ideological perspective of the Cold War, this was seen as an attractive feature. Human rights were a catchall for disaffected liberal classes drawn to moral crusades and the pursuit of justice. Human rights advocacy groups positioned themselves as an alternative, as a palatable, least-common-denominator approach to politics. This, in a sense, is the force and meaning of universal human rights. It fits into whatever worldview you have without any anchors or attachments. Human rights can be personalized and can accommodate multiple functions.

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"Human rights can be personalized and can accommodate multiple functions."

As a source of norms and ideas about the world, human rights have come to mean anything to anyone.

Into this ideological vacuum steps an odd cast of characters. As a source of norms and ideas about the world, human rights have come to mean anything to anyone. Conservative advocates champion free speech and expression, while ignoring threats against workers. Trade unions utilize human rights discourse, but have opposed the extension of rights to immigrant laborers. Catholic opponents of women’s access to health care frame their agenda in terms of human rights and religious freedom. Human rights are appropriated and selectively applied across the political spectrum, from BDSto men’s rights with no checks, no permissions and no propriety. At times “human rights” seems to stand for nothing in particular at all. Human rights are political claims without politics. In the world of human rights advocacy, anything goes—and that’s exactly the problem.

That human rights assume this role in 21st century global affairs is a product of the mainstreaming of human rights values undertaken by the major transnational NGOs over the past fifty years. The desire to build a broad constituent base compels organizations to conduct outreach and mobilization campaigns with mass appeal. In a strong sense, transnational human rights NGOs run away from anything resembling ideational foundations so as to coax the most diverse audience. Cobbling together opportunistic coalitions may win advocates short-term victories, but it will also hollow out the core of a nascent movement. Many major organizations want elected officials and corporate CEOs to see them as partners to court, not as challengers to fear. Lettinga is absolutely correct to point to impartiality as a tactic that serves this goal as well: to bolster credibility, even as it diminishes the prowess to pressure for structural change.

Resolving the debate over the revolutionary nature of human rights rests on a paradox of form and content. Global human rights advocacy is housed in professional institutions, which are seen as bureaucratic, detached and alien. But the form of human rights is also expressed in the media, marketing and communication strategies that filter out radicalism in order to foster mass appeal. The insurgent qualities of human rights claims become diluted when processed through branding strategies and affixed to bumper stickers. Human rights discourse is weakened when it graces the lips of vapid celebrities who seek only to grow their own status. Outreach efforts that hinge on cheap emotional pleas and simplified narratives do damage to the radical content of human rights by assuming so little of potential supporters—meeting them where they are, rather than getting them where they need to be. Human rights, like art, “should elevate, not pander,” and when commercialism and consumerism become key platforms for human rights struggle, we must not be surprised when our demands are met with derision.

The practice of human rights is utterly inconsistent with the subversive backbone of the movement, and Pussy Riot articulated this contradiction elegantly in their Dear John letter to Masha and Nadia. Unless the human rights community develops a voice—an assertive, genuine, self-realized voice—its language will continue to be misappropriated and revolutionary grassroots activists will continue to look elsewhere for collaborative partnerships. Instead of using Pussy Riot as a prop or publicity stunt to leverage for cultural cachet, human rights NGOs should learn from them about true radical praxis. The promising moment at which the human rights community now finds itself may either be a turning point for a new positive direction, or the last gasp before slinking into irrelevance.