It begins and ends with power

In my recent openGlobalRights article I sought to do three things: to argue there cannot be a singular ‘international human rights movement,’ to ask why civil and political rights, manifest in international criminal justice, are the vanguard of global human rights advocacy, and to suggest that dominant human rights groups tend to crowd out alternative forms of political action that may be more effective because they enjoy greater local legitimacy.

All this matters now because European power has evaporated and American power is waning in the coming multipolar world. There have been many extremely thought-provoking responses, some broadly supportive, others largely critical. As a political scientist my starting point is that power, and therefore politics, exists within every social institution, from the family to the state, as well as between them. Global human rights are no different: money, location and influence are unevenly distributed and give some the power to define what is, and is not, proper ‘human rights’ work with significant real-world effects.

Take two issues raised by the comments. First, the relationship between human rights and social justice. It is clear both from Neier’s forceful restatement of the classical human rights position (that they are really all about civil and political rights) to the powerful rejoinders from NagarajSaiz and YaminSalomon and Rodríguez-Garavito, that there is no agreed version of what human rights are. The UDHR is no help. Human rights are ‘essentially contested concepts.’ What the public at large think of human rights is affected hugely by who has the money and platform to promote their view as the true one. This risks gatekeeping. More generally, in the struggle over whose view will prevail, the salient question is: How big is your funding base and how good are your political and media contacts in New York, Washington, London and Geneva?

Second, what about women’s rights, missing says Marsha Freeman from my original piece. Freeman is right that I did not single women’s rights out. And her parting shot – ‘before dismissing universal human rights as passé, ask the women’ – is well taken. In fact, struggles over women’s rights (and LGBT rights) are at the very forefront of the faultline between human rights advocates and conservative social forces who openly resist them. But are campaigns and activism based on universal human rights the best foundation on which to build the local political leverage necessary to end discrimination and violence against women?

It is here, perhaps more than anywhere, that the human rights frame meets its limitations as a political strategy. Discrimination is often embedded in local norms that are deeply entrenched. Against these, what kinds of mobilized local support can ‘Scandinavian religion’ really muster? It is not just that human rights advocates face a dilemma about whether to make common cause with social forces, including states, that may be progressive in some areas (e.g., freedom of expression) while regressive in others (e.g., gender discrimination, LGBT rights). It is that the languages used to combat discrimination and violence against women are likely to be more effective if they resonate more closely with existing beliefs and social practices. This intuition lies behind the idea of vernacularization, and may help counteract the fact that human rights are perceived to be largely an elite issue as shown in the work of Ron, Crow and Golden.

The question is can there really be one international human rights movement? Aryeh Neier was once right. When human rights were about limits to the exercise of state power, they reflected the foreign policy concerns of western states and their affluent middle classes during and after the 1970s when the west had a monopoly on human rights talk.

Post-Cold War, growing inequality, intensified after the financial crisis, has not dented this self-confidence because poverty is not, on this understanding, a human rights issue. In the United States (home of Human Rights Watch), the left was something to fear and in the UK (home of Amnesty International) it was something whose failure was seen as obvious if regrettable. In neither were left politics seen as a progressive force likely to deliver social justice. Human rights were seen by some as a way to fill the void. But this vision of rights is of little relevance to billions of the world’s people for whom the right to life means anti-retroviral or malaria drugs first, not freedom of expression. Is a preventable death from AIDS really a lesser assault on a child’s right to life than being killed through police brutality?

The vast middle class in western states, and the expanding middle class in the BRICS, has been the natural constituency for human rights. But how committed is this class to realizing human rights for all? They want a bigger political voice for themselves, to be sure, even in China. And they want to consume the same ethical brands like other middle class people worldwide, of which human rights, tattooed on Angelina Jolie’s shoulder as she sells Louis Vuitton bags, are a prime example. But aside from the most vigorous and committed activists, middle class commitment to the rights of others often appears superficial and conditional. It can even seem like a form of ‘slacktivism.’ Human rights remains a form of gift, a gift from ‘us’ to ‘them’ that can never be reciprocated and thereby establishes no ongoing set of mutual obligations. Human rights do not entail any structural redistribution of power away from the 1%.

This is an opportunity for social justice advocates. They can redefine human rights in ways that work for their members, constituents and beneficiaries. In a post-western world, other forms of solidarity and mobilisation, maybe based around religion, maybe based around some form of gender, sexuality, class, national or ethnic interests, may lead to larger scale social mobilization and more rapid social change.

Unseating the American-backed Mubarak took violence and millions of angry Egyptians not decades of effort by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. The risk that goes along with revolutionary social change, peaceful or not, at home or abroad, is a million miles away from what most western human rights consumers sign up for when they put their name to an online human rights petition.

The danger is that the 1%, fearful now rather than assured, start talking the language of responsibility alongside rights, making explicit the fact that these rights are only conditional on good behaviour. In the UK, openly racist police searches targeting immigrants, backed by a shameful government-led campaign, suggest that even in allegedly liberal states the commitment to human rights is not even skin-colour deep.

It is political leverage, not human rights, that make things happen. The wealthy and influential have it, the poor do not except when organized in sufficiently large numbers. And mass protests for the recognition of group entitlements is the sort of mobilization away from which classical human rights tends to steer us.