Most human rights writings are about how other people could do things for claim holders, not about supporting them to lift themselves to act on their own behalf.#

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Saturday, 03 July 2021 15:16

Human rights: Food for a less discussed thought  ‘Threats in HR practice’


Human Rights Reader 584


[TLDR (too long didn’t read): This Reader is about the shortcomings and caveats encountered in human rights work. For a quick overview, just read the bolded text].


-(#: I hope this is not true for this Reader…).

-It is understandable that texts intended for students and human rights (HR) academics are not written for the general population. However, the writers could offer more discussion of how their readers could better help to ensure that claim holders become fully engaged as protagonists in solving their problems.


1. Only few professionals are interested in helping claim holders in their very locations know and exercise their rights. Similar concerns can be raised with regard to HR-NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International when it comes to economic, social and cultural rights. They usually speak on behalf of claim holders rather than facilitating how the latter can ensure that their voices are not only heard, but acquire and gain influence.


2. More attention must thus be given to the simple fact that many people do not know their rights --or, they may know them, but only in an abstract way; they may not know how to actually make use of them. For some people, the experience of learning about HR is a bit like learning about bicycling from a book. It does not mean much until you do it. All HR work requires demanding changes through mass movements. When HR professionals act for claim holders, they actually risk disempowering them instead of coaching them in speaking up for themselves.*  (George Kent)

*: People who have had everything else taken away from them should not also have their problems taken away from them! (G. Kent)


Is it not quite odd that, for a field dedicated to social change and human rights, we most often do not engineer change, but usually just adapt to it?


3. There is an absence in our psyche that has left us often grappling with changes rather than owning and driving them to actively bring about the future we want. We endlessly churn out new, exciting bits of (re)action every time something is thrown our way --be it the rise of authoritarian populist leaders, the closing of civil society space**, and/or intergenerational and planetary crises such as climate change  …and that would be it.

**: Facetiously, someone said public interest civil society’s voice is not being muted; it is being UN-muted, referring to the corporate capture of UN agencies. [Human rights funding of UN agencies is overwhelmingly extrabudgetary. (Norah Niland)].


4. Too bad, because the UN system ought to be viewed as the key accountability agent when national HR systems fail. But are they? Seen from another angle, global and regional courts are supposed to be the courts of last resort. But are they? As we know, this does not work well --for several reasons:


5. For accountability to work, we need to set annual and multiannual benchmarks for the progressive realization of HR. These must be monitored (‘watchdogged’) by HR activist organizations. (Daniel Burrus) Ultimately, it is this mechanism/modality that must take charge. Experts are not needed to set these benchmarks towards the future. Expertise matters, but when it comes to charting the future, community monitoring is ultimately much more effective and needed. (Krizna Gomez)

Our ideas may have perhaps triumphed but, in its practice, is our human rights zeal and enthusiasm in trouble?


-As alternatives coming from purportedly applying the HR framework are put forward, we must ask, not only if they are the best alternatives, but also why they are being proposed and by whom? (vested interests?), as well as who is objecting to them and why.

-Furthermore, do keep in mind: There are HR (often pretentious, applied globally) and hr (down-to earth, applied locally)…


Example: What happens to human rights when populists invoke its language? (Frederic Megret)


6. ‘The HR project’ faces many threats internally. The project is a victim of its success and the fact that every claim to social justice these days can be articulated with rights language. If this is not addressed, the project risks spreading itself too thin and becoming irrelevant.  If every cause is framed in HR language, then how do we, as HR activists, avoid the capture of the discourse by those who would undermine it? How are we to know what discourse is genuinely about HR and what discourse is only cynically so?


7. Take ‘human rights populism’. In short, it is the use of the HR discourse by its enemies. It is a complex and insidious phenomenon. It takes the HR project by surprise, because --unlike various brands of national, economic, religious or racial populisms that take an explicit stance against HR-- it seems to embrace HR rather than reject them --even if it is part of a larger effort to subvert them. This populist brand may/and does frame itself as ‘the ultimate defender of HR’.


8. By exploiting this, populists can weaponize HR against HR with ruthless efficiency and to devastating effect. In fact, HR populists promote mainstream status-quo politics. They rightly predict that they can throw the project off balance by hiding its elite credentials and eliciting plebeian appeal.


9. Human rights populism can also ‘pink wash’ HR. Take the case of the Israeli state’s HR record systematically shielded behind being ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’. Not to mention the efforts to combat structural white supremacy in the US only through lip service…


10. The question remains though whether one can confidently reject HR populism as entirely external to HR because it is politically motivated. It can be uneasy for the contemporary HR movement to distance itself from its purported populist takeover without revealing some of its own affinities with what it seeks to condemn. It seems that populists have found a way to exploit a critical weakness in the HR project, that one can identify tentatively as a tendency to replace politics with the legal-technocratic language of HR without instead engaging in a comprehensive politics of emancipation and its language.


11. In short, HR populism exposes what has always been the vulnerability of HR to political capture. This means that, as the HR movement seeks to distinguish itself from HR populists, it may find itself constantly at risk of exposing some of its own inherent weaknesses. (F. Megret)


12. The above notwithstanding, those of us who see ourselves on the left should listen carefully to the language and claims of other concurrent struggles, including those that we may not have assimilated in our HR movement. This, in part by creating institutional space for their respective grievances and approaches. While some of those other movements may vernacularize HR, we need to accept that HR may not really be central to their overall political projects. Indeed, HR may sometimes be tangential to them. This recognition must push us beyond accepting what some say, namely that HR are often part of the problem; it should make us attentive to what we miss when we only listen for the HR discourse ignoring the articulation of non-strictly HR demands others pursue --with which we actually agree.*** (Karen Engle)

***: Human rights were in greatest ideological and mobilizational ascendancy in the 1990s. In retrospect, it was a strikingly depoliticized moment in which HR benefited from the impression that they were central. In the meantime, HR have lost not their importance, but their imaginative near-monopoly as a framework for reform. Mobilizations associated with HR have seen the death of more ambitious political agendas --perhaps with high costs to the HR cause. Human rights surged as socialism died as a cause to fight for in the world. The environment in which the movement prospered as antiwar and as socialist in politics has died. So, contrary to those critics that see the HR movement as an ‘accomplice in the crime’, the movement must take-on more tasks (at the risk of failing if not more comprehensively), or claim less and allow other potential ‘sister movements’ to surge in parallel. (Samuel Moyn) …Food for thought.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

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