Why the Human Rights Movement Struggles with Good News Stories
Just before the summer break, I attended a gathering in a Dutch pub in the Hague, the so-called Café Humanitaire organized by the Dutch NGO Platform PSO and the Disaster Studies Department of Wageningen University. The Café provides a pleasant mix of drinks, familiar faces and a half hour discussion on one of the common fragile states topics, and is frequented by staff members of Dutch humanitarian and development organizations. The chatter of voices, the reflection of soft yellow lights against the brown cafe wood, and the provision of as-much-drinks-as-you-like for the ten euro entrance create an atmosphere that endorse people to speak out freely.
This evening, it was the Dutch journalist and professor in International Relations Ko Colijn who kicked off the discussion. He talked about the often cited Human Security Report 2005, but raised attention to an aspect I had not heard of before. According to Colijn, the background for undertaking this study was the embarrassing realization that benchmarks to decrease the number of civilians suffering from armed conflict were missing from the Millennium Development Goals. There simply did not exist a baseline study to determine quantifiable targets for such a MDG. Once the study was finished, the results of this “˜evidence-based and comprehensive’ research were striking, showing not only that the number of armed conflicts around the world declined by more than 40% since the early 1990s, but also that the average number of battle-deaths per conflict per year dropped dramatically from 38,000 people in 1955, to 600 people being killed in an average conflict by 2002: a 98% decline. MDG `number nine’, Colijn asserted, showed outstanding achievements compared to the other MDGs, and one could even wonder if a MDG on armed conflicts would be necessary at all.
The initial response to Colijn’s presentation was one of baffled silence. Once the staff members of Oxfam Novib, Cordaid and others seemed to have recovered from this apparent `shock’, they started to question the findings of the Report. They raised doubts about the extent to which an empirical study can cover the various forms of suffering and insecurity related to armed conflict, and asserted that it was “˜dangerous’ to believe or build on these facts.
A similar response followed the recent statement of Martin Luther Agwai, commander of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Darfur, that the war in Sudan’s western province is over. `As of today, I would not say there is a war going on in Darfur’, Agwai was quoted by journalist David Axe(1). “˜What you have is security issues more now. Banditry… people trying to resolve issues over water and land at a local level. But real war as such, I think we are over that’. According to Axe, the General’s statement is `dangerous’, and he does not stand alone in his verdict, for “˜Agwai’s comments sparked a firestorm of criticism from aid workers and analysts who have labored to draw international attention, and intervention, to the six-year-old Darfur crisis’.
There are various ways to explain the protest and discomfort expressed in response to these good news stories, the most obvious one being that the human rights movement needs a sense of urgency to ensure continued political attention for human rights violations. Critics of international aid and development would probably point to the self-interest agencies have in crying blue murder, and however gratuite this may sound, some truth is undeniably hidden in their blatant remark. But still, agenda-setting and self-interest seem insufficient to explain the ferocity of the protests and the expressions of confusion showing on peoples faces. The colleagues I talk to are intelligent, critical and self-reflective people, the anger they show in response to human suffering is honest, and does not cover any hidden agenda. The puzzlement they display is real. Of course, people working for humanitarian and human rights organizations are talking, writing and reading almost daily on conflict and crisis. And one might add the obvious (but true) “˜blame-the-media’ argument, and conclude that the confusion results from an overconsumption of messages indicating that the world is hampered by increasing conflict and insecurity.
Yet the bewilderment and anger of humanitarian community seems to spring from an even deeper source of confusion. As if the news that the world is indeed “˜getting better’, and their efforts may no longer be needed, disturbs their worldview in a profound way, brings them on the verge of anomaly – a discrepancy or deviation from an established worldview. Because their struggle for human rights, their mission to bring an end to mass atrocities has become quite central to their meaning of life.
What I am suggesting here, is that besides from all other equally valid explanations that help understand the seemingly illogical response of the human rights advocates to the good news stories, there is also this aspect of human rights having evolved into one of the most popular worldviews of our times. A worldview that offers a quite particular narrative as to how the “˜modern civilized’ world should perceive, judge and deal with violence, suffering and cruelty. It is larded with missionary language and zeal, it calls on people to join the struggle for human rights, to secure the “˜never again’, and does not shy away from using political, moral and even military violence to achieve that end.
I think that by explaining the plea for international military interventions as the manifestation of a secular worldview, we will be better able to understand the strong emotions, convictions and attitudes that characterize the Save Darfur movement and other advocates of the Responsibility to Protect: their unyielding belief in the human rights framework as the one universal and self-evident answer to human cruelty and suffering. I also think that the humanitarian and human rights movement would benefit from some serious anthropological self-reflection in a time in which their universality claim is increasingly being contested. To respond to allegations of western superiority by taking an even more principled approach, or by seeking to reconcile human rights with other value systems through inter-religious-studies is not enough, nor effective. For one, because it neglects the unmistakable anger and frustration behind reproaches of “˜human rights imperialism’ – which is unwise from a conflict prevention perspective. But what is more, these responses leave very little room for other (moral) frameworks to cope with human cruelty, and bypass the increasingly vital question, who is legitimized to define the moral texts of the global order in a context of shifting global power relations and an increasingly less Western world?
“Human rights are often declared to be a “˜universal ideal’ in opposition to “˜cultural relativism’ and the latter regarded as little more than an excuse for condoning local cruelties. […] pitting “˜relativism’ against “˜universalism’ is not, I think, helpful for understanding human rights. Of course everybody generally has an opinion about the customs and beliefs of other people (“˜other cultures’), regarding them as good, bad, or indifferent. But in my view that fact is less interesting than the question of the kind of violence (moral, legal, military) that judgments justify.”
Talal Asad (2003: 148)
Moral judgments of violence, cruelty and suffering differ in various times and cultures. Acts like torture and slavery that evoke feelings of horror and disgust amongst most European citizens today, were considered acts of justness by their ancestors of the 13th to mid-18th century. Let me immediately clarify, for I can already hear the roar of protest, that I do not mean to suggest that people in 15th-century Europe did not suffer from the cruelties committed to them. But what I wish to point out, is that the social acceptance of suffering differs in times and places. That what is defined as cruel and abject behavior in one particular cultural or historical context, may be considered acceptable by others. For example, while many human rights activists are abhorred by genital mutilation in Somalia and child marriage in Afghanistan, those practices are not regarded as unacceptable cruelties by the dominant (male) majority in Somalian and Afghan society. Vice versa, aerial bombings conducted by, sometimes unmanned, American airplanes in Afghanistan and Pakistan that kill and injure quite some civilians, are regarded as unacceptable by the Afghan population, but as regrettable but nonetheless acceptable “˜casualties’ by the dominant majority in American society.
Moral judgments of cruelty in human rights have their own particular historical background. Reform and Enlightenment contributed to a worldview that came to stage the individual autonomous man in the center of the Universe, and – combined with the utilitarian calculus of pleasure and pain – defined cruelty in terms of deliberately inflicted mental and bodily pain. This notion of deliberately inflicted pain as something “˜inhuman’ became enshrined in the human psyche through long but successful processes of socialization which ultimately resulted in “˜spontaneous’ responses of disgust to public torture and slavery, leading to their abolition. The Holocaust subsequently provided the key narrative of origin to a worldview that declared taboo on violence, suffering and cruelty, and called for a mission to combat and punish the “˜perpetrators’ and alleviate the “˜victims’.
The particularity of this view becomes clear when comparing it to the dominant ideas of the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages were painted by the conviction `that there are severe limits to the degree in which sin and disorder can be done away with in this world’ (Taylor: 119). Medieval citizens understood order not as the absence of violence, but as consisting of the necessary complementarity of order and chaos, prosper and decay, peace and war. These perceptions supported the view that violence was there as a mere fact of life, and not as something that should or could be eliminated.
Apart from recognizing this view in some of the current worldviews of our globe, I detect a measure of realism in the medieval mindset that I miss in human rights. There exists a huge gap between the moral behavior called for by the human rights movement, and the human behavior as we know it from sociological and neurological studies, and historical reality. By calling acts of cruelty inhuman, the human rights worldview has estranged its adherents from a core characteristic of human beings, and lost the powerful instrument of self-knowledge to help reduce the occurrence of mass atrocity crimes.
The human rights movement displays a relation with violence and cruelty that can in many ways be called ambivalent. First, the movement has embarked on a mission to end mass atrocities, yet is prepared to use quite some violence to achieve that end. Second, though the human rights movement was found on principles of non-violence, its discourse is full of references to fights and struggles. It can even be said that there exists a true cult of human rights heroes, in which those willing to sacrifice their lives for human rights are laureled with awards and prizes. Humanitarian workers who frequent the scenes of conflict and war do not solely do so out of altruistic motives; they also mention the flush of adrenaline, feelings of heroism, and the appeal of dealing with matters of life and death. This reminds of the mixed experience of “˜horror-and-delight’ that many experience at the sight of disasters. As Asad explains, referring to Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757):
“We are drawn to the sight of disasters, Burke claims, by a delight: “˜there is no spectacle we so eagerly pursue, as that of some uncommon and grievous calamity; so that whether the misfortune is before our eyes, or whether they are turned back to it in history, it always touches with delight. This is not an unmixed delight, but blended with no small uneasiness.'”
This ambivalent “˜push-and-pull’ relation to violence and suffering becomes even more interesting if we compare it with Rudolf Otto’s definition of “˜the holy’ as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans: that which overwhelms a person and upon which it feels absolutely dependent (humanitarian imperative, human dignity), that which inspires awe on the one hand and dread on the other (scenes of armed conflict and mass atrocities), that which has an energy of urgency, vitality, passion, emotional temper, will, force, movement, and impetus (human rights reports, language and movement).
Human rights is a secular worldview which core mission is the alleviation of human suffering, yet which narratives, instruments and emotional appeal display an ambivalent relation to suffering and violence. It strikes me that this perspective of human rights sheds another light on the angry and confused responses of the humanitarian community to the two good news stories described in my first contribution: to the spectacular decline of the number of civilians suffering from armed conflict reported in the Human Security Report 2005, and; to the declaration of General Agwai, departing commander of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Darfur, that the war in Sudan’s western province is over. Apart from all other equally valid explanations , there is also this element of the attractive, adventurous, heroic side of the human rights struggle. One that certainly does not override the nobleness of the mission, but should not be neglected either. For this “˜darker’ side characterizes human rights just as much as its noble striving.
Without all references to war, struggle and heroism, without the legal, moral and military power it has to its availability, human rights would not be the popular and influential worldview it is today. Human rights is potentially no less violent than any other religious or secular worldview. But what needs to be discussed urgently, is the kind of violence that human rights judgments justify. Which brings us back to the question, who is legitimized to define the moral texts of the global order on which those judgments are to be based?
Allowing for different (moral) frameworks to deal with mass atrocities and armed conflicts would enrich and strengthen the human rights movement. It would add the necessary realism and openness needed to stop their reflex to denounce every contravening narrative as “dangerous”. And prevent the movement from entering a “moral blind alley” in which one cannot refrain from doing (or not doing) that which one believes is morally wrong: one calls for a military intervention, justifies the violence, even if evidence indicates this is no longer needed, and an intervention may worsen rather than improve the humanitarian situation.
Asad, Talal (2003), Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Taylor, Charles (2007), A Secular Age, Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
(1) See his article on www.worldpoliticsreview.com/article.aspx?id=4245, and also the July and August fatalities figures on Darfur posted earlier on this blog.