Towards an Anthropological Analysis of the Human Rights Worldview
In “˜Human Rights Reporting on Darfur: A Genre that Redefines Tragedy‘, posted on this blog on August 21-24, Jayne Blayton states that ‘human rights reports provide an exclusive explanatory framework which asserts moral and factual certainties and does not leave room for multiple explanations’. This approach strikes her as ‘the antithesis of the anthropological one which is self-reflective and self-questioning’. She even detects a moralistic – Manichean – duality of good and evil in this literary genre, in which ‘evil’ is frequently used to refer to ‘corrupting forces coming from outside populations that are inherently predisposed to be peaceful and democratic’ [italics mine], but rarely invoked when it concerns ‘evil’ as a product of the ‘human soul’. This sharp observation generates much more than an insight into the particular literary genre of the human rights reports. It reflects the struggle of a movement that has qualified cruelty as an outside force of ‘evil’, has embarked on a mission to eliminate that ‘evil’, yet hesitates to come to terms with the violence and cruelty inherent in the human being and in its own missionary actions. As Talal Asad(1) writes:
In secular redemptive politics […] there is a readiness to cause pain to those who are to be saved by being humanized.
The pros and cons of international military interventions are topic of continuous debate in the human rights movement. But the lack of developed positions on the use of force per se amongst human rights and humanitarian organisations, is “˜rather surprising’, as Hugo Slim(2) remarks:
Most seem to avoid explicit policy articulations of their view of violence either by saying nothing or by identifying themselves simply (and sometimes simplistically) with policies that seek to value and promote peace.
Why this evasive behavior? Why does a movement that is so well-known for its tradition of self-criticism and dissent with power, refrain from tackling this dilemma of power in a much more fundamental way? Partly, this may be due to a fear to unleash an identity crisis, as the movement was initially founded on principles of non-violence. But the `powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations'(3) evoked by the human rights struggle, and `the energy of urgency, vitality, passion, emotional temper, will, force, movement, and impetus'(4) displayed by human rights defenders indicate that there is something more at stake here.
The urge to respond to horror scenes of mass atrocities cannot sufficiently be explained as an act of altruism or enlightened self-interest. It is also a response to an image of human cruelty that is so appalling to those who cherish a worldview of human rights, that they feel they must resist it, if need be by violent means. The communal killings, rapes and plundering committed by the Janjaweed are experienced as a direct attack against a culture that has embraced human rights as its core value system. Or, as human rights scholar Michael Ignatieff(5) so sharply observes:
Human rights has become the major article of faith of a secular culture that fears it believes in nothing else.
A secular culture that emerged from a very particular and unique – Western – history, in which the religious imagination of a “˜grand design’ evolved into a political imagination of a “˜grand design’. It is a worldview framed in secular terms but loaded with the debris of Christian eschatology and the missionary zeal of Protestantism and Puritanism. With representations and narratives of violent reform and revolution, of a just or holy war that needs to be fought to redeem the human race from “˜evil’ and realize the project of peace and human flourishing. A worldview in which imaginations of “˜the sacred’ gradually shifted focus from God to Man: to Man as the object of devotion, whose flourishing should be sought in the name of God; to Man as carrying intrinsic worth, as endowed with natural rights that should be protected – if necessary by war. A worldview in which the individual human body symbolizes the locus of moral sovereignty, and can, therefore, never be the locus of “˜evil’.
I therefore propose to not only analyze the particular use of “˜evil’ in human rights reports, as Jayne Blayton did, but embark on a systematic historical-anthropological analysis of the use of notions of “˜evil’, “˜cruelty’, “˜empathy’ and “˜human dignity’ in the whole human rights worldview, as these are central in the movements plea for international military interventions.
Such a study would not only be of scientific interest, but also increase the ability of the human rights movement to constructively engage in a global dialogue on international cooperation for peace and security in a time of shifting global power relations. As the French scholar in International Relations Dominique Moí¯si, so rightly stated in a documentary broadcast on Dutch television(6) :
We have lost the monopoly on models. And what is difficult for us Westerners, who perceive ourselves as universalists, is to integrate the difference of the other, and to accept that we have to and can learn from the other. And to do so without that sentiment of superiority that we naturally inhabit.
Annette Jansen is an independent humanitarian policy and advocacy adviser and PhD student at the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis (ASCA), University of Amsterdam.
(1) Asad, Talal (2003), Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Stanford: Stanford University Press: page 61-62.
(2) Slim, Hugo (2002), “˜Military Intervention to Protect Human Rights: the Humanitarian Agency Perspective’, International Council on Human Rights Policy: page 6.
(3) See Clifford Geertz’ definition of “˜Religion as culture’ as: “˜ (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions
of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic’. In: C.Geertz, 1993 ed. The interpretation of cultures: selected essays. Fontana Press. Ch.4.
(4) See Rudolf Otto’s (1950) explanation of “˜the holy’ as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans in (1950) The idea of the holy: an inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the rational. 2nd ed. Trans. J Harvey.
(5) Ignatieff, Michael (1999), Whose Universal Values? The Crisis in Human Rights, Amsterdam: Praemium Erasmianum Essay 1999.
(6) Tegenlicht, broadcasted by VPRO on 19 January 2009, also downloadable on this link.