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.
There is an interesting dimension to the human rights genre that deserves extra attention, which is that it only validates one solution to a crisis, namely the solution that follows from the human rights logic. Any other solution is seen as a non-solution and may in fact be deeply threatening to the moral logic of the genre. A good example is this article in World Politics Review on the recent statement by Gen. Agwai, outgoing force commander for UNAMID, that the war in Darfur is over. Even though the writer cannot dispute Gen. Agwai’s empirical characterization of the situation, his statement is seen as “dangerous”. He mischaracterizes what Agwai said as a “declaration of peace,” whereas Agwai was in fact saying that this is the time for focus on a political process. Why is this “dangerous”? Presumably because this approach delegitimizes tools of military coercion in favour of a domestic political process, which means that the advocates of an externally-imposed blueprint lose their chance for dictating the one kind of solution that they recognize.
The human rights worldview is, in part, a creation of a bourgeois society which has already settled a prior question, typically by force. That prior question is: who is a human? In Spain after the conquest of the Americas and the destruction of the existing civilizations there, the question of whether the Native Americans were properly considered human beings was the controversy of the time. That was also the challenge mounted by the Haitian Revolutionaries to their French counterparts. In the Enlightenment tradition this was a philosophical-legal question to be resolved as a simple yes-no answer, in the context of a modern state or its prototype. In societies that have not reached a comparable stage of class development and where the issue of human beings as commodities versus human beings as bearers of rights has not been raised, the individuation of human rights remains problematic and typically the question of “who is entitled to be considered part of the community of individuals who are human beings” can not be answered in a simple way, as it admits of degrees, or more particularly, intermediary mechanisms of making rights claims on the state. Such is the case in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa including Sudan, where patriarchies still possess rights-in-women and rights-over-women and citizenship rights are associated with tribe and lineage. The “fair shares” discourse of political claims, articulated through tribal or provincial collectivities, has the regressive outcome of making rights contingent on membership of one of these collectivities.
Why is this â€œdangerousâ€? Presumably because this approach delegitimizes tools of military coercion in favour of a domestic political process, which means that the advocates of an externally-imposed blueprint lose their chance for dictating the one kind of solution that they recognize.
I don’t think this is a fair appraisal. The WPR also mentions WFP aid being in danger if there is an idea that there is no war and therefore no reason to continue funding its air transport. Also, if there is less attention paid to Darfur and Chad, then there will be less pressure on the actors to come to a political solution. Why should Khartoum come to a just endgame (which would mean concessions from the center ceding some power and resources to the periphery) with the rebels in Darfur, if there is no longer any pressure on it to do so?
It seems that there is a brief window for a political solution in Darfur before the looming disaster of what sometimes seems like an inevitable rekindling of the north/south civil war. That said, Khartoum is obviously not the only group that needs pressuring in Sudan — the plethora of splitting rebels do too.
I can see, then, how in the context of keeping the fickle international community’s attention on Darfur, one might characterize Agwai’s remarks as “dangerous.” The secret is how to keep attention nuanced and find a balance between this and this.
What strikes me gradually more in humanitarian science is that its practitioners are to a large extent provenient from the 60-70s generation from the west, which is highly secular, almost showing contempt for christianity. This explains to a great extent as to why human rights has become a “secular religion”. This generation left most of the “illogical”spiritual baggage of their parents behind and could not find much to replace it. They hardly want to recognize that even the rest of their parents world of values is highly christian-inspired. On the other hand “the target group”of their science is highly religious. And discussing human rights with them, almost exclusively needs a spiritual context. For example: promoting human rights in Central Asia (inclusive of Afghanistan) is not directly spreading the word of universal basic human rights but is about linking it to the Koran and let this fusion confront tribal codes (which are often not especifally gender friendly). The religions of our target groups, and christianity is no exception to this – do recognize the evil from within as important!
Where these worlds could meet is when the humanitarian scientists recognize that there are issues which they cannot explain as well and if others choose to explain these particular issues by religious belief, this deserves no contempt, but respect.
As for the universality of the basic human rights. The Feinstein Humanitarian Agenda 2015 has shown that it is there to a great extent. So it can be promoted across the globe!
However, the universality is really universal. Nor christianity, nor the west can claim basic human rights to be theirs.
Dear Abd al-Wahab Abdalla,
Thank you for your comment: I cannot agree more. I think the human rights movement is not only refraining from touching the question a priori, ‘what is a human being’. One could also observe that there is a lot of awe and respect for the notion of ‘the human’ or ‘human dignity’ in an abstract way, but that that feeling of awe and respect is not automatically transfered to every actual human being. Here we both encounter the problem of what Lynn Hunt called ‘imagined empathy’, and, indeed, of definition. Already at its first inception, ‘Man’ and ‘Citizen’ in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens was interpreted as referring to the autonomous male human being. This soon (after some fierce lobby) was extended to include `all man, without distinction of color’, but women, as we all know, were not even thought of. But the problem of defining what is a human being even goes further than the inclusion or exclusion of certain categories: the ‘being human’ refers to what is considered ‘civil behavior’ by the dominant discourse in a particular time and place. In the current dominant discourse for example, forcing entrance into Afghan compounds to search for weapons, bombing with unmanned airplanes and establishing girls schools is within the boundaries of what is concerned ‘being human’, but marrying young daughters to older spouses or keeping them inside their houses to protect their and their families’ honor, is not. What kind of human suffering to empathize with and not, is clearly (culturally) prescribed.
There is much more to say on mechanisms of exclusion at work in human rights: why this emphasis or even obsession with civil and political rights, while many living in the midst of decades of war and poverty would say: ‘Why talk about peace, democracy and freedom of speech: I am much more concerned about the food I again cannot offer to my children today!’ (I literally often heard this). And why are even the opponents of human rights bound to the human rights order?
There is also much more to say about mechanisms of empathy, and how the ‘imagined empathy’ conflicts with the actual empathy we muster when confronted with human suffering, and when all kind of other evolutionary mechanisms appear to dictate our decisions, rather than this imagined empathy.
So thank you again for your comment, because it is clearly evokes some thoughts!
https://cialiswithdapoxetine.com/ cialis online