A tough period is ahead of us, charged with many challenges. We have to think hard, reflect; we have to (re)invent and continue dreaming: never give up! (Jorge Scherman)
1. Marx famously said that he was not interested in understanding the world but in changing the world. More than anything, human rights work depends on active agents of change. Claim holders and their leaders need to understand not just why, but also what to do.* (Alicia Yamin)
*: The word praxis suggests the need to connect philosophical ideas and theory with real-life experience and action in the political world. Human rights work is, or should fundamentally be, a praxis about the regulation of power.
2. Throughout history, the single most important source of human rights (HR) consciousness and energy has come from the diverse people who have been affected by, and collectively struggled against, what Paul Farmer has elegantly termed “pathologies of power.” We must reach across silos, as well as across North/South and academic/activist divides to be able to more effectively deploy the HR framework and its tools to subvert the forms of hegemonic power that so pervasively colonize our consciousness. The power of hegemony lies in the acceptance of the ‘way things are’. Speaking truth to power requires that the HR community challenges this hegemony. The ever-greater abdication of responsibility by states to private actors is not –repeat, is not– a neutral quest for greater efficiency and innovation. (A. Yamin)
3. For example, the creation and recent exponential surge of human rights indicators driven by external funders, governments and global institutions, suggests that only what gets counted, counts. (?)** An over-reliance on such technocratic exercises may well undermine our consciousness of the need to struggle against the structural obstacles within countries and in the global order. The HR community now needs to develop a praxis for exposing and disrupting the discourses that control our collective imaginations***; it also needs to destabilize the neoliberal paradigm that impoverishes our understanding of development, democracy, and the meaning of being human. (A. Yamin)
**: The goal of cross-country comparisons of these indicators appears naturally desirable, reasonable and neutral. But it is precisely their abstraction from the social context and from the meaningfulness of people’s participation that obscures more than reveals the power dynamics at play. Rather than better capturing reality, such indicators may well come to define reality.
***: Yet robust human rights and equality indicators did not make it to the SDG indicators list that will be used to measure achievements on these targets; achievements will thus most likely fall through the proverbial cracks.
4. Bottom line here: Increasing technocratic interventions alone will neither change minds nor unfair power relations. In fact, well-meaning attempts by development practitioners to ‘inform’ the public may even backfire. It turns out that presenting facts that conflict with an individual’s worldview (e.g., about HR) can and does prevent people from digging-in further into matters that will eventually offer counter-power to power. (adapted from Tim Requarth)
The universality of human rights cannot be reinterpreted (adapted from Alicia Yamin and P. Bergallo)
5. In the current political landscape, we seem to have gone back to a time when human rights are universal only to the extent that they can be universally agreed on by UN member states –this making the normative scaffolding of HR dangerously precarious. This is clearly a fallacy. Any collective deliberation to contest universality is totally out place. To move forward, as HR activists, we must hold firmly onto what we have already achieved. We must collectively reflect on where we are in relation to using the HR discourse, its tools and framing so as to de-facto advance in our struggle. Today, it is clear that there is no one path forward, no one-size-fits-all strategy. We would do well to move beyond some of the standard debates in international HR law and situate our struggles within the realm of national and global political economies, and especially within the neoliberal context.
6. Legalistic approaches to HR and constitutional rights assume that ethical relations between people, states and international law are guided by the rules set by HR covenants and that they are followed. But are they? A rigid legalism tends to see international HR law, as well as domestic legislation in formalistic terms; this is why it is justifiably critiqued as naïve by HR scholars and activists. The argument is that it is naïve to assume that HR principles and standards constrain self-interested political actors: It is clearly not so. In international law, the portrayal of a linear march of progress in a formalistic vision fails to consider its social and political legitimacy. As it happens, written legal HR norms mean different things in different contexts given that such norms’ validity is contextual and are the product of historical trajectories.
7. At the domestic level, then, should activists work towards law reform by launching a strategy of legal mobilization? If so, it has to be kept in mind that much of any legal mobilization often needs to incorporate an understanding of how de-facto power relations determine and structure the opportunities at hand. Activists do have to face the vast array of conservative tactics when seeking legal reforms. The transnational potentiation of advocacy plus mobilization has to be stressed here. Because we are talking of the need of a society-wide legal mobilization that will help shape a broader public understanding of HR, legal mobilization around HR cannot be disconnected from the overall social contestation that occurs in other fronts, beyond legislatures, courts and administrative bodies. We simply need to go beyond law reform and litigation. Ensuring enabling legal and policy frameworks based on international HR law is only the beginning of a longer process. The battle requires many steps to change practices in invariably complex systems.
8. Just as legalism alone is inadequate, simplistic anti-legalism does not either reflect the advances made through a combination of national and supranational mobilizations in other areas. No one field alone can achieve normative victories. Achieving the fulfillment of HR requires challenging not just ideological views, but also views of human beings with equal dignity and rights. It also requires subverting neoliberal and religious fundamentalisms that increasingly control our collective imaginations. The maintenance of the neoliberal status-quo at the national and international levels is not compatible with a global system that recognizes and guarantees the effective enjoyment of substantive equality and social rights.
A short comment on human rights and the Welfare State
9. The origin of the Welfare State was a sort of class conciliation between employers and sectors of the middle and working classes. The current widespread acceptance of this ideological-manifestation-of-clear-cut-class-interests makes it close to impossible to arrive at more radical paths to wealth redistribution that will avoid the inequalities brought about by the Welfare State to begin with. Precisely by developing a system based on merits –through educational attainment, for instance– the Welfare State ended up reproducing social inequalities that have generated a veritable social selection of individuals in society. The Welfare State and the liberal democracy that goes with it are, therefore, no panacea. So we will have to look for our own new paths –the HR framework being a prime vehicle.
10. What is needed, is for all the powers of the State to be governed by fundamental principles such as the respect of HR, transparency and the rejection of the so widespread conflicts of interest. But this will not happen unless claim holders address this and demand the abolition of the many existing social control mechanisms that underlie the Welfare State. The response ought to come more from a greater radicalization of democracy than from a defense of leading and controlling liberal principles other than those compatible with HR principles. (Gonzalo Cuadra)
Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City
Humans have a right to have rights (Boaventura de Sousa Santos)
There will eventually be a moment when societies (and not just some ‘enlightened’ individuals) will come to the conclusion that our race to the bottom can simply not go on. However, the negativity of the present will never suffice for that. There is something terminal about the condition of our times that proves to be an endless terminality. It is as if abnormality possessed an unusual energy to transform itself into a new normality that makes us feel terminally healthy instead of terminally ill. This enables those who have economic, political, or cultural power to present themselves socially as champions of causes while they are in fact champions of things. Generally hating the present is considered as being the expression of a treason or a degradation of a golden past, a time when humanity was more consistent.
The reactionary downward project makes a distinction between humans and sub-humans sound necessary. It suffices that the inferiors be treated as inferior, whether they be women, black people, indigenous peoples. The reactionary project never questions its own privilege and duty to decide who is superior and who is inferior. Sub-humans should be the object of philanthropy to prevent them from becoming dangerous and to defend them against themselves, we are told. They may have some rights, but they certainly must always have more duties than rights.
But can we think the past was definitively better than the present? Can we think that the struggles of the past were able to irreversibly overcome the excesses and the perversities of extremism? We unfortunately live in a time of informal dictatorship with imaginaries of formal democracy; in a time of racialized ideas with imaginaries of human rights –but not with imaginaries of globalization; and imaginaries of a digital communicational orgy; these are true. Is it not a paradox that the oppressed are electing their own oppressors –with false imaginaries of liberation and social justice?
Beware: If paths are many and they go in all directions they can easily become a labyrinth, a dynamic field of paralysis.