Rethinking Human Rights

A new book on the human rights agenda casts light on events in Iraq.

James Heartfield

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Rethinking Human Rights: Critical Approaches to International Politics, edited by David Chandler, Palgrave 2003.

As the United Nations (UN) seems to be finished by the failure of the Security Council to agree a policy on Iraq, it seems a strange time to read a book centrally concerned with the emerging policy of international humanitarianism. Since the election of the Bush administration it seemed that the role of transnational institutions with a human-rights agenda would be curtailed in favour of America’s own national interests.

Withdrawing from the Kyoto Summit agreement and the International Criminal Court, the new administration seemed to be done with ‘multilateral’ arrangements to put its own interests first. Writing in the Winter 2002/3 issue of the National Interest, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer described multilateralism leaving America tied down like Gulliver by the Lilliputians. Then, a reluctant USA was persuaded to pursue action against Iraq through the United Nations, only to withdraw angrily into a rather narrower ‘coalition of the willing’.

The contributors to Rethinking Human Rights, however, are convinced that the underlying trend is one that undermines national sovereignty in favour of a specious internationalism, where explicit interests and goals are subordinated to an abstract humanitarianism. One might be tempted to think that even if this was a problem, it has been swept aside by America’s unilateral action against Iraq, its dismissal of the UN, and the widespread perception that it was engaged in a self-serving war for oil.

But despite appearances, the collection here will prove to be the most useful available guide to the emerging conflict. Far from reversing the trend, the breach in the UN Security Council indicates just how far the challenge to the old model of diplomacy has come. There can be little doubt that as events develop, human rights diplomacy will shape the resolution of the conflict, and as David Chandler’s collected essayists argue, it will not be a force for good.

The key to understanding the new human rights diplomacy is contained in Chris Gilligan’s chapter on the peace process in Northern Ireland. He argues that the incorporation of human rights into the Good Friday Agreement does not mean the end of the British state’s rule over the six counties, but a change in the form of regulation the state exercises. What is drawn together in these various essays is the anatomy of a new mode of state regulation, developed initially in the realm of international relations, which takes human rights as its guiding principle. And of course, who could object to the principle of human rights?

But as John Laughland and David Chandler demonstrate, the emerging discourse of human rights is profoundly arbitrary in its selective application. Laughland’s examples of the extraordinary shifts in the definition of crimes against humanity – expressly forbidding aerial bombardment at first, only for aerial bombardment to become the instrument of humanitarianism in Kosovo in 1999 – expose the rhetorical claims that some crimes are so awful that the world must act.

The real character of the ethic of humanitarianism, Laughland elegantly explains, is that in distinction to the actual rights that individuals possess as subjects of states, ‘human rights’ remain an empty hole into which any purpose can be inserted. As Chandler shows, the difference between the mundane rights enshrined in the laws of constituted states and the ethereal human rights, is that the latter are not enacted by the individuals themselves, but by the dominant international powers on their behalf, even against their express will.

While the human rights agenda consistently diminishes the claims of rational individuals, and the rights of independent nations, it correspondingly elevates the presumed interests of subjects who are incapable, or deemed incapable, of determining their own ambitions. Vanessa Pupavac shows that the children’s rights model in international relations – through such initiatives as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – ‘is transforming the rights holder into an object of law and inverting rights into externally imposed decrees’.

John Pender’s article on the World Bank project ‘Voices of the Poor’ exposes an even more squirm-inducing exercise in ventriloquism. Hung on interviews with thousands of poor people from the less-developed world, the Voices of the Poor survey purports to show that they are less interested in material than spiritual wellbeing. But Pender dismantles the survey’s methodology to show that not only do the World Bank’s researchers baldly substitute their own concerns for those of the interviewees, but substantially redefine poverty itself to mean something close to its opposite.

Many of these essays overturn the received interpretation of events as distinct as the Rwandan conflict and the reporting of the 1999 Kosovo war. It would be difficult to do justice to them all, other than to say that there is not a chapter here that will not fascinate any interested reader.

The promise that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will play a decisive role in the reconstruction of Iraq is credited with persuading war-sceptic development minister Clare Short to stay in the British cabinet. Anyone wanting to understand the increasingly politicised role of the aid agencies will have to read Fiona Fox’s chapter in Rethinking Human Rights.

And anyone wanting to understand the legal basis of unilateral action in pursuit of a United Nations’ resolution should read the chapter on humanitarian intervention by Jon Holbrook.

Buy Rethinking Human Rights: Critical Approaches to International Politics from Amazon(UK)).

James Heartfield is the author of The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, Perpetuity Press, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)); and Great Expectations: The Creative Industries in the New Economy, Design Agenda, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)). He is also coauthor of Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website

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