The discourse of human rights: drawbacks and opportunities
Many people on the left (mainstream or otherwise) align relatively uncritically with the pronouncements issued by neutral-seeming human rights NGOs. These organisations present themselves as “independent”, “apolitical”, just conveying value-free information to the public. The paradigm seems to be close to that of Consumer Reports. In order to avoid bias, “civil society” creates its own honest, neutral organisations, beholden to nothing but their principles, with no more power than their reputation to effect a change. While this paradigm may work out for Consumer Reports, it certainly doesn’t for the many organisations claiming to defend our human rights.
Human rights are political. Nature, for good or ill, hasn’t endowed man and woman with any rights beyond what they can conquer in struggle, and what may be utopian dreaming one day, becomes the bare minimum of decency a few decades later. Rights are not generally granted, but won; and this is the case whether the struggle is covert and violent, or overt, under the guise of law or debate.
The reason why this matters is, first of all, that neutrality in the field of human rights is all but neutral. At best, and assuming an olympian lack of bias, it becomes the relentless defence of a limited status quo. When such equanimity does not apply, which is all too often, the results are considerably worse.
Let us consider, for example, the partiality with which some organisations, regarded by the general public as protecting universal values, fall short of this admitedly laudable goal. As Mark Ames points out, human rights organisations have abandoned labour rights as part of their purview.
3 of the flagship human rights NGOs, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the ACLU, have no labour rights category. While they’re concerned about the rights of people doing anything else conceivable, as soon as one enters the private discipline of the workplace, their interest, or so it appears, dissipates.
This is HRW’s founders’s opinion of economic rights, which are just as much a part of the Universal Declaration as any other:
The concept of economic and social rights is profoundly undemocratic… Authoritarian power is probably a prerequisite for giving meaning to economic and social rights.
So, it seems some rights are more equal than others. It is interesting that “business” does appear as a key issue in both HRW’s and AI’s website. It’s clear that the class neutrality of these organisations is all but a sham. Protecting businessmen from state interference has become a part of human rights, while protecting the worker from the capitalist is “profoundly undemocratic”. And these are the nominally independent organisations.
Of course, once the discourse of humanitarianism and human rights became hegemonic, it was too powerful a potential tool in the hands of bourgeois states to leave it up to underfunded and weak civil organisations. While they could be controlled or influenced, having a more direct input would allow powerful states to deploy this discourse as a weapon against their enemies.
That’s precisely what the case was with such sstate funded organisations as the NED–National Endowment for Democracy–, IRI–International Republican Institute–, and their analogues in Europe. Organisations which, incidentally, played a little known but notable role in Spain’s democratic transition, largely by pulling PSOE, the Spanish social democratic party which then was still officially Marxist, to the right, to the point of joining NATO under its rule in the mid 80s.
Needless to say, some states are reacting, expelling USAID. Doubtless, the already demonised ALBA states will be accused of having something to hide and refusing needed aid offered to them by the benevolent US agencies they have ejected. Little will be said on how such agencies have been involved in financing opposition parties and media in those countries.
All too often, the discourse of Human Rights becomes a tool of imperialism. As Richard Seymour points out:
The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, while dismissing the idea that there was a Serb campaign of genocide in Kosovo, nevertheless insisted that the true issue was that Milosevic’s campaign would have continued for years if there had not been intervention, creating more death and instability than the bombing did. This provides excellent post facto cover for literally any outcome that you can imagine, except, perhaps, the death of every single Albanian at Nato hands which would, at any rate, still have been an accident, the result of a few miscreants… etc etc.
Organisations nominally devoted to human rights are not necessarily free from outright duplicity either. Some seemingly independent ones, such as Reporters without Borders, are particularly tied to state policy. Notably, RwB obtains most of its funding from agencies tied to US foreign policy, and this shows in the primary focus of its activities. The usual suspects: Cuba, Venezuela…
I have focused on the problems inherent in the humanitarian and human rights discourse. However, it doesn’t mean that the left should abandon such concerns. If nothing else, it would be tactically untennable, even if we may have our doubts about the existence of transcendent and unchanging rights instituted by some notional creator. The language of human rights can be deployed by our own side. Labour rights, the UDHR, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and similar instruments, are perfectly adequate rhetorical and sometimes legal fulcrums to use in our struggle against our own bourgeois states, which engage in systematic violations thereof. It is simply a matter of infusing human rights with the class content they lack in the bourgeois discourse.