Human Rights and the Politics of Victimhood

By Meister, Robert | Ethics & International Affairs, October 2002 | Go to article overview

Human Rights and the Politics of Victimhood


Meister, Robert, Ethics & International Affairs


In the lexicon of rights, the concept of human rights can play a wide variety of roles. Human rights can be defined as substantive natural rights that transcend politics and culture or as the rights that underlie political and cultural differences. They can be defined narrowly as rights that could be asserted against enemies in war or, more broadly, as the aspirational goals to which governments are held accountable by their citizens and the world. Despite their lack of recognition in covenant and positive law through much of the twentieth century, human rights are increasingly asserted on the basis of such recognition. To some, human rights are simply the sine qua non (procedural? biological?) for asserting other rights, whatever these may be. In this paper I do not choose among these uses of the concept of human rights by propounding a single definition; neither do I defend or criticize human rights in general.

My focus, rather, is on a specific political use of human rights discourse that emerged in the 1990s: a fin de siecle triumphalism that sees human rights as a global secular religion, prophesied at the end of World War II and proselytized in the "third wave democratizations" that accompanied the long wind-down of the Cold War. (1) According to this view, the Cold War (in which both sides claimed the mantle of human rights) was a fifty-year-long hiatus in the ability of the "international community" to enforce the consensus on "crimes against humanity" that emerged from Nuremberg and that was embodied in the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, both of which were adopted in 1948. This emerging politics of human rights was heralded by journalists beseeching "the West" to use its military might to avert humanitarian disasters throughout the world (2); it was later celebrated by a generation of "mainstreamed" human rights activists who viewed the growing willingness of Western powers to heed their message as a (more or less qualified) vindication of the promise of 1945-48 that they would "never again" stand by while large-scale atrocities were committed. (3)

This mainstreaming of a particular politics of human rights into a "fighting creed" of the international establishment (4) is not without problems, even for its staunchest advocates: the bombing of civilians to enforce human rights bears uncomfortable resemblances both to a war crime and to the means used in earlier eras of Western imperialism to inflict a punishment from on high when "barbarian" races committed "inhuman" acts. (5) Notwithstanding these problems, however, the mainstream version of human rights advocacy--which I will henceforth call "Human Rights Discourse"--sees the present moment as the end of a fifty-yearlong tunnel between the postwar promise and the imminent realization of a global human rights "culture," defended, when necessary, by internationally sanctioned military intervention. (6) I am concerned in this paper with how the outcome of struggles of the past half-century, which were articulated through the competing ideologies of revolution and counterrevolution, has eventuated in a Human Rights Discourse that is rapidly developing into a new rationale for war.

I am focusing here on the dark side of the version of Human Rights Discourse that has predominated since 1999, but my criticism is not directed at the goal of human rights, nor at the work of organizations on the ground promoting that goal. Neither is it directed at the pragmatic compromises necessary to reflect, for example, the fact that violators of human rights in Chechnya possessed nuclear weapons, while those in Kosovo did not--rendering intervention in the latter less risky. I am concerned, rather, that in order to rationalize the U.S. war in Afghanistan (and perhaps similar future actions), the themes of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 have been turned on their head. …

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