Academic journal article Texas International Law Journal

"Shooting into the Dark": Toward a Pragmatic Theory of Human Rights (Activism)

Academic journal article Texas International Law Journal

"Shooting into the Dark": Toward a Pragmatic Theory of Human Rights (Activism)

Article excerpt

I. UNEASY TIMES: HUMAN RIGHTS BETWEEN SCEPTICISM AND COUNTERTERRORISM

After the seeming triumph of human rights discourse in the 1990s, including the unprecedented expansion of international and national human rights instruments and the apparent emergence of a global cosmopolitan super-culture auguring in a new world order of universally shared values, the vogue of human rights has come of late under considerable pressure. It is tempting to attribute that pressure solely to an external cause, namely to the very real competition now facing human rights from a human security discourse constantly expanding since the September 11 attacks. The danger of this particular competition does not so much consist of the deliberate curtailment of human rights in the name of counterterrorism,1 but rather in the gradual and somewhat concealed replacement of human rights as the defining concept of late modern societies by that of human security. By cruelly manifesting the practical limits of multicultural cosmopolitanism and intercultural understanding, terrorism and counterterrorism seem to put into question the very foundations upon which the idea of universal human rights is premised. The human rights community has certainly had difficulties in finding an appropriate response to an ever more abrasive security discourse that appears better attuned to the current mood of fear and loathing. Indeed, it has largely confined itself to documenting whatever limitations of constitutionally or internationally protected human rights have occurred, and to legalistically pointing to the breach of governmental or state obligations. It has, in other words, largely treated the threat of terrorism and counterterrorism as a standard human rights violation issue, almost as if nothing has happened and as if an overarching consensus over human rights could still be readily assumed. It has, thus, not taken up the real challenge of the (counter-)terrorist predicament, namely its exposition of the inherent precariousness of the underlying assumptions on rationality and intercultural translatability upon which human rights (activism) was constructed. Indeed, contemporary human rights discourse is, arguably, premised on the fact that its foundations are only hazily assumed, rather than clearly articulated. Only by concealing the fact that the basic questions underlying the concept of human rights have never been answered could the international human rights movement acquire and maintain its self-righteous aura of untouchable "dogoodness" upon which it has thrived. It is this shaky ground for human rights which the (counter-)terrorist challenge has brought to the fore, and which anyone pretending to come to the rescue of human rights (activism) must address.

II. ON SHAKY GROUND: RELATIVITY, UNCERTAINTY, AND HUMAN RIGHTS

At its deepest level, the ground of human rights has been premised on two epistemological assumptions: a singular and, hence, universal rationality, and the intercultural translatability of concepts such as human rights. Only if all human beings are presumed to be imbued with the same form of reason, and only if concepts like human rights can, in principle, assume the same meaning for everyone, only then is there the kind of ground required by the currently prevalent discourse and praxis of human rights. However, both assumptions have, for long, been challenged in both analytical and continental philosophy,2 which have put into question the possibility of gaining any form of objective knowledge, and, consequently, of attributing to truth any independent, objective properties. Insofar as the term "truth" is retained at all, it does not transcend what Richard Rorty has famously called a "compliment people pay to their favourite beliefs."3 Here, truth is considered thoroughly situated, dependent on context, and ultimately based on subjective belief. This has several consequences: in the first place, it means that the world "out there" is fundamentally inaccessible in its "out there-ness"; this is not the same as saying that the world is simply not out there, but it is to say that the effects it has on the human beings in it do not carry with them a uniform message as to their true being;4 rather, their being will always depend on the multiplicity of variables which make up the particular context in relation to which human beings perceive and judge reality, and which cannot, in themselves, be reduced to a finite, rationally comprehensible set. …

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