Academic journal article Texas International Law Journal

Culture, Resistance, and the Problems of Translating Human Rights

Academic journal article Texas International Law Journal

Culture, Resistance, and the Problems of Translating Human Rights

Article excerpt

I shall start by outlining my approach to the questions of human rights and culture, and then proceed to discuss areas of Florian Hoffmann's paper with which I am in agreement in general, and then conclude with my specific critical comments about the paper.

To begin with, in my past work, I have analyzed and critiqued the ways in which human rights discourse attempts to establish itself as, what I have called, the sole language of resistance, especially in the Third World, by eliminating other discourses and by pushing other discourses to the side.1 I see in this both an epistemological as well as an empirical problem. The epistemological problem is the sheer assertion of power over, and the elimination of, other discourses which may not come from the same source as the Western, liberal human rights paradigm. In other words, there could be multiple languages of emancipation whose epistemological foundations could be at variance with that of human rights, but the human rights discourse attempts to establish itself as the hegemonic one to their exclusion. The empirical problem relates to the wide gap that exists between the legal instantiations of rights to the lived experience of rights, where one encounters the complex reality that there are multiple sources of resistance, emancipation, flourishing, protest and rights-making practices on the ground that are competing and coexisting, and that the human rights discourse is only one language of justice and emancipation.2

This has great implications for the topic of this conference about "translating" human rights into vernacular forms, as it raises serious questions of power that are inherent in such an exercise of translation. The above-mentioned multiple discourses of resistance are both cultural and secular, and one should not start with the presumption that the challenge to the secular discourse of human rights is only from "culture." In my work, I have tried to call attention to the need to write these multiple forms of resistance into international law, not simply to pluralize the cultural foundations of international law-as some of the earlier strands of human rights scholarship did by calling for a cross-cultural approach to human rights for example3-but to turn international law, even if it is done in an ad hoc manner, into a counter-hegemonic discourse that can take power on its own terms seriously, and to question and transform it.4 In my recent work, I have argued that unless international law were to engage with the cultural politics of social movements in their multiple modes of resistance more seriously,5 there is a real danger of international law plunging into the abyss as a tool of raw power and hegemony.

There are many points of the essay by Hoffmann with which I am quite sympathetic. The critique of universal rationality and intercultural translatability as epistemological assumptions in human rights discourse is one such point, though it is hard to see why one needs to go as far as he does to embrace formalism, which raises problems of a very different kind. The other problem with the discussion of intercultural translatability is that while a translation of human rights into the vernacular in the purest sense may be impossible, I would suggest that intercultural imposition in the name of human rights is real. There is no discussion of this issue in Hoffmann's paper. This familiar dilemma, the epistemological superiority of the "modern" over the "traditional" and the violence that is inherent in this encounter, is not addressed in his paper. This is quite crucial because this violence between modernity and tradition would seem to track the violence that is enacted in the other secular discourses that stand for social emancipation in the modern world, such as development. For example, development also sees itself as a discourse replacing tradition with modernity and involving a change in mind-set. Indeed this is how the leading thinkers and practitioners of development define it. …

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