The Politics of the People, Human Rights, and What Is Hidden from View

By Hurwitz, Deena R. | The George Washington International Law Review, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Politics of the People, Human Rights, and What Is Hidden from View


Hurwitz, Deena R., The George Washington International Law Review


THE POLITICS OF THE PEOPLE, HUMAN RIGHTS, AND WHAT IS HIDDEN FROM VIEW International Law from Below: Development, Social Movements and Third World Resistance. Balakrishnan Rajagopal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. 360, $80.00 (Hardcover); $28.99 (Paperback).

Today, one cannot venture far into the realm of international law without encountering intersections between globalization and rights. Anyone interested in the practice of human rights encounters these intersections throughout civil society, international institutions, and the state. They reveal the dilemmas of justice raised by a rights-based rationale for international law, with its ostensibly altruistic claims for intervention, development, and democratization.

What makes international law and human rights so compelling is that they are processes of transformation, fields distinguished by evolving norms and standards. As such they are, by definition, participatory. Balakrishnan Rajagopal is among a group of progressive Third World scholars who asks: What is driving the train? Do people join the transformative process, or are they responsible for setting it in motion? The questions are critical, both because the processes have such dramatic consequences for movements involved in social transformation, and because of the many assumptions about the positive nature of law, development, and human rights that undergird the transformative process.

Human rights law is characterized as a universalizing discourse. It has generated common standards for measuring accountability and common goals for the protection of human dignity and equality before the law. Yet human rights discourse really embodies multiple competing universalisms, particularly where the policies and priorities of globalization are concerned. Rajagopal addresses the conflicting demands human rights and globalization evoke in the course of the struggles to harmonize them. He does so by challenging us to step back and be cognizant of the historiography of human rights-the history and context of the human rights discourse itself. He considers, for example, the compartmentalization of rights into "generations," by pointing to certain historical continuities and collusions between colonialism and rights.1

Globalization as a phenomenon impacted by social movements became popularized thanks to the media coverage of the protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle in 1999 and in Washington, D.C. in 2000.2 (Though it is true, of course, that social movements have been challenging globalization's various forms for decades, if not longer.)3 Globalization is complex and its meaning contested. Rajagopal explains the phenomenon as, in part, "the rapid mobility of people and capital across borders and the resultant overlapping and interchangeability of identities and values."4 Globalization is a procedural rather than a substantive concept, in which "a local condition or entity . . . extend [s] its reach over the globe."5

International Law From Below: Development, Social Movements and Third World Resistance examines political and social movement theory with all of this in mind, and contends that economic globalization responds as much to pressures from Third World social movements as the other way around.6 The book lays out an exceptional series of inquiries and problems, including: How has international law been transformed by its ambivalent relationship to Third World resistance? What is a culturally authentic means of resistance? How does one write resistance into international law and make it recognize subaltern voices?7 How can we reconcile the need to localize human rights with increasingly globalizing processes of development?

Rajagopal is clear about his objectives. His primary purpose is to examine the processes of globalization from below, to read history as the struggle of peoples, cultures, and power-that is, the development of international law and human rights in terms of their contested relationships with the Third World. …

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