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The End of Human Rights

The rhetoric surrounding the protection of human rights has been appropriated by Western nations that are only too complicit in the derogation of values once cherished around the world, writes Rohit Chopra.

Rohit Chopra  3rd Nov 2012

Illustration by Dev Kabir Malik Design

s a graduate student at Emory University several years ago, I worked on a number of human rights initiatives with Abdullahi An-Na'im, a renowned scholar of Islamic and international law at Emory's law school and former director of the African bureau of Human Rights Watch. One of these projects, "The Future of Shari'a," proposes a radical reformist framework through which Islam and the modern state can enrich the legitimacy of the other. Muslim activists, religious leaders, scholars, and students were invited to debate the core arguments of the project in conversations across the world. I was privileged to participate in such discussions in Delhi, Mumbai, Aligarh and Istanbul.

The debates, often heated but always engaged, covered a wide array of topics, including the political necessity of removing shari'a as a reason of state as a means of protecting the rights of women and non-Muslim minorities, technical matters such as the distinction between shari'a and fiqh, the conflict and confluence between Islam and the human rights framework, and the complicated history of secularism in India or Turkey. Participants expressed a very broad range of opinions about these matters. At one extreme were those who saw the project as a Zionist, CIA-funded conspiracy to undermine global Islam. At the other end were those who endorsed the main propositions of the project while raising substantive, methodological, and practical questions about their implementation.

Despite the very real political differences among participants, they appeared, however, to share one opinion: a genuine puzzlement, usually tinged with cynicism, about the arrogance with which Western nations such as the US could claim the moral ground on human rights, especially given the illegal occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. The idea that the West was intervening on human rights grounds to save Afghan and Iraqi men, women, and children from their tyrannical overlords was unanimously seen as absurd. The professed American objective of "winning the hearts and minds" of Muslims sounded both tragic and comic to most.

The attitude extended even to those individuals who considered the human rights framework as valuable for its own sake and not merely a devious Western invention. This opinion was also expressed by many others I met on the trips: people of left, center, and right political persuasion; believers and atheists of varied religious and cultural provenance; academics, activists, and journalists. Some people, of Hindu nationalist sympathy, told me that they were not unhappy that the US had taken it upon itself to teach Muslims across the world a much-needed lesson. But even they had no illusions that US actions had anything to do with the welfare of the citizens of these countries: they saw the actions as justified revenge for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The invasions were also seen as serving the purpose of paving the way for pliant regimes that would hand the country's resources on a platter to US multinationals. I have encountered similar views among many people in America, whether they be immigrants or citizens, academics or other professionals, folk met on Twitter or at dinner parties.

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It bestows the imprimatur of legitimacy to a grossly unequal vision of the world in which powerful nations can capriciously decide the fate of weaker ones with no answerability to any higher standard or body.

As was very clear soon after the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the invasions had dealt a body blow to the global legitimacy of the idea of universal human rights. But what was more worrisome, as I remember discussing with my teacher, was the incalculable damage done to the possibility of any meaningful global project of emancipation, indeed to the idea of universalism itself. The historian Tony Judt, in an essay, "Bush's Useful Idiots," written in 2006 in The London Review of Books, excoriated American liberals for providing, as he put it, "the ethical fig-leaf" for the "brutish policies" of American neoconservatives. Judt was writing as a liberal to members of his tribe. Beyond the particular role played by any one group in supporting America's military adventures, however, it is the ongoing ideological work undertaken by a whole army of academics, mediapersons, policy makers, and lay cheerleaders for the right of America to wage war that marks the death of a viable global culture of human rights. A textbook example is Samantha Power, a journalist, human rights expert and Obama advisor who played a central role in persuading the administration to invade Libya. In the more mundane space of Twitter, one finds academics like C. Christine Fair, a professor at Georgetown University, ardently advertising the magical power of drones to liberate Afghans and Pakistanis from their wretchedness of their lives. (Fair's shilling for drones is interspersed with a regular exchange of insults with her Muslim interlocutors on Twitter).

The banal, everyday affirmation of America's right to intervene in the affairs of sovereign nations, the justifications for military strategies such as drones, and the selective invocation of human rights as a principle of US foreign policy have given the imprimatur of legitimacy to a grossly unequal vision of the world in which powerful nations can capriciously decide the fate of weaker ones with no answerability to any higher standard or body. In such a world, accountability to an international human rights framework can only be implemented in partial, unequal, and highly asymmetrical terms. As a 2006 article in Alternet noted, several experts in international law, including Benjamin Ferencz, a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, felt that there was a case to be made against the United States and George W. Bush for committing crimes against humanity by invading Iraq in 2003. Whatever the symbolic value of this statement, such an initiative would likely stand no more than a snowball's chance in hell. A recent study conducted jointly by the law schools at Stanford University and New York University found that drones used by the US in Pakistan essentially operate as instruments of terror in civilian communities, killing unnecessarily large numbers of innocent people. America's culture of intellectual freedom in its universities, which enables such a report to be produced, disseminated, and discussed, is to be lauded. In contrast, the human rights culture in the US or globally is constitutionally incapable of providing a basis for questioning the US, Barack Obama, or Leon Panetta about their moral culpability for the deaths of Pakistani civilians by drones.Image 2nd

The realms of justificatory writing about the wars and drones converge with another dominant theme in American and global media—the relentless depiction of Islam as a terrorism-prone faith. In his article, "What Terrorizes India," published in 2010 in The Wall Street Journal, Sadanand Dhume, a journalist affiliated with the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, argues that Hindu radicalism cannot by definition be compared with its Islamic counterpart. Dhume offers the sweeping sociological generalisation that "the nature of Hindu society—diffuse, lacking a binding tradition and largely comfortable with modernity—makes the emergence of a Hindu equivalent of the Lashkar-e-Taiba difficult to imagine." This tired cliche, straight from the Hindu nationalist playbook, is given the lie by a vast body of rigorous and fine-grained scholarship about the Hindu Right in India. (One also wonders how Mr Dhume might explain the undiminished violence by upper-caste Hindu groups against Dalits in terms of this inherent Hindu "comfort" with modernity). More generally, in a peerless example of chutzpah, the same American media that constantly raises the specter of a global Muslim community teeming with anti-American conspiracies seems to have forgotten that it fell prey to the mother of all conspiracies—the nonexistent Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq that have not been found till date.

There is, finally, one other development, seen distinctly in the aftermath of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, that signals the end of the global human rights paradigm. That development is what may be called the professionalisation of the human rights apparatus (distinct from the institutionalisation of rights in which actors can function with a high degree of autonomy). In its liberal and conservative varieties, the professionalised world of human rights in the US, UK, and globally is entangled with state and business interests and patronage networks of opportunity, power, and reward. Professional human rights interventionists may well be convinced of their own sincerity and of the justness of their causes. They may not be puppets of corporations or the state, nor may they be crudely angling for reward. But the visibility and importance of professional human rights interventionists in the present moment cannot be separated from the fact that they provide legitimacy for actions that are blatantly illegal from the standpoint of international law and human rights.

In the twentieth century, the energies of anticolonial liberation and mass movements for dignity and equality, on the one hand, and the framework of human rights, on the other, often worked in tandem toward socially desirable ends. The rights framework now appears to be nothing more than an example of what Immanuel Wallerstein, in his book European Universalism, terms the "rhetoric of power," a vocabulary of domination and oppression masquerading as natural, obvious fact. Waved by the professional human rights interventionist, the tattered flag of universal human rights now stands as a symbol of the white man's (and white woman's) burden. It is no more than a shroud for the once-imaginable idea of an equal world, now reduced to a graveyard of the weak circled by murderous drones.

Rohit Chopra is Assistant Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University

 
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