Jan
31

Human Rights in Africa

Bonny Ibhawoh's (2018) "Human Rights in Africa" is a long overdue contribution to the human rights discourse. This is not only a critical assessment of the dominant narrative about the origins of human rights as known today, but also a call for revival of knowing histories that are not well known, prioritized or taught. The book outlines the "complicated story of progression and regression, inclusion and exclusion" (p. 119) of human rights across the continent and over time. The book is accessible, which makes it recommended reading across audiences.

Relative or universal rights? "The case for an African concept of human rights is essentially an argument for cultural relativism as a counter to the universalist claims of the modern human rights movement. The premise of this position is that culture shapes the articulation and fulfilment of human rights because of its formative influence on human thought and behavior. Human rights principles are therefore culturally relative to different contexts, and culture informs unique conceptions of human rights when grounded in African moral principles and cultural experiences… On the other hand, some proponents of African values in human rights interpretation premise their claim on an affirmation rather than a repudiation of the universalism of human rights. They contend that the core principles that underpin modern human rights are neither exclusive to Western liberal traditions nor alien to African cultural traditions. These are eternal and universal norms. There is nothing essentially Western or bourgeois about the fundamental rights to life, the right to personal and collective dignity or the right to a fair trial. These human rights principles have normative parallels in indigenous African moral principles and political and social practices." (p. 37-38)

On vernacularization: "the African values argument and the cultural legitimacy argument converge in what may be expressed as the vernacularization of universal human rights. The notion of vernacularizing human rights describes the process by which universal human rights norms are grounded in local communities. It requires seeing human rights in specific situation rather than as the application of abstract principles. Vernacularizing human rights is therefore a constructive process that grounds and expands the scope of human rights in different cultural contexts. It is a process whereby global impulses intersect with indigenous ideas to produce new human rights norms and practices that are relevant to local situations. The process of vernacularization connotes critical local engagement with international human rights norms with the goal of investing them with local meaning that can potentially strengthen recognition and enforcement." (p. 52)

Vernacularization (cont.): "The notion of vernacularizing human rights has been used to describe the process by which universal human rights norms become grounded in local communities. It is a constructive process that affirms and delineates the scope of human rights in different cultural contexts. Vernacularizing human rights requires seeing human rights in specific situations rather than as the application of abstract principles. In this sense, vernacularization refers to the interaction between established international human rights principles and local norms to produce hybridized legal and normative frameworks for human rights protection. This should not be confused with the cultural relativist repudiation of universal human rights, which I discuss in the introductory chapter of this book. Rather, vernacularization is a deliberate process of investing universal human rights with local meanings that can potentially strengthen human rights protection and contribute to the normative application of global human rights." (p. 225-226)

Criticism all around: "The same [criticisms of Enlightenment liberalism] can be said of indigenous African notions of human rights. The scope of individual and collective rights was often limited to community members and restricted by ethnicity, caste, gender, power and status. Prioritizing communal solidarity over individual liberties often implied the exclusion of those considered outsiders, minorities and non-conforming members of the community. The emphasis on communal well-being and the contingent relationship between individual rights and duties also meant that rights were ultimately not conferred based on the intrinsic value of each human being but, rather, based on community membership, and social status and obligations." (p. 47)

Questioning rationales: "Antislavery provided an important legitimizing rationale for colonialism and become part of the "inter-imperial repertoire of idiom and imaginaries of colonial rule." Eradicating the slave trade and granting freedom to those enslaved was a declared mission of many early European adventurers, missionaries and colonialists. Atlantic slavery and the movement to abolish it marked the beginning of Europe's conquest and colonization of Africa, provoking what became known as the scramble for Africa and one of the most pernicious land grabs in human history. Here we confront another paradox of rights discourse within antislavery. Nineteenth-century missionary and humanitarian activism that rallied public support against slavery also provided moral justification for colonization, which ultimately denied millions of Africans their right to self-determination." (p. 83-84)

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Jan
06

Human Rights and the Food Sovereignty Movement

Priscilla Claeys's "Human Rights and the Food Sovereignty Movement: Reclaiming Control" (2015) had some high level support and praise (Jun Borras, Olivier De Schutter, etc). The beginning of the abstract reads: "Our global food system is undergoing rapid change. Since the global food crisis of 2007-2008, a range of new issues have come to public attention, such as land grabbing, food prices volatility, agrofuels and climate change. Peasant social movements are trying to respond to these challenges by organizing from the local to the global to demand food sovereignty. As the transnational agrarian movement La Via Campesina celebrates its 20th anniversary, this book takes stock of the movement's achievements and reflects on challenges for the future. It provides an in-depth analysis of the movement's vision and strategies, and shows how it has contributed not only to the emergence of an alternative development paradigm but also of an alternative conception of human rights."

For those interested in La Via Campesina and the emergence of legal approaches (via human rights), this is a useful resource. With regard to international legal advocacy, Claey offers some interesting experiences (namely the role of: critical junctures, networks and allies, framing and re-problematizing):

  • "Very few 'new rights' that emerge from the grassroots find their way onto the international human rights agenda (Bob 2010b). How did peasant organizations succeed in getting support for a process of negotiation of a Declaration on the Rights of Peasants at the UN? Three success factors are worth highlighting here. First, the global food crisis of 207-8 put the spotlight on smallholder farmers and gave peasant activities unprecedented access to international arenas to advance their demands." (p. 60)
  • "Second, Via Campesina's demand for a new instrument was endorsed by a number of key actors who helped identify the 'legal opportunities' (Israel 2003) that could be seized at the HRC. The close ties, shared diagnosis and trust built between Via Campesina activists and human rights experts over the years played a central role in enabling them to move swiftly, and strategically. Without that endorsement, peasant activists would not have been able to advance their claims at the HRC." (p. 60)
  • "Third, Indonesian peasant activists succeeded in framing their claims as human rights abuses, and in bringing their claims to the attention of peasant organizations in other countries, first in South-East Asia, then the world over. Most importantly, they chose not to depict their grievances as abuses of well-accepted human rights." (p. 61)

On the latter point, the author elaborates later in the text, one quote from that:

  • "Diagnostic work is crucial because it enables 'system attributions' (McAdam et al. 1996, 9); it allows (potential) movement constituents to attribute everyday problems to global and structural mechanisms, and to overcome the 'fundamental attribution error', the tendency of people to explain their situation as a function of individual deficiencies rather than features of the system (Ross 1977). In the case of Via Campesina, diagnostic work has involved identifying injustices (appropriation of natural resources, forced rural migration, broken families and traditions, hunger, poverty and despair), victims (people of the land) and culprits (large financial institutions, neoliberal states, agribusiness and other transnational corporations)." (p. 82)
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Nov
14

Pathologies of Power

Paul Farmer's (2005) "Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor" is a "physician-anthropologist's effort to reveal the ways in which the most basic right – the right to survive – is trampled in an age of great affluence" (p. 6). However, Farmer covers much more than the right to survive, this book "is about the struggle for social and economic rights, the neglected stepchildren of the human rights movement. Because social and economic rights include the right to health care, housing, clean water, and education, they are sometimes called the "the rights of the poor."' (p. xxiv). It is highly recommended for academics and practitioners, and I also highly recommend Farmer's book Infections and Inequalities.

For those new to development studies, academics who assume development practitioners are non-reflexive positivists, and for practitioners looking to be more critical of the processes within international development, Farmer's books are essential reads. In the opening pages he sets the tone: "It was not the silence that rankled. It seemed to us that the exercise was demeaning – the participants, having survived genocide and displacement, were now being treated like children. They were being asked to respond to an agenda imported from capital cities, from do-gooder organizations like ours, from U.S. universities with the "right" answers to their every question. No harm done, perhaps, and the topic was important – but how helpful was this exercise, with its aim of changing the mentality of the locals, who were, after all, the victims of the previous decades of violence? A change in mentality was needed, certainly, but it was needed in the hearts and minds of those with power – and they were not here" (p. 3-4).

It is not just the 'others' with power; as a physician, Farmer writes that many "physicians are uncomfortable acknowledging these harsh facts of life and death. To do so, one must admit that the majority of premature deaths are, as the Haitians would say, "stupid deaths." They are completely preventable with the tools already available to the fortunate few" (p. 144). Yet, it is not simply more "development" that is required: "Developmentalism not only erases the historical creation of poverty but also implies that development is necessarily a linear process: progress will inevitably occur if the right steps are followed. Yet any critical assessment of the impact of such approaches must acknowledge their failure to help the poor" (p. 155)

Weaved throughout the book, Farmer expresses his concern with a changing set of norms and values: from rights, respect and dignity to costs and value for money. He writes: "many of the concepts currently in vogue in public health – from "cost-effectiveness" to "sustainability" and "replicability" - are likely to be perverted unless social justice remains central to public health and medicine. A human rights approach to health economics and health policy helps to bring into relief the ill effects of the efficacy-equity trade-off" (p. 18). This view is not just challenged as an opinion, but as an affront to the practice of health care: "the flabby moral relativism of our times would have us believe that we may now choose from a broad menu of approaches to delivering effective health care services to the poor. This is simply not true. Whether you are sitting in a clinic in rural Haiti, and this witness to stupid deaths from infection, or sitting in an emergency room in a U.S. city, and this the provider of first resort for forty million uninsured, you must acknowledge that the commodification of medicine invariably punishes the vulnerable" (p. 152). This book was published in 2005, and parts published earlier, and Farmer foresaw a challenge that has grown (while also shifting names from cost-effectiveness to value for money, to assessments of quality-adjusted life years, and as metrics in results and impact reporting): "As international health experts come under the sway of the bankers and their curiously bounded utilitarianism, we can expect more and more of our services to be declared "cost-ineffective" and more of our patients to be erased. In declaring health and health care to be a human right, we join forces with those who have long labored to protect the rights and dignity of the poor" (p. 159).

For those who work with marginalized and vulnerable people, who voices are excluded, it is challenging to convey experiences to others. In Farmer's earlier book Infections and Inequalities he used vignettes of people's lives as an attempt. In this end, however, "the experience of suffering, it's often noted, is not effectively conveyed by statistics or graphs. In fact, the suffering of the world's poor intrudes only rarely into the consciousness of the affluent, even when our affluence may be shown to have direct relation to their suffering. This is true even when spectacular human rights violations are at issue, and it is even more true when the topic at hand is the everyday violation of social and economic rights" (p. 31). It is both a depressing conclusion – the reality of a lack of concern – and a call to action. The systems that create and entrench poverty, as well as those that ignore suffering when plan to see, will continue lest things change, and change necessitates informed, critical engagement.

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Nov
13

Post-doc: Migration and the humanities (Harvard)

The Mahindra Humanities Center invites applications for one-year postdoctoral fellowships in connection with the Center's Andrew W. Mellon Foundation seminar on the topic of migration and the humanities.

Migration plays as critical a role in the moral imagination of the humanities as it does in shaping the activist vision of humanitarianism and human rights. Too often, the humanities are summoned merely as witnesses to the spectacle of the significant currents and crises of contemporary life. Literature and the arts are viewed as iconic presences whose primary aesthetic and moral values lie in their illustrative powers of empathy and evocation. Yet the intellectual formation of the humanities—their very conception of the nature of meaning, knowledge, and morals—is deeply resonant with the displacement of values and the revision of norms that shape the transitional and translational narratives of migrant lives.

Built around pedagogies of representation and interpretation—textual, visual, digital, political, ethical, ecological, etc.—the humanities engage with the history of shifting relations between cultural expression, historical transition, and political transformation. The ethics of citizenship in our time are defined as much by migration and resettlement as by indigenous belonging, as much by global governance as by national sovereignty. And the humanities play a central role in defining the terms and the territories of cultural citizenship as it creates innovative institutions and identities in the making of a civil society.

More details.

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