Human Rights: A Political & Cultural Critique

I am late to discover Makua Mutua's well cited (over 1,100 as of this post) book "Human Rights: A Political & Cultural Critique" (2002). Published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, this is work that inspired many of the critiques that followed. Highly recommended. A few notes:

"I wanted to explain why I believe that the human rights corpus should be treated as an experimental paradigm, a work in progress, and not a final inflexible truth. It is important that the human rights movement be fully exposed so that its underbelly can be critically examined. I know that many in the human rights movement mistakenly claim to have seen a glimpse of eternity, and think of the human rights corpus as a summit of human civilization, a sort of an end to human history. This view is so self-righteous and lacking in humility that it of necessity must invite probing critiques from scholars of all stripes." (p. ix)

"The movement's apoliticization obscures its true character and the cultural identity of the norms it seeks to universalize. While many cultures and peoples of all political and historical traditions around the world have accepted the idea of human rights, many have wanted to couple their embrace with a degree of originality. This ranges from marginal contributions, on the one hand, to radical reformulations on the other." (p. 1-2)

"… the chapter is fundamentally an attempt at locating—philosophically, culturally, and historically—the normative edifice of the human rights corpus. If the human rights movement is driven by a totalitarian or totalizing impulse, that is, the mission to require that all human societies transform themselves to fit a particular blueprint, then there is an acute shortage of deep reflection and a troubling abundance of zealotry in the human rights community." (p. 13)

"Any valid critique must first acknowledge that the human rights movement, like earlier crusades, is a bundle of contradictions. It does not have, therefore, a monopoly on virtue that its most vociferous advocates claim. I argue here that human rights, and the relentless campaign to universalize them, present a historical continuum in an unbroken chain of Western conceptual and cultural dominance over the past several centuries. At the heart of this continuum is a seemingly incurable virus: the impulse to universalize Eurocentric norms and values by repudiating, demonizing, and "othering" that which is different and non-European. By this argument, I do not mean to suggest that human rights are bad per se or that the human rights corpus is irredeemable. Rather, I suggest that the globalization of human rights fits a historical pattern in which all high morality comes from the West as a civilizing agent against lower forms of civilization in the rest of the world." (p. 15)

"Although the human rights movement arose in Europe, with the express purpose of containing European savagery, it is today a civilizing crusade aimed primarily at the Third World. It is one thing for Europeans and North Americans, whose states share a common philosophical and legal ancestry, to create a common political and cultural template to govern their societies. It is quite another to insist that their particular vision of society is the only permissible civilization which must now be imposed on all human societies, particularly those outside Europe." (p. 19)

"The view that human rights is an ideology with deep roots in liberalism and democratic forms of government is now supported by senior human rights academics in the West. The cultural biases of the human rights corpus can only be properly understood if it is contextualized within liberal theory and philosophy. Understood from this position, human rights become an ideology with a specific cultural and ethnographic fingerprint." (p. 23)

"The adoption in 1948 by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the foundational document of the human rights movement—sought to give universal legitimacy to a doctrine that is fundamentally Eurocentric in its construction. Sanctimonious to a fault, the Universal Declaration underscored its arrogance by proclaiming itself the "common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations." The fact that half a century later human rights have become a central norm of global civilization does not vindicate their universality. It is rather a telling testament to the conceptual, cultural, economic, military, and philosophical domination of the European West over non-European peoples and traditions." (p. 154)

"… the West was able to impose its philosophy of human rights on the rest of the world because in 1948 it dominated the United Nations. Non-Western philosophies and traditions—particularly on the nature of man and the purposes for political society—were either unrepresented or marginalized during the early formulation of human rights. Most Asian and African societies were European colonies and not participants in the making of human rights law." (p. 154)

"Like earlier crusades, the human rights movement lacks the monopoly of virtue that its advocates claim. If human rights are to represent a higher human intelligence—which I believe they should—they must overcome the seemingly incurable virus to universalize Eurocentric norms and values by demonizing, repudiating, and re-creating that which is different and non-European. Human rights are not a problem per se nor is the human rights corpus irredeemable. But we must realize that the current human rights represent just one tradition, that of Europe. And even in European or Eurocentric political and philosophical universes, which include Europe, the dominant traditions in the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand, the human rights corpus is an expression of only one European tradition. It will remain incomplete and illegitimate in non-European societies unless it is reconstructed to create a truly multicultural mosaic. The universalization of human rights cannot succeed unless the corpus is moored in all the cultures of the world. Ideas do not become universal merely because powerful interests declare them to be so. Inclusion—not exclusion—is the key to legitimacy." (p. 156) 

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Dignity & Rights: An Islamic Perspective

In seeking to democratize thinking about ethics, recent posts have covered Islamic perspectives on justice and equity, this book covers the Islamic perspective of dignity, from the book "The Dignity of Man: An Islamic Perspective" (1999) by Mohammed Hashim Kamali. A few notes:

"Islam's perception of human rights is not premised on the individual verses nation-state framework. The nation-state itself represents a superimposition which has little claim to authenticity in the authoritative sources of Islam, namely the Qur'an and Sunnah. The Qur'an and Sunnah lend support to the creation of a political order and leadership that takes charge of community affairs and administers justice. But the main actor and audience in all this is the individual, not the state." (p. xii)

"World cultures and traditions tend to differ not only in the value-content of human rights but in regard to many other variables that influence the place and priority that is given to those rights. The western tradition posits freedom in order mainly to avoid the outcome of a despotic of government, while Islam emphases virtue as a goal for both the individual and society. The west emphases individual rights and interests, while Islam gives priority to collective good in the event which the latter conflicts with the interest of the individual." (p. xv)

"Dignity in other words is not earned by meritorious conduct; it is an expression of God's favour and grace. Mustafa al-Sibai and Hasan al-Ili have similarly remarked that dignity is a proven right of every human being regardless of color, race or religion. Ahmad Yusri has drawn the conclusion that 'dignity is established for every human being at the moment of birth'. Sayyid Qutb has similarly stated that dignity is the natural light of every individual. The children of Adam have been honored not only for their personal attributes or status in society, but for the fact that they are human beings." (p. 1-2)

"It is a basic right of all human beings to live a life of dignity, complemented by peace and comfort and the freedom to pursue what brings them happiness and perfection through all lawful means. A Muslim only worships God as his sole creator and sovereign and humbles himself to no one else. The creation and enjoyment of beauty, good health and a clean environment are seen as complementary to the defined lifestyle of Islam." (p. 8)

"Another manifestation of the dignity of man in Islam is its insistence on the essential equality of every member of the human race. All are equal in the eyes of God regardless of race, color and religion. No man has a claim to superiority over another, and there is no recognition in Islam of a class or caste system, a superior race, or a chosen people or any related concept. Man's inherent dignity is sacrosanct and the only ground of superiority is recognized in the Qur'an is God-consciousness [taqwa]" (p. 45)

"Islam's perception of human dignity is predicated on the unity of the origin of mankind, and its basic quality in regard to the essence of humanity, rights and obligations." (p. 102)

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The Concept of Human Rights in Africa

"Human rights talk constitutes one of the main elements in the ideological armoury of imperialism. Yet from the point of view of the African people, human rights struggles constitute the stuff of their daily lives. For these two interconnected reasons, human rights talk needs to be subjected to a closer historical and political scrutiny." (p. vii)

The above quote is drawn from the book "The Concept of Human Rights in Africa" (1989) by Issa G. Shivji (Professor of Law, University of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania). Shivji writes with a fire that ignites. Parts are dated, as one would expect from a book published in 1989,  others remain provocative and topical for today. This is well worth a read for anyone interested in human rights, and in particular those looking for alternative voices on the subject. Chapter 1 (on the discourse) is reflective of the 80s, however the historical review of the legal basis of human rights remains important. The critique waged in Chapter 2 puts down "fundamental premises" and "political and ideological consequences of such a discourse on the anti-imperialist, democratic struggles of the broad masses", which inspire continued debate and discussion. The latter chapters, on the way forward and examples of dominant and revolutionary tendencies, is situated at the end of 1980s but provides examples for how analyses might be undertaken of more recent human rights agreements. This book was also published by CODESRIA (as a number of other books by African authors in the social sciences). Some quotes:

"Just as in the early Christian crusades it was legitimate to save the soul even if it meant trampling the body, so in the human rights crusade it was fair to protect rights even while napalming the humans. 'Human rights ideology' is an ideology of domination and part of the imperialist world outlook. Like other ideologies of domination in yester-epochs, the dominant human rights ideology claims and proclaims universality, immortality and immutability while promulgating in practice class-parochialism, national oppression and 'patronising' authoritarianism." (p. 3)

"Classical democracy is linked with the Western bourgeoisie which arose in Europe during the revolution that overthrew feudalism in, what have since been called, bourgeois democratic revolutions. The bourgeoisie marched apace and within a century transformed their countries of birth while marauding the rest of the world and planting its fangs all over the globe, including Africa. While unashamedly taking under its wings varied reactionary and backward social forces, from feudalists to zamindars and chiefs..." (p. 5)

"Since the second world war, human rights talk has been one of the central planks in the foreign and domestic ideologies of the United States. It is clearly expressed in the cold-war struggle with the Soviet bloc on the one hand, and in the oppression and domination of the Third World, including Africa, on the other. In some periods more intensely than others, the human rights ideology has been used by different regimes in the US on both these levels. In this regard it has played a double, if contradictory, role. On the international level, it is a rationalization for interference and intervention as well as domination of the Third World countries ('in the interest of democracy and free world') and on the domestic level it is an important element in reproducing the hegemony of imperial-bourgeois ideology by bolstering the image of the US as a country maintaining civilised human standards internationally." (p. 53)

"This should not come as a surprise to any African who has the slightest knowledge of reality beyond the thin veneer of official imperialist 'brain washing'. Who does not know that Mobutu, who gracefully presides over death and detention chambers of Zaire, was installed by the CIA? Who is so ignorant as to forget that the Lion of Juddah (Haile Selassie), who turned his country into a jungle where people in their thousands starved to death in fear and famine, was one of the greatest beneficiaries of US military arsenal? Many know that the US is one of the staunchest allies of [apartheid] South Africa; the military supplier of UNITA in Angola; the benefactor of dictators like Banda and Moi and the protector of Liberia's military nincompoop Samuel Doe. On the one hand, these facts are so well-documented that they need no repetition, yet on the other hand they have been so successfully suppressed in the mainstream human rights scholarship that they need to be broadcast from roof-tops." (p. 55) 

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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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