Thursday, May 19, 2011

Colonial Discourses and Practices

Yesterday several representatives of Human Rights Watch spoke during a panel at the American University of Beirut on "Eyewitness to the Middle East Uprising". My friend encouraged me to attend this event, and while I am a critic of international NGOs and the dominant discourse about human rights, I was curious to hear what they had to say about their first hand accounts of revolutionary events. Unfortunately the presentations reaffirmed my skepticism of so-called international NGOs. Despite employing staff from all around the world, it seems that Human Rights Watch still reproduces uneven global power relationships by only choosing staff who share a particularly liberal perspective according to the Western framework. Indeed liberalizing was stated as a normative goal during one of the presentations, leaving me to question whether or not the organization is inclusive of other points of view. The discussion also reaffirmed my skepticism of the dominant human rights discourse. During the event one speaker commented upon how the recent uprisings in the Middle East were about neither religion nor colonial occupation. No she said, they were about human rights.

What? As if human rights objectively exist outside of humanity and are not a direct product of the historical ideas and practices of humans? Of course the dominant discourse is the result of Western ideas and experiences (and yes perhaps informed by colonialism, but only from the perspective of the colonizer). Therefore religion also undoubtedly influences Middle Easterner's ideas about human rights and deeply informs the aims of the ongoing demonstrations. Many goals are even being articulated in religious languages. Just as historical colonial experiences as well as contemporary neoliberal experiences influence how people throughout the Middle East conceive of what human rights ought to be. Today's demonstrations may not be overtly about religion or colonialism per say, but the panel's perspective is similar to those who say that the demonstrators are non-ideological. Such people think so because the ideas motivating the demonstrations appear to be the same as "our" ideas, and thus we approve. But of course that does not make the demonstrators any less ideological, because ideas are still ever present. When I questioned the speaker's statement after the presentations she was unable to address the complexity of the critique. She responded that all nations have signed onto the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and such rights are obvious, for example even children have a conception of justice. Not only was she embracing a de-historicized and thus deeply problematic conception of rights, but she was also conflating concepts of rights and justice, which are not the same.

Our sense of justice is what shapes our conception of human rights. And different interpretations of justice lead to very different conceptions of rights. Alistair MacIntyre (1981) illustrates this case with examples A and B in the Western context. He describes how A wants to protect the wealth that s/he fairly earns while B wants to reorganize the distribution of resources because s/he believes inequality is arbitrary. As a result A finds increasing taxation unjust and B strongly views increasing inequality as unjust. And consequently A will likely prefer an emphasis on procedural justice and individual rights—in other words liberalism. While B will be more concerned with social rights and outcome—or socialism. MacIntyre's point is that in modern Western societies we do not have a grand moral theory to decide which conception is more just because we do not factor in whether or not the wealth is fairly acquired to begin with. We need to have not only the historical record of how this wealth was accrued, but also the views of those who lived this history regarding whether or not this was fair. Such information becomes even more important when the example is globally applied. Questions of injustice have mobilized the recent uprisings and are often inspired by Islamic doctrines and experiences of occupation. Furthermore the history of Western colonialism means that the colonized have a say in whether or not Western "development" was and is just, which ultimately impacts what universal human rights ought to be.

A de-historicization of human rights ignores power and obscures the fact that a very limited representation of human beings drafted the supposedly Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Paris, 1948. Only a history of colonialism, slavery and fascism could embolden privileged white men to speak on behalf of the majority of the world's population, including women. That undemocratic states signed onto this treaty makes it no more reflective of world populations. Of course this does not mean that people's conceptions of human rights around the world do not converge. Indeed many rights are likely shared, however some of the particulars may end up looking differently. But we will not know until we have an "international" system that is more participatory. Ultimately our conception of human rights needs to be universally conceived and not just universally practiced, often by force. Alas Human Rights Watch still does not seem to appreciate this difference.

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