The human rights movement,1 which includes its corpus and discourse, is marked by a damning metaphor. The sub-text of human rights is a grand narrative of an epochal contest that pits savages, on the one hand, against victims and saviors, on the other.2 The savages-victims-saviors (SVS)3 construction is a three-dimensional compound metaphor in which each dimension is a metaphor in itself.4 Significantly, this metaphor and narrative rejects the cross-contamination of cultures.5 In other words, the metaphor is premised on the transformation by Western cultures of non-Western cultures, and not the fashioning of a multi-cultural mosaic.6 This self representation of human rights requires moral and historical certainty and a belief in particular inflexible truths.7 As eloquently noted by Mary Ann Glendon, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the founding document of the human rights movement, "is already showing signs of having achieved the status of holy writ within the human rights movement."8 The UDHR, the grandest of all human rights documents, endows the struggle between good and evil with historicity in which the defeat of the latter is only possible through human rights.9 This is now popularly accepted as the normal script of human rights. In fact, there is today an orgy of celebration of this script by prominent scholars who see in it the key to the redemption of humanity.10(1992). But this grand script of human rights raises a multitude of normative and cultural questions and problems.
The SVS metaphor is vividly manifested in both the norms and the discourse of the human rights movement. The paper argues that the compound metaphor of human rights – with its three sub-metaphors of the savage, victim, and savior – that the central purpose of the human rights movement is to transform society into a particular Eurocentric prototype. It argues in all three sub-metaphors, for example, that political democracy, as known in the West, is an organic part human rights. In other words, the paper contends that "savage" cultures and peoples lie outside the human rights orbit, and by implication, the regime of political democracy. It is this distance from human rights that allows certain cultures to create victims. Political democracy is then an essential panacea. Other textual examples, which are anchored in cultural phenomena, such as "traditional"practices that appear to negate the equal protection for women, are deployed throughout the Paper to illustrate the gulf between human rights and non-liberal, non-European cultures.
As a civilizing crusade, the human rights movement is now a comprehensive cosmology on which legitimate statehood partially rests. The adoption by the United Nations of universal human rights norms – a set of values that determine the fundamental character of any state or society – ostensibly closes the book on the cultural biases of the human rights project. Unlike yesterday, condemnations of human rights violations are longer just empty ritual. The United Nations, regional organizations such as the European Union, the Organization of African Unity, the Organization of American States, and individual states of all cultural and political traditions, including those in the Third World,11 have taken coercive measures against other states in the name of human rights. Many non-governmental organizations in the Third World openly oppose human rights violations by their own states and societies. In other words, non-Europeans now confront each other within the confines of their states over the enforcement of human rights. The observance or denial of human rights now pits African against African, Arab against Arab, and Asian and Asian. The human rights project is no longer just a critique of the Third World by the West.
Yet it is the contention of this paper that the participation of non-European states and societies in the enforcement of human rights cannot in itself universalize them. Nor does the numerical domination of the UN by the Third World alter this calculus. It is important to note that the terms "European" or "Eurocentric" are used normatively and descriptively, and do not necessarily connote evil or undesirability. But they point to the notions of cultural specificity and historical exclusivity. The simple point is that Eurocentric norms and cultures, such as human rights, have either been imposed on, or assimilated by, non-European societies. Thus human rights today is an important currency of cross-cultural exchange, domination, and valuation. It is an essential part of the milieu of this epoch.
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. But 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. The merits of the European and American civilization of human rights notwithstanding, all missionary work is suspect, and for Third World states may easily seem part of the colonial project. Once again, the "superior" Europeans and North Americans descend on "backward" natives in the Third World with the human rights mission to free them from the claws of despotic governments and benighted cultures.
The historical pattern is undeniable here. It forms the long queue of the colonial administrator, the Bible-wielding Christian missionary, the merchant of free enterprise, the exporter of political democracy, and now the human rights zealot. In each case the "native" culture is pushed to transform by the European culture. The local must be replaced with the European, the "universal." Are the connections between human rights and particular attributes of European-American culture, such as hedonism, excess individualism, free markets, and now globalization contingent, and not organic? Is, in fact, the text of human rights so open that it is up for grabs, allowing different interests to make whatever claims they wish on it? In other words, are non-European cultures better advised to adopt the human rights text to their specific contexts, but leaving its core in place, if they seek redemption from their own backwardness? Can they segregate the "good" from the "bad" in human rights and reject the baggage of the West, while building a culture that is free from the evils that deny human potential?
This paper attempts to elicit from the proponents of the human rights movement several admissions, some of them deeply unsettling. It asks that human rights evangelists be more self-critical, and come to terms with the troubling rhetoric and history that partially forms the human rights movement. At the same time, the paper is not one-dimensional. It does not simply address the biased, abusive, and arrogant rhetoric and history of the human rights enterprise, what might unflatteringly be termed as its cruelties. It also grapples with the contradictions in the basic nobility and majesty that drive the human rights project, the unflinching belief that human beings and the political societies they construct can be governed by a higher morality.
Any valid critique must first acknowledge that the human rights movement, like earlier crusades, is indeed a bundle of contradictions. It therefore does not have the monopoly of virtue that it most vociferous advocates claim. Although this Paper locates the human rights movement within the historical continuum of Eurocentrism as a civilizing mission, and therefore as an attack on non-European cultures, it is critical to note that it was European, and not non-European, atrocities that gave rise to it. While the movement has today constructed the savage and the victim as non-European, Adolf Hitler, the quintessential savage, is the one man to whom the human rights movement owes thanks. The abominations and demise of his regime ignited the human rights movement.12 Hitler, a white European, was the personification of evil. The Nazi regime, a white European government, was the embodiment of barbarism. The combination of Hitler’s gross deviation from the evolving European constitutional law precepts and the entombment of his imperial designs by the West and the Soviet Union started the avalanche of norms known as the human rights corpus.
Nuremberg, the German town where some twenty two major Nazi war criminals were tried – resulting in nineteen convictions – stands as the birthplace of the human rights movement while the London Agreement and the Nuremberg Charter are its birth certificates.13 Originally, therefore, the West did not create the human rights movement in order to save or civilize non-Europeans, although these humanist impulses drove the anti-slavery abolitionist efforts of the nineteen century.14 Neither the enslavement of Africans, with its barbaric consequences and genocidal dimensions, nor the classic colonization of Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans by Europeans, with its bone chilling atrocities, were sufficient to move the West to create the human rights movement. It took the genocidal extermination of Jews in Europe – a white people – to start the process of the codification and universalization of human rights norms. Thus, although the Nuremberg Tribunal15 was in a sense hypocritical, it is its promise that is significant.16 For the first time, the major powers drew a line at impermissible conduct by states, and created the concept of collective responsibility for human rights. But no one should miss the irony of brutalizing colonial powers pushing for the Nuremberg trials and the adoption of the UDHR.
Perhaps more importantly, two of the oldest and most prestigious international human rights NGOs – the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and Amnesty international (AI) – were established to deal with human rights violations in Europe, not the Third World. The ICJ was formed as a tool for the West in the Cold War.17 According to A. J. M. van Dal of the Netherlands, and one of its original officials, the mission of the ICJ was to "mobilize the forces – in particular the juridical forces – of the free world for the defense of our fundamental legal principles, and in so doing to organize the fight against all forms of systematic injustice in the Communist [Soviet bloc] countries."18 AI, on the hand, was launched in 1961 by Peter Benenson, a British lawyer, to protest the imprisonment, torture, or execution of prisoners held in Romania, Hungary, Greece, Portugal, and the United States because of their political opinions or religion.19 In all these cases, the targets of AI were European or American, not the Third World. The human rights movement is also largely a child of the Cold War. For much of its life, until the early 1990s, the work of the human rights movement outside the Third World was concentrated on the Soviet bloc countries, in which the savage was defined as the communist party apparatchik and the communist state. In this case, both the savage and the victim were white European.
Thus the human rights movement originated in Europe to curb what it deemed European savageries such as the Jewish Holocaust, the "inherent" abuses of Soviet bloc communism, and the denials of speech and other expressive rights in a number of Western countries. The movement grew initially out of the horrors of the West, and constructed there the image of a European savage. The European human rights system, which is now a central attribute of European legal and political identity, is designed to hold member states to particular standards of conduct in their treatment of individuals.20 It is, as it were, the bulwark against the re-emergence of the unbridled European savage, the phenomenon that gave rise to, and fueled, the Third Reich. Today, however, most of the activities of the ICJ and AI, and the other Western-based INGOs such as Human Rights Watch and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, both based in New York City, and the Washington DC-based International Human Rights Law Group, are focused on the Third World. As a consequence, the predominant image of the savage in the human rights discourse today is that of a Third World, non-European person, cultural practice, or state.
At first blush, there appear to be sufficient grounds for the INGOs’ unrelenting emphasis on Third World states as the foci for their work. As a general rule, INGOs concentrate their work on the violations of civil and political rights, the species of legal protections associated with a functioning political democracy, the state that is prevalent in the West. Admittedly, there are more undemocratic states in the Third World than in the developed West. Third World despots have acted with impunity. The violations of civil and political rights, and the wanton plunder of Third World economies by their leaders are a matter of public record. The spotlight by INGOs here is appropriate, necessary, and welcome, particularly where local advocacy groups and the press have been muzzled or suffocated by the state. There is no doubt that mechanisms for the protections of human rights are more fragile in many Third World states, if they exist at all. But while this explains the work of INGOs in the Third World, it does not excuse their relative inaction on human rights violations in the West.
Western countries, like the United States, are notorious for the violations of the civil rights of racial minorities and the poor, although both Human Rights Watch and AI have haltingly started to breach the publicity and advocacy barriers in these areas.21 But such reports have been sparse and episodic, and have given the impression of a public relations exercise, designed to mute critics who charge INGOs with a lopsided Third World focus. The ravages of globalization notwithstanding, INGOs have largely remained deaf to calls for advocacy on social and economic rights.22 There certainly is no sufficient defense for their failure to address the violations of economic and social rights by Western states.23 It is true, of course, that dominant public discourse in the West generally opposed the mainstreaming of an agenda for economic and social rights, and instead demagoged them as inimical to free enterprise. But in reality, most countries – socialist, capitalist, and Third World – have never seriously sought to fulfill economic, social and cultural rights, even those, like the former Soviet Union, which rhetorically championed them.
The purpose of this paper is not to invalidate the human rights corpus. Although the corpus springs from Europe, Third World states have also participated in its legitimation, particularly at the United Nations, the institution most responsible for the creation and universalization of human rights norms. Much, however, should not be made of Third World participation in the making of human rights law, although some academics point to the increasing role played by non-Western states and cultures in the development of human rights norms.24 The levers of power at the U.N. and other international law-making fora have traditionally been out of reach of the Third World. And even if they were, it is doubtful that most Third World states represent their peoples and cultures. In other words, a claim about the "universality" or "democratization" of human rights norm-making at the U.N. cannot be made simply by looking at the numerical domination of that august body by Third World states.
The central claim of this paper is that as a fundamentally Eurocentric doctrine, the human rights corpus, though well-meaning, suffers from several basic flaws which are captured in the SVS metaphor. Precisely because the corpus falls within the historical continuum of the colonial project, in which a superior and a subordinate are essential actors, it undermines its basic claim of universality. The human rights corpus therefore lacks a valid, universalist warrant, and cannot convey the face of neutrality for what constitutes human rights or human rights violations. This inability for cross-cultural legitimacy is built into the arrogant, abusive, and biased rhetoric of the human rights movement. Thus the use of the rhetoric makes the normative judgments it conveys without a warrant of validity to Third Worlders, its primary addressees. Conversely, since the rhetoric is flawed in its internal logic, even those who rely on it, the West or its addressors, wonder whether it will resonate "out there." This curse of the SVS rhetoric has no bearing on the substance of the normative judgment being rendered. A particular leader, for example, might properly be labeled a war criminal, but such a label may carry no validity because of the curse of the SVS rhetoric. Put differently, the arrogance of the SVS rhetoric may undercut the validity of an action taken against a serious human rights violator. In other words, the SVS rhetoric may undermine the universalist warrant that it claims, and thus engender resistance to the apprehension and punishment of real violators. But the paper also makes another point, that the use of the SVS rhetoric is in itself insulting and unjust because it draws from supremacist First World/Third World hierarchies and the attendant domination and subordination which are essential for those constructions.
To be sure, however, the idea of rights and claims to their supremacy is not new. The culture of rights in the present milieu stretches back at least to the rise of the modern state in Europe. It is that state’s monopoly of violence and the instruments of coercion that gave rise to the culture of rights to counterbalance the abusive state.25 Cover refers to this construction as the myth of the jurisprudence of rights that allows society to both legitimize and control the state.26 John Locke had captured several centuries earlier a similar dialectic in his Two Treatises of Government.27 Human rights, however, renew the meaning and scope of rights in a radical way. Human rights bestow naturalness, transhistoricity, and universality to rights. But this Paper lodges a counterclaim against such a leap. Although this Paper is certainly informed by the works of critical legal scholars,28 feminist critiquers of rights discourse,29 and critical race theorists,30 it differs from all three because it seeks to address an international phenomenon, and not a municipal, distinctly American question. Thus it asks that the critique of human rights be based not just on American or European legal traditions but also on cultural milieus other than those which spring from the Eurocentric well. The cosmological universes of the indigenous, non-European traditions of Asia, Africa, the Pacific, and the Americas must be central to this critique.31
It would be a mistake to see this paper as being merely about the language of human rights or the manner in which the human rights movement describes its goals, subjects, and intended outcomes. It is not a plea for the human rights movement to be more sensitive to non-Western cultures, whatever that means. But nor is it a wholesale rejection of the idea of human rights.32 Although it grapples with all those issues, the paper is fundamentally an attempt at locating -- philosophically, culturally, and historically -- the normative edifice of the human rights corpus. If, as the author believes to be the case, the human rights 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 blueprinted straight-jacket, then there is an acute shortage of deep reflection and a troubling abundance of zealotry. This vision of the "good society" must be vigorously interrogated and contested.
In the era of globalization, it is impossible to hold the line against cultural penetration and counter-penetration. "Transcendent" or "universal" norms and values are inevitable. But whether those norms and values will be truly "transcendent" and "universal" must necessarily be determined by the process through which they are created. Will, for example, American and European practices of a frenzied consumerism come to define the rest of the world and be presented as a "universal" phenomenon? Should the rest of the world succumb to unremitting individualism and perverse hedonism which seem to characterize so much of the Western world? In other words, will practices and norms which are specific to one culture be globalized into universal mores? In human rights, does, in effect, one size fit all? Without a doubt, a universal language of human rights is inevitable, and even desirable. The question, however, is how humanity gets to that universal language. In this exercise, a sober evaluation of the current human rights corpus and its language is not an option. After all, the present doctrine, practice, and theory of human rights have been deeply and irretrievably distorted by American and European domination of the globe, the tragedies of the Cold War, the ubiquity of free markets, and the credo of individualism. It would be utter hypocrisy not to recognize the human rights corpus as one of the products of the Empire – the American Empire to be precise – and as a continuation of the Age of Europe.33
A central assumption of this paper is that there is an urgent need for a human rights movement that is multi-cultural, inclusive, and deeply political. Thus while it is essential that a new human rights movement de-center Eurocentrism, it is equally important that it also addresses pathologically and deeply lopsided power relations among and within cultures, national economies, states, genders, religions, races and ethnic groups, and other dispossessing cleavages. Such a movement cannot treat Eurocentrism as the starting point and other cultures as peripheral. There has to be a basic assumption about the moral equivalency of all cultures as the point of departure. Francis Deng has correctly pointed out that to "arrogate the concept [of human rights] to only certain groups, cultures, or civilizations is to aggravate divisiveness on the issue, to encourage defensiveness or unwarranted self-justification on the part of the excluded, and to impede progress toward a universal consensus on human rights."34 The re-constructionist project of this Paper is based on the assumption that as currently constituted and deployed, the human rights movement will ultimately fail because it is perceived as an alien ideology in non-Western societies. Besides hypocritical non-Western states and elites steeped in Western ideas, the movement does not deeply resonate in the cultural fabrics of non-Westerners. A human rights movement that "wins" must be moored in the peoples’ cultures.
The idea of human rights – the quest to craft a universal bundle of attributes that all societies must endow all human beings with – is a noble one. The problem with the current bundle of attributes lies in their inadequacy, incompleteness, and wrong-headedness.35 There is little doubt that there is much to celebrate in the present human rights corpus just as there is much to quarrel with. But genuine reconstructionists must not be mistaken with cynical cultural manipulators who will stop at nothing to justify repressive rule and inhuman practices in the name of culture. Yash Ghai powerfully exposed the distortions by several states of Asian conceptions of community, religion, and culture to justify the use of coercive state apparatuses to crush dissent, protect particular models of economic development, and retain political power within the hands of a narrow, largely unaccountable political and bureaucratic elite.36 Such cultural demagoguery is clearly unacceptable as is the insistence by some Western academics and leaders of the human rights movement that the non-West has nothing to contribute to the human rights corpus and should accept the human rights corpus as a gift of civilization from the West.37
In fact, a historical understanding of the struggle for human dignity would locate the true genesis of a universal conception of human rights in societies subjected to European tyranny and imperialism. Unfortunately, this is not the "official" story of human rights, and hence the evolution of the human rights corpus as a predominantly Eurocentric text. Some of the most important events which preceded the post-1945 UN-led human rights movement include the anti-slavery campaigns both in Africa and the United States, the anti-colonial struggles in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and the struggles for women’s suffrage and equal rights throughout the world. Particularly gross and extreme in their cruelty were the Belgian enslavement and colonization of the Congo. The exposes of George Washington Williams, an African-American lawyer and historian who in the early 1890s visited the Congo, detailed the most barbaric human rights abuses by King Leopold of Belgium and his agents.38 But the pioneering work of Williams, or the anti-colonial crusades by countless resistors from Kenya’s Mau Mau,39 Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah,40 India’s Mahatma Ghandi,41 and many unsung heroes do not form the official registry in the annals of the human rights movement. These historically important struggles, together with norms anchored in non-Western cultures and societies, have either been entombed, overlooked, or rejected in the construction of human rights.
Thus although this author admits that the official human rights corpus represents an aspiration to a higher form of human intelligence, it is rooted in a deep-seated sense of European and Western global predestination.42 As put by Slater, European "belief in the necessity of an imperial mission to civilize the other and to convert other societies into inferior versions of the same" took hold in the nineteenth century.43 This impulse at possessing and transforming that which was different found a ready mask and benign cover in messianic faiths. To European Christian missionaries, for example, Africans were "unlettered" natives in the "technically barbaric and pre-literacy stage of cultural and social development."44 Hence the purpose of the evangelist was not "merely to civilize but to Christianize, not merely to convey the Gifts of Civilization."45 By the nineteenth century, the discourse of white over black superiority had gained popularity and acceptance in Europe:
The advocates of this discourse – Hegel [German philosopher Georg Hegel] most typically, but duly followed by a host of "justifiers" – declared that Africa had no history prior to direct contact with Europe. Therefore the Africans, having made no history of their own, had clearly made no development of their own. Therefore they were not properly human, and could not be left to themselves but must be "led" towards civilization by other peoples: that is, by the peoples of Europe, especially of western Europe, and most particularly of Britain and France.46
As if by intuition, the missionary fuses religion with civilization, a process that was meant to remove the native from the damnation of pre-history and deliver him to the gates of history. In this idiom, human development was defined as a linear and vertical progression of the dark or backward races from the savage to the civilized, the pre-modern to the modern, from the child to the adult, and the inferior to the superior.47 Slater has captured this worldview in a powerful passage:
[T]he geological power over other societies, legitimated and codified under the signs of manifest destiny and civilizing missions, has been a salient feature of earlier Western projects of constructing new world orders. These projects or domains of truth, as they emanated from Europe or the United States, attempted to impose their hegemony by defining normalcy with reference to a particular vision of their own cultures, while designating that which was different as other than truth and in need of tutelage.48
The United States, which is a European state in another guise, suffers from this spell of manifest destiny just like its European predecessors. American predestination is at least a century old. At the start of the twentieth century, for example, President Theodore Roosevelt referred to peoples and countries south of the United States as the "weak, and chaotic people south of us" and declared that it was "our [European American] duty, when it becomes absolutely inevitable, to police these countries in the interest of order and civilization."49 The treatment of the Portuguese and Spanish-speaking Central and Latin America as America’s "backyard" was instrumental in consolidating the psyche of the United States as an empire. William Alford has captured well this American predisposition to cultural arrogance and domination.
In the last several hundred years, the globe has witnessed the universalization of Eurocentric norms and cultural forms through the creation of the colonial state and the predominance of certain economic, social, and political models. International law itself was founded on the pre-eminence of four specific European biases: geographic Europe as the center, and Christianity, mercantile economics, and political imperialism as superior paradigms.50 Both the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations, revitalized and confirmed European-American domination of international affairs. In the post-War period, non-European states were trusted or mandated to European powers or became client states of one or other European state.51
Since 1945, the United Nations has played a key role in preserving the global order which the West dominates. A critically important agenda of the U.N. has been the universalization of principles and norms which are European in identity. Principle among these has been the spread of human rights which grow out of Western liberalism and jurisprudence.52 It is now an accepted fact that the West was able to impose its philosophy of human rights on the rest of the world because it dominated the United Nations in 1948.53 Yet the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the bible of the human rights movement, referred to itself as the "common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations."54 The ubiquity of human rights norms is now underscored by their identification with political democracy. The principal focus of human rights law has been on those rights that strengthen, legitimize, and export the liberal democratic state to non-Western societies.55International Human Rights in Context supra note 1, at 710-725. Some scholars have argued that democratic governance has evolved from a moral prescription to an international legal obligation.56 According to Franck, the right to democratic governance is supported by a large normative human rights cannon.57 He asserts that people almost everywhere, including Africa and Asia "[n]ow demand that government be validated by Western-style parliamentary multiparty democratic process."58 He concludes, rather triumphantly, that:
This almost-complete triumph of the democratic notions of Hume, Locke, Jefferson and Madison)in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe and, to a lesser extent, Asia ) may well prove to be the most profound event of the twentieth century and, in all likelihood, the fulcrum on which the future development of global society will turn. It is the unanswerable response to those who have said that free, open, multiparty, electoral parliamentary democracy is neither desired nor desirable outside a small enclave of Western industrial states.59
Franck presents the apparent triumph of liberal democratic nationalism as the free, uncoerced, choice of non-Western peoples. But this Paper argues 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, the Paper does not mean to suggest that human rights are bad per se or that the human rights corpus is irredeemable. Rather, it wants to 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. 60 But the Paper does not pretend to provide a coherent formula for the creation of a new human rights corpus. What it offers is a signpost of the way forward.
II. The Compound Metaphor: the Grand Narrative of Human Rights
This paper argues that the sub-text of human rights is a grand narrative which is hidden in the seemingly neutral and universal language of the corpus. For instance, the UN Charter talks in endearing terms about its mandate to "[r]eaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small."61 This is certainly a noble ideal. But what exactly does that terminology mean here? It is the view of this author that this phraseology conceals more than it reveals. What, for example, are fundamental human rights, and how are they determined? Do such rights have a cultural, religious, ethical, moral, political, or other biases? What exactly is meant by the "dignity and worth" of the human person? Is there an essentialized human being that the corpus imagines? What historical and cultural materiale have being used in constructing that individual? Is that the individual found in the streets and the slums of large metropolitan centers such as New Delhi, Beijing, Nairobi, Boston, Mexico City, and London? Or is that the individual resident in rural Iraq, the slopes of Mt. Kenya, the Brazilian rainforest, or the frigid plains of Siberia?
Does the human rights corpus provide a definitely universal signpost, an internationally recognizable silhouette, of the human being it envisions? If it does, how is that being constructed, and what political, social, and economic arrangements does the corpus intend to mount in defense of the "dignity and worth" of that person? Does the corpus, for example, imagine a particular typology of state that best suits that ideal human being? In addition to this herculean task, that of defining the prototypical human being, the United Nations Charter put forward another pretense, that all nations "large and small" enjoy some equality, even as it ratified power imbalances between, on the one hand, the Third World and, on the other, the dominant American and European powers, and gave the latter the primary power to define and determine "world peace" and "stability."62 It is the argument of this Paper that these fictions of neutrality and universality, like so much else in a lopsided world, undergird the human rights corpus and belie its true identity and purposes. This international rhetoric of goodwill reveals, just beneath the surface, intentions and reality that stand in great tension and contradiction to it.
This paper makes the case that the main authors of human rights have constructed a three-dimensional prism in which all the angles of the prism are interconnected. These authors, who are the United Nations, Western states, so-called international non-governmental organizations (INGOs),63 and senior Western academics, agree on the fundamental importance of human rights in any society.64 This prismatic rendering of the human rights corpus and its discourse is one-directional and predictable. It is a black-and-white construction that pits good and against evil. The first dimension of the prism depicts a savage and evokes images of savagery and barbarism. The abominations of the savage are presented as being so cruel and unimaginable that their state is a negation of humanity. Although in the story of human rights the state is presented as the classic savage, an ogre forever bent on the consumption of humans, the reality is far more complex.6563, 67 (1997). Savagery in human rights connotes much more than the state, the instrumentality that in human rights terms is necessary for the operationalization of savagery. States become savages when they choke off and oust civil society.66
Although the metaphor may suggest otherwise, it is not the state per se that is barbaric but the culture which supports it and the bed on which it rests. The state only becomes a vampire when "bad" culture overcomes or disallows the development of "good" culture. The "good" state controls its demonic proclivities by cleansing itself with, and internalizing, human rights. The "evil" state, on the other hand, expresses itself through an illiberal, anti-democratic, or some other authoritarian culture. The redemption or salvation of the state is solely dependent on its submission to human rights norms. Thus although the state is the guarantor of human rights, it is the target and raison d’etre of human rights law.67 The real savage then is not the state but a normative and cultural deviation from human rights. It is in the theory and practice of the one-party state, military junta, controlled or closed state, theocracy, or even cultural practices such as the one popularly known in the West as female genital mutilation (FGM)68 that savagery inheres, and not in the state per se. The state itself is a neutral, passive instrumentality -- a receptacle or an empty vessel -- that conveys savagery by implementing the project of the savage culture.
The second dimension of the prism depicts the face and the fact of a victim as well as the essence and the idea of victimhood. A human being whose "dignity and worth" have been violated by the savage is the victim. The figure is that of a powerless, helpless innocent whose naturalist attributes have been negated by the primitive and offensive actions of the state or the bed of culture in which it is steeped. The entire human rights edifice is both anti-catastrophic and reconstructive. It is anti-catastrophic because it is designed to prevent more calamities through the creation of more victims. It is reconstructive because it seeks to re-engineer the state and the society to reduce the number of victims, as it defines them, and prevent conditions that give rise to victims.69 The classic human rights document – the human rights report – embodies these two mutually reinforcing strategies. The human rights report by an INGO is usually a catalogue of horrible catastrophies visited on individuals. As a rule, each report also carries a diagnostic epilogue and recommended therapies and remedies.70
The last dimension of the prism is that of the savior or the redeemer, the good angel who protects, vindicates, civilizes, restrains, and safeguards. The savior is the victim’s bulwark against tyranny. The savior’s promise is simple yet complex: freedom. It is freedom from the tyrannies of the state, tradition, and culture. But it is also the freedom to create a better society based on particular values. In the human rights story, the savior is the human rights corpus itself but in reality the United Nations, Western governments, INGOs, and Western charities like the New York-based Ford Foundation are the rescuers, the redeemers of a benighted world.71 In reality, however, these institutions are merely a front. The savior is ultimately a set of culturally-based norms and practices that inhere in liberal thought and philosophy. This Paper argues that the savage-victim-savior metaphor of human rights carries racial connotations in which the international hierarchy of race and color are confirmed and revitalized. The metaphor is in fact necessary for the continuation of the global racial hierarchy. One cannot exist without the other. Thus the savages and victims are generally non-white and non-Western, while the saviors are white. This is an old truism which has found new life in the metaphor of human rights. But there is also a sense in which human rights can be seen as a project for the redemption of the redeemers, in which whites who are privileged globally as a people -- and who have historically visited untold suffering and savage atrocities against non-whites -- redeem themselves by "defending" and "civilizing" "lower," "unfortunate," and "inferior" peoples. The metaphor is thus laced with the pathology of self-redemption.
Although it is not the purpose of this paper to address particularized national settings, suffice it to note that the savage-victim-savior metaphor has deep historical parallels in the national histories of states where non-whites, and especially persons of African ancestry, have been subjected to oppression, abuse, exploitation, and domination by whites.72 The history of South Africa, as told by Nelson Mandela, is not just a testament to the co-operation of black and white South Africans against apartheid, the system of official segregation.73 There is in that history a strong undercurrent of white benefactors, sometimes pejoratively referred to as "do-gooders," a species of humans cut from the abolitionist cloth.74 During the darkest days of apartheid, many individual white lawyers, white law firms, and white human rights organizations spoke for and defended black South Africans.75 Many whites became key leaders in what was essentially a black liberation struggle.76 In the United States, from the earliest days of the enslavement of Africans by whites up to the civil rights movement, whites often played important roles in the struggle for equality by blacks. As in South Africa, many American whites held key positions in the fight for civil rights.77 It seems politically incorrect to consign white participation in these noble causes to the savior-victim-savage metaphor. But it is an unavoidable conclusion that the metaphor largely describes their involvement. It would also be a tragic historical error not to recognize the importance of those struggles to the liberal project and its centrality to democracy and the freedom of whites as a people themselves.
The purpose of this paper is not to assign ignoble intentions or motivations on the individual proponents, leaders, or participants in the human rights movement. Without a doubt many of the leaders and foot-soldiers of the human rights movement are driven by a burning desire to end human suffering, as they see it from their vantage point. The white American suburban high school or college student who joins the local chapter of Amnesty International and protests FGM in far away lands or writes letters to political or military leaders whose names do not easily roll off the English tongue no doubt drawing partly from a well of noblesse oblige. The zeal to see all humanity as related and the impulse to help those defined as in need is noble and is not the problem addressed here. A certain degree of human universality is inevitable and desirable. But what that universality is, what historical and cultural stew it is made of, and how it is accomplished make all the difference. What the high school or college student ought to realize is that their zeal to save others – even from themselves – is steeped in Western and European history. It drove the Christian crusaders and partly fired the imaginations of the colonialists. If one culture is allowed the prerogative of imperialism, the right to define and impose on others what it deems good for humanity, the very meaning of freedom itself will have been abrogated. That is why a human rights movement that pivots on the savage-victim-savior metaphor violates the very idea of the sanctity of humanity that purportedly inspires it.
Thus any pretense of consensus, as expressed in the current human rights corpus, is a falsehood. The savage-victim-savior metaphor is an "othering" process or maneuver that creates inferior clones, in effect dumb copies of the original. However, I concludes by contending that since an international discourse on human dignity is desirable and inevitable, it is imperative that the grand metaphor be abandoned and the mask of the false consensus lifted so that a new genuine consensus can be constructed. I suggest here ways in which a new consensus might be attempted.
III. The Metaphor of the Savage
Human rights law frames the state as its primary target.78similar obligatory language. Thus although states voluntarily enter into treaty obligations, they are bound by them once ratified. Although voluntarily entered into, human rights treaties are binding on the state. The state is both the guarantor and subject of human rights. Underlying the development of human rights is the belief that the state is a predator that must be contained, otherwise it will devour and imperil human freedom. From this conventional international human rights law perspective, the state is the classic savage. But it is not the state per se that is predatory, for the state in itself is simply a construct that describes a repository for public power, a disinterested instrumentality ready to execute public will, whatever that is. There is a high degree of fluidity in the nature of that power and how it is exercised. For instance, a state’s constitutional structure could in its configuration require a particular form of democratic government. Or a state’s constitution could reposit public power in religious bodies and clerics, as has been the case in the Islamic Republic of Iran.79 But a state could through revolution or some other device be Islamic today and become secular tomorrow. Since the state in this metaphor appears to be an empty vessel, the savage must be located beyond the state.
The state must be unmasked as being a mere proxy for the real savage. That leaves the historically accumulated wisdom, the culture of a society, as the only other plausible place to locate the savage. This author has argued elsewhere that culture "represents the accumulation of a people’s wisdom and thus their identity; it is real and without it a people is without a name, rudderless, and torn from its moorings."80 In this sense, culture is a set of local truths which serve as a guide for life’s many pursuits in a society. In other words, the validity of a cultural norm is a local truth, and judgement or evaluation of that truth by a norm from an external culture is extremely problematic, if not altogether an invalid exercise.81 But culture itself is a dynamic and alchemical mix of many variables, including religion, philosophy, history, mythology, politics, environmental factors, language, and economics. The interaction of these variables -- both within the culture and through influence by other cultures -- produces competing social visions and values in any given society. The dominant class or political interests that capture the state make it the public expression of their particular cultural vision. That is to say that the state is more a conveyer belt than an embodiment of particular cultural norms. The state is but the scaffolding underneath which the real savage resides. Thus when human rights norms target a deviant state, they are really attacking the normative cultural fabric or variant expressed by that state. The culture, and not the state, is the actual savage. From this perspective, human rights violations represent a clash between the culture of human rights and the savage culture.
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.82 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.83 The human rights corpus expresses a cultural bias, and its chastening of a state is therefore a cultural project. If culture is not defined as some discrete, exotic, and peculiar practice which is frozen in time but rather as the dynamic totality of ideas, forms, practices, and structures of any given society, then human rights is an expression of a particular European-American culture. The advocacy of human rights across cultural borders is then an attempt to displace the local culture with the "universal" culture of human rights. Human rights therefore become the universal culture. It is in this sense that the "other"culture, that which is non-European, is the savage in the human rights corpus and its discourse.
In the text of human rights, in the major international human rights instruments, the "other"culture is quite often depicted as the evil that must be overcome by human rights. Perhaps the clearest example here is the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which is based on equality and anti-discrimination, the two basic and pre-eminent norms of the human rights corpus.84 The most transformatively radical human rights treaty, CEDAW constantly refers to offending "social and cultural patterns"85 and demands that the state take all appropriate measures to transform attitudes and practices that are inimical to women.86 The treaty evokes the pre-modern–modern progression by requiring that states seek the "elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices" which are based on the ideas of the inequality of the sexes.87 While there are no cultures that are innocent of discriminatory practices against women, human rights discourse treats non-Western cultures as particularly problematic in this regard. In its first report, for example, the Women’s Rights Project of Human Rights Watch focused on wife-murder, domestic battery, and rape in Brazil.88 Significant here is the fact that HRW’s first report on violations of women’s human rights did not focus on the U.S. or a European country but rather on Brazil, a Third World state. Other reports by the Women’s Rights Project have concentrated on violations in Botswana, Haiti, and Turkey, which is Moslem and on the periphery of Europe.89
The impression left by the reports and the activities of powerful INGOs is unmistakable. While the West is presented as the cradle of feminism, countries in the South have been constructed as steeped in traditions and practices which are harmful to women. In one of her first reports, Radhika Coomaraswamy, the U.N. Special Rapporteur On Violence Against Women, confirmed this impression when she noted that certain "customary practices and some aspects of tradition are often the cause of violence against women."90 She noted that "besides female genital mutilation, a whole host of practices violate female dignity. Foot binding, male preference, early marriage, virginity tests, dowry deaths, sati, female infanticide and malnutrition are among the many practices which violate a woman’s human rights."91 All these practices are found in non-Western cultures. Among other treaties, CEDAW is seen as a treaty of particular relevance to non-Western cultures because of their poor treatment of women. Images of practices such as "female genital mutilation," dowry burnings, and honor killings have come to frame the discourse, and in that vein stigmatize non-Western cultures.
Elsewhere, the text of human rights points an accusing finger at the Third World. Non-European political and cultural traditions which, which lie outside the liberal tradition, and do not yield political democratic structures, are demonized in the text of human rights and its discourse. Take, for example, the view of human rights documents in the area of political participation. Here, the human rights corpus expects all societies to support a pluralist, democratic society. Both the UDHR and the ICCPR, the two key documents in the area of civil and political rights, are explicit about the primacy of expressive and associational rights in any society. They both give citizens the right to political participation through elections and the guarantee of the right to assemble, associate, and disseminate their ideas.92 This scheme of rights coupled with equal protection and due process rights implies a political democracy or a political society with a regularly elected government, genuine competition for political of lice, and separation of powers with judicial independence. While it is true that the human rights regime does not dictate the particular permutation or strain of political democracy, it requires a Western-style liberal democracy nevertheless. Systems of government such as monarchies, theocracies, dictatorships, and one party-states would violate associational rights and run afoul of the human rights corpus.93 The human rights corpus raises the specter of political savagery when it rejects non-Western political cultures as undemocratic.
In scholarship by Western academics, the same sharp contrast is drawn between human rights and the cultural or political savage who must be civilized by human rights. In a reflection of this view, industrial democracies in the last two decades have worked to link human rights to aspects of foreign policy such as development assistance, aid, and trade with non-Western states.94 Such linkage requires the recipient, usually non-Western state, to conform aspects of its domestic laws, policies, or programs to human rights or democratic norms. The coercive maneuver is intended to civilize the offending state. Thus Western states frequently use human rights as a tool of foreign policy against non-Western states. The United States, which Henkin calls "a principal ancestor of the contemporary idea of rights,"95 views human rights as designed to perform this civilizing role in non-European states.96 Henkin argues that because individual rights "dominate [America’s] constitutional jurisprudence, and are the pride of its people, their banner to the world,"97 such missionizing is perfectly normal.
Some writers have depicted certain cultural practices as the savage. In the gruesome conflict following the collapse of Yugoslavia, genocide and other war crimes were perpetrated with chilling callousness. In particular, one of the most horrifying war crimes was the massive rape by Serbs of Moslem Bosnian women. An estimated 20,000 women were brutally sexually assaulted, raped, and tortured.98Yugoslavia 3 (1996). These violations were termed "an assault against the female gender, violating her body and its reproductive capabilities as a ‘weapon of war’"99and Ethnic Responses to Rape Victims in the Former Yugoslavia," 20 Hum. Rts. Q. 348 (1998). The paper traces these atrocities to a savage Serbian patriarchal culture that usurps the female body and reduces the female to "her reproductive capacities in order to fulfill the overall objective of Serbian nationalism by producing more citizens to populate Serbian nation."100 The writer argues that this instrumentalist view of the female body is deeply rooted in Serbian culture, the Serbian Orthodox Church, and Serbian official policies and nationalism.101 The savage here is located in religion, politics, and culture which the state supports and implements for the purpose of creating "Greater Serbia."
The image of the savage is also painted impressively by INGOs in their work through reporting and other forms of public advocacy. The focus here is not on domestic human rights NGOs in the Third World because as a rule many are copycats who mimic their predecessors in the North.102 In any case, NGOs in the South largely operate from the same template as their more established counterparts in the North. Typically, INGOs perform three basic functions: investigation, reporting, and advocacy.103 The focus of human rights NGOs is usually human rights violations in a Third World country, where the "investigation" normally takes place. Generally, a Western-based INGO -- and they are all based in the political and cultural capitals of the most powerful countries in the West104-- sends a team of investigators called a human rights mission to a country in the South. The mission lasts anywhere from several days to a few weeks, and collects data and other information on human rights questions from victims, local NGOs, lawyers, local journalists, human rights defenders, and government officials. Information from these "local" sources is usually cross-checked with more "objective" sources, by which it is meant Western embassies, locally-based Western reporters, and other Western interests such as foundations. Upon returning to the West, the mission systematizes the information and releases it in the form of a report. None of the major INGOs have located their offices in the Third World.
The human rights report is a catalogue of abuses committed by the state against liberal values.105 It criticizes the state for departing from the civil and political rights obligations provided for in the major instruments. Its purpose is to "shame" the Third World state by pointing out the gulf between the state’s conduct and internationally-sanctioned "civilized" behavior. This departure from "good" behavior is stigmatized and used to paint the state either as a pariah or out of step with the rest of the civilized world. Reports normally contain corrective measures and recommendations to the offending state. In many instances, however, the audience of these reports is the West or some other Western institution, such as the European Union. The pleas of the INGO report here pit a First World state or institution against a Third World state or a Third World culture. The report asks that the West cut off aid, condition assistance, impose sanctions, or publicly denounce the unacceptable conduct of the Third World state.106 INGOs thus ask First World states and institutions to play a significant role in "taming" and "civilizing" Third World states, even though such a role relies on the power and economic imbalances of the international order which favors the West over the South.107
But the human rights report tells another, more interesting, story about the target of the human rights corpus. In this story, the report tells of several images of the savage, including the Third World state, the quintessential savage. Human rights literature is replete with images of blood-thirsty Third World despots and trigger-happy police and security forces. Perhaps in no other area than in the advocacy over "female genital mutilation"108 is the image of culture as the savage more poignant. First, the descriptions of the practice are so searing and revolting that they evoke images of a barbarism that defies civilization. Of the three forms of female circumcision practiced, two are described in particularly graphic and cruel language.109 Although the practice has dissipated over the last several decades, it is still carried it out in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Given Western stereotypes of barbaric natives110 in the "dark" continent, Western advocacy over FGM has evoked images of machete-wielding natives only too eager to inflict pain on women in their societies. The speed, for example, with which the 1994 mass killings in Rwanda took place, and the weapons used, have come to symbolize in the Western mind the barbarism of Africans. Gourevitch, an American journalist, was one of the instrumental voices in the creation of this portrayal:
Decimation means the killing of every tenth person in a population, and in the spring and early summer of 1994 a program of massacres decimated the Republic of Rwanda. Although the killing was low-tech – performed largely by machete – it was carried out at a dazzling speed: of an original population of about seven and a half million, at least eight hundred thousand people were killed in just a hundred days. Rwandans speak of a million deaths, and they may be right. The dead of Rwanda accumulated at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the holocaust. It was the most efficient mass killing since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.111
These images are critical in the construction of the savage. Human rights opposition and campaigns against FGM, which have relied heavily on demonization, have picked up where European colonial missionaries left off.112 Savagery in this idiom acquires a race, the black, dark, or non-Western, race. The Association of African Women for Research and Development (AAWORD) opposed female circumcision but sharply denounced the racism inherent Western-led anti-FGM campaigns.
This new crusade of the West has been led out of the moral and cultural prejudices of Judaeo-Christian Western society: aggressiveness, ignorance or even contempt, paternalism and activism are the elements which have infuriated and then shocked many people of goodwill. In trying to reach their own public, the new crusaders have fallen back on sensationalism, and have become insensitive to the dignity of the very women they want to "save."113
AAWORD vigorously questioned the motives of Western activists and suggested that they were twice victimizing African women. It just stopped short of asking Western activists to drop the crusade. It suggested that the savage-victim-savior metaphor was in operation here and angrily argued, in part, that:
They [Western crusaders] are totally unconscious of the latent racism which such a campaign evokes in countries where ethnocentric prejudice is so deep-rooted. And in their conviction that this is a "just cause," they have forgotten that these women from a different race and a different culture are also human beings. And that solidarity can only exist alongside self-affirmation and mutual respect.114
As illustrated by the debate over FGM, advocacy across cultural barriers are an extremely complex matter. Making judgements across the cultural divide is a risky business because the dice is always heavily loaded. Not even the black-white pretense of human rights can erase those risks. But since that is what precisely the human rights movement does -- make judgements across cultures -- there is an obligation to create truly universal standards. Otherwise, the human rights enterprise will continue to present itself as a struggle between the cultures of non-Western peoples and the "universal" culture of the West.
IV: The Metaphor of the Victim
The metaphor of the victim is the giant engine that drives the human rights movement. Without the victim there is no savage or savior, and the entire human rights enterprise collapses. The victim, who provides the human rights project with a purpose, is at the center of the human rights corpus. The basic purpose of the corpus is to contain the state, transform society, and eliminate both the victim and victimhood as conditions of human existence. In fact, the human rights regime was designed to respond to both the potential and actual victim, and to create legal, political, social, and cultural arrangements to defang the state. The human rights text and its discourse present political democracy, and its institutions of governance, as the sine qua non for a victim-less society.
At the international level, the U.N. pursues civilizing campaigns that ostensibly seek to prevent conditions that create human victims, to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,"115 and to "establish conditions under which justice"116 can be maintained, and to "reaffirm faith in "fundamental human rights."117 Human rights treaties are therefore a series of obligations in which states undertake not to create victims. In order to avoid victimizing those under it, the state is burdened with three basic obligations for every basic human right: to avoid depriving, to protect from deprivation, and to aid the deprived.118 The first obligation, being "negative," may be the least costly, and mainly requires self-restraint; the latter are "positive" and demand the expenditure of more resources and the implementation of programs.
Human rights law protects against the invasion of the inherent "dignity and worth" of the potential victim. Whether an individual, a potential victim, is guilty of some offense or not, the state is not permitted to violate his naturalist attributes without abiding by certain norms. The state’s culpability extends to individuals and entities within its jurisdiction, whether or not the violation can be traced directly to it. Thus, for example, the state’s failure to prevent or punish domestic violence is a human rights violation. But in human rights literature, the victim is usually presented as a helpless innocent who has been abused directly by the state, its agents, or pursuant to an offensive cultural or political practice.119 The most visible human rights victims, those that have come to define the term, are subjected to the now numbingly familiar set of abuses: arbitrary arrest and detention; denials of the rights to speech, assembly, and association; involuntary exile; mass slaughters and genocide; discriminations based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and political opinion; and denials of due process.120 Consider this descriptive report of an indiscriminate roundup of Kurdish male villagers and mass execution within earshot before their wives, children, and relatives by Iraqi government soldiers:
The soldiers opened fire at the line of thirty three squatting men from a distance of about 5-10 meters... The soldiers were armed, according to execution survivors, with Kalashnikov AK-47 rifles, and they sprayed bullets along the line....
Some of the men were killed immediately by rifle fire. Others were wounded, and a few were missed altogether. Remarkably, given the volume of firing, there were six survivors out of the thirty three men and boys. After the soldiers stopped shooting, several soldiers approached the line of slumped bodies on orders of the lieutenant and fired additional rounds as a coup de grace. The soldiers then left the execution site, without burying the bodies or otherwise touching them, according to survivors who lay among the corpses.121
An excerpt from a report by Amnesty International details the torture and abuse, including rape, of women in detention in many states around the globe. Again, the images of helplessness and utter degradation of victims by state agents are chilling. An account from an Israeli detention center, while not unique, is particularly disturbing.
Dozens of Palestinian women and children detained in the Israeli-Occupied Territories have reportedly been sexually abused or threatened in sexually explicit language during interrogation. Fatimah Salameh was arrested in Nablus in July, 1990. Her interrogators allegedly threatened to rape her with a chair leg and told her they would photograph her naked and show the pictures to her family. "They called me a whore and said that a million men had slept with me," she said. Fatimah Salameh agreed to confess to membership in an illegal organization and was sentenced to 14 months’ imprisonment.122
A basic characteristic of the victim is powerlessness, an inability for self-defense against the state or the culture in question.123 The usual human right narrative generally describes victims as hordes of nameless, despairing, and dispirited masses.124 To the extent they have a face, it is desolate and pitiful. Many are uneducated, destitute, old and infirm, too young, poorly clad, and hungry. Peasants, the rural and urban poor, marginalized ethnic groups and nationalities, and lower castes. Their very being is a state of divorce from civilization and a large distance from modernity. Many are women and children twice victimized because of their gender and age.125 In many instances, the victim of the savage culture is the female gender itself.126
The language of the human rights reports suggests the need for help – most likely outside intervention -- to overcome the conditions of victimization. In many instances, the victims themselves deeply believe in and openly declare their helplessness and plead for outside help. A classic example was the case of the Kosovars who sought Western support in their conflict with the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic.127 But individual victims serve as more vivid illustrations of this particular victim syndrome. Tong Yi, a Chinese dissident who was jailed and in 1997 freed partly due to the pressure exerted by Human Rights Watch and the U.S. government, was profusely grateful to Robert Bernstein, the human rights patriarch and founder of HRW, whom she credited with her release. Despite her torturous time in prison, Yi noted that "if there was a smile on my face, it’s because of Bob Bernstein."128 Bernstein claimed the mantle of the savior without equivocation: "you really personalize it. It is not just some person being beat up. You think, she could be my daughter."129
But the victim must also be constructed as sympathetic and innocent, otherwise it is difficult to mobilize public outrage against the victimizer. Moral clarity about the evil of the perpetrator and the innocence of the victim is an essential contradiction for Western public opinion. It is difficult, if not impossible to evoke sympathy for a victim who is presented as villainous, roguish, dark and foreboding, or not likely to be receptive to a liberal reconstructionist project. Other factors may, of course, enter the decision-making calculus and drive public opinion and determine whether Western states will intervene. It is unlikely, for example, that the West would rush to intervene in a domestic conflict involving a nuclear power such as Russia.
In the case of the Kosovo Albanians, the demon was Milosevic, the hated autocrat who has refused to join the democratic-privatization dance currently in vogue in the former Soviet bloc. The NATO intervention may have been more intended to oust him than to save the Kosovars, despite the beating of the drums of war by CNN. Milosevic, the "bad Serb" would have been replaced by a "good Serb,"presumably drawn from his opponents in the budding democratic movement.130 The Kosovars and their rag-tag band of fighters were painted as defenders of an innocent population against the cruel repression of Milosevic. Although Kosovars are Moslems, the press did not employ the stigma of Islamic fundamentalism to discredit their victim status.
In stark contrast, the Chechen fighters have been portrayed as Islamic zealots and dangerous terrorists responsible for bombings and fundamentalist atrocities in both Chechnya and Russia. Absent from CNN are the hourly updates of streams of hapless Chechen refugees – the old, women, and children – fleeing Russian military brutalities, one of the tools so effectively used to force intervention in Kosovo.131 This Western dichotomy – of the "good" or "noble" and the "bad" victim or savage – has parellels elsewhere: President Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Col. Muammar Quaddafy of Libya are "bad" Arabs whereas President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, and King Abdullah of Jordan are "good" Arabs. In Asia, the North Koreans are "bad" while the South Koreans are "good." Not Surprisingly, the United States maintains sanctions against Libya and Iraq but in 1999 President Clinton attended the funerals of King Hussein of Jordan and King Hassan of Morroco, two "good" Arabs.
Since the 1939-45 European war, known popularly as WWII, the major focus of human rights advocacy by both the U.N. and INGOs has been in the Third World -- outside Europe -- in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. With the exception of the wars and atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia and in Northern Ireland, the most enduring faces of human rights victims have been either black, brown, or yellow. In a word, the face of the prototype of the victim is non-white. But even in Bosnia and Kosovo the victims were Moslems, not Christians or "typically" white Westerners. The images of the most serious suffering seem to be those of Africans, Asians, Arabs, or Latin Americans.
Admittedly, a good number of victims in several Latin American countries such as Chile and Argentina are white but the popular perception of Latin Americans in the West is that of underdevelopment and crude despotism, conditions associated with the Third World. Suffice it to note that Latin American whites, who form the ruling elites of the region, are not perceived in the West as "typical" Europeans with the attendant benefits of modern affluence, presumed intelligence, and global power and influence. At best, they have been constructed as "second class" whites, lower in the pecking racial order than whites in Australia, New Zealand, and even South Africa, the three other countries outside Europe and North America with substantial white populations. In any case, the typical Latin American victim is indigenous or has identifiable indigenous composition.
Rarely is the victim white. Even in the United States, the typical victim of human rights violations is more likely to be African-American or Hispanic.132 Recent reports in the United States, including the tragic cases Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo, two black immigrants in New York City only confirm this image.133 Partly due to sensationalism in reporting by dominant Western media organizations such as CNN or BBC as well as the instantaneous availability of news worldwide, the human rights crises afflicting the non-white world seem to be overwhelming and without number. As a result, the largely affluent white West has in the past decade been talking about "compassion fatigue," an euphemism for disinterest in the suffering of people who are seemingly remote, benighted, look different, speak another language, and do not have any discernably immediate impact on the lives of people in the West. Yet it is precisely these dire, seemingly catastrophic situations that the human rights movement is relentlessly committed to change.
The representations of the victim in human rights literature springs from a messianic ethos in both the INGO as well as the United Nations. There is a colonial texture to the relationship between the human rights victim and the West. In the colonial project, for example, the colonizer justified his mission by drawing a distinction between the "native" and the "civilized" mind. In one case, which was typical of the encounter between Africa and the West, a European missionary compared what he called the "Bantu mind" to that of a "civilized man" in the following passage:
[I]t is suggested that the mere possession on the part of the Bantu of nothing but an oral tradition and culture creates a chasm of difference between the Native "mind" and that of a civilized man, and of itself would account for a lack of balance and proportion in the triple psychological function of feeling, thinking and acting, implying that thinking is the weakest of the three and that feeling is the most dominant. The Native mind seeks not truth nor works, but power ) the dynamical tool.134
The view that the "native" is weak, powerless, prone to laziness, and unable on his own to create conditions for his development is a recurrent theme in Western representations of the "other." Early in the life of the organization, an International Labor Organization report concluded, for example, that indigenous peoples could not by themselves overcome their "backwardness." It noted:
[I]t is now almost universally recognized that, left to their own resources, indigenous peoples would have difficulty in overcoming their inferior economic and social situation which inevitably leaves them open for exploitation.135
There is a tendency in human rights literature to paint victims of human rights violations who are mostly in the Third World as the product of backward, repressive, and authoritarian cultures which cannot correct themselves. In the culture of the human rights movement, whose center is in the West, there is a belief that human rights problems afflict people "over there" and not people "like us." The missionary zeal to help those who cannot help themselves is one of the logical conclusions of this attitude.136 The view that the human rights corpus is about ordering the lives of non-European peoples has a long history in international law itself. More recent scholarship by a number of enterprising scholars establishes this link between international law and the project of the control of non-European societies and cultures.137 Since the inception of the current international legal order some five centuries ago, there have been outright challenges by non-European cultures to the logic, substance, and purpose of international law.138 The development of human rights, arguably the most benign strain of international law, has only blunted, but not eliminated, some of those challenges.
V: The Metaphor of the Savior
The metaphor of the savior is deeply embedded in the Christian religion and the universalist pretensions of the Enlightenment which constructed Europe as both superior and the center of the universe.139 Not only does the world use the Gregorian calendar,140 the earth literally revolves around Greenwich, England, from which the standard time in the world is fixed.141 International law itself is founded on these assumptions and premises.142 In spite of being myopic to Europe, international law has succeeded in governing "states of all civilizations, European and non-European."143 International law has become "universal" although its ethnocentric fingerprint is really not a matter of debate.144 But inherent in any universalizing creed is an unyielding faith in the superiority of at least the beliefs of the proselytizer over those of the potential covert, if not over the person of the convert. The project of universality or proselytism seeks to remake the "other" in the image of the converter. Christianity, perhaps the most important pillar of Western civilization, has a long history of such zealotry. Both empire-building and the spread of Christendom justified the means.
Crusades, inquisitions, witch burnings)which invariably meant the burnings of heretics and gay people, of fellow Christians and infidels -- all in the name of the cross. It is almost as if Constantine, and his empire’s conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, uttered a well-fulfilled prophecy when he declared: "in the name of the cross we shall conquer." The cross has played the role of weapon time and time again in Christian history and empire building.145
In fact, the political-cultural push to universalize one’s beliefs can be so obsessive that it has been identified frequently with martyrdom in history. Christian armies, for example, considered it an honor to die for Christianity.
[t]he supreme sacrifice was to die fighting under the Christian emperor. The supreme self immolation was to fall in battle under the standard of the cross... But by the time Christianity was ready to meet Asia and the New World, the Cross and the sword were so identified with one another that the sword itself was a cross. It was the only kind of cross that some conquistadors understood.146
There is a historical continuum in this impulse to universalize Eurocentrism and its norms and to ratify them under the umbrella of "universalism." Whether it is in the push for free markets, liberal systems of government, "civilized" forms of dress, or in the ubiquity of the English language itself, at least the last five centuries can appropriately be called the Age of Europe. These Eurocentric models have not been content to remain at home. They intrinsically define themselves as eternal truths, in essence glimpses of eternity. Universalization is an essential attribute of their validity. This validation comes partly from the conquest of the ‘primitive" and his introduction and delivery to "civilization."147 For international law, Anghie has captured this impulse clearly:
[t]he extension and universalization of the European experience, which is achieved by transmuting it into the major theoretical problem of the discipline [international law], has the effect of suppressing and subordinating other histories of international law and the people to whom it has applied. Within the axiomatic framework of positivism, which decrees that European states are sovereign while non-European states are not, there is only one means of relating the history of the non-European world, and this the positivists proceed to do: it is a history of the civilizing mission, the process by which peoples of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Pacific were finally assimilated into a European international law.148
The impulses to conquer, colonize, save, exploit, and civilize non-European peoples met at the intersection of commerce, politics, law, and Christianity and evolved into the Age of Empire. As put by Pomeroy, lands occupied by "persons who are not recognized as belonging to the great family of states to whom international law applies" or to "savage, barbarous tribes" belonged as of right upon discovery to the "civilized and Christian nation."149 Said has identified this European predestination in the construction of Orientalism as the "corporate institution of dealing with Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.150
The savior-colonizer psyche requires an intriguing interplay of the complexes of superiority and manifest destiny over the subject. The "othering" project degrades although it also seeks to save. Take for example the manipulative, coercive, deceptive, and fraudulent manner in which the British took over large chunks of Africa. In one instance, Lord Lugard, the British colonialist, described in revolting language a "treaty-making" ceremony in which an African ruler "agreed" to "British protection." He described the African ruler "seated cross-legged on a mat opposite to each other on the ground, you should picture a savage chief in his best turn-out which consists probably of his weapons of war, different chalk colorings on his face, a piece of skin of a leopard, a wild cat, sheep, ox."151 As put by a European missionary, the "Mission to Africa was the least that we [Europeans] can do to strive to raise him [the African] in the scale of mankind."152 Anghie notes that the deployment of denigrating, demeaning language is essential to the psyche of the savior. He writes:
The violence of positivist language in relation to non-European peoples is hard to overlook. Positivists developed an elaborate vocabulary for denigrating these peoples, presenting them as suitable objects for conquest, and legitimizing the most extreme violence against them, all in the furtherance of the civilizing mission – the discharge of the white man’s burden.153
Human rights law continues this tradition of universalizing Eurocentric norms by intervening in Third World cultures and societies to save them from traditions and beliefs that it frames as permitting or promoting despotism and disrespect for human rights. While it is incorrect to equate colonialism with the human rights movement, at least in terms of the methods of the two phenomena, it is hardly unreasonable to draw parallels between them with respect to some of their motivations and purposes. There is no doubt that colonialism was driven by ignoble motives while the human right movement was inspired by the noblest of human ideals. But there is no denying that both streams of historical moment are part of a Western push to transform non-European peoples. Henkin, one of the most famous human rights scholars, celebrates the embrace of human rights by diverse states across the globe as the triumph of the post-1945 era:
Ours is the age of rights. Human Rights is the idea of our time, the only political-moral idea that has received universal acceptance. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, has been approved by virtually all governments representing all societies. Human rights are enshrined in the constitutions of virtually every one of today’s 170 states)old states and new; religious, secular, and atheist; Western and Eastern; democratic, authoritarian, and totalitarian; market economy, socialist, and mixed; rich and poor, developed, developing, and less developed. Human rights is the subject of numerous international agreements, the daily grist of the mills of international politics, and a bone of continuing contention among superpowers.154
Henkin is so quick to celebrate universality that he fails to problematize the human rights project. Why does he not express more suspicion about the contrasting diversity of states that have ratified human rights instruments? Do numbers alone tell the whole story? Might that not mean that they are simply bowing to a false international consensus because in some sense their statehood and belonging to the "international community" is dependent on paying homage to international law, to human rights? Do non-European states really have a choice of rejecting in any sustained manner any doctrines of international law, particularly human rights, which represent the penultimate civilizing project of international law? Why should credence be given to states here when many, if not the majority, do not even speak for their peoples or cultures? Might states not just be acting cynically because they want to be seen to belong among the ranks of the "civilized?" After all, how much does the ratification of international law instruments mean to Third World states when they live under a patently unjust international order in which they are the unambiguous subordinates? Yet Henkin rejects this debate and argues that so-called "cultural relativists" who question the human rights corpus on ideological or cultural grounds desire a vague, broad, and ambiguous text of human rights.155 He dismisses these debates and questions because he sees them as fatal to the project of universality, which is essential for the human rights project.
The human rights corpus itself is based on the idea of universality. It sees itself as the savior of political societies and cultures. The antidote to illiberal, authoritarian, and closed societies is expressed by the human rights text as constitutionalism and political democracy. The corpus proceeds from the premise that the world should be a marketplace of ideas. The expressive rights in the basic human rights instruments are based on this assumption, although they are subject to some limitations.156 But this assumption imposes on other cultures the obligation and the requirement to compete against human rights, even though those cultures may not be universalistic and may be ill-equipped to compete in the marketplace of ideas.157 What should be understood here is that human rights is not simply a set of stand-alone ideas which do not have a hook, a social and cultural mooring. Indeed, human rights are part of the cultural package of the West, complete with an idiom of expression, a system of government, and certain basic assumptions about the individual and his relationship to the society.158 The spread of the liberal constitution -- together with its normative assumptions and the political structures it implies -- makes human rights an integral part of the Western conceptions of modern society and its ubiquitous domination of the globe. Particularly because of their universalistic credo, human rights fit perfectly within the historical tradition of the savior metaphor.
Institutionally, saviors constitute a broad range of actors and interests driven by a belief in the redemption of non-liberal, usually non-European, societies and cultures from human rights abominations. At the intergovernmental level, the U.N.’s vertical enforcement processes and machineries act as the official guardians of the human rights corpus. The location of the human rights mission at the heart of U.N. activities and purposes gives it the imprimatur of a neutral internationalism and objectivity.159 A maze of human rights bodies)committees and commissions -- is responsible for developing, overseeing, monitoring, and enforcing of human rights.160 Most of the U.N.’s work in human rights is focused on Third World states and societies, complete with technical assistance programs and other "hand-holding" projects to ensure the incorporation, dissemination, and enforcement of human rights norms, as well as the creation and nurturing of institutions to perform these tasks.161 The U.N. is, in a sense, the grand "neutral" savior, and Western liberal democracies treat it as such.
Although the United Nations is an institution of states, and therefore is bound in theory to respect the sovereignty of all states, it has recently taken a more active posture in human rights matters. U.N. failures in Rwanda and Somalia as well as the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia have embarrassed the world body and made an urgent case for more effective intervention.162 The creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia,163 the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda,164 and the adoption in 1998 in Rome of the Statute of the International Criminal Court are just several recent examples of this renewed urgency in the area of human rights.165 But these actions came after long periods of resistance by major Western powers, including the United States, and only after intense public scrutiny and media exposures of atrocities.166 Following the Yugoslav and Rwanda crises, HRW lamented the "moral vacuum in the halls of the United Nations."167 It decried the U.N.’s "posture of neutrality between murderer and victim" and argued that the "failure of leadership, eagerly abetted by the Security Council’s permanent members, led to a squandering of the U.N.’s unique capacity on the global stage to articulate fundamental human rights values and to legitimize their enforcement."168 The weight of responsibility placed on the U.N. in the area of human rights is unmistakable.
In addition to the United Nations, the other powerful tier of saviors is constituted by Western states and Western or Western-controlled institutions such as the World Bank.169 Western states usually employ a horizontal state-to-state enforcement of human rights in which their foreign policies become the conveyer belts for "civilization." Through special agencies such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Canadian Agency for International Development (CIDA), foreign ministries, and diplomatic missions, Western governments use a carrot-and-stick approach to force certain policy choices on recipient states. In the last decade, Western states have frequently but selectively used human rights to achieve specific policy objectives.
In the United States, President Jimmy Carter gave human rights unprecedented rhetorical significance in foreign policy.170 Since then, human rights have featured prominently, if inconsistently, in the calculus of foreign policy in the United States. The U.S. Congress mandated in 1976 that a human rights bureau be established in the State Department and instructed that the office report annually on the human rights conditions of all countries in the world.171 In 1994, the head of the human rights bureau was renamed the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor from the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs.172 This change seems to acknowledge the broad civilizational sweep of human rights and their inseparability from free markets and political democracy. In other words, the U.S. sees itself as promoting this cultural package when it advocates human rights abroad.
European states have similar approaches in their relationships with the Third World.173 Former communist states in eastern Europe, Russia, and other former Soviet republics, whose political cultures the West deems inferior, are treated as being in need of "civilizing."174 Turkey, the only Islamic member of NATO, has been denied entry into the European Union on human rights grounds.175 Western European liberal democracies leave little doubt that human rights covenants are meant for the Third World which needs "improving." Justice Higgins of the International Court of Justice, formerly the British member of the Human Rights Committee, the body that oversees the implementation of the ICCPR, noted this attitude in a revealing passage.
As for the liberal democracies, their approach has often been that the Covenant [ICCPR] is a splendid document)splendid, that is, for the Third World countries and Eastern Europe, where human rights are in urgent need of attention. Although they submit their reports [to the HRC] and attend to public examination, the impression is often given that the Covenant is not really for them, because the observance of human rights is fully guaranteed in their countries.176
Finally, INGOs constitute perhaps the most important element of the savior metaphor. Conventionally doctrinal, INGOs are the human rights movement’s foot soldiers, its missionaries and proselytizers. Their crusade is framed in moral certainty in which "evil" and "good" are as separate as night and day. They do practice law, not politics.177Wash. Q. (Summer 1994), at 109. Although their mandates seek to promote paradigmatic liberal values and norms, they present themselves as neutral, universal, non- ideological, non-partisan, and unbiased. Based in the capitals of the powerful states in the West, their staffs are mostly well-educated, usually trained in the law, middle-class, and white.178 They are very different from the people they seek to save. As noted by Harold Koh, Yale law professor and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, "some people who love human rights aren’t comfortable with human beings."179 They are modern-day abolitionists who see themselves as cleansers, single-handedly rooting out evil in Third World countries and cultures by shining light where darkness reins.
INGOs have also been instrumental in the creation of national NGOs in the Third World. Mandates of many national NGOs initially mirrored those of INGOs. However, in the last decade, many Third World NGOs have started to broaden their areas of concentration, and to go beyond the civil and political rights constraints of the INGOs. In particular, domestic Third World NGOs are now paying more attention to economic and social rights, as well as development, women’s rights, and the relationships between transnational corporations and human rights conditions. But in spite of this incipient conceptual independence on the part of NGOs, many remain voiceless in the corridors of power at the United Nations, the European Union, the World Bank, and in the dominant media organizations in the West.
INGOs occupy such a high moral plane in public policy discourse that they are rarely the subject of probing critiques. Morally righteous, there is an almost universal consensus that they are the "good guys." Even the academy has been slow to reflect seriously on INGOs. INGOs and their supporters see those who question them as naive at best and apologists for repressive governments and cultures, at worst. This climate of intolerance has a chilling effect on human rights speech, particularly of young and probing scholars and activists. It also encourages a "herd" mentality and mafia-like compliance with official or knee jerk human rights strategies, positions, or responses. It certainly does not encourage innovation on the part of the movement.
INGOs also play the role of gate-keepers to power-brokers in the West, including powerful Western states. Significantly, national NGOs have virtually no financial independence. They rely almost exclusively on funding from Western states, foundations, charities, and development agencies, and intergovernmental institutions such as the EU. In spite of these criticisms of INGOs, many non-Western NGOs expressed appreciation for the work of INGOs at a retreat which discussed the roles of NGOs in the human rights movement. In fact, many sought a more involved approach by INGOs.
The critics sought a more expanded role of INGOs and not an abandonment of their traditional work. No one at the retreat doubted INGOs’ contributions to the growth of the human rights movement as a whole and to heightening consciousness about rights in general, thereby influencing the directions and pace of change. No one doubted the vital importance of INGOs’ activities: monitoring, investigative reports, publicity, education, and lobbying or interventions before national and intergovernmental bodies.180
The lack of a more vigorous and fundamental disagreement between national NGOs and Western INGOs may speak volumes about the cadre of the leadership of Third World human rights actors. It also does not take into account to locally grown, indigenous, "non-human rights" efforts to oppose repression and to fight for political and social change. While its is true that INGOs often spoke and agitated for those who were politically voiceless, especially during the Cold War, it would be a mistake to see local "human rights" activists as different from the entire human rights project. Opposing that project would be tantamount to self-repudiation. These "human rights" activists -- local collaborators in the civilizing mission -- are drawn primarily from elites in their own societies and aspire generally to the political, social, and economic models of the West.181 Many of these activists, and their organizations, are financially dependent on the West, and rely for their social status on connections with Western institutions, including the diplomatic missions in their countries.
In the last decade in Africa, for example, a better politically educated activist and thinker, one who questions the human rights project more seriously and who seeks a culturally grounded program for social change, has started to emerge. This activist and thinker understands the connections among power relations, human rights, economic domination, and the historical relationships between the West and the Rest. Such a thinker is aware of the deep contradictions that mark the human rights enterprise and seeks the construction a different human rights movement. While this new actor is still being defined, and constitutes but a small fraction of the human rights elite on the African continent, he is now increasingly at the center of innovative thinking and action. At the core of this new activism and thinking is the push for intellectual originality and self-reliance, local and not Western, foundation support, and a commitment to challenge all sources of violations, whether they be local or foreign. This development represents the cultivation of a truly local human rights culture in terms of the definition of rights and their enforcement.
VI: Is the Human Rights Movement a Mask for a False Consensus?
The promise of human rights to the Third World is that problems of cruel conditions of life, state instability, and other social crises can be contained, if not substantially eliminated, through the rule of law, grants of individual rights, and a state based on constitutionalism. Through the metaphor of human rights, and its grand narrative, the Third World is asked to follow a particular script of history. That script places hope for the future of the international community in liberal nationalism and democratic internal self-determination. The impression given is that a unitary international community is possible within this template if only the Third World followed suit by climbing up the civilizational ladder. It is the argument of this Paper, however, that this historical model, as now diffused through human rights, cannot respond to the needs of the Third World absent some radical rethinking and restructuring of the international order.
Today the presence of the United States – which has succeeded France and Britain – as the major global cultural, military, and political power is ubiquitous. This became especially true after the collapse of the Soviet union and communism a decade ago. There is virtually no conflict or issue of importance today in which the United States does not seek, and often play, the crucial role whether by omission or commission. From the conflicts in central Africa to crises of the former Yugoslavia to the corridors of the United Nations, the United States is the single most important voice in the world today. The European colonial powers of yesteryear have, as it were, passed the torch to the United States. The United States has renewed and revitalized the Age of Europe. The domination of the globe exercised by European powers for the last several centuries has been assumed by the United States. The U.S. is now the major determinant for "international peace and security" and the spokesperson for the "welfare" of humanity. Never before has one state wielded so much power and influence over so vast a population. A global policeman, the United States now plays the central civilizing role through the export of markets, culture, and human rights.
Increasingly, the human rights movement has come to openly be identified with the United States, whose chief executive now invokes human rights virtually every time he addresses a non-European nation.182 In fact, President William Jefferson Clinton’s speeches on human rights came to resemble lectures and sermons, very much in the savior mode.183 This is the wrong course. The human rights movement, and its "ally" the American presidency, must abandon the savage-savior-victim metaphor if there is going to be real hope in a genuine international discourse on rights. The relentless efforts to universalize an essentially European corpus of human rights through Western crusades cannot succeed. Nor will demonizing those who resist it. The critiques of the corpus from Africans, Asians, Moslems, Hindus, and a host of critical thinkers from around the world are the one avenue through which human rights can be redeemed and truly universalized. This multiculturalization of the corpus could be attempted in a number of areas: balancing between individual and group rights, giving more substance to social and economic rights, relating rights to duties, and addressing the relationship between the corpus and economic systems. This is not the place to develop those substantive critiques. That calls for another project. But raising these issues is important. It is not, as some may suppose, taking refuge behind left-liberal-communitarian political correctness. Further work must done on these questions, and the corrupting influences of the individualism of the human rights corpus, to chart out how such a vision affects or distorts non-European societies.
Ultimately, a new theory of internationalism and human rights, one that responds to diverse cultures, must confront the inequities of the international order. In this respect, human rights must break from the historical continuum -- expressed in the metaphor and the grand narrative of human rights -- that keeps intact the hierarchical relationships between European and non-European populations. Berman is right in his prognosis of what has to be done.
[t]he contradictions between commitments to sovereign equality, stunning political and economic imbalances, and paternalistic humanitarianism cannot be definitively resolved logically, doctrinally, or institutionally; rather, they must be confronted in ongoing struggle in all legal, political, economic, and cultural arenas. Projections of a unitary international community, even in the guise of the inclusive U.N., or a unified civilizational consensus, even in the guise of human rights discourse, may be provisionally useful and important but cannot indefinitely defer the need to confront these contradictions.184
This paper has viewed the human rights text and its discourse as requiring the typology of state based on the ethos of constitutionalism and political democracy.185 The logic of the human rights text is that political democracy is the only political system that can guarantee or realize the fundamental rights it encodes.186 As Henry Steiner points out, the basic human rights texts, such as the ICCPR, "should be understood not as imposing a universal blueprint of the myriad details of democratic government but rather as creating a minimum framework for popular participation, individual security, and non-violent change."187 Fair enough. The point then is that if this is were a game or sport, its essence would have been decided, leaving those who adopt it only the option of tweaking or revising the rules governing it without transforming its purpose. But the regime must be played, and cannot be rejected. It is in this construction that the savage-victim-savior metaphor comes to life.
Using political democracy as one medium through which the human rights culture is conveyed, one is able to capture the imperial project at work. First, the choice of a political ideology that is necessary for human rights is an exclusionary act. Thus cultures that fall outside that ideological box – no matter how big – immediately wear the label of the savage. To be redeemed from their culture and history – which may be thousands of years old – a people must then deny themselves or continue to churn out victims. The savior in this case becomes the norms of democratic government, however those are transmitted or imposed on the offending cultures. Institutions and other media – and some like the United Nations which purport to have a universalist warrant, while others like the United States Agency for International Development are the obvious instruments of a particular nation’s foreign policy and its interests – are critical to the realization of the grand script and metaphor of human rights explored in this Paper. It has, however, been the argument of this Paper that the imposition of the current dogma of human rights on non-European societies flies in the face of conceptions of human dignity, and rejects the contributions of other cultures in efforts to create a universal corpus of human rights. Proponents of human rights should accept the limitations of working within the metaphor. Then they must reject it and seek a truly universal platform.
Stepping back from the SVS rhetoric would create a new basis for calculating human dignity, and identifying ways and societal structures through such dignity could be protected or enhanced. Such an approach would not assume – ab initio – that a particular cultural practice was offensive to human rights. It would respect cultural pluralism as a basis for finding common universality on some issues. With regard to FGM, for instance, such an approach would first excavate the social meaning and purposes of the practice – as well as its effects – and then investigate the conflicting positions over the practice in that society. Rather than demonizing and finger-pointing, under the tutelage of outsiders and their local ilk, the contending positions would be carefully examined and compared to find ways of either modifying or discarding the practice without making its practitioners feel shameful of their culture and of themselves. The zealotry of the SVS approach gives no room for such a considered intra-cultural dialogue and introspection.
The purpose of this paper is not to raise or validate the idea of an original, pure, or a superior Third World society or culture. Nor is it to provide a normative blueprint for another human rights corpus, although that project must be pursued with urgency. It did not set out to provide a substantive critique of the Eurocentric human rights corpus, although doing so is necessary and must be part of making a complete case the dominant Western human rights project. The Paper is rather a plea for genuine cross-contamination of cultures to create a new multi-cultural human rights corpus. What is advocated here is the need for the human rights movement to rethink and re-orient its hierarchized, binary view of the world in which the European West leads the way and the rest of the globe follows in a structure that resembles a child-parent relationship. Nor does the paper mean to suggest that all human rights communities in the West believe and work to ratify that hierarchy. Human rights can play a big role in changing the unjust international order, and particularly the imbalances between the West and the Third World. But it will not do so unless it stops working within the savage-savior-victim metaphor. Ultimately, the quest must be one for the construction of a human rights movement that wins.