The Other Question

A collaborative analysis of human rights discourse by Mariana Zuniga and Ammar Ansari

As history has shown time and time again, effective rhetoric is a source of power. It is through effective rhetoric that the United States has been acknowledged by the international community as the global preserver of human rights. Yet, in the post-9/11 world, the United States has sought to use that image to justify its foreign policy. Administrations in the Western world have pushed for the War on Terror and sought to construct any adversaries against them as not like us. This article is not arguing whether or not the War on Terror was justifiable, nor is it supporting or opposing any entities involved. Rather, this article seeks to examine the discourse of human rights that has been explored by scholars in the past. In addition, this article will examine the War on Terror as an example in which the rhetoric of human rights can shape foreign policy objectives, especially in the context of “otherness”. 

The problematization of human rights is not a new phenomenon: ever since its modern canonization in the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, human rights, and their idealized universality, have been critiqued from a multitude of disciplines.

English philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously proclaimed that natural human rights were “nonsense upon stilts,” and completely undermined the authoritative power of the law within a political community. Since rights are created by the law of society, they must come from laws enacted by the established government. If claims are made that humans have inalienable natural rights that supersede government, then this undermines all forms of political authority. Although the purpose is admirable, Bentham argued that the intent of human rights should be incorporated into existing law, as without this incorporation, natural rights or human rights, have no enforceable power within a political community. In the mid-19th century, philosopher Karl Marx critiqued human rights from a classist perspective: for Marx, the advocacy for human rights is a capitalist project that enacts illusionary freedoms in its aim to exploit workers. Human rights, which are said to emanate from the rule of law, are bourgeoise conceptions that are only meant to protect their rights and property, not the dignity of the poor. For Marx, human rights provide procedural ways of enforcing the unequal capitalistic system through maximalist claims and false universalities. 

In the mid-20th century, German philosopher Hannah Arendt offered a critique on the 1949 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Much like Bentham, Arendt argued that in their abstraction, human rights inhibit a formal realization: human rights assume an individual is part of a political community because their very purpose is to display what grievances you can bring up against a particular community.  In this assumption, Arendt agrees with Marx, that human rights only enforce inequality. The people who lack citizenship or membership in political communities are deprived of human rights, but these are the groups who need them the most. 

Feminist scholars have also added on to previous critiques and offered an alternative understanding of the discourse of human rights. Gayatri Spivak, a post-colonial theorist of the 21st century, agreed with Arendt that human rights are unequal in their distribution. However, Spivak furthered this reasoning by addressing that human rights are seen as a space that “you cannot not want”: highlighting the distinction between those who inhabit the existing structure of human rights, and those who may wish to inhabit it, but cannot. Such unequal power relations aid in producing the discursive narratives, such as “white men saving brown women from brown men”. In addition, feminist scholar Ratna Kapur has analyzed what she terms to be the “darkside” of human rights. She formulates that while the pursuit of human rights is an admirable endeavor, it produces dangerous vigilantism from Western powers. Western nations can get overzealous in calling out human rights violations and use them as justification for the demonization of developing nations. Hence, intervention.

These critiques provide critical frameworks from which we can analyze discourse of human rights in regards to the politics of our time. The United States gave the justification for the War on Terror with rhetoric that revolves around freedom and protecting human rights. In a public address with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, U.S. President George Bush emphasizes the U.S. determination of human rights, stating, “For nearly a century, the United States and Great Britain have been allies in the defense of liberty. We’ve opposed all the great threats to peace and security in the world… in every challenge, we’ve applied the combined power of our nations to the cause of justice, and we’re doing the same today.” 

In another speech given at a commencement ceremony for the Coast Guard, President Bush states that, “We are the nation that liberated continents and concentration camps. We are the nation of the Marshall Plan, the Berlin airlift and the Peace Corps. We are the nation that ended the oppression of Afghan women, and we are the nation that closed the torture chambers in Iraq.” Within this speech, President Bush is placing a clear and dangerous dichotomy between the assumed “progressive freedom” of the West, and the “backward injustice” in the Middle East. This dichotomy, which places the United States at the center of international morality, and only furthers the United States’ agenda, is an example of the rhetoric that espouses from the dangerous vigilantism Ratna Kapur warns about. Thus, the United States uses an abstract concept of morality to justify militarization. Gayatri Spivak’s post-colonial critique of human rights being a project of “white men saving brown women from brown men” can also be applicable to the Bush administration’s policy, especially where President Bush reiterates the idea that America has seemingly “ended the oppression of Afghan women”. Such rhetoric often leads to foreign policies that ignores the historic imperialistic actions of Western powers or prioritize Western concerns over the concerns of people inhabiting the nations that are intervened on. As Spivak advocates, human rights should be informed by those who live life on the margin as this will eliminate any hypocritical or false universality. The people who should be advocating for human rights should be the people whose rights are violated, not by the privileged or the oppressors. 

While the endeavor to promote human rights is a noble one, we must look at the issues of our time through a more critical lens. By doing so, we can formulate solutions that can translate to real and effective foreign policy. We must question and critique the conventional way the world have gone about human rights. We must bring forth new ways to talk about human rights, so that we can have a better understanding of the world around us and the people living in it.