Should we have hope for the human rights project?

Vivek Bhatt is reading for a PhD in Law, and is a Global Justice Academy Student Ambassador for 2016-17. He recently attended and spoke at a conference hosted by the University of Sussex’s Human Rights Research Centre. The conference theme was Challenging Human Rights Disenchantment.

The past few years have been uncertain times for the human rights project. On one hand, the human rights discourse seems ubiquitous in contemporary international affairs. Yet on the other, the authority, legitimacy, and efficiency of international human rights law are continually being challenged. 2016, for example, saw the escalation of the refugee crisis resulting from conflict in Syria and Iraq, the rejection by several African heads of state of a UN dialogue on the human rights of same-sex attracted individuals,[1] and the election of a new American head of state, who – from the outset – has expressed an unwillingness to abide by key international human rights laws, the Convention against Torture, and the Refugee Convention.[2] In light of such developments, disenfranchisement and frustration with international human rights law seem inevitable. While some suggest that human rights are admirably idealistic but ultimately unenforceable,[3] others claim that the human rights project is but a vehicle for capitalism, the entrenchment of global power disequilibrium, and Western neo-colonialism.[4]

It was against this troubling backdrop that the Sussex Centre for Human Rights Research at the University of Sussex hosted its inaugural conference, titled Challenging Human Rights Disenchantment 50 Years on from the ICCPR and ICESCR. The interdisciplinary conference brought together human rights advocates, lawyers, and philosophers, with speakers considering various forms of human rights disenchantment, and the ways in which they can be challenged. Mona Rishwami – Chief of the Rule of Law, Equality, and Non-Discrimination branch of the OHCHR – opened the conference with an outline of the developments that galvanised the human rights movement and the profession of human rights law. Rishwami suggested that although the current legal framework for human rights was conceived in the aftermath of the Second World War, it articulates concerns and ideals that are pertinent to contemporary human experience. She was followed by Professor Pamela Palmater, who – as an indigenous woman – argued that human rights activism should no longer be left to members of the world’s most marginalised communities. Citing the disproportionate number of indigenous women in custody and the infrastructural underdevelopment of indigenous nations within Canada, Palmater suggested that human rights violations are rife even within States that are reputed as bastions of human rights. To Palmater, human rights law generates demands for state accountability, demands that we must all amplify within and beyond academic circles.

Following a series of thematic sessions featuring speakers from the UK and abroad, the esteemed Professor Andrew Clapham delivered a closing address. Professor Clapham shared anecdotes about the many ways in which he has been confronted by human rights disenchantment, from being told that human rights ‘are for girls,’ to seeing politicians and the press tell ‘lies’ about the competence and function of regional and international human rights bodies. While Professor Palmater highlighted the importance of human rights advocacy by individuals, Professor Clapham addressed the roles of academics and lawyers. He suggested that we must defend human rights as a binding and legitimate body of law, dispel pervasive fictions about the function and reach of human rights bodies, and challenge rhetoric that characterises human rights law as vacuous idealism.

Though they focused on different issues, Palmater and Clapham made a common argument: that there exist innumerable human rights issues around the world today, and their resolution requires engagement with individuals outside the realms of human rights law and academia. This, to Palmater, is in order to encourage widespread human rights activism. To Clapham, meanwhile, it is in order to legitimise human rights as a valid and functional category of law that can – and does – influence governance and society. Clapham’s argument resonated with Charlesworth’s description of international law as a ‘discipline of crisis’;[5] we can challenge human rights disenchantment by encouraging sceptics to look beyond the law’s most prominent failings, and to recognise the ways in which human rights laws exist as practice, constituting everyday realities.

As a participant, I left the conference with conflicting intuitions. I had spent the day speaking and hearing about the emancipatory promise of human rights, but simultaneously reading news about a travel ban in the USA and a possible escalation of torture practices in the context of the war on terror. Yet there was meaning to be found in this apparent clash between theoretical optimism and reality. Not that we should give up on human rights altogether, but that the human rights project is most important and meaningful precisely when the reasons for disenchantment with it seem most convincing. Human rights provide a basis for critical discursive and legal engagement with political institutions by academics, social movements, lawyers, and jurists. International human rights law also serves as a reminder that each individual is entitled to certain liberties and securities by virtue of his or her humanness. The policies of the Trump administration may be conspicuous and shocking, but they should not diminish the significance or urgency of other human rights issues around the world. As moral claims and as law, human rights require us to reflect on and respond to all instances of marginalisation, deprivation, and violence. This includes not only the suffering of migrants in constitutional democracies, but also indigenous communities, persecuted religious minorities, and same-sex attracted individuals, among others.

We should, therefore, have hope for and promote the human rights project. As Professor Palmater implied, inaction and despair would merely aid the demise of something we recognise as intrinsically valuable. The inaugural conference of the Sussex Centre for Human Rights Research highlighted not only the diversity of current human rights scholarship, but also the number of domestic, regional, and international practices that can be influenced (and improved) by human rights considerations. More information on the conference proceedings and speakers, including a copy of the programme, can be found at: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/schrr/pastevents/challenging-human-rights-disenchantment.

About the author

Vivek Bhatt is an Edinburgh Global Research Scholar, and is reading for a PhD in Law. He holds an MSc in Political Theory from the London School of Economics and a Master of International Law from the University of Sydney. Vivek’s research interests span public international law, international political theory, and counterterrorism. His current research relates to the engagement of individuals in the international legal system through the course of the war on terror.

[1] Permanent Mission of the Republic of Botswana to the United Nations, Statement of the African Group on the Presentation of the Annual Report of the United Nations Human Rights Council (4 November 2016) United Nations PaperSmart < papersmart.unmeetings.org/media2/7663738/botswana.pdf>.

[2] See, for example, Mark Mazzetti and Charlie Savage, Leaked Draft of Executive Order Could Revive C.I.A. Prisons (25 January 2017) The New York Times < https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/25/us/politics/executive-order-leaked-draft-national-security-trump-administration.html?_r=0>.

[3] See, for example, Eric Posner, The Twilight of Human Rights Law (Oxford University Press, 2014).

[4] See, for example, David Kennedy, ‘Reassessing International Humanitarianism: the Dark Sides’ in Anne Orford (ed), International Law and its Others (Cambridge University Press, 2006) 131, 133-5.

[5] Hilary Charlesworth, ‘International Law: A Discipline of Crisis’ (2002) 65(3) The Modern Law Review 377.

Peace and Conflict Series: Into the Grey Zone of Human Rights Violations with Political Theorist Mihaela Mihai

The many ways of being complicit in violence and injustice

An interview with Mihaela Mihai, Senior Research Fellow in Political Theory at the University of Edinburgh

 

Mihaela Mihai

What is your current research about?

The Auschwitz survivor and great Italian writer Primo Levi – who coined the term ‘the grey zone’ to refer to moral ambiguity in a situation of violence – said that ‘we all make our deals with power, willingly or not.’

In our research project, we are using his concept of the ‘grey zone’ and his insights into the ambiguity of moral responsibility as starting points for an inquiry into the many ways in which people are complicit in violence and injustice. We analyse complex accounts of moral and political complicity in four cases: Vichy France, apartheid South Africa, totalitarianism in Communist Romania and the military dictatorship in Argentina during the Dirty War in the 1970s and 80s.

Our claim is that the ambiguous roles of collaborators, bystanders and beneficiaries has not been properly reckoned within the current theory and practice of transitional justice in post-conflict societies. We ask how historical sources, cinematic and literary representations illuminate this murky reality of political conflict.

Can they then reinvigorate efforts at justice and reconciliation in societies wrought by violence and division?

To give one example, we’re exploring how powerful films that touch on this space between victims and perpetrators can promote debate, public engagement and historical understanding. Think of how Louis Malle’s classic film Lacombe, Lucien unsettles viewers’ preconceptions about the motivations of perpetrators in its portrayal of the thoughtlessness and divided loyalties of its lead character. Likewise, the disturbingly ambivalent relationship between a torturer and his young female victim in the powerful 1999 Argentinian film Garaje Olimpo challenges the way we normally think about responsibility and culpability.

 As you can imagine, this research takes in many disciplines, including philosophy, history, political science, law, literature and cinema. Within that general project, each of the four team members has developed specific interests.

As the principal investigator in this project, I am currently exploring two themes of relevance. First, I am working on delineating an account of the epistemic functions of artworks. The main question is: by virtue of what characteristics do films, novels and poems help us better understand the thorny issue of complicity?  In addition, I explore the significance of feminist theories of responsibility and complicity for the ‘grey zone’. Feminists have long worked on unpacking the issue of how one becomes complicit with an unjust structure. Their insights into this phenomenon bear a great relevance for any sophisticated attempt to illuminate the ‘grey zone.’

Hugh McDonnell has recently published his book, Europeanising Spaces in Paris, c. 1947-1962, which examines contested conceptions of ‘Europe’ and ‘Europeanness’ in the post-World War Two French capital. He is now undertaking historical research on aspects of the ‘grey zone’ in Vichy France, and is also working on an article on Jean-Paul Sartre’s varied engagements with the idea of Europe and what it means to be European.

Maša Mrovlje is currently exploring ways of judging instances of violent resistance to oppressive systems, looking particularly at South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle. More generally, she is interested in how existential philosophy illuminates the dark realities of conflict. She is also finalising a book manuscript on existentialism and the ambiguity of political judgement, with a focus on transitional justice as the area where these philosophical frameworks clearly show their value.

Last but not least, Gisli Vogler’s PhD project focuses on the issue of responsibility and is located between social and political theory. Gisli draws on the work of Hannah Arendt and Margaret Archer to provide an account of political judgement that takes seriously its situatedness and limited emancipatory power. This has great relevance for transitional justice in general, and for our understanding of resistance and complicity in particular.

How does your research contribute to global justice and peace?

We address what we consider to be weaknesses in current approaches to transitional justice: their unsatisfactory take on the ‘grey zone’. Post-conflict societies worldwide understandably seek clear answers and solutions, but these obscure the messiness and ambiguity of human interaction. We argue in favour of sustained efforts to understand the shadowy zone of collaborators, bystanders and beneficiaries of violence. By grappling with invisible injustices in various historical and geographical situations, we call attention to the fragility of peace and the incompleteness of justice in societies that have neglected the ‘grey zone.’

We should also say that our work is not about dismissing or overthrowing existing approaches to transitional justice processes. Rather, it is about supplementing or enriching the toolkit of scholars and practitioners of transitional justice. As already mentioned, one innovative aspect of our work is our belief that art might be better placed to provoke societal processes of reflection on invisible forms of participation in violence and injustice.

What impact has your work had so far, and what impact do you hope it will have?

Not least because of the broad scope of our work, we are excited about its future impact. In the first place, it raises awareness of the dangers involved in ignoring general complicity with violence and allowing undemocratic attitudes to reproduce across generations. In this vein, it aims to make a convincing argument about why and how cinema and literature should be used in civic education aimed both at deterrence and reconciliation.

And as part of giving wide exposure to our research goals, last April the team organised and participated in the prestigious European Consortium for Political Research – The Joint Sessions in Pisa. We organised a workshop on “Imagining Violence: The Politics of Narrative and Representation,” which brought together scholars from all over Europe and North America to discuss the role of imagination in understanding and responding to the complex issues of political violence. The fruitful discussion has in turn led to a special journal issue on Imagination and Violence, forthcoming with Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy.

We also aim to translate our academic work for a broader public audience, to promote dialogue between academia and the wider community, and to develop cultural and educational resources on the issue of ordinary complicity in injustice. We are especially excited about our film series on “Complicity and Resistance” that will be held in March 2017 at Cameo cinema in Edinburgh. Films like The Secret in Their Eyes and The Headless Woman from Argentina, Une Affaire de femmes and Lacombe Lucien from France, Quad Erat Demonstrandum and The Paper Will Be Blue from Romania, or Fools and Skin from South Africa will be screened to highlight exactly these sorts of troubling questions about complicity, difficult choices and agonising dilemmas confronting individuals in the grey zone.

What other research questions are you discovering which you think need to be addressed, and others you would like to move on to?

It’s certainly the case that our research is always generating further avenues of fruitful inquiry. For instance, an examination of the ‘grey zone’ of resistance as the other side of the coin of complicity in injustice. What are the moral dilemmas, tragedies and human cost involved in (violent) struggles against oppressive systems?

Another example would be the further investigation into the distinct nature of complicity and responsibility of artists and intellectuals, and the significance of varying representations of the grey zone.

The project also raises the problem of how the political effects of failures to engage complicity in human rights violations might be transmitted and reinforced not only over time, but across different geographical and spatial contexts. The questions we raise are of course applicable far beyond our case studies. Similarly, the colonial links or global interconnections in histories of complicity in violence need to be further addressed.

We are also finding that the issue of complicity raises new questions about silence and memory, betrayal and revenge, friendship and trust – notions that remain at the margin of transitional justice scholarship, which yet contain important insights.

Finally, the exploration of cinematic and literary narratives poses the question in turn of the potential moral and political significance of other art genres, such as music or architecture, and their relevance to the issue of ‘grey zone’ and transitional justice more broadly.

Peace and Conflict Series: What is so ‘Modern’ about Modern Conflict?

Eavesdropping on a roundtable conversation at the Centre for the Study of Modern Conflict…

‘Modern conflict’ is commonly used to refer to conflicts in recent history that used particular modernised means of waging war and share a number of other elements. Why the label ‘modern’ is used to describe some conflicts and not others, and what its analytical purpose should be was heavily debated during a roundtable organised by the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for the Study of Modern Conflict. Hosted by Emile Chabal, four young experts put their own research into the context of the debate on the utility of Modern Conflict as a concept.

For Fraser Raeburn, the label ‘modern’ explained ‘for how long we can look back in time and find things we recognize in conflicts’. It was thus a question of familiarity and continuity. Researching the Scots who fought against fascism among the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, Raeburn suggested that the concept of Modern Conflict allows for comparisons between similar types within a particular time period. Moreover, he suggested that a certain cultural continuity defines Modern Conflict – that it remains central and defining in one way or another within a given society’s culture.

The first modern war

However, Catherine Bateson, whose research explores the American Civil War (1861-1865), suggested a different approach. Speaking about songs invoked about the Civil War, she said that a whole sub-culture of war and music relates modern conflicts back to the origins of war. In this sense, the ancient practice of songs about and within wars represents continuity across time, but also deeply “unmodern” roots of supposedly modern conflicts.

The American Civil War is in many ways considered to be an early, or even the ‘first modern war’.  The role of mass mobilization, industrialization, new technology such as submarine prototypes, and the number of deaths are among many other factors that are known to distinguish this war as ‘modern’.

Yet one of the most important aspects, explained Bateson, was the fact that modern conflicts were and continue to be much more visible than earlier ones: they were photographed. ‘Photography opened a new lens, it changed how the image of war was perceived’, said Bateson.

Sounding the taps in the Civil War / Flickr, Cc license

Modern civilisation

Anita Klingler has been researching political violence and political culture in interwar Germany and Britain, saying that one important concept attached to modern conflict is civilization: the emergence of the Second World War shows that the ‘protective shell of civilization was not thick enough’.

At the heart of this realisation lies the question of whether violence is an enemy of civilization or one of its central characteristics. Or, as Klingler asked in reference to the interwar period, ‘how did violence become the enemy of our civilisation?’

Don’t say war

However, violence has also been institutionalised and legitimised as a motor of civilisation, whether in the wake of colonialism or contemporary interventions. Indeed, as Sissela Matzner argued in the case of Libya, France has defined its military intervention as an extension of its own national culture and global leadership ambitions.

Matzner’s research compares the foreign policy of Germany and France on Libya from the perspective of political parties. Her findings suggest that the military intervention was framed in ways that may relate to a particular periods of contemporary modern warfare:  responsibility as a central elements in their ‘national role conceptions’, and the fact that most interventionists avoid using the word war altogether. ‘The categorical avoidance of the term war reflects the changing nature of war itself, and the controversy around interventions’, said Matzner.

As the nature of conflict and war is changing, so should the concepts that help us to understand and compare them. But as Catherine Bateson put it: ‘How long can modern conflicts remain modern? What about 50 or 100 years from now, will we still talk about these wars as modern conflicts?’

Peace and Conflict Series: Can Data Bring Peace? The Gains and Caveats of Data Science in Peace and Conflict Studies

What can social and political scientists learn from data science? And what can data science contribute to the research on peace and conflict?

‘Most importantly, one has to know what questions to ask’, says Gabriele Schweikert, Research Fellow at the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh. ‘And secondly, one needs the necessary data to answer that question.’

For example, researchers on urban conflict might be interested to find out how different instances of violence distribute across a city over time. Available data from media on the location and intensity of violence can be harvested with the help of automatised bots searching for keywords. ‘But if researchers have only a vague idea of their question and do not know what data can do and what not, they might end up with a trivial answer’, she says, adding: ‘Such as the simple result that violent conflict in cities tends to take place in streets.’

Can data predict conflict?

Gabriele’s colleague, Guido Sanguinetti, a Reader in Machine Learning in Informatics at Edinburgh, is an expert in running prediction models, usually in the field of computational biology. But when a friend who worked as a data scientist for the New York Times sent him a visualisation of violent incidents in Afghanistan, taken from the WikiLeaks Afghan War Diaries, he realised that he could ‘do much more with the available data’.

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New Blog Series: Rethinking Peace and Conflict Research in Edinburgh

The University of Edinburgh’s research expertise on peace and conflict is growing fast, making it ever more important to connect and communicate across disciplinary lines. To this effect, a new blog series titled Rethinking Peace and Conflict Research in Edinburgh will foster exchange and make this ongoing research and its challenges more visible. Its aim is to build new interdisciplinary capacity and exchange around challenges and themes that connect experts working on peace and conflict across and beyond the University.   Continue reading

Rethinking the International Criminal Justice Project in the Global South

This guest post is by Michelle Burgis-Kasthala, who is currently a Research Fellow at the Centre for International Governance and Justice, RegNet, ANU. Michelle will be returning to Edinburgh Law School in 2017-18. This post is re-blogged from ‘Regarding Rights: Academic and Activist Perspectives on Human Rights’ and is based on an article published recently in the Journal of International Criminal Justice: ‘Scholarship as Dialogue? TWAIL and the Politics of Methodology’.

ICC in Ivory Coast in 2013. Image: BBC News

ICC in Ivory Coast in 2013. Image: BBC News

Concerns about the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) continuing relevance in Africa following exit announcements by Burundi, South Africa, and Gambia are widespread. But the picture across the continent is more complex. While some African states have clearly rejected the Court, the majority remain members. How can we explain the fracturing of the Court’s support in Africa? More fundamentally – what is the best way of studying international criminal justice and its effects in the Global South – whether in Africa or elsewhere?

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Local Space, Global Life: a notable methodological & theoretical contribution to international law scholarship.

Vivek Bhatt is reading for a PhD in Law, and is a Global Justice Academy Student Ambassador for 2016-17. Here, he reviews Luis Eslava’s Local Space, Global Life: The Everyday Operation of International Law and Development (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Luis Eslava’s Local Space, Global Life considers the ways in which international law and the development project jointly produce local spaces and ‘locals’ that conform to global ideals.[1] The author moves beyond the doctrine of legal subjects,[2] a concept that confines many international law scholars to the relationship between law and states, the primary bearers of legal ‘status.’ To Eslava, international legal norms move across spaces and jurisdictions, constituting everyday, local, and private life. Dr Eslava traces the conceptual trajectory of the international development discourse, which became prevalent following Harry S. Truman’s 1949 inaugural address.[3] Truman identified the Third World nation-state as the ideal unit for the attainment of developmental goals. International law and development became inextricable; the former would contribute to the ‘making of a new world order’[4] by aiding the development of Third World nation-states. Yet according to Eslava, world leaders gradually became disenchanted with the idea that development could be achieved through reform at the nation-state level.[5] This led to the identification of the local jurisdiction as the new ideal locus of international development.

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Following Ghana’s Elections: an IIF Event

On 7 December 2016, the Global Justice and Global Development Academies supported a student-led initiative to follow the elections in Ghana, as part of their Innovative Initiative Fund. In this post, MSc student, Matthew Pflaum, reflects on the evening’s events.

image-1Elections are critical processes for global social and political change, leading to new policies and reforms. Certain elections, referenda, and regions receive widespread attention and coverage – the US election and Brexit, for example – while others are less covered. Elections in the Global South tend to be disregarded by much of the world, and this is a mistake. All elections are significant, principally for local citizens, but also for the rest of the world through geopolitics and trade.

 

During the US election, crowds gathered in tenebrous bars and sterile classrooms to watch the event unfold, their eyes festooned to the glaring screens with constant updates of results. Americans and non-Americans watched with anticipation, feeling that the event was important to their lives. But aren’t all elections important? Should we not also gather to support elections in Burma and Botswana?

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Peace in Colombia?

This blog post by Gwen Burnyeat, Wolfson PhD scholar at UCL, was first published by the London Review of Bookson 1 December  2016. In this piece, Gwen comments on the recent development in the post-referendum context and the adoption of a new peace agreement in Colombia.

Photo: School-Children in Pereira draw their hopes for peace, August 2016, by Gwen Burnyeat.

Photo: School-Children in Pereira draw their hopes for peace, August 2016, by Gwen Burnyeat.

The new peace accord between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia was signed in Bogotá’s Colón Theatre on 24 November. It was a more sober ceremony than the extravagant signing of the first agreement in Cartagena on 26 September, a week before Colombians narrowly voted against it in a referendum. The second signing was a closed event, and only President Juan Manuel Santos and the Farc commander, Timochenko, gave speeches. A subdued group of Colombians in the main plaza in Bogotá watched it on a big screen. The right-wing TV channel RCN, meanwhile, held a panel featuring only figures opposed to the deal, for ‘balance’.

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Building Bridges, Not Walls: Bauman’s Reflections on the Present-Day ‘Migration Panic’

profile-jgIn his second book review as a Global Justice Academy Student Ambassador, James Gacek considers Zygmunt Bauman’s Strangers at Our Door and the popular panic that often surrounds mass migration.

Zygmunt Bauman’s (2016) book, Strangers at Our Door, provides a significant contribution to a growing discussion which counters the illusory panics of mass migration. Bauman explores the origins, contours and the impact of ‘moral panic’ seemingly spreading across Western, liberal democracies, and dissects the present-day ‘migration panic.’ Such migration panic, he contends, is witnessed within anxiety-driven and fear-suffused debates percolating within Western societies. While moral panic is not a new concept—one in which articulates that some malevolent force of ‘evil’ threatens a society’s well-being, coupled with the anxieties ostensibly overwhelming felt within such societies (c.f. Cohen, 1972)—what is new is the feeling of fear spreading among an ever-growing number of people within Western nations.

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