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.

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