Monday, June 23, 2014

The Human Rights Paradox: Universality and its Discontents

Which crimes count as human rights violations?  Why are certain acts of violence against people celebrated as heroic acts of war and other prosecuted as crimes against humanity?  The Human Rights Paradox: Universality and its Discontents (2014)[244pp], edited by Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus, begins with the polemical assertion that “the idea of human rights conferred on us all by virtue of being human is a convenient fiction” (3).  Over the course of nine chapters the contributing authors provide case studies from a wide range of countries that cast doubt on the basic premise of the universality of human rights.  The authors argue that important nuances and exceptions to universality emerge in local contexts, in the details of human rights work (4).

One key challenge that human rights activists face is how to deploy a transnational discourse without losing perspective of local realities.  On a discursive level human rights bring global values and transnational terms such as truth, justice, victim and perpetrator that can displace complex local realities and create new oppressive silences (11).  Stern and Straus point out, for example, that surviving human rights abuse often engages people in complex negotiations in which a subject can vacillate between being a victim and a perpetrator.  This point brought to mind the testimonial confession of Luz Arce, Inferno: A Story of Terror and Survival in Chile (2004), in which Luz Arce is a victim of state violence and becomes a collaborator in order to survive imprisonment, terror and torture.  The extent of Luz Arce’s collaboration, whether she only signaled others to be detained, or if she participated directly in torture, is unclear in her personal account.  What is clear is that her account blurs the human rights categories of “victim” and “perpetrator.”  In a similar way, in “Consulting Survivors: Evidence from Cambodia, Northern Uganda, and Other Countries Affected by Mass Violence,” Patrick Vinck and Phuong N Pham argue that the language of human rights obscures the local reality that victims often became perpetrators in order to survive.  In these cases it would seem that the vocabulary of human rights imposes a narrative of how human rights violations work that distorts local realities.    

This also brings to mind El Salvador, which Stern and Straus do not examine directly, but where words such as “truth” and “justice” only seem to apply to atrocities perpetrated by the state; cases of executions carried out by the armed left such as the case of Roque Dalton and the cases in the Central Front during the war continue to be silenced.  Other kidnappings and murders carried out by the left are also silenced.  If human rights are universal, why don’t these human lives count?  Many human rights activists and international solidarity organizations collaborate with these silences and chalk up these war crimes to attempts by the right to discredit the campaign and candidates of the left.  It seems to me that if we aren’t critical about the past actions of both the left and the right then we are only substituting one programatic account for another.

Getting back specifically to Stern and Straus, they clarify that their point is not to “dismiss the global or to replace one primacy with another but rather to embrace the mutually constitutive tension between the universal and the local.  The tension creates a paradox good to think with—and a condition of human rights struggle good to advocate with” (22).  

Notes from chapters 2, 4, 5 and 6 and other loose ends:
In “Rights on Display: Museums and Human Rights Claims” Bridget Conley-Zilkic argues that museums and memorials can be tools for asserting state power.  Specifically she looks at Bill Clinton’s inauguration of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and argues that it was an ironic symbolic reparation in light of the ethnic cleansing in full force in Bosnia-Herzegovina at the time and the US doing nothing to stop it (62).  She argues that in light of this paradox that the memorial really is just a cooptation of the trauma of the Holocaust to advance a national agenda.  Additionally she makes the point that museums have been tools for nations to build national identity because they are places that “helped the citizen perceive progress and receive education in a space that circulated around spectacle”(65).  In the example of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial the universality of human rights is accepted and publically acknowledged, but in reality Clinton’s actions show that not all humans matter or at least not enough to take actions to stop human rights violations from being violated.

In ‘“Memoria, Verdad y Justicia”: The Terrain of Post-Dictatorship Social Reconstruction and the Struggle for Human Rights in Argentina,” for example, Nao Vaisman argues that the word “truth” is generally accepted as an outcome of human rights work.  Still “truth” is a concept that each generation approaches differently.  HIJOS, the generation of children of the disappeared in Argentina, is interested in collective truth (through escraches see 133-140), but also in individual aspects of truth.  Nao Vaisman details HIJOS’ work advocating for DNA testing to determine identity.  Here the meaning of historical “truth” is not only collective, but takes on a very personal and individual dimension.

In “The Paradoxes of Accountability: Transitional Justice in Peru” Jo Mari-Burt argues that while justice is a generally accepted outcome that the trial of Fujimori in Peru actually did not contribute to a “justice cascade,” but rather led to obstacles being thrown up to thwart further trials in Peru.  Here the universal value of justice actually ends up being an obstacle to justice on the local level.

WJT Mitchell — Notes on Picture Theory

In analyzing the “pictorial turn” in his book Picture Theory, Mitchell begins by raising important questions about how images reference t...