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Human Rights in Crisis? A Critical Polemic Against Polemical Critics

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Journal of Human Rights
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Human Rights in Crisis? A Critical Polemic
Against Polemical Critics
Anthony J. Langlois a
a Discipline of International Relations, Flinders University, Australia
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To cite this article: Anthony J. Langlois (2012): Human Rights in Crisis? A Critical Polemic Against
Polemical Critics, Journal of Human Rights, 11:4, 558-570
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Journal of Human Rights, 11:558–570, 2012
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Reflection on Human Rights
Human Rights in Crisis? A Critical Polemic Against
Polemical Critics
Are human rights a defensive barrier against domination and oppression or the
ideological gloss of an emerging empire?
—Costas Douzinas (2007: viii)
Human Rights prosper as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century. Those
proclaiming the “Age of Rights” seem to be correct. The term now has great political
respectability and legitimacy; international human rights law makes great strides; institution
building gathers pace; human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) thrive; and the
study of human rights takes place in all the great centers of learning and is taken seriously
by previously skeptical disciplines (philosophy, anthropology, international relations). But
is all as it seems?
Costas Douzinas, for one, thinks not. He is concerned about the end of human rights
in a way which is consistent with their increased prominence and apparent efficacy. The
attraction of human rights for many who speak in their name has been their revolution-
ary and emancipatory potential—their capacity to aid people in their claim to be treated
with value, as equals. The fear is that human rights have become too successful, that
they have been assimilated by the system, have become an appurtenance of the pow-
erful, and now lie in wait to sabotage those who would use them to claim their equal
Anthony J. Langlois is Associate Professor and Head of the Discipline of International Relations
at Flinders University, Australia. He was educated at the University of Tasmania and the Australian
National University. As well as many scholarly articles, Langlois is the author of The Politics of
Justice and Human Rights: Southeast Asia and Universalist Theory (Cambridge University Press,
2001) and co-editor of Global Democracy and its Difficulties (Routledge, 2009).
This article was first presented at the “Thinking (With)Out Borders II” conference at the Uni-
versity of St. Andrews, Scotland, United Kingdom, July 2010, and later the same year to the Theory
Workshop of the PhD cohort in the Department of International Relations at the London School
of Economics and Political Science. Much of the work done on this article occurred while I was a
Senior Visiting Fellow in the Centre for International Studies at the LSE in 2010. Special thanks go to
the convenors of The Disorder of Things (, the blog where an earlier
excerpt received an airing and a valuable formal response from Joe Hoover. My thanks also go to the
editor and reviewers of this journal for their constructive and wise advice.
Address correspondence to Anthony J. Langlois, Flinders University, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide
SA 5001, Australia. E-mail:
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Reflection on Human Rights 559
human standing. The success of human rights in such accounts is a triumph of appearance
over substance via co-optation. This, coupled with the absence of a coherent theoreti-
cal basis for human rights, does indeed raise questions about The End of Human Rights
(Douzinas 2000).
In that volume and subsequently, Douzinas has sought to address the question of how
we should understand human rights today—a time in which human rights are lauded as
the new ethical constitution for a globalized world, but in which they are also the banner
under which global powers stage interventions (military and “humanitarian”) and wage
wars which impact adversely among those most vulnerable. In this article, I want to engage
these concerns, and argue in particular with Douzinas’ response. But Douzinas is not the
only commentator to see the present situation as a crisis for human rights, rather than as
their triumph. In the first part of my contribution, I will canvas a range of perspectives which
feed into this “crisis literature.” Following this, I will examine more closely how Douzinas
seeks to resolve the crisis of human rights: While he fears that human rights may function as
the ideological gloss of empire, he does not believe they have to; dystopic cosmopolitanism,
he argues, must be replaced with a cosmopolitan justice which can be discovered in history.
This, however, is a moot point. Douzinas sees this justice as “a cosmopolitanism to come”
(after Derrida’s democracy to come). He rails against justice turned into abstract theory
(by Marxists) or normative desiderata (by contemporary liberal cosmopolitans), but does
not—or so I argue—satisfactorily address the crisis with his offer of Diogenes’ and Zeno’s
imaginary polis in the sky. First though, let me turn to the general discussion of crisis and
human rights.
Questioning Human Rights
Consider some questions found in or related to the titles of recent work published by a
range of human rights scholars: Some declare that human rights are in crisis (Souillac
2005), and others ask whether human rights can survive (Gearty 2006). Some question
whether human rights have a future and, if so, what that might be and whether it amounts
to anything more than politics or “idolatry” (Ignatieff 2003; Macdonald 2004; Baxi 2008).
Being able to believe in human rights is a key factor in the discussion of crisis (Ghanea-
Hercock, Stephens, and Walden 2007), a question which for some extends beyond our
fellow humans to the question of whether God believes in human rights (Dembour 2006).
On the other hand, both questions of practice and theory lead to concerns about whether
human rights are being silenced (Bhambra and Shilliam 2009), about how and why we
should try to theorize rights (Sen 2004, 2009; Perry 2007)—or indeed, whether we should
instead stand against human rights (Zizek 2005)?
This language of crisis and questioning is quite anathema to the usual boosterism which
one hears about human rights. On the one hand, there is the native rhetoric of the human
rights movement—the universalism, the inalienability, the indivisibility of rights, the long
list of new rights, treaties, instrumentalities, regional institutions, global courts—which
tell a story of gradual human emancipation, a story that is often told in a parsimonious
and progressive way (Grayling 2008). It depicts a world of linear progress towards the
recognition and protection of human rights (Moyn 2010 provides a more nuanced account).
On the other hand, there is the vast multiplication of NGOs who are working in human
rights and related fields, bringing education, water, health care, energy, and so on to those
who routinely go without such basic needs. The activism and passion among these people
is truly inspiring and so is their preparedness to sacrifice much that many of the rest of us
won’t in the face of the need to do something to help the poor, downtrodden, and despised
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560 Anthony J. Langlois
of the world. For many of these people, any crisis in human rights is more likely to refer
to the failure of the international community (however, one might wish to deconstruct that
term) to make available the resources to pursue ends such as the Millennium Development
goals, than it is to refer to the ends or telos of human rights (Doyle 2009 and others in same
For those on the receiving end of this help, however, the crisis might be apprehended in a
different register (Cf. Hoover and Heredia 2010). Those painted by the Western human rights
movement as poor, downtrodden, and despised do not necessarily see themselves reflected
in this picture. Moreover they commonly wish that we would question why we think “we”
are the solution to “their” problem. People in other parts of the world often only end up
constructible as poor, downtrodden, and despised because of “our” conviction that “we”
have something that they really shouldn’t be without. Over the long dur´
ee of history, this
“something” has included spiritual salvation, civilization, ideological correctness, medical
and industrial knowledge, development, economic restructuring, political reform and, today,
democracy and human rights.
The crisis for human rights, articulated in different ways by those listed above, is not
the crisis of a good idea spurned. Rather, it is a crisis—or a series of different types of
crises—brought on by the complicated political consequence of the success of human rights
as a historical movement with real-world consequences. It has been taken up and used by
those striving for emancipation and by those fighting on their behalf. It has been adopted
by both government and nongovernment agents. It animates local communities and the
global public sphere. It is a rallying cry for anticapitalists concerned with exploitation and
global inequality but is also on the agenda of big business (sponsored by the UN: Ruggie
2008). It has been adopted by philosophical, cultural, and religious traditions far removed
from its origins. All of these developments complicate how people think about and respond
to human rights; they color whether human rights is seen as a useful tool or whether it
has, in common parlance, “gone over to the dark side.” The crisis of human rights, then,
is a series of questions which are far removed in their complexity from the comparatively
simple problem of human rights abuse—the classic human rights crisis—where people
in power make no effort to conceal that they do what they want to others because they
The critical examinations offered by recent commentators on the human rights move-
ment remind us that human rights are replete with paradoxes. Costas Douzinas quotes
Olympe de Gouges, author of the 1791 Declaration on the Rights of Women and
Citizens—who goes one step further. Her phrase is that human rights only have para-
doxes to offer (Douzinas 2007a). This, I think, is going too far—although it is made a
very convenient destination by some of those on the contemporary critical left who appear
at times to leave the crushed of the world behind as they apparently conclude that the
aporias of human rights (and political action more generally) preclude the possibility of
(legitimately) doing anything for and/or with those in need—or at least occlude the possi-
bility by obfuscating it with utopian discourse (Cf. Arslan 1999). This discourse may leave
one in raptures about such prospective revelations as a “new cosmopolitanism to come”
(Douzinas’ version, discussed below); it will not, however, facilitate cosmopolitan justice
for those who seek it today. (A similar problem can be found expressed in Baxi [2009:
For many commentators and theorists, the paradoxes associated with human rights
stem from the manner in which the global transformations presaged by a prospective world
of respect for human rights are linked to the power relations that would be needed to affect
such a world, to bring it into being. The example of the Iraq war—which Douzinas returns to
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Reflection on Human Rights 561
again and again—is only the most recent example. Zizek, in discussing power, sovereignty
and the twentieth-century’s experiences of globally transformative political projects, which
led to “a series of catastrophes which precipitated disastrous violence on an unprecedented
scale,” suggests that there are “three main theorisations of these catastrophes”:
First, the view epitomized by the name of Habermas: Enlightenment is in itself
a positive, emancipatory process with no inherent “totalitarian” potential; the
catastrophes that have occurred merely indicate that it remains an unfinished
project, and our task should be to bring this project to completion. Second,
the view associated with Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment
and, today, with Agamben. The “totalitarian” bent of Enlightenment is inherent
and definitive, the “administered world” is its true consequence, and concen-
tration camps and genocides are a kind of negative-teleological endpoint of the
entire history of the West. Third, the view developed in the works of Etienne
Balibar, among others: modernity opens up a field of new freedoms, but at
the same time of new dangers, and there is no ultimate teleological guaran-
tee of the outcome. The contest remains open and undecided. (Zizek 2005:
So too, with human rights, there are those who simply see in the rise of the human
rights movement the prospect of global emancipation. Whatever difficulties or political
problems—dilemmas—which might emerge are nothing more than, say, problems with
implementation or the kinds of issues one should expect in a world where many players
will find their power challenged by successful human rights frameworks and will thus
try to undermine them. Once again, on this reading there is nothing in human rights
themselves that is paradoxical or sinister. On the other hand are those who reject human
rights themselves as only the most recent camouflage for the totalitarianism implicit in the
enlightenment project of the West. The post hoc justification of the Iraq war by the Bush
administration (that it was a war conceived in order to spread democracy and human rights)
provided ample material for those coming from this perspective.
The bulk of commentators are by default situated in the third camp, where the outcome
is undecided, the contest remains open, and there are a range of new freedoms and dangers.
The difficulty here for human rights is that the very rhetoric of the movement, with its built in
moralism and boosterism, makes it hard to consider that “human rights might in some sense
be a bad thing,” or that they may not be the best—and certainly not the only—framework
for considering serious problems and issues within the international system (see Brown
2004 and discussion below).
While those who fully embrace the rhetoric and moralism of human rights might find
it difficult to see what could be wrong with them, for critics the problem is often the
reverse—particularly some of those who approach their criticism from a poststructuralist
position. In the same way that for de Gouges human rights only have paradoxes to offer, for
poststructuralists, rights claims can only be oppressive and hierarchical (Chandler 2009:
60). This, it must surely be argued, is not the case. In the same way that, as Wendy Brown
argues, rights do not “simply set people free to make the world as they see fit” (Brown
2004: 461) nor are they just a cipher for the totalizing power of the sinister agents behind
“the enlightenment project.”
Brown’s argument is an especially important one. It clearly articulates those aspects of
human rights which are often occluded by the movement’s own language:
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562 Anthony J. Langlois
I have argued that we must take account of that which rights discourse does
not avow about itself. It is a politics and it organizes political space, often with
the aim of monopolizing it. It also stands as a critique of dissonant political
projects, converges neatly with the requisites of liberal imperialism and global
free trade, and legitimates both as well. If the global problem today is defined as
terrible human suffering consequent to limited individual rights against abusive
state powers, then human rights may be the best tactic against this problem.
But if it is diagnosed as the relatively unchecked globalization of capital,
postcolonial political deformations, and superpower imperialism combining
to disenfranchise peoples in many parts of the first, second, and third worlds
from the prospects of self-governance to a degree historically unparalleled in
modernity, other kinds of political projects, including other international justice
projects, may offer a more appropriate and far-reaching remedy for injustice
defined as suffering and as systematic disenfranchisement from collaborative
self-governance. (Brown 2004: 461–462)
This kind of analysis edges us closer to a more useful critique of the politics of human
rights, one which enables us both to take advantage of what is good—there can be no denying
the value of the human rights discourse to many in their struggles against injustice—but
also to be aware of what is ambivalent or perhaps even fundamentally counterproductive.
While I reject the argument that all rights are oppressive and hierarchical, I think it is
undeniable that a politics of rights does construct its participants in certain ways, and
that those constructions can undoubtedly mesh with other aspects of the contemporary
global politico-economic systems in ways which make people extraordinarily vulnerable
(Cf. Cheah 2006). I don’t go all the way with Brown; the subjectivities facilitated by the
politics of human rights might “converge” with those needed for liberal imperialism, but this
does not make them the culprit or cause. This demonstrates the problem with many such
critical approaches: These relationships are set in stone and made necessary (ironically,
sometimes in the name of contingency); human rights become necessary accomplices in
the “governmentalization” of international politics or suffer guilt by association when it
comes to the imposition of neoliberal “solutions” in the global economy (See Odysseos
There are clearly a great number of issues at stake, which for many on the critical left
ring an alarm of great moment. Here, I will engage with how these issues are articulated
by Costas Douzinas, who combines critical appreciation and support for human rights with
a heady mix of ideas drawn from each of the three categories outlined by Zizek above.
In Douzinas’ work, human rights and cosmopolitanism are simultaneously praised and
derided; the “new cosmopolitanism to come” is held up as the standard by which the old
worn out cosmopolitanism of the liberal West is to be judged; the fight for human rights
must go on while at the same time the human rights for which we have been fighting are
revealed as nothing but the tools of empire or cultural hegemony or of an individualism
which is only good for setting one up as a pawn in the global mass market—a market
that will itself consume all that might be thought genuinely valuable in the lives of its
While focussing on Douzinas, I also intend to suggest that the apparent inability of
aspects of the intellectual tradition within which he works to offer something which stays
in this world, in which the hurt, need, and injustice is experience (rather than pointing us
to a utopia “to come”) relates to what its intellectual foundations assume about the human
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Reflection on Human Rights 563
experience and enterprise. The capacity to affirm a “cosmopolitanism for today” is going to
require a philosophy which allows one to make claims and judgements, however nuanced,
about the way things should be. Not everything can be subject to flux, contestation, and
agonistic difference if one is serious about claiming that certain ways of being are better
than others (whether one wants to put this in the language of a philosophy of right [Schaap
2009], philosophical truth [see generally Campbell 1992] or of “provisional and strategically
essentialised subjectivities” which might “enable a progressive politics” [Krishna 1993]).
A progressive politics needs some peg from which to hang. Proclaiming a “cosmopoli-
tanism of the future” as does Douzinas, is a way of having your cake and eating it too—a
way of responding to one’s need to say that certain things are not right while putting off
being accountable to that need (i.e., accounting for the peg). In my judgement, it is this
“putting off” which is at the heart of much of what some see as “the malaise of the left”
(by way of discussion and example: Dempsey and Rowe 2004). It is also my belief that
getting beyond this is crucial both for the promotion of human rights and cosmopolitanism,
and for the way in which these together give us tools against empire and injustice. Below
I will explain in more detail why it is that the “cosmopolitanism to come” of authors such
as Douzinas is not a desirable response to “the crisis of human rights,” nor a feasible
metaphysics upon which to build the future of the human rights movement.
Douzinas: Human Rights and Empire
Costas Douzinas is a fascinating example. He situates himself firmly among those on the
critical left who seek to formulate “a political philosophy of resistance” (Douzinas 2007c:
ix): As such he embodies and articulates the rage the left feels towards many of the injustices
which are perpetrated in international relations today. My argument will be, however, that
despite his very explicit rhetoric of hope for those seeking liberation and emancipation,
Douzinas’ philosophical orientation ends up cutting away the resources which are needed
for the fulfilment of this hope.
Of Douzinas’ writings, I will here focus on his Human Rights and Empire (but see
also The End of Human Rights [2000] and Douzinas 2002a, 2002b, 2007b). The title and
subtitle of this book provide a useful short hand for articulating some of the concerns
which I want to explore. Douzinas’ work on human rights is part of his broader political-
intellectual efforts to counter and critique domination and oppression in our collective
political life. He is deeply troubled that human rights—a language intrinsically identified
with emancipation—has in fact been subverted and that the new humanitarian wars of the
last decade, often “justified” in relation to human rights concerns, have seen the language
of human rights co-opted by “empire.” As he questions in his prologue, “Are human rights a
defensive barrier against domination and oppression or the ideological gloss of an emerging
empire? Is cosmopolitanism the way to bring justice and pacify the world of late globalised
capitalism?” (2007c: viii).
To simplify, Douzinas’ answer to the first is yes: Human rights all too often are an
ideological gloss used by powerful interests, and his answer to the second is no: Cosmopoli-
tanism will not bring justice and peace. I will first briefly outline Douzinas’ position with
respect to human rights; this position is itself not that controversial. Many have commented
on the way in which the language of human rights has been used by the powerful as a mask
for their more nefarious activities (Langlois 2001). I will then spend the greater part of my
analysis on Douzinas’ second question; this is the one of much greater moment.
Douzinas is critical of many contemporary (and indeed classical) cosmopolitan
thinkers; he argues of our contemporaries that they do little to subvert domination and
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564 Anthony J. Langlois
oppression and that all too often their theories in fact license the activities of empire. On the
one hand, Douzinas says “no,” cosmopolitanism is not the way to bring justice and peace to
the world. On the other hand, however, he proselytizes for a new cosmopolitanism—what
he calls “the cosmopolitanism to come.” This, he argues, is where we do find hope for
the future and where the sources for a global imaginary of human rights, of global jus-
tice, and of democracy might truly be found. This new cosmopolitanism will be the focus
of my investigation, particularly as it is presented in the epilogue of Human Rights and
The Use and Abuse of Human Rights
The language of human rights, with its universalist rhetoric, its good versus evil moralism
and its perceived programmatic simplicity (as if declaring rights for children or development
ends the problem) has a profoundly depoliticizing effect which has been seized on and used
by a variety of players in international politics (for interesting discussions at opposite
ends of the spectrum of views, see Ignatieff 2003 and, in response, Brown 2004). In
most situations where the language of human rights comes into play, there are a range
of competing constituencies with differing political objectives—many of which may be
legitimate in one sense or another. One of the most high-profile areas where this is the case
has to do with “the new humanitarianism.” As Douzinas says:
One way of reconciling conflicting priorities and justifying policy choices
was to present them in the language of morality and ethics instead of that of
politics. Human rights have become the preferred vocabulary of this new type
of humanitarianism and are often used to disguise complex and contentious
decisions. In some conflicts, the justice of the cause is clear; in most, it is not.
The blurring of the line dividing human rights and humanitarianism has led
to disturbing consequences. Some policies and regulatory regimes have been
translated into the language of rights, others have not. (2007c: 59)
Douzinas goes on to discuss the treatment by the United States of Guantanamo Bay
prisoners, British antiterrorist legislation, and, later, the Iraq war. “Contemporary humani-
tarianism,” he argues, “is no longer the cry of dissidents, campaigners and protesters but a
common vocabulary that brings together the government, the army and erstwhile radicals
and human rights activists” (2007c: 60).
Douzinas’ critique of the new humanitarianism is complex, sophisticated, and per-
ceptive. It is aimed not just at the governments who co-opt and manipulate the language
of human rights and humanitarianism to justify (or at least, obscure) their actions and
intentions but his critique also penetrates to the core of the human rights politics as it is
played out by those who are motivated by the cause of justice. This too, he argues, has been
depoliticized: Caring for people, looking after victims, helping people to make choices,
providing for the needy, these are the goals of justice. “United in our pity, we call for
soothing interventions and care little for the pre- or post-intervention situation as long as
they reduce the amount of pain. As a result, the complexity of history, the thick political
context and the plurality of possible responses to each new “humanitarian tragedy” is lost”
(2007c: 82).
It is at this point that the trajectory of Douzinas argument turns in what I take to be an
infelicitous direction. Having established and critiqued the avoidance of politics, he himself
deflects from an engagement with the depoliticized landscape of humanitarian and human
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Reflection on Human Rights 565
rights politics and instead engages in what appears to be an equally depoliticized episodic
meditation on psychoanalytic interpretations of political themes (cf. Baxi’s turn to poetics
at a similar point, noted above [2009]). These episodic meditations are characteristically
full of wisdom and insight, but they also have the unfortunate consequence of reinforcing
the apolitical or antipolitical status quo that Douzinas seems to be lamenting. In this case,
Douzinas calls upon us to “reverse our ethical approach” in order to avoid the conservatism
of human rights politics: “It is our positive ability to do good, our welcoming of the
potential to act and change the world that comes first,” not suffering and evil. Radical
humanitarianism is about the positive world that we can build together; it is about spurning
the ill treatment humans give to one another and saying we can do better than this, we can
transcend this. Douzinas says, “We must discover or invent a transcendence in immanence.
We may need to sidestep rights in favour of right” (2007c: 89).
At first glance, this does not seem like continued depoliticization—it seems like en-
joining engagement and activity—the building of a better world. The trouble comes with
this very difficult—and very political—question of what that better world might consist of,
what this “right” is that we must establish, and how we might establish it. The structure
of the book suggests that his pointers on this will be found in the epilogue, “the new cos-
mopolitanism.” But as I shall explain, Douzinas’ positive project—his attempt to invent a
new “right”—is defeated by his own key philosophical commitments, with the result that
his positive project becomes philosophically tethered in the transcendent, and apparently
quietist with respect to the politics of the here and now.
Douzinas says that the purpose of his book “is to examine the normative characteristics,
the political philosophy and the metaphysics of our age” (2007c: 148). He provides us with
a list of central characteristics of the world order as he sees it, characteristics which help to
answer questions like: What conceptions of self and community operate at the international
level? What new norms, practices, and institutions have developed? Do these contribute to
an imperial agenda? Can violence be used for moral ends? Is sovereignty on the wane?
He says that his overriding concern is with “the sense of the new world order” (2007c:
His sense of the new world order is that it is imperial and that it is about the extension
of hegemonic power. He offers six characteristics: (1) The new world order is moral-
legal—freedom, democracy, and human rights for all in the context of growing material
prosperity; (2) cosmopolitanism, in modern and postmodern forms, provides a formal
ideology; (3) international law codifies and constitutionalizes the normative basis of the
order; (4) belying its formal ideology, violence and force in the form of a “long war” called
a “just war” are the main tools of imperial achievement; (5) the new order is built on a
structural asymmetry—the core has “overwhelming material force (economic, military and
technological)” (2007c: 149); and (6) traditional practices of sovereignty are weakened,
but sovereignty per se does not wither away: It becomes increasingly concentrated at the
hegemonic center.
Various chapters of the book look in some detail at various of these characteristics. As
well as the new humanitarianism discussed above, there are chapters on the Iraq war, on the
role of international law, on the idea of empire itself, and so on. In all of these, Douzinas
offers a heady mix of political analysis and psycho-philosophical critique. At every point
Douzinas shows the contradictions—political and philosophical—in the “symbolic space”
of the new world order: “Cosmopolitan sovereignty, the only type of global sovereignty
on offer, claims the garments of value (freedom, dignity, emancipation) but is realised
in the ubiquitous violence of economic competition, war as police action and empty but
ever-present legality” (2007c: 290).
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566 Anthony J. Langlois
The Cosmopolitanism to Come
Is this dystopic cosmopolitanism—on Douzinas’ analysis the political philosophy and
normative characteristic of our age—all we can hope for? Douzinas argues not: He points
us toward “the cosmopolitanism to come.” In doing so, Douzinas commences with what we
have now—here he is in agreement with those who argue that our age is one that largely faces
an absence of meaning and sense. The philosophical tradition has succeeded—perhaps too
well—in deconstructing meaning and value. He accepts Jean-Luc Nancy’s view that there
is no longer “any sense of the world.” His second witness is J¨
urgen Habermas: “Lacking a
universe of intersubjectively shared meanings, [individuals] merely observe one another and
behave towards one another in accordance with imperatives of self-preservation” (Douzinas
2007c: 291–292).
Douzinas is at one and the same time seduced by this analysis and forced to rail against
it by his own “sense of the world” which will not let him accept this view. He talks of “a
denouement of sense and value,” “a poverty of world”: “This absence of meaning leads
to an absence of world. The world is not just the context or background of sense; world
is precisely sense, a unique arrangement of meaning and value” (2007c: 292). But for
Douzinas, the sense we are left with today is “the nihilism of insatiable desire and endless
exchange and the (fake) value of sacrificial traditions, nationalism and religions” (2007c:
Douzinas argues:
Global capitalism has denuded the world of meaning and humanitarian violence
has drained the moral universe of value. Human rights and cosmopolitanism
contribute to this loss. They are supposed to be the defences of the weak and
poor, to add meaning to our world as the values of a “valueless age”. But the
withdrawal of sense has made human rights infinitely reversible, both tools
of resistance and struggle and the pretext for imperial campaigns, which help
integrate and subordinate the oppressed and dominated. (2007c: 293)
“Global neo-liberal capitalism and human-rights-for-export are part of the same
project,” says Douzinas, an argument we do well to ponder—and yet by insisting on this
point too strongly, and staying with it for too long, it seems to me that Douzinas misses the
import of several other observations he makes about human rights and cosmopolitanism.
In the midst of yet another rhetorical flourish in which he insists that cosmopolitanism
always and only leads to an imperial end state, he nonetheless says this: “Human rights
can reclaim their redemptive role in the hands and imagination of those who return them
to the tradition of resistance and struggle against the advice of the preachers of moralism,
suffering humanity and humanitarian philanthropy” (2007c: 293).
Resistance and struggle—and redemption: There is a world, a sense of meaning and
value here after all which even for Douzinas has not been deconstructed. But what is it?
It has to do with the place of the individual (in the language of cosmopolitanism) or the
other (in the language of phenomenology). Precisely when Douzinas invokes cosmopolitan
justice and urges us to look to “the cosmopolitanism to come,” he speaks of the other, the
requirement that the other comes first, the way in which we exist and relate through the
existence of others, and of the need to be just to the other. Here, he seems to be working
with a very similar vocabulary to that of the more common garden variety of left liberal
cosmopolitans of whom his work is implicitly (and often explicitly) critical (cf this debate:
Langlois 2007, 2008; Hindess 2008).
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Reflection on Human Rights 567
Marxism and cosmopolitanism fail at justice, says Douzinas, because by turning justice
into an abstract theory or a series of normative statements (respectively) they are unjust—the
other becomes an instance of a concept or a case of the norm. In both of these, the sin is one
of violating the singularity of the other. We are not to give up on the hope of justice, however,
and Douzinas urges us to find a way of fulfilling “the universalising impetus of the imaginary
polis in the sky of Diogenes and Zeno” (2007c: 294).This is found by transcending our
dissatisfaction with states, nations, and traditional forms of community and religion—“the
international comes from a bond between singularities” (Douzinas 2007c: 295).
Douzinas sings his hymn of praise to the new international:
The cosmos to come is the world of each unique one, of whoever or anyone; the
polis, the infinite number of encounters of singularities. The cosmopolitanism
to come is neither the achievement of humanity nor a federation of nations;
neither a constitutional arrangement nor an alliance of classes, although it draws
from the treasure of solidarity. It is the reassertion of bare sovereignty as the
will to be together. ...The principle of the cosmopolitanism to come: the other
as singular, unique finite being putting me in touch with infinite otherness, the
other in me and myself in the other. (2007c: 295–296)
This invocation of utopia is a very odd place for Douzinas to end up. He has spent
the preceding pages railing against the way in which the key instruments we have at our
disposal for the pursuit of global justice have been depoliticized or otherwise railroaded
in the interests of powerful elites. He urges a renewal of struggle and resistance and
his methodology is for us to lose ourselves in raptures over a utopia—a no-place—the
geography of which, even were it to exist, is hard to make out. The other as a singular and
unique being, the infinite otherness with which we should be put in touch, Douzinas does
little to show us how to relate these ethical formulations in the day-to-day emergencies of
injustice which are highlighted in other parts of his work.
Douzinas argues that the utopian tradition has been the home of a great number of
religious and political leaders—most of them lawyers—“who have built a remarkable
edifice of radical political inspiration” (2007c: 296). He quotes Derrida on “the democracy
to come” after which his cosmopolitanism to come is modelled: “it is not something that is
certain to happen tomorrow, not the democracy (national, international, state or trans-state)
of the future, but a democracy that must have the structure of a promise—and thus the
memory of that which carries the future, the to-come, here and now” (2007c: 296).
In Douzinas’ hands, however, that radical political inspiration is reduced to an appar-
ent political quietism. There is an overburdening that takes place by the too successful
deconstruction of meaning and value in our time. This deconstruction has the consequence
that a person is unable to do anything to satisfy one’s radical desire that things be other
than they are, for fear that acting will impinge on the singularity of the other, thus bringing
further oppression rather emancipation for the other, along with metaphysical damnation
for oneself.
This political quietism emerges out of Douzinas’ meditations on Zeno’s Republic—
the “polis in the sky.” Zeno’s injunction, says Douzinas, was to “make your own city, with
your own friends, now, wherever you happen to live” (2007c: 298). Douzinas glosses this,
by throwing in the idea of resistance: “the ‘cosmopolitanism to come’, this being together
of singularities, is constructed here and now with friends, in acts of hospitality, in cities of
resistance” (2007c: 298).
The “Radical desire” which Douzinas celebrates and links with the utopian tradition,
by being a desire for a no-place, ends up being a desire which further depoliticizes people.
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568 Anthony J. Langlois
Resistance against injustice is reduced to acts of hospitality. Indeed, acts of hospitality
should not be spurned or glanced at askance, but they do not begin to respond to the
challenge to change the social order; they are always a palliative or emergency state. We
help people when they come to us (if they come to us). It is not clear how, or whether, under
Douzinas account, we can get from here to, say, public policy proposals that could stand
as alternatives to the neoliberal austerity packages which are being implemented in places
like Greece, Spain, Germany, and the United Kingdom, to name a few, at the present time.
Douzinas’ cities of resistance are an interesting conundrum; they throw his entire work
into paradoxical relief, into infinite regress (not unlike the fate of justice in his hands).
Where is the city of resistance—the polis of cosmopolitan justice? Acts of hospitality we
can do, you and I, as individuals or small groups of people. Conjoining cities of resistance
with our individual activities is to smuggle into the whole construct the problem to which
he purports to be offering a solution—or at least a hope. The act of hospitality is directly
within our hands—we can do it tonight: Invite a hungry and impoverished student home
for dinner; host a committee meeting of the local Queer Action society in our home; use
our car and trailer to transport furniture or clothing for the local refugee support group, etc.
Cities of resistance, however, are little more than nonexistent metaphors of radical
desire. They hint at the coming into being of a just social order and, yet, Douzinas gives us
nothing more on them, because in the very structure of his deep philosophy they cannot be.
Radical desire, he says, “is the longing for what does not exist according to law” (2007c:
298): The city of resistance, let alone a just society, is on Douzinas’ account something that
by definition cannot be realized. He is not mistaken when he says that the democracy to
come, or its derivative the new cosmopolitanism, is like negative theology: It is a politics
of absence, of lack.
We saw earlier that Douzinas, in critiquing the new humanitarianism, called for us to
engage with our capacity to do good, to act, and to change the world. The irony is that his
metaphysics of human rights—and of the right—make this an impossibility.
Douzinas’ analysis of contemporary global injustice is riveting and revealing. He is con-
stantly alert to the way in which ideas of humanitarianism, human rights, and cosmopoli-
tanism have been colonized by the interests that shape our global system and the ways
in which they have been compromised—politically and philosophically—with the conse-
quence that they offer a vain hope for a world in search of justice.
The great irony is that Douzinas’ alternative is of even less help and no solace,
whatsoever, to those facing injustice. The prevailing human rights regime may well be
inadequate and, in some cases, may cause more harm than good. But it does have
genuine stories of emancipation and liberation to tell. And, crucially, it does offer con-
crete mechanisms (however flawed and improvable) for those who wish to pursue global
By contrast, Douzinas offers a utopian vision of a world which will never be, and he
does so in a way that threatens to undermine the philosophical confidence of those few who
do fight for global justice.
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... Human rights themselves, while generally accepted as a critically important normative framework for global politics, are still routinely used for political purposes. States and other actors can use the institutions of human rights to their own ends, subverting their emancipatory intent (Langlois 2012). As LGBT rights become a recognized part of the human rights oeuvre, there is no reason to think they could be an exception to this dynamic. ...
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and Keywords This chapter commences by examining the status LGBT rights have achieved within the United Nations (UN) human rights system and reviews some key aspects of their trajectory. It considers how best to interpret the varying roles LGBT rights can play in the international system, given their new status, with a critical reading of Hillary Clinton's famous and much lauded "gay rights are human rights" speech to the UN General Assembly in 2011. It then moves on to what LGBT rights as human rights might mean in those parts of the world where this status receives little if any formal institutional recognition, using the case of the Southeast Asian region, where a new human rights regime has been established but where non-normative sexuality and gender have been willfully excluded from its remit. The chapter considers what the politics of human rights mean for sexuality and gender-diverse people in this region with reference to two senses in which human rights claims are political: (1) activists and advocates push against the status quo to have sexuality and gender issues included in the human rights discussion and (2) resistance to this inclusion is often played out by a politicization of sexuality and gender that obscures other pressing issues. This chapter demonstrates both the profound and important advances that have been made for LGBT individuals and communities and the ways in which these successes generate political dynamics of their own, which must be carefully navigated in order to sustain the emancipatory potential of the movement.
... The widespread support for these policy statements at the highest level of global governance stands in contrast to the continued failure to implement them at the national level and the continuation of widespread abuses of human rights in many of the states that have formally ratified all or most international human rights conventions.This discrepancy between words and deeds is one of the reasons why a number of legal, political and social scientists have expressed doubts about the reach and effectiveness of human rights. Another reason for a reserved, if not opposing position, is that some scholars argue that -intentionally or inadvertently -human rights rooted in Western moral philosophy constitute a form of cultural imperialism over nations and communities whose ethical values, culture, and political systems and institutions are not of Western origin (e.g. Brown 1997;Kennedy 2004;Uvin 2007;Mutua 2008;Langlois 2012;Golder 2014). ...
The Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication (SSF Guidelines) call for realizing their six stated objectives through the promotion of a human rights-based approach (HRBA). This chapter will first present the foundations of such an approach and its specific guiding principles. It will then trace the evolution of the adoption of the HRBA in small-scale fisheries through the international community. The paper argues for the benefits of a HRBA in small-scale fisheries that is not confined to responsible fisheries management but also to furthering social development and decent work, gender equality and basic civil and political rights. The paper identifies some principal challenges in the implementation of a HRBA in small-scale fisheries and examines strategies and practical measures to overcome them.
... Thinking critically about 'gay rights as human rights' through their intersection function with racism and imperialism, Jasbir Puar has written about 'the human rights industrial complex' (Puar, 2013), Rahul Rao has analyzed how 'gay rights' get taken up as 'gay conditionality' in public policies (Rao, 2012), and Anna Agathangelou has discussed how gay rights norms rely on anti--blackness (Agathangelou, 2013). Anthony Langois and Cai Wilkinson offer further complexity to the 'gay rights' debate by noting how 'gay rights' can be coopted by a neo--imperialist agenda, without being essentially neo--imperialist in themselves (Langlois, 2012;Wilkinson and Langlois,2014). My own analysis of Clinton's speech details the positive and/or negative ways in which Clinton proposes and mobilizes 'gay rights as human rights' for specific kinds of geopolitical, racialized, classed, able--bodied, gendered, and sexualized subjects that have specific -if contradictory -international effects (Weber, 2016a; also see Ghosh, 2016). ...
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Part of a Special Commentary and Provocation Section on Denise Altman and Jonathan Symons' new book Queer Wars. My piece considers the benefits and especially limitations of framing 'queer wars' as Altman and Symons do through the idea of 'international polarization'.
This chapter reviews some core concepts in the literature of international relations, diplomacy, multilateralism and human rights: the mechanics of the UN human rights system is highlighted, along with some of key aspects of Western-style human rights diplomacy and foreign policy. Earlier scholarship focused on the work of LGBT advocates who demanded to be acknowledged and protected by existing UN human rights frameworks, challenging discriminatory and exclusionary assumptions and practices. More recently, queer scholars of international relations, human rights, social movements and sexuality studies, using critical decolonial methods, are questioning how Western and non-Western constructs of sexual and gender identity have interpenetrated global human rights forums as well as in more localized contexts.
Since World War II, certain Western liberal values, including democracy and universal human rights, have been promoted through multilateral institutions and processes. In this chapter, the author demonstrates how human rights diplomacy emerges from an intricate, triadic relationship between inter-governmental organizations, civil society representatives and diplomats. Data gleaned from 29 interviews on the state of human rights diplomacy—with diplomats, advocates and UN representatives, mainly based in Geneva and New York—describes a polarized multilateral environment that pits member states that advocate for a universal concept of human rights against member states that do not. The interview subjects reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the UN human rights system; regional dynamics that have generated polarizing voting blocs; the techniques used by “like-minded” diplomats and civil society organizations to push their human rights agenda forward; and the threats faced by civil society advocates in these forums.KeywordsLGBTHuman rightsUNHuman Rights CouncilMultilateralDiplomacyPolarizationCivil societyConflictGenevaNew YorkRegional bloc
This essay offers a ‘state of the art’ of the study of human rights practice. It begins with delineating human rights practice as an academic perspective, defining its distinct research questions and approaches, and noting in particular the influence of sociological and anthropological standpoints on its development. The essay proceeds by exploring the study of human rights practice as a form of activist-scholarship—bridging the world of academia and practice—and the strengths and risks that such a position entails, and later by characterizing this type of research as a self-critical project, utilizing an insider perspective to identify the weaknesses of the human rights framework but also to avoid abstract gloomy generalizations. The concluding section identifies the themes of pragmatism and radical hope and introduces the contributions to this special issue.
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As various “right kind of queers” make their way into the social mainstream, researchers have moved their attention from compulsory heterosexuality as queer theory’s main other towards the new normativities created by these “exclusive integrations”. This article looks at existing critiques of homonormativity, homonationalism and homocolonialism and asks how we can develop these concepts, in order to maintain their relevance for well-needed analyses of the role LGBT rights play in projects of (national) boundary-making, as well as the ways in which LGBTQ people are variously positioned to deal with these. I argue that we need to take into account the ways in which these concepts have developed as they have entered new academic disciplines while also re-engaging with one of the central aspects of Puar’s initial framing of homonationalism: The racialized nature of sexualised/gendered difference. The article discusses the excessive potential of “gay-rights-as-human-rights” discourses, Cynthia Weber’s “plural logics of and/or” in order to challenge seemingly straightforward narratives of homonationalism, homonormativity and homocolonialism. It also draws on Alexander Weheliye’s “Habeas Viscus” in order to renew our theoretical engagement with questions of racialisation and colonialism, and to expand our view beyond issues of (legal) recognition.
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This article aims to address some of the criticisms that have been made of human rights research, especially of human rights research conducted by legal scholars. It argues that a conscious and critical approach to the limitations of the 'ivory tower' of legal scholarship on rights is becoming increasingly necessary in a research context marked by the convergence of multiple disciplines, the ever-growing contestation of human rights, and the complexity of the international regime for the protection of human rights. This article outlines three strategies that could be useful for legal scholars to escape from the ivory tower and make a significant contribution to multidisciplinary human rights studies.
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Људска права сматрају се једним од највећих достигнућа данашњице, али су, исто тако, предмет жестоких критика. Рад се бави критичком анализом шест критика људских права: реалистичком, утилитристичком, марксистичком, културно-релативистичком или партикуларистичком, феминистичком и пост-колонијалном. Неутемељеност критика образложена је и јасно аргументована позивањем како на успостављене норме о људским правима, тако и логику. Критике људских права анализиране су применом дескриптивне анализе, анализе садржаја и компаративно-историјског метода, чиме су описане карактеристике и мањкавости поменутог система. На основу ових резултата изведени су релевантни закључци о значају система људских права. Закључено је да критике људских права нису утемељене, као и да не одражавају право стање ствари. Такође, њима промиче да људска права нису panacea свих људских недаћа, већ начин и покушај да се она минимизују.
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Fishers, fishworker organizations, and supporting civil society organizations have played a critical role in the recent agreement by the international community of an international soft-law instrument that explicitly calls for the adoption of a human rights-based approach (HRBA) in small-scale fisheries development: the Voluntary Guidelines on Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication (SSF Guidelines). This chapter reviews some of the controversial views that have been expressed by social scientists about pursuing a HRBA in general and in small-scale fisheries specifically. While the experience of applying a HRBA in small-scale fisheries is still very limited, some concrete cases are presented where human rights advocacy and human rights law have helped fishing communities in defending their rights to livelihood, food, and culture.
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This book, first published in 2001, makes a major contribution to the theory and practice of human rights, engaging in particular with the 'Asian values' debates of the 1990s. It is especially concerned with the tension between a universal regime of human rights and its ability to accommodate diversity. Incorporating original fieldwork from Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, the book also draws out the significance of Southeast Asian developments for international human rights discourse. The book advances beyond the stalemate that the 'Asian values' debate has reached, developing an intermediary stance between the competing claims of universalism and relativism. Drawing on the work of Cass Sustein and Chantal Mouffe, the theoretical contribution of the book will ensure its interest to readers with an interest in human rights. This book is a definitive account of contemporary political discussions of human rights in Southeast Asia and an important contribution to the development of human rights.
Alibi for militarist interventions, sacralization for the tyranny of the market, ideological foundation for the fundamentalism of the politically correct: can the 'symbolic fiction' of universal rights be recuperated for the progressive politicization of actual socio-economic relations?
This book hopes to further contribute to teaching, research, and activist contention about the uncertain futures of human rights in a hyperglobalizing world. The issue of politics - the combined and uneven labours of practices of domination and governance and of counter-power - is addressed in this work. Power and resistance have articulated themselves in terms of alternate languages of normative politics in a pre-human rights epoch through various notions such as 'justice', 'righteous' conduct (both on the part of the rulers and the ruled), moral responsibility to avoid causing harm to others in everyday conduct, the virtues of honour and chivalry (upon which even until this day thrive the genre, texts, and corpus of international law of humanitarian intervention and of warfare), and fidelity to the divine being rendered intelligible only through the pious interpretation of God's word. This book also further addresses some ways in which politics of production (inter/intra-governmental labours as well as a wide variety of related social practices) bears upon the production of politics. Human rights activism, the politics of identity and difference, relativism, human rights movements, human rights markets, and business ethics are also discussed. © Upendra Baxi and Oxford University Press, 2006. All rights reserved.
Taking liberalism as a technology of government characterised by its signature impulse — what Michel Foucault called ‘the internal rule of maximum economy’ — the article interrogates the ways in which human rights produce a distinct subjectivity, homo juridicus, which is a subject amenable to self-government and, as such, acts as a partner, indeed a predicate, to neoliberal governmentality. Taking its impetus from Foucault’s discussion of homo oeconomicus , the article traces human rights’ relations of subjectification, that is, the ways in which human rights call homo juridicus into being as a distinct type of subjectivity that, in parallel to homo oeconomicus, makes possible the contraction of the state and its governmentalisation. The article calls such subjectification liberal ‘ontogenesis’ and argues that it takes four distinct but related forms: rhetorical, epistemic, performative and structural ontogenesis. It provides an illustration of how each of these forms of ontogenesis produce, and produce globally — through their discourses, knowledge production, law-making and restructuring of the ‘conditions of freedom’ — a necessary subject for neoliberalism. The article thereby shows that human rights assist in the evolution of government as the conduct of conduct, and irrevocably recast the very meaning of freedom and the possibilities for agonism.