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Human Rights and Moral Agency



To begin, let me provide an immediate opening to the chapter’s principal claims. As the anthropology of the practice of human rights demonstrates, even in terms of an explicit understanding of “progress,” it is very difficult to sustain empirically the conclusion that human rights has been a force for progress in the contemporary world. On the one hand, the postwar human rights project is intensely teleological; the movement toward a better, more advanced, more civilized future is implicit in the construction of “human rights” as the primary “symbol to all of victory over those who sought to achieve tyranny through aggressive war” (UNESCO 1949, 258–259). To ask conceptually, that is, about whether or not human rights is progressive is to push right up against a tautology, since “human rights” and “progress” are mutually implied from the very beginning. But on the other hand, even if we were to devise a set of indicators in order to measure the impact of human rights in certain areas of concern – political freedom, torture, access to justice, etc. – we would immediately confront two problems. First, as Sally Engle Merry is documenting in her ongoing research on the use of quantitative indicators to measure human rights compliance (see, e.g., Merry 2009, 2012), there is a problematic degree of dissonance between the statistical techniques and assumptions that animate indicator research, and the multiplicity of processes that get radically condensed into “data.” She argues that the broader impact of human rights – the kind of impact, that is, that would speak to the question of “progress” – is likely to prove statistically unmeasurable for purposes of the diverse group of constituencies involved in human rights enforcement and activism.
22 Human rights and moral agency
 
To begin, let me provide an immediate opening to the chapter’s principal
claims. As the anthropology of the practice of human rights demonstrates,
even in terms of an explicit understanding of “progress,” it is very dicult
to sustain empirically the conclusion that human rights has been a force
for progress in the contemporary world. On the one hand, the postwar
human rights project is intensely teleological; the movement toward a
better, more advanced, more civilized future is implicit in the construc-
tion of “human rights” as the primary “symbol to all of victory over those
who sought to achieve tyranny through aggressive war” (UNESCO 1949,
To ask conceptually, that is, about whether or not human rights is pro-
gressive is to push right up against a tautology, since “human rights” and
“progress” are mutually implied from the very beginning. But on the other
hand, even if we were to devise a set of indicators in order to measure the
impact of human rights in certain areas of concern – political freedom,
torture, access to justice, etc. – we would immediately confront two prob-
lems. First, as Sally Engle Merry is documenting in her ongoing research
on the use of quantitative indicators to measure human rights compliance
(see, e.g., Merry 2009, 2012), there is a problematic degree of dissonance
between the statistical techniques and assumptions that animate indicator
research, and the multiplicity of processes that get radically condensed into
data.She argues that the broader impact of human rights the kind of
impact, that is, that would speak to the question of “progress” – is likely
to prove statistically unmeasurable for purposes of the diverse group of
constituencies involved in human rights enforcement and activism. And
second, if we were to develop a set of qualitative indicators to assess the
broader consequences of the globalization of human rights, particularly
aer the end of the Cold War, we would face the dilemma that our ability
to make sweeping generalizations about something like “progress” would
diminish the closer we examined the practices of human rights in context.
is is a very anthropological dilemma and one that Melville Herskovits, a
leading mid-twentieth-century anthropologist, made the basis of his – later,
the disciplines ocial – rejection of a declaration of universal human rights
during the draing of what became the UDHR (American Anthropological
Association 1947; see also Goodale 2009).
But if we leave aside, then, the simplistic and not-so-faintly unilineal
evolutionist question of progress, there are other, much more productive,
hard questions that can be put to human rights. e ways and means of
human rights have become an indelible part of what might be described as
“legacies of human experience” in the contemporary world; this much we
can say with certainty. If we take a more modest critical approach to the
presence of human rights within these legacies, we can then ask: How are
human rights shaping modes of agency and what are the broader implica-
tions of these shis? As I will show in this chapter, the logics of human
rights have had the greatest consequences for the microdynamics of moral
agency, those everyday moments that link normative cultures with pur-
posive action. I will draw from the recent ethnography of human rights to
esh out the contours of this argument, since anthropologists, in particu-
lar, have found themselves – at rst, serendipitously – on the frontlines (as
both scholars and scholar-activists) of the emergence of human rights as
an “archetypal language” of social and political change and as a globaliz-
ing moral grammar for addressing a range of contemporary vulnerabilities
(see, e.g., Cowan et al. 2001; Goodale and Merry 2007). e cases I will
survey reveal several patterns across the practice of human rights.
First, as ethnographic research from Bolivia shows, the mobilization of
human rights discourse reorients moral relationships in ways that can cre-
ate new lines of social disrupture and the possibility for conict that didn’t
otherwise exist. Although it is in the nature of human rights practice to har-
ness the constructive potential of struggle, particularly against institutional
forms of oppression, the essentially neo-Kantain rigidity of human rights as
a normative system makes it a blunt ethical tool that tends to reinterpret the
nuances of social relations in terms of violations, victims and perpetrators
(see also Hinton 2012).
Second, research from Malawi will illustrate the ways in which the
increasing hegemony of human rights narrows the range of moral options
available to people in conditions in crisis. e language of human rights
exerts a power in part by excluding the possibility of other alternatives and
denying the legitimacy of enduring conditions of normative pluralism.
ird, a case study from Chiapas reveals the unpredictable consequences
of the essentially poetic nature of the practice of human rights as a new
mode of moral agency. When Zapatista activists eagerly took up the idea
Human rights and moral agency 419
of human rights within their ongoing struggle against the Mexican state,
they vernacularized it not by simply translating it into cultural terms that
could be mobilized according to a simple formula, but at its very conceptual
foundations. e result was a folk theory of Zapatista human rights that had
been shorn of many of the conceptual foundations of international human
rights law.
And nally, a scholar’s innovative study of conicts within the World
Bank over competing value systems demonstrates that the transformative
potential of any mode of moral agency is limited by broader structural con-
straints – ideological, political, economic and so on. Although the age of
human rights is not unique in this sense, it is important to understand how
human rights can contribute to these structural constraints at the same time
it comes to form part of the moral repertoire of everyday life.
So if these case studies are a useful reection on part of the question
how has human rights shaped modes of moral agency? – what remains is
a response – a brief one, alas – to the second part: what are the broader
implications of these shis? Pheng Cheah (2012) has recently argued that
the project of human rights is riven by a fundamental dilemma, something
he calls the dilemma of “sovereign self-making.” He explains that from the
early postwar to the present, the project of human rights has been a project
for making humanity. “Human rights,” in this sense, is a collective, if fraught,
process of recognition, the recognition of what Cheah calls the “collective
subject over itself.” But when this project is made concrete, as it must be, the
contradictions and inconsistencies that are a normal part of social and politi-
cal life work to undermine the task itself. When states are required to use “all
available resources” under international law to comply with treaty obliga-
tions, choices must be made and these choices inevitably lead to the instru-
mentalization of people and what might be called “selective diminishment.
e anthropology of human rights arrives at a similar conclusion
through dierent means. e logics and language of human rights begin
with a set of universal claims that oer people a novel normative frame-
work that transcends the contingent circumstances of everyday life. And
yet, the abstract universalism of human rights functions as a kind of moral
mirage: it attracts people to it, but it gets fainter the closer the approach.
Eventually, human rights discourse is grounded not in the pure form with
which it appeared, but as a hybrid normativity that is the result of multiple
processes of vernacularization and moral innovation. What is le, then, of
the progressive, translocal project of making humanity? Even if research on
the practice of human rights reveals it to be a process through which the
project of humanity breaks down, fractures, with each moment that human
. 420
rights becomes more resonant, more accessible, it also points to the emer-
gence of new forms of moral practice and at least the suggestion of collec-
tive transformation.
Progress, intention and the limits of human rights
It is dicult to take up the question of human rights as a force for progress.
On the one hand, the question itself is inseparable from the teleology of
the postwar human rights project. As Eleanor Roosevelt – the chair of the
commission that oversaw the preparation and draing of what became the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – explained in a series
of interviews and essays (see, e.g., Roosevelt 1948), the deeper intention
behind what appeared to be a largely political and legal process was to forge
an international symbol of a more advanced future in human relations.
Beyond the obvious fact that the UDHR was not a binding international
treaty, its real purpose was to point the way – for those who would follow –
toward a dierent trajectory of social evolution, a dierent “arc of the moral
universe” (as Martin Luther King, Jr. described it somewhat later) that inev-
itably bent toward conditions of peace, equality and global citizenship. is
is what Roosevelt meant when she emphasized the “educational” mission of
human rights in the postwar period. e success or failure of this mission
would be measured by the extent to which what might be described as a
“moral convergence” took place: did the globalizing project of human rights
lead to a narrowing in conceptions of the person, the grounds for normative
action, and ideologies of dierence? If so, then the project of human rights
would succeed and it would be a force for progress within its own terms.
And on the other hand, the question of human rights and progress is
troubled by a framework introduced by the philosopher Richard Rorty.
In a published (1993) version of a lecture he gave in the early 1990s as
part of the Oxford Amnesty Lecture series, Rorty (to some, infamously)
brought the destabilizing inuence of a neo-pragmatism to bear on many
of the foundational assumptions of contemporary human rights. But pass-
ing human rights through the neo-pragmatist crucible did not, as might be
supposed, lead Rorty to a latter-day version of Benthams classic rejection
of natural/human rights as “nonsense on stilts.Instead, Rorty concluded
that we should stop wringing our hands over the contested philosoph-
ical grounds of human rights and get on with the practical business of
transforming the world in the image of a kind of multicultural human-
ism in which violations of human rights are precluded by new forms of
Human rights and moral agency 421
transcultural empathy. Intriguingly, although he himself missed this his-
torical interconnection, Rorty described the means through which a
particular kind of liberal empathy should be globalized as “sentimental
education,” thereby gesturing toward the originary vision of Roosevelt
herself. (He also apparently missed the echo of Flaubert, whose novel of
sentimental education oers a devilishly dierent understanding of both
“sentiment” and “education.”)
Nevertheless, the troubling thrust of Rorty’s argument is that the world
would be unquestionably more peaceful if a culture of human rights were
to take root regardless of whether or not such a culture were consistent
with prevailing philosophical opinion about the grounds of human nature,
dignity, moral knowledge, and so on. e consequence, in other words, of
an eective global campaign of sentimental education would be a form of
progress in quite simple terms – the emergence of transhumanity and the
sentimental impossibility of genocide. Indeed, the inspiration for Rorty’s
neo-pragmatist account of human rights is the work of Annette Baier,
whose argument for a “progress of sentiments” (1991) suggests a process
through which the relationship between similarity and dierence is trans-
formed once the transhuman is reconceived in terms of what the American
novelist Walker Percy called (in his novel e Moviegoers) “the little way” –
the ephemeral interlinkages of sentiment that connect us all well above the
dubious claims of deep existential union that, as Rorty puts it, “instantiate
… true humanity” (1993, 129). But if there is any value – not “truth,” obvi-
ously – in Rorty’s approach to human rights, then to question whether or
not human rights has been a force for progress is to question the premise
that the elimination of genocide from the earth would represent a tangible
advance, not just for some, but for all.
And yet, I want to suggest that the invocation of genocide as a kind of
human rights violation that is, for these purposes, good to think with – or,
rather, feel with, to stay within Rorty’s skepticism toward rationality – dis-
tracts us from examining more closely both the historicity of human rights
and the more complicated ways in which the logics of human rights shape,
and are shaped by, ethical practices within concrete moments of social and
political struggle. In other words, for purposes of human rights, we must
acknowledge that the question of progress is dialectically bound up with
the historical circumstances of mass atrocity and human destruction, which
create their own barriers to reection and wonder. “Progress,” in this sense,
cannot be detached from the moments of greatest human tragedy, since as
both a category for analysis, and as a teleology with real political and social
purchase, it functions more like a mirror that reects an antithetical image
. 422
of the human condition as it has been, a simple opposition to the starkness
of human suering and the long grey line of vulnerability.
In this way, one cannot adequately take up the question of human rights
as a force for progress at all, since both “human rights” and “progress” are –
if my reading of “the last utopia” (Moyn 2010) is correct – simply dierent
shadings of the same imaginary and not, as an alternative understanding
might suggest, two concrete points on a spectrum of historical (or, perhaps,
ethical) change. Of course, to argue that contemporary human rights is a
particular kind of utopia – one that is represented, semiotically, by the dia-
lectic of human tragedy and progress, among others – is not to argue that it
is not, for this reason, consequential in ways that matter to an anthropolo-
gist; indeed, quite the contrary. But like omas More’s island of Utopia –
that Renaissance fantasy of the “Best State of a Public Weal” inspired by
travelers’ reports from the early stirrings of colonialism – this one too must
be observed by looking backwards, as it were, from the vantage point of our
So if the question of human rights as a force for progress is an invitation
into a rabbit hole that I decline, this does not mean that we should not ask
questions about the ways in which human rights as both an archetypal
language of political and social change and moral logic for reinterpreting
vulnerability – is shaping sentiment and oering new grounds for action.
I want to approach this line of inquiry as a question of agency specic-
ally, moral agency. To explore the life of human rights in the contemporary
world as a problem of moral agency is not without its hazards.
First, an anthropological account of agency, in particular, draws a dis-
tinction between intentionality-as-purposive action and intentionality-
as-teleology (see, e.g., Desai 2010; Keane 2007). is means that to ask
questions about the relationship between human rights and moral agency
is to examine what might be described as the “microdynamics of moral
action,the grounded contexts in which normativity mediates the consti-
tution of the social. But to examine moral action from the inside out, as it
were, tells us nothing about the course of a broader process of translocal
moral development, that arc of the moral universe bending toward justice.
For many human rights scholars and activists alike, human rights without
this broader teleology is like human rights shorn of universality – unrecog-
nizable, unacceptable, even dangerous.
Second, as I argue elsewhere (Goodale 2012, n.d.), recent ethnographic
studies have revealed the practice of human rights to be a domain of moral
agency that is marked by what the political theorist John Wall (2005) has
called “moral creativity” – the fact that moral life, while shaped by the
Human rights and moral agency 423
constraints of norms, ultimately must transcend them since moral practice
is inextricably bound up with subject-making. But if the practice of human
rights as a mode of moral agency is “poetic” in this sense – Wall’s study
revolves around a reconsideration of Ricoeur’s poetics of the will – it is also
essentially, and necessarily, unpredictable, since a “poetics of possibility”
tells us nothing about the contexts of moral agency, or its consequences.
at the practice of human rights is unpredictable at the basic level of moral
agency presents any number of dilemmas for more programmatic visions of
international law as a bridge toward a post-Westphalian future.
And nally, to leave the question of progress aside and take up, rather, the
problem of human rights as a constitutive force within the microdynamics
of the moral present, is to acknowledge obliquely the ultimate limitations
of human rights – not as human rights, or even as international law in the
post-Cold War world, but as a globalizing logic for moral, social and pol-
itical transformation. If the anthropology of human rights has taught us
anything, it is that the spaces in which international and transnational nor-
mativities are vernacularized are marked by contradictions and structural
ambiguities – from the fora in which international law is debated and moni-
tored (see, e.g., Merry 2009, 2012) to the village-level workshops around the
world that serve as the leading-edge of transnational human rights activism
and advocacy (see, e.g., Englund 2006; Goodale 2008). is is not to say,
obviously, that the practice of human rights does not shape moral agency
in ways that – for example – encourage resistance to oppression, lead to the
formation of new political and social movements, or foster a reconsider-
ation of gender relations. In fact, it is precisely the poetic character of the
practice of human rights that oers at least the possibility of real transform-
ation. But this same essential poiesis also functions as a limiting factor at
the same time. is paradox is a striking feature of the recent ethnography
of human rights, to which I now turn.
Moral agency in the age of human rights
Historians of rights tell us that we live in an “age of rights” (Henkin 1990)
that is world-remaking (Glendon 2001). As Glendon explains, in her study
of the forging of the modern human rights project from the tragedy of
mid-century last, there was only one option then, only one possible vision,
and that was to remake existing institutions of global governance, and
to devise new ones, as a signal that the great powers, at least, would not
tolerate future cataclysms of similar global scope and magnitude. But the
. 424
strange attractors of the Cold War warped geopolitics in ways that remade
a world in which genocide was not a central threat although it contin-
ued to make its sinister appearance from Guatemala to Cambodia – but
instead the threat was actually far greater: it was to the planet itself and all
of its life-systems. is period of tense and increasingly absurd Realpolitik
was one in which the cosmopolitan gestures of the late 1940s were largely
forgotten, except by small groups of activists, international bureaucrats and
intellectuals. Even the Cold War’s greatest social leaders, like Martin Luther
King, Jr., could only oer mere rhetorical gestures to human rights, since
they were hemmed in by dierent forms of nationalism on one side, and
Marxist-inected visions of social transformation on the other (see, e.g.,
Jackson 2006). In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963), King issued
a world-historical plea to his fellow clergymen to leave their cultural preju-
dices behind and join him in the ght for equal “civil” and “constitutional”
rights – that is, rights circumscribed by the contingent circumstance of US
citizenship. Although he does invoke “God given rights” at one point in the
letter (a strategic rhetorical device, given the audience), it is clear – as the
broader civil rights movement in the United States demonstrated – that the
ght was for dignity as equal American citizens, a narrowing compelled by
the nature of US law itself, and not a struggle for rights as equal members
of an abstract global polity.
But the end of the Cold War changed the warp of geopolitics yet again
and created the conditions in which an “age of (human) rights” could nally
ourish. And even as the threat of species-event destruction faded as the
nuclear stockpiles of the United States and the countries of the former
Soviet Union were slowly dismantled or eectively sequestered, the scourge
of genocidal violence reappeared in its familiar forms from the former
Yugoslavia to the Great Lakes region of Africa. At the same time, coun-
tries primarily, but not exclusively, in the so-called developing world –
were suddenly cut loose from the ideological constraints of the bipolar
Cold War system. is opening also had economic implications, because as
the more direct forms of nancial colonialism of the postwar period faded,
countries were le to either seek assistance from international nancial
institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, or to form partnerships with
transnational NGOs, which promised to fulll the functions of the state by
providing social services and developing national infrastructures. In both
cases, countries were confronted with demands to make human rights a
cornerstone of national policy-making. For international nancial institu-
tions, “human rights” came bundled with the rest of the neoliberal agenda,
which included a range of economic imperatives but also expectations for
Human rights and moral agency 425
political and legal reform. And for the NGOs, those transnational agents of
postwar development, the rise of human rights provided a way to transform
the earlier project of knowledge transfer – symbolized best by the “Green
Revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s into a mission of moral transform-
ation: development as a human right.
e result was that the logics and rhetorics – if not the institutions – of
human rights took root at very deep levels in a very short period of time.
Indeed, there were consequences to the fact that during the post-Cold
War era the diusion of human rights discourse was largely independent
of either institutional developments within the UN human rights system,
or the ratication and implementation of international human rights law
within national legal regimes. is is not to say that the pace and scope of
national ratication and implementation, in particular, did not quicken and
widen during this time. But the real story is that the “curious grapevine”
that Eleanor Roosevelt had envisioned 40 years before nally took shape in
the form of grassroots activism, political debate and moral proselytization
led by local-transnational partnerships connected within new networks
and “global assemblages” (see, e.g., Ong and Collier 2004; Riles 2000).
More serendipitously than not, anthropologists found themselves caught
up in these discursive shis toward human rights at the local level in dif-
ferent regions and from dierent political and social vantage points. My
own research is instructive. I arrived to Bolivia in the late 1990s prepared
to conduct research in remote areas of the Bolivian altiplano on conict
resolution, access to law, and political and legal identity. I had expected to
study the ways in which people living in small villages far from the cent-
ers of state power construct normative cultures that reect local histories,
social hierarchies and gender expectations. What I found, instead, was that
the normative landscape of broad swaths of rural highland Bolivia had
been transformed by the growing presence of a diverse collection of NGOs
that had reinterpreted their work in terms of human rights (Goodale 2007,
Traditional lines of political power had been upended because the trans-
actional demands of NGOs privileged younger, Spanish-speaking men with
some experience of the city, the army, or the coca elds of the Chapare
over older men who had spent decades moving up the ladder of positions
of increasing responsibility. Younger men, sometimes in their rst public
position, suddenly found themselves invested with a new kind of moral
authority, the ability to pass judgment on matters of public importance, and
the responsibility to act decisively in moments of crisis. And because of the
intense focus on womens rights in Bolivia during this time – as elsewhere,
. 426
womens rights became a bridge across which other modes of human rights
discourse passed into the public sphere (see, e.g., Merry 2006) – gender
relations were rocked by the establishment of multi-purpose legal and psy-
chological centers that were associated with the ratication at the national
level of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination
Against Women (CEDAW).
In rural Bolivia, the consequences in practice were ambiguous: when
newly morally empowered peasant women le their hamlets at the encour-
agement of human rights NGOs and government ocials to pursue legal
and psychological services in provincial capitals, their extended absences
le young children vulnerable and caused new ris with husbands, broth-
ers and fathers (Goodale 2008). is, in turn, led to new conicts between
the women who had come to see themselves as bearers of derechos
humanos” and both other women – sisters, sisters-in-law, mothers – who
had not undergone a similar shi in moral identity, and men, who had
been transformed as a category into an oppositional presence in womens
lives that clashed with local constructions of gender complementarity (best
expressed in the common Quechua expression “tukuy ima qhariwarmi,” or
everything is male-female”). Aer several years, legal services centers in
rural areas were shuttered because of lack of funding, local opposition by
town leaders, and, most importantly, the unwillingness of women from out-
lying hamlets to participate in what amounted to a wholesale restructuring
of their lives.
All of this is not to say that a focus on the problems of domestic violence
as a human rights violation did not lead to new forms of moral agency (for
both women and men) and to the appearance of forms of social conict
that are perhaps a sine qua non of structural change. Indeed, during the
ubiquitous rural talleres, or workshops, that were the primary mechanism
through which the idea of human rights was rendered into normative terms
that were meaningful for people, the message was clear: human rights was a
new moral grammar for struggle, for conict. But as this new language was
taken up – as it must be – and utilized within the multiplicity of everyday
life, it became dynamic and unpredictable. When the language of human
rights was grounded within the realities of peoples lives, it was transformed
through a succession of smaller normative scales that became increasingly
distant from the abstract conceptions of international law and human rights
activism. In the end, the moral implications of human rights advocacy in
rural Bolivia were not as sweeping or as totalizing as imagined. Instead,
within the poetics of everyday moral life, itself embedded in conditions of
normative pluralism, the language and moral logics of human rights were
Human rights and moral agency 427
oen rendered instrumental, to be used in carefully bracketed moments
with uncertain consequences.
Ethnographic accounts of the practice of human rights from other parts of
the world reveal it to be a mode of moral agency that is similarly marked by
an ambiguous poetics. For example, Harri Englund’s study (2006) of human
rights activism in Malawi shows that the process of national ratication and
implementation was an intensely political one that was shaped by ongoing
conicts among groups of elites, who were not shy about manipulating the
language of human rights if it had strategic value in ghts over political
power and the control of natural resources. is manipulation of human
rights at the national level aected the ways in which human rights was
taken up by ordinary social actors. Englund’s research conrmed Wilsons
earlier observation that the ways and means of human rights, particularly
in Africa, had become “archetypal,” except that in the case of Malawi it was
not the transition to democracy that was at issue, but the model for devel-
opment that would guide the country’s relationships with regional organi-
zations like the African Union and international agencies like the World
Bank and the IMF. As Englund explains, the rhetoric of human rights had
become so dominant across the political spectrum that the struggle to insti-
tutionalize rights pushed aside other potential responses to the problem
of chronic poverty in Malawi. e moral language of rights found its way
into unlikely places. For example, schoolchildren refused to follow teachers
rules in the classroom on the basis that to do so would violate their human
rights. e result, as Englund puts it in a startling phrase, was that the prac-
tice of human rights made Malawians “prisoners of freedom.
Shannon Speed (2008) spent several years observing the ways in which
the hegemony of human rights discourse shaped the moral agency of
Zapatista activists during the Chiapas rebellion and its aermath. In many
ways, as her research demonstrates, the rebellion itself would not have been
possible without the active participation of legions of transnational human
rights NGOs, which provided local activists the opportunity to rearticulate
a series of centuries-old demands into the terms of indigenous rights-as-
human rights following on the Mexican state’s ratication of International
Labor Organization Convention 169 – the so-called indigenous peoples’
bill of rights – in 1990. (Mexico was the second country to ratify ILO 169
aer Norway.) e rhetoric of human rights profoundly altered the nor-
mative grounds on which the primary village-level organizations, the jun-
tas de buen gobierno (or “good governance councils”), interacted with the
Mexican government. But as we have seen elsewhere, the mobilization of
human rights discourse by Zapatista activists had similarly unpredictable
. 428
consequences. When human rights were taken up within local forms of
moral practice, their very conceptual foundations underwent a curious
shi. Because of existing folk understandings of the relationship between
norms and social and political agency, the Zapatistas did not accept certain
core assumptions about human rights, including the notion of universality
and the ontological implications of human rights as an embodied expres-
sion of what Isaiah Berlin (1958) described as “negative liberty.Instead,
they constructed a normatively distinct version of human rights that was
bounded by Zapatista cultural identity on the one hand, and, on the other,
made the very existence of Zapatista human rights contingent upon their
social and political ecacy. As Speed explains, the Zapatistas came to be-
lieve that their human rights existed only “in their exercise.e prob-
lematic implications of a contingent ontology of human rights would only
become apparent much later as the rebellion matured.
Finally, Galit Sarfaty’s recent research demonstrates that the ways in
which human rights discourse shapes moral agency are themselves shaped
by the wider ideological and geopolitical contexts in which the practice of
human rights takes place. Moreover, her ethnographic study (2012) of what
she calls “values in translation” within the World Bank shows the extent to
which the logics of human rights are coming to inuence moral practices
within dominant global institutions at the very center of the Fergusonian
“neoliberal world order.Sarfaty tracked the fortunes of a small group of
World Bank employees who were intent on adding the moral calculations
of human rights to the agenda of the Bank, which makes loans to coun-
tries that are oen dependent on commitments to reform national politi-
cal economies to bring them in line with prevailing market orthodoxy. e
programs of the Bank have been traditionally guided by cost–benet analy-
ses and a at model of economic reform and resource maximization, and
the rank-and-le of the Bank has always been dominated, not surprisingly,
by economists.
But in recent years, international lawyers and others with an interest in
human rights have played a more active role within the Bank. As Sarfaty
shows, this small cadre of Bank employees came into conict with the
structural imperatives of the Bank, which are codied in its governing char-
ters, called “articles of agreement.” For example, the branch of the Bank that
focuses on the world’s poorest countries – the International Development
Association, or IDA – is guided by a simple formula: to “promote economic
development, increase productivity and thus raise standards of living in
the less-developed areas of the world” (emphasis mine; World Bank 2011).
Because this formula is both simple (or simplistic) and also unambiguously
Human rights and moral agency 429
stated – a particular kind of economic development leads to increased eco-
nomic productivity, increased economic productivity necessarily leads to
higher standards of living it made it very dicult for human rights reform-
ers within the Bank to oer policy alternatives that were not clearly related
to “economic development.” e result was that the attempt to translate
the normative values of human rights into terms understandable to World
Bank economists and policy-makers remained very much incipient; much
of the clash over the competing, and unequally positioned, normative cul-
tures took place informally, in hallways and outside of ocial policy-setting
meetings. As Sarfaty’s study thus shows us, the poetic unpredictability in
the practice of human rights is the result of both wider social and political
constraints and the microdynamics of moral practice.
Conclusion: the dilemma of humanity
Of the dierent contemporary domains of theory and practice, it is per-
haps most appropriate that hard questions are put to the domains of human
rights. In their multiple expressions – institutional, ethical, cultural, philo-
sophical – human rights have become a particularly consequential hegem-
ony. Although the story of the modern human rights project is older and
more complicated than scholars like Samuel Moyn (2010) would have us
believe (see Bass 2010), there is no question that the end of the Cold War,
and the consolidation of what the anthropologist James Ferguson (2006)
has called the “neoliberal world order,” have created a conjuncture in which
the logics of human rights have come to shape the ethics of the present
in ways that go well beyond the modest imaginings of people like Eleanor
Roosevelt, who could only hope that a curious grapevine” would eventu-
ally allow human rights to “seep in even when governments are not so anx-
ious for it” (quoted in Korey 1998).
rough his study of the role of human rights in the process of truth and
reconciliation in early post-apartheid South Africa, Richard A. Wilson came
to the realization that a “sea-change in global politics” had taken place in
which human rights had become the only globalized “archetypal language
of democratic transition” (2001, 1). It is not that the end of the Cold War
meant that other normative languages were not available to social reform-
ers and political actors around the world; from the dierent historical per-
mutations of Marxism (including Maoism and Trotskyism) to religious
doctrines that commit followers to specic forms of temporal action, the
. 430
normative landscape remains contested, cluttered and marked by contra-
dictions. It is that this normative pluralism has been fundamentally recon-
gured through the emergence of human rights as the preeminent logic of
institutional reform and political subject-making.
At the same time, the language of human rights in the vernacular has
become a ubiquitous moral grammar for resisting vulnerability and respond-
ing to moral injury. As Jürgen Habermas has put it, “[n]otwithstanding their
European origins … [i]n Asia, Africa, and South America, [human rights
now] constitute the only language in which the opponents and victims of
murderous regimes and civil wars can raise their voices against violence,
repression, and persecution, against injuries to their human dignity” (2002,
153–154). Again, this is not to say that there are not other moral grammars
readily available to “opponents and victims of murderous regimes and civil
wars.But the formation of human rights over the last 20 years into some-
thing like the worlds only “super-normativity” has created lines of hierarchy
within the diversity of comparative ethical practice. Human rights exerts a
centripetal force within a range of post-conict processes and social and
political struggles, pulling the moral imagination toward it and obscuring
the possibility of other alternatives.
Nevertheless, the multiple logics of human rights remain contested, from
the philosophical bases for the assertion of human dignity (Kohen 2012;
Perry 2012), to the relationship between human rights and governance
(Faulk 2012), to the ethical status of human rights as a legitimate object for
critical scrutiny (Goodale 2012). e contested status” (Sarat and Kearns
2002) of human rights comes into a particular kind of focus, and takes on a
particular kind of urgency, in light of the “power and promise” (Kolodziej
2003) of human rights, the fact that the unfolding of the project of human
rights – especially aer the end of the Cold War – has taken place within
a broader (largely neoliberal) narrative of human betterment, social devel-
opment, and market democratization. is narrative is also vaguely uto-
pian. ere is nothing, as it were, beyond human rights. e realization
of “a world made new” (Glendon 2001) in terms of human rights is not
an intermediate step on the way to a Kantian world of perpetual peace.
Rather, the language of human rights is the language for the end of history”
(Fukuyama 1992); it is the normative signpost marking the end of ideology
and the emergence of human relations as such.
is makes it all the more necessary that the ways and means of human
rights receive a heightened degree of attention at just this precise moment
when the gap between the contested status of human rights and the power
Human rights and moral agency 431
of human rights in the contemporary world is at the widest it has ever
been. In this chapter, I examined one lingering dilemma that shadows this
separation, namely, the relationship between human rights and progress.
I began with the elemental question: Is human rights a force for progress?
For Fukuyama among many other liberal theorists, and for the legions of
activists all around the world, this is hardly a question worth asking at this
point, since the very idea of human rights itself is or has been, at least
since it was reconceived from the ashes of World War II a way of pro-
jecting a particular conception of progress by other means. But to ask the
question, Is the human rights project a force for progress?, is also to ask a
question that begs – and suggests an answer to – another, more problematic
question: What is progress? Since I did not mean to take up this prior ques-
tion at length which one must, if one is to adequately examine the sec-
ond – I instead reframed the problem of “progress” as a legitimate problem
of agency and examined another admittedly more obscure question:
How has the emergence of human rights as a hegemonic global normativity
shaped agency?
I argued that the presence of human rights in its dierent forms has been
most consequential to what might be described as “moral agency,” the ways
in which norms are deployed during moments of conict, social disrupture
and repair. is could be taken to be an essentially anthropological account
of normativity and indeed it was to the anthropology of human rights that
I turned as an empirical grounding for a broader set of reections on moral
agency in the age of human rights. What the ethnography of human rights
practices in dierent parts of the world revealed is the fact that human
rights have shaped what might be called “legacies of human experience”
in ways that have introduced new lines of contradiction into processes of
social change, political transition and economic reform. In other words,
the inevitable processes through which human rights are “vernacularized,
in Sally Engle Merry’s (2006) formulation, is leading to a set of ambiguous
judgments about the consequences of human rights for moral agency as
purposive social action.
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... As Merry suggests, the effectiveness of this process depends on the extent to which human rights discourse enables the disempowered to reinterpret their own situation as no longer inevitable, to one over which they can have some influence. As a result of this process, those directly affected can not only recognise the injustice in terms of human rights violations, but can come to formulate demands against powerholders to address the situation, beginning to enact their agency and political subjectivity in the face of a constraining context and with unpredictable results (Goodale 2013). Human rights claims is one but not the exclusive means of expressing this political subjectivity. ...
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Mexico’s partial democratic transition resulted in widespread violence, human rights violations, inequality, corruption and impunity, frustrating the hopes and aspirations of many sections of society. However, between 2011 and 2016 three major social movements emerged to challenge injustice and demand social change. The Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity, YoSoy132 and Ayotzinapa 43 were plural non- institutional social mobilizations empowering those victimised and marginalized in the defective democratic settlement. Human rights discourse and digital and social media have become embedded in political discourse and social practice around the world, but their meaning, uses and implications are complex and contested. This thesis examines their role in contentious collective movements in Mexico’s specific socio-political context. Qualitative case study research methods are used to examine their dynamic uses and meanings in the three mobilization processes in order to explore their enabling and constraining features. The thesis also draws on the author’s previous experience as an international human rights advocate and researcher working on Latin America. The research shows the diverse ways that human rights discourse and digital and social media feature in the practice and meaning of each movement. They are understood to enhance key aspects of civil society mobilization processes, such as strengthening the impact of trigger events and enabling the configuration of skilled support networks, but also to entail certain constraining logics which the movements grapple with to sustain contention. They contribute shaping qualities to the movements but do not monopolise or determine their practices or meaning. These are rooted in the dynamic adaptive approaches of plural actors engaging with their concrete social and political context, creatively using the resources available to mount collective public sphere challenges to the powerholders of Mexico’s partial democracy.
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Socio-economic rights are indispensable for a human being to live with dignity. Food, shelter, health, education, cultural identity, and other human rights are among them. Despite the fact that some economic, social, and cultural rights cannot be implemented immediately, states that have ratified the relevant treaties are nonetheless obligated to respect, protect, and fulfill these rights. The obligation to fulfill requires the state to actively take measures to provide the conditions that allow individuals to fully enjoy their right. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) is, however, the most comprehensive international treaty dealing with this field of human rights law. Bangladesh ratified the covenant in October 1998. This article focuses on the issues and complexities regarding non-compliance or non-fulfillment of ESC rights, the case of Bangladesh and other countries in relation to ICESCR reservation, modern constitutional practices, and everything that goes with it.
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The essay addresses the issue concerning intercultural translation and its relationship with human rights. This matter is analyzed by taking human rights as interfaces of metaphorical intercultural “transduction” rather than as parameters to assess the lawfulness of people’s behaviors or their legal systems of belonging. Such an approach is in tune with the intercultural law methodology. It implies a threefold reading of Otherness, which comprises the accomplishment of the following three passages: 1) Crossing narratives; 2) Intercultural cross-contextualizations; 3) Translations/Transactions. The completion of these tasks is designed to allow legal interpreters to go beyond the morphological appearance of the conduct of Others. The necessity of acquiring such an ability to look beyond appearances is coextensive with the need for self-distancing from one’s own cultural habits and patterns of judgment when Otherness is to be understood and then legally qualified. For this purpose, the intercultural approach includes, as one of its main requirements, learning to see morphological appearances as hermeneutical and phenomenological results rather than data. Each of these results is an outcome of a process; and every process unfolds by drawing a story. The narrative components of such experiential plots can be observed and considered as connotative elements of the above result, namely the socio-cultural datum. Subjects and objects are both dialectical ingredients and actors of the narrative traces that give rise to the semantic structure and morphological appearance of the datum. Understanding and translating Otherness requires, therefore, an effort to dis-compose the connotative landscapes underlying forms and appearances of phenomena (conduct, behaviors, words), so as to see the formation processes of data in their constitutive elements. Forms and their spatial fashion can be considered, then, through the lens of a temporal assessment capable of sequencing and contextualizing the constitutive elements of morphological appearances. This sort of microscopic gaze cast towards and through the connotative prehistory of facts involving cultural Otherness can open the way to a creative intercultural translation. Human rights can serve, at that point, as axiological and semantic interfaces able to reveal continuities between the connotative landscapes upon which cultural differences rely. The artistic avant-garde of the early XX century and, specifically, Paul Klee’s “figuration theory,” paved the way to this “art” of connotative dis-composition and creative re-composition. For this very reason, the essay undertakes, in its central section, a sort of journey through the imaginative and theoretical territories of Klee’s “figurational” thought. The essay contends that jurists and politicians may have much tolearn from the cognitive legacy of this great artist. This is because the intercultural conflicts that contemporary global society faces have primarily to do with—this is the central point—a form of cognitive un-readiness prior to rather than after conflicts of values. Following an analysis of Klee’s dis-compositional methodology, the essay proceeds with the application of an intercultural approach to practical issues, and specifically to the troubles of coexistence between cultural differences in urban micro-spaces. Lived spaces are, however, social spaces: as such they are targets of axiological, teleological and normative projections. Understanding the spaces of coexistence requires, therefore, an analysis of its connections with categorical and normative “scansions” that give “rhythm” to the uses of that space and, consequentially, mold the meaning of it. The reciprocal implications between subjectivity, spatiality and categorization can be effectively understood through the spectrum of a typical legal feature of housing coexistence: nuisance law. The outcome of such an analysis leads to the recognition of human rights and their intercultural use as interfaces/transducers suitable for conveying translation and interpenetration between physical and cultural, close and remote, spaces of experience. Such translational and transactional practices allow for the emersion of a space for multicultural coexistence endowed with the effectiveness inherent to the normativity of law. It appears as a chorological dimension, within which sign and matter, subject and space, categories and geography/topography, together, rearticulate their connotations along a continuum of sense and experience that finds in the condominium and its process of apart-ment (separation/seclusion) both a metaphor and a laboratory for the possibilities of global coexistence.
The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up to deal with the human rights violations of apartheid during the years 1960–1994. However, as Wilson shows, the TRC's restorative justice approach to healing the nation did not always serve the needs of communities at a local level. Based on extended anthropological fieldwork, this book illustrates the impact of the TRC in urban African communities in Johannesburg. While a religious constituency largely embraced the commission's religious-redemptive language of reconciliation, Wilson argues that the TRC had little effect on popular ideas of justice as retribution. This provocative study deepens our understanding of post-apartheid South Africa and the use of human rights discourse. It ends on a call for more cautious and realistic expectations about what human rights institutions can achieve in democratizing countries.
When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted 50 years ago, Eleanor Roosevelt, its principal architect, predicted that a 'curious grapevine' would carry its message behind barbed wire and stone walls. This book tells the extraordinary story of how NGOs became the 'grapevine' she anticipated - sharpening our awareness about the violations of human rights, 'shaming' its most notorious abusers and creating the international mechanisms to bring about implementation of the Declaration. Korey traces how NGO's laid the groundwork for the destruction of the Soviet empire, as well as of the apartheid system in South Africa, and established the principle of accountability for crimes against humanity. The notion of human rights has progressed from being a marginal part of international relations a half century ago to stand today as a critical element in diplomatic discourse and this book shows that it is the NGOs that have placed human rights at the centre of humankind's present and future agenda.