T18 – People Not Peoples

The focus of human rights is inevitably the person not the people to whom they belong

Download the complete article as a PDF

T18 intro – audio transcript.

This is not so easy an argument for a progressive to make.

The ‘person’ evokes an image of the isolated individual, separated from the world, identity-less in his or her desiccated, universalised humanity: the sort of libertarian nightmare we all attacked in the last track.  In contrast the ‘people’ to which persons belong – the various ‘peoples’ which make up the world – sound busy, energetic and richly human by contrast.  The idea has history on its side too, and sentiment as well.

Why exclude such a full version of what we are from the umbrella of human rights?

There is no doubt that the ‘rights of peoples’ is an idea that has done good emancipatory work in the past.  We would not be where we are today without it.  But ideas come and go – and this one is now ready to be pensioned off.

A Lively Past

It’s perfectly true that many of the highlights in the history of human rights have been about the rights of peoples

  • The American Declaration of Independence in 1776 was primarily about the freedom of the colonies from British rule.  (Maybe this is why the slaves and native-Americans didn’t matter when it came to constitution-building a few years later: liberation was for colonial peoples, not individual persons)
  • The Haitian equivalent (here in its original form, having been recently rediscovered in the British National Archives) is even more clearly committed to national, not individual liberty
  • Through the 19th century the large idea of nationalism competed with that of socialism for the attention of progressive minds everywhere: the heroes of the time were Garibaldi, the Klepht resistors to Ottoman rule in Greece, even constitutional ‘patriots’ like Ireland’s Charles Stewart Parnell.  Human rights – the big idea of the defeated French earlier in the century – drifted into redundancy, surfacing only from time to time and then as part of something else, the liberation of serfs and slaves for example, or the then fast emerging idea of humanitarian law
  • This concentration on the rights of peoples continued right through the first half of the twentieth century: it was a big part of the US President Wilson’s fourteen point plan which was to play such an important role in founding the League of Nations after the First World war.  All the talk was of national sovereignty for peoples and then protecting the rights of minorities within national systems

You might have thought that the Second World War would have dealt a deadly blow to minority rights – indeed to the sovereignty of states themselves – in favour of a new emphasis on human rights.  But nothing like this happened in any kind of straightforward way.  The background story is at common track one:

  • The original idea was for human rights for all and self-determination for the colonies, but as the war came to a close, powerful habits reasserted themselves and the new order that was erected disturbingly mirrored the old

This was evidenced by:

  • A reaffirmation of national sovereignty – but only for states lucky enough already to have it
  • A downgrading of human rights to the realm of the highly ethical but entirely unenforceable, viz the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • A dumping of the idea of national or peoples’ rights so far as the colonies were concerned

Breaking Free

Only the strength of the anti-colonial resistance to this stitch-up prevented its success.

The 1950s through to 1966 was a second great age for the rights of peoples, when the energies of nineteenth century nationalism were rediscovered and played out not on Europe’s narrow canvass but on the world stage.

  • India and Pakistan were early starters, their independence assured by 1947
  • The states of South-east Asia achieved their freedom from the mid 1940s on, often against the bitter opposition of the colonial powers (Dutch, French, British, and even – if we include the Philippines – the United States).  The Portuguese did not leave East Timor until 1975 and Britain Brunei only in 1984.
  • Human rights played no part in any of these struggles.  Its moment had come – and gone – in 1948.  These countries had to do it by themselves.

Membership of the United Nations General Assembly grew as more states came on board.  When the chance finally came for a now greatly expanded UN to complete its work on an international bill of rights, in 1966, unfinished business remained to be done.  Both the covenant on civil and political rights and the economic, social and cultural rights charter contain the same Article One:

  1. All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
  2. All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic co-operation, based upon the principle of mutual benefit, and international law. In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.
  3. The States Parties to the present Covenant, including those having responsibility for the administration of Non-Self-Governing and Trust Territories, shall promote the realization of the right of self-determination, and shall respect that right, in conformity with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations.

This is a wrong turning for human rights – entirely understandable (these new states had all been pretty well shafted by the old regime after the war) but a wrong turning nonetheless.

  • How can ‘peoples’ have a self? It is hard enough locating what a ‘self’ is in a single individual, much less a gathering of (maybe) millions of them?
  • And anyway what is a ‘people’?  How can we tell which crowd of people is a ‘people’ and which is not?  Is it a matter of who shouts the loudest?
  • If this is it, supposing the shouting is accompanied by shooting? Lots of people claim to ‘speak for their people’ – which ones do and which don’t?  Is it that the guy with the biggest gun is always going to be the guy with the biggest voice?
  • Whoever gets to speak for the ‘people’ right at the start of statehood wins the jackpot – this ‘leader of the people’ is free not only to develop the country in any direction at all but also to ‘determine’ the people’s ‘political status’ – but what does this mean?  Is any framework of government at all fine so long as the people’s leader says it is?  Can the people counter their ‘leader’ in any way at all, ever?

Human Rights Goes Wrong

This is going to sound very neo-conservative of me but as I say I think the international community made a disastrous mistake when it allowed the leaders of peoples (and hence states) to take over human rights like this, to claim that they had rights of their own held on behalf of their peoples which they would then be able happily to exercise as they saw fit – but without there being any mechanism for these so-called rights to be tested or challenged for by the world community.

Of course there were extenuating circumstances.

  • The UN Charter had itself erected the principle of sovereign power into an absolute of international relations, so these new states were just tapping into something that was already there
  • These covenants were signed at the height of the Cold War so from the point of view of the two big blocs what mattered so far as these new leaders were concerned was which side they were on, not how they behaved towards their people
  • In 1966 the idea of human rights had drifted right off the international radar into seeming redundancy, so common article one seemed neither here nor there in a couple of covenants expected soon to be forgotten.  The human rights movement had yet to begin the revival that has transformed how we see the term (see common track one again)
  • The anti-colonial movement generated heroes in the way that 19th Century nationalism had done – what right had western democracies (which had often fought bitterly against these men and women) now to say ‘we don’t trust you to run your country properly’?

Just because a disaster is excusable does not mean it is not a disaster.

We now know (at a bitter cost of millions of lost lives) what we had chosen to forget, that external domination is not the sole cause of human rights failure.

The evidence is everywhere that appalling human rights violations can and are visited on the ‘peoples’ of the world by their supposed ‘leaders.’  These ‘voices of the people’ mouth platitudes on their behalf while their security apparatus destroys those among the people who dare to resist their oppression.

Hosni Mubarak is Egyptian just as Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali is Tunisian.  It is decades of deep corruption too late for colonialism to work as an alibi for such indigenous kleptocracy.  (President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, discussed in my response to Track Seventeen) was especially brilliant on this in the question and answer session after his talk at LSE in October 2007.)

A Better Model

A true commitment to human rights demands we ditch this old idea of a blank cheque for dictators.

This does not require us to plunge back into isolated individualism.

As this project has been trying (relentlessly !) to show, there are better human rights models to hand:

  • Human rights promote the whole person, recognising the importance of the social and so stressing not just the dignity of the individual as such but also how this dignity is made manifest through association with others (speaking; talking; gathering; joining).
  • It also grasps that the person is made whole by the full expression of what he or she is – and that this is made up not of the person in isolation but rather the person embedded in  his or her place, with an identity, a cultural hinterland, a past (lived by others) that can authentically and rightly be called part of their self, their very ‘own’.
  • ‘Group rights’ work where they are part of this identity, where they draw attention to the richness and depth and multi-layered texture of what it is to be this particular person, maybe one with disabilities, or one who draws strength from a long-rooted linkage to a place, or one whose gender leaves them especially vulnerable to having their potential as a person left unrealised.
  • Human rights are concerned with the person, fully embedded in where he or she comes from while being free to go where he or she wants.

The flourishing human is not free of identity or culture, but nor is he or she trapped by them.  And   no self-styled leader of his or her ‘people’ can tell him or her what to do. Leadership is earned and re-earned again and again.  Human rights activists call this democracy. Conor Gearty

This entry was posted in 2 - Layers and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to T18 – People Not Peoples

  1. Favio Farinella says:

    A challenging post that made me think of the political importance of the individual and peoples, and about leaders too.

    Traditionally, the individual was considered just an object of international law, his/her link to the state -under the concept of nationality- being the only way to defend their interests though the institution of diplomatic protection. The political relationship was evolving from God to an elected King then to the nation and finally to the state, but the individual never counted. In a system then made up by states, only nation-states counted to the extent that they were powerful (sovereign) enough to attain their goals by the use of force if needed. Almost no individual had ever had the chance to attain a goal at the international level, unless he/she were in the position of a state leader, -with the exception of leaders of universal religions-.

    It was the human rights idea which appeared to change minds and giving the isolated individual certain status as a subject of IL.

    At this point, it seems that human rights has entered the political realm. The individual is free but decisions are taken by the group. When we wonder why the power of self determination is conceded to peoples, we are really discussing the domestic structure of each state -the way in which power is distributed among the bodies each state has-. The political organization of each state is not directly related to human rights, even tough it has a direct impact on it, since the recognition and effectiveness of rights are dependant on the political system the state adopts.
    Here, a classic question is raised: will the international system accept the result of self determination if it is embedded in cultural or religious beliefs and therefore, it leads to a non – democratic regime (maybe radical Muslim???).
    International law nothing says about it, the government of the state should be accepted if it reaches the criteria for a state to be recognized -territory, population, government and the capacity to enter into international relations-. But here the political answer will be maybe different, since the US and some big powers will hardly accept a group of radical Muslim governments around Israel, just to mention a current development.

    And now, leaders. A leader is imposed or a leader is accepted? If the latter, how the acceptance can be undoubtedly recognized? Elections do not work when a state is being born.
    At this point, how can we know in advance that a leader will be good enough from a human rights standard? It is impossible, so if he/she has the support of the ‘people’ (at least the ones who make up the shouting crowd) it will be ok.
    So it seems it is a matter of ‘activism’, the concept of ‘people’ is reduced to a more or less numerous group of individuals who have the time and minds to go everywhere and do anything (including acting violently) to attain their goals. In this way, that group of people will be called insurgent, then belligerent, and finally a movement of national liberation. Let´s see: they have gone from domestic illegality to an international legal recognition.
    At what point a domestic beloved leader turns to be an international dictator?. Is it continuity in power? Or maybe systematic violence? But if the majority of the people still support him? Lost of international legitimacy perhaps.

    Could it be that -maybe- we are setting too high standards for developing peoples and their new born states?, asking their leaders to behave as presidents and prime ministers of states with centuries of -western institutional- history? I am not justifying political violence, just saying that as experiences are really personal, maybe nations should also have to pass through their own experiences as new born states. And this takes years -massive rights violations too-. An option would be an international military-police force to assist peoples to get rid of dictators. This sometimes happens but due to considerations of real-politik, not human rights.

    To end with a bit of optimism, the only possible answer I can imagine relates to empower the individual, but for this to work, we shall be dealing with responsible, educated human beings with feelings of solidarity and empathy towards the others. But how to find this model in underdeveloped, lumpen societies? Maybe it is time for western societies who have the power to do so, to fully support and stress economic, social and cultural rights, setting aside for a time their perennial claims for freedoms and political liberties within societies which have a huge percentage of illiterate, famished people. These vulnerable societies need conditions to improve the individual capacities of their members -e.g. to learn to read and write- before given laws which guarantees them for instance, the freedom of expression.

    I feel a contradiction. Yes, human rights are concerned with the person, but unless up to now they have been historically advanced by and through peoples. ‘Peoples’ perform successful revolutions, not isolated individuals. Will we be able to change events?.

  2. Lily Megaw says:

    It is helpful to think of human rights as directed towards each individual, contextualised person because amongst other benefits it gives the individual agency when facing oppression and alienation. However, I think we need to recognise that human rights themselves are the rights of a people. Human rights are not tailored to each and every person, his/her self, background, experiences etc. They are blanket claims based on overarching assumptions about the person who belongs to the human being group, and the shared challenges the people in this group face. In this respect, group/people’s rights can be extremely important because they dig a little deeper, focussing on the experiences of a smaller people in a region, or in a specific domestic/cultural environment. Of course it goes against the entire idea of human rights if authoritarian leaders harness the rights discourse to create a set of people’s rights that shields their own violations, but this is a matter of enforcement and abuse of the human rights language, not proof that the notion of people’s rights is inadequate.

    The end of this track highlights that group rights work when they grasp the notion of the whole person as a social being who is contextually embedded. Indeed, it can be problematic when this is not the case, when the people in a group are assumed to be cohesive with identical experiences and needs and stripped of more specific contextual details. In women’s rights discussions this often comes up – assumed by some to be a cohesive group, many point out that the woman’s experience can be completely different for each woman since it depends on each woman’s completely different circumstances. But don’t we always fall into this trap? How is it practically possible for human rights to fully grasp each particular person without making assumptions about their identity, based on their membership to a group, whether that group is the human ‘people’ to which the human rights corpus pertains or a smaller, regional or gender-based grouping? We are working with universal rights standards here that necessarily obfuscate the differences between individuals. People’s rights and groups rights help by narrowing down the target rights group, making steps towards clarifying each individual’s situation.

  3. Richard Buck says:

    I subscribe to Conor’s better model for human rights. I like the idea of considering the whole person and the social milieu in which that person exists. We do not exist as isolated individuals and the people with the fewer social connections tend to be the most miserable people. I believe that suicide statistics demonstrate this proposition. Durkheim in the late 19th Century found a higher rate of suicide among Protestants than Catholics and he attributed this to a lack of hierarchical order and definitive creeds among the Protestants. People were left too much on their own in terms of behavioral norms and ontological beliefs. People were happier with the crutch of the Catholic Church. Here is my point: the social milieu must provide the person with a minimum level of support—a grounding, if you will. Fundamental to dignity of the person is grounding in a place, a society, an institution, a city, or something else. Along with this grounding comes restriction on behavior—self-imposed as the result of socialization into the group or actual external control. Whereas this grounding gives the person the wherewithal to face the world with a sense of personal dignity, it places conditions on his/her exercise of some of the rights we believe everyone should have. For instance, a woman from an Islamic background may wear a headscarf while performing her duties as a delegate in the country’s parliament. She is required to wear it by the norms of her society. She would not be seated as a delegate were she to show up bare-headed. Are her human rights being violated? When I started work years ago in a government bureau, I had to wear a coat and tie. Were my human rights violated? These instances may seem trivial, but the French consider it important enough to be the subject of law. Judging the extent to which the dignity of the person is supported in a country is much more difficult than cataloging individual human rights violations, but I argue that it is the proper way to judge human rights compliance. It may make the statistical portrayal of human rights in a country more difficult, but, I contend, not impossible.

  4. Paul Bernal says:

    Richard, I’m not sure Durkheim’s work on suicide is the best evidence you can provide to support that theory – Durkheim’s conclusions are highly contentious on a number of levels, not least the basic evidence that he used, as it relied on how deaths were reported, and Catholic suicides are often vastly underreported, described as accidents rather than suicide. I’m not saying I disagree with your conclusions – but I think you need different evidence to support them…

    Personally I’m very much in agreement with Conor over the people vs peoples argument: I have a lot of sympathy for the idea of peoples’ rights, but I think they are qualitatively different from human rights. Moreover, they do have the potential for significant downsides, with the potential to retrench ethnic differences and disputes, and to support some of the more negative sides to nationalism. For me, in a world with what seems to me to be an excess of this kind of nationalism, an emphasis on peoples seems perhaps misplaced.

  5. The concept of a ‘people’ often seems like a half-way house of social structure between the individual and the state. It has connotations of a unified grouping based on geographical origin, but without the legal recognition and power. The problem with the notion of a ‘people’ is that it is almost always self-identifying; there are no strict criteria for what constitutes a people, it is normally a case of knowing it when you see it. This distinctly fuzzy notion of a people makes it much harder to grant it rights; there is none of the security to be found in a hierarchy or officialdom. Of course, without this hierarchy or democratic mechanics it is much harder to produce valid, recognisable leaders who can enforce rights (or indeed be held accountable for their breach).

    Of course, there are many ‘peoples’ who do need protection, but this is another kettle of fish entirely. Some such groups (the Kurds spring to mind) may need protection from the states they live in, but to my mind these rights do not fall into the same category; this is the remit of international law in a far broader sense, rather than human rights per se.

    The focus of human rights needs to be on individuals, if only because it is individuals who need to most protection. An individual within a social grouping is far stronger than an individual alone. It is the lone person who needs to have their rights protected from others as they often have no other form of redress. Once you are part of a social grouping it is easier to find support in your community to right a wrong.

    The concept of individuals within and without their social groupings also raises the interesting point of when an individual has the right to choose to associate with a people. As Article 11 of the ECHR points out, we have a right to association, and this would presumably stretch to associating and identifying with a ‘people’. However, these peoples should not be the focus of human rights, merely the outcome. Similarly, some people may require protection from such organisations, when figures of power try to suffocate dissent without the state structure to protect the individuals rights to freedom of speech.

  6. Joe Hoover says:

    I worry that the line of argument pursued in this post sets up a straw man – simplification can help clarify key issues, but in this case I think it has conflated and obscured a number of important distinctions.

    First, there is the claim that “Human rights played no part in any of these struggles.” Is this right? Or more fundamentally, what does it mean to claim that human rights played no role in these struggles? If it is going to be asserted that human rights played a key role in earlier struggles for political independence, which allows the US and French revolutions to count in the history of human rights, there needs to be a clearer statement of the basis on which the judgment of the irrelevance of human right is based.

    Given that newly independent countries were involved with drafting the UDHR and the later covenants, and that these documents both contain specific references to human equality and self-determination, there seems to be a potential connection between human rights and independence movements, at least in terms of justifications. Where the connection more clearly fails is that human rights law doesn’t not became operative or determining at the international level – but for this to imply that human rights had no part in post-WWII independence struggles requires a much narrow account of human rights than has been used in these discussions before.

    I think being clearer on this is important because the idea of peoples’ rights is made guilty by association for the brutalities of leaders of states, parties and armies when it is not actually clear what the human rights of peoples are supposed to be. But where is it suggested that peoples’ rights guarantee the right of “leaders” to abuse, kill, deprive and oppress without outsiders poking their noses in – it’s not even clear that a convincing argument can be made that to speak of rights to self-determination of peoples enables such disastrous consequences.

    It is surely right that the hopes of many reformers were dashed in the post-war era, as the promise of more freedom, more democracy and more secure rights in world politics was confronted with the reality of the power politics, but there’s something unconvincing about the narrative that claims we had a human rights holiday between 1948 and sometime around 1975. What was it about this period that enabled brutal dictators and supposedly left human rights a beautiful but tattered revolutionary dream? It seems to me that the more convincing case is to be made for the marriage between the ideology of state sovereignty as non-interference and a bi-polar international politics that lead to a client-state/empire dynamic. State sovereignty has been the ideology that justifies indifference to the crimes within states, not peoples’ rights, and the worst tendencies of the absolute sovereignty norm were exacerbated by interventionist power keen to cut deals that enabled vile leaders that were willing to fly the team colours of the competing imperial powers when demanded.

    The idea of peoples’ rights, at least as articulated in the early UN documents, clearly connects the rights of self-determination, equality and independence to standards of domestic governance. My basic claim would be that peoples’ rights explicitly articulated in human rights documents and current in world politics are much closer to the “group” rights defended/appealed to at the end of the post – missing the distinction to be made between the rights of the sovereign and the rights of a people. It is this tension, I think, that sits at the centre of the UN Charter – if we were able to read the document without cynicism (realism?) perhaps it would read like a document that definitely articulated the means by which state-power could be rendered legitimate – namely by respecting human rights, as both the rights of individuals, groups and peoples/nations. Of course such a reading would be hopelessly naive, but we shouldn’t misplace the problem of non-intervention norms grounded in absolute sovereignty with respect for the rights of peoples as part of human rights.

    I would emphasize that I don’t think this clarification renders peoples’ rights unproblematic – a number of issues remain of vital importance: how are a people defined, who speaks for the people, how are individual rights balanced against the right of a people, where do we draw the lines between individuals, groups and peoples, etc. These are important questions, but we get no closer to dealing with them by suggesting that peoples’ rights enable dictators and the abuse of individuals.

    There is a I think a more philosophical problem that may go some way to understanding why peoples rights seem threatening, this is essentially an ontological problem. If we think of the individual as a rights holder, and the metaphors of language are important, than it is sensible to picture each actor possessing rights as importantly the similar, but this makes the idea of a social actor, of the people as a social body threatening and implausible. Peoples are not people, states are not individuals, they are powerful social structures and to privilege them above fragile human individuals seems a recipe for disaster. Not only does this metaphor of the rights holder push us toward the dangers of libertarianism, it also blunts our ability to think about human rights as encompassing more than questions of what the individual claims against and is owed by various social bodies.

    If we think of rights as expressive of relationships, and human rights as rights relating to universal forms of human relationships, then, potentially, the idea of peoples’ rights isn’t so problematic. And this seems to be some of the way toward the idea of group rights that the post ends on. If we carefully analyse what kind of relations we are talking about we can begin to make sense of a diverse set of human rights. For example self-determination and the equality of peoples is an important right when confronting and contesting relationships of an imperial and hierarchical nature, while the rights of indigenous peoples rights define just of relationships for groups existing within dominant social/legal structures, and the rights of peoples and of individuals interact as well, for example a right to leave (and to change) the community is necessary to ensure individuals are protected, which connects ideas of the rights of migrants, refugee, displaced peoples to duties for groups/peoples/states to find place for individuals. This doesn’t solve the problems that arise when considering human rights as encompassing both our individual and communal relationships, but it does clarify the problem… though this may be to some measure an alternative line or reasoning (and terminology) to reach a similar conclusion.

  7. Paul Bernal says:

    I’d like to add a personal perspective on this. When I think of the idea of a ‘people’, from a personal point of view it leaves me highly conflicted, because I’m not exactly sure what ‘people’ I belong to. On the face of it, to most people I appear English – I’m white, was born in Cambridge, educated through the English system, and speak with a very ‘English’ accent. However, I have far more than just English blood – I have a Irish grandfather (and one who has a huge influence on my life and my family), a Scots grandmother, and another grandmother of mixed Swedish/Finnish/Hungarian Jewish ancestry. My name has an originally Spanish Jewish origin – the family mythology is that we come from Spanish Jews who were converted to Catholicism by the Inquisition and then emigrated first to the Netherlands and then to Ireland. Looking further into my background you can find Americans, Austrians and more.

    So what ‘people’ do I belong to? Do we apply the notorious Tebbit ‘Cricket’ test? That would leave me even more confused, and I generally support the English cricket and football teams but the Irish rugby team – and because I’m married to a Romanian I support the Romanians in pretty much anything they compete in.

    So what does this mean? Well, to me it means that the idea of peoples’ rights needs to be considered very, very carefully – because unless considered carefully it can pigeonhole people, and create or exaggerate divisions. I don’t want to be pigeonholed. In some cases, of course, the idea of a people is very clear, and the need for that people to have rights is equally clear, but in a lot of cases precisely the opposite is the case.

    • Christina says:

      Paul we are in agreement again! which people do you belong to? The typical Australian ,is either a Vietnamese boat person, a chinese-russian jew educated at a Catholic school, an eastern european fleeing communism, or a german jew who turns their back on their country, their language, their history and their heritage, hi-jacked by the Nazis. Germaine Greer argues that she is an aboriginal. She is white, but being born in Australian, not English ? ethnically australian, is she?
      To me a people is that wondeful ethnic mix, when you contribute your heritage, and embrace the “new” life with its possibilities free from class, old school tie etc.
      it is usually the second generation who become Australian, the elders hanging on to the safety of the old ways which leads to conflicts between generations.
      If there are a “peoples” in Australia, it is the many, many, aboriginal tribles whose languages and heritage has been so badly treated and whose life expectancy is reduced.

      Paul I’m with you, let us start with the personal, and if we can define that, move outward to the global, perhaps skipping the national. 2 cheers for democracy? nationalism? No one said it was easy.

  8. Conor says, “…I think the international community made a disastrous mistake when it allowed the leaders of peoples (and hence states) to take over human rights like this, to claim that they had rights of their own held on behalf of their peoples which they would then be able happily to exercise as they saw fit – but without there being any mechanism for these so-called rights to be tested or challenged for by the world community.”

    I think Conor would be quite right in his assessment here if it was the case that human rights had been so perverted, but however the name of human rights may have been used in vain by some political leaders and regimes, I don’t think it is quite accurate to say that they were “taken over” in this way.

    While human rights discourse may allow for self determination and group rights, it seems to me (in line with the idea, I suppose, of the indivisibility of rights, itself not a particularly sound idea, but one which points to a unity of political and ideological purpose, if nothing else) that these rights, like all the other rights, are to be understood as part of a package. (This package is ultimately one which finds its expression in a liberal democratic political philosophy). Thus, the abuse of other rights in their name is not tenable. Therefore, whatever else the claims of the political regimes Conor nominates, they cannot properly be understood as human rights claims. Claims to self determination which include the abuse of the rights of citizens are not properly claims to self determination. It is not really a case of human rights going wrong, so much as it is a case of the vile using every available means they can to bluff the rest of us into accepting their terms. There is much politics here, but none of the mud sticks to human rights as a political doctrine, so it seems to me.

    But secondly, the quote from Conor above concludes with the implied claim that there was no mechanism to test or challenge these so called rights which dictators and others assumed for themselves. Again, I’m not sure that this is true, because it seems to me that the inconsistency between these self-assumed rights to degrade and abuse people, and the general edifice of human rights which is about protecting people, is such a mechanism – both in ideational terms, and in fact in terms of global politics. I think if there is a fault, the fault is not in the absence of a mechanism, but in the absence of a will to use it by those who liked to see themselves as its creators and defenders (a little like, perhaps, the failure of the USA and Obama to adequately use its variety of mechanisms (ideas, money, speeches, timely media releases) to adequately address Mubarak and his regime in Egypt.

    And so, with a number of the others who have commented here (notably Joe’s eloquent post), I find myself agreeing more with the end part of Conor’s post than the earlier part. Group rights can be the proper expression of rights which certain groups of people have by virtue of some specific characteristic that they share; notably though, these should be recognised as the rights of individuals in groups, not the rights of groups over the individuals within them. For me this is non-negotiable: the individual’s right to their own agency against any group which might like to think it knows best and coerce, this right is sacrosanct (and is made most explicit by the right to freedom of conscience and the right to exit).

  9. Colin Harvey says:

    I think Conor is right to be sceptical about entrepreneurial group-based leadership, which uses group-based and communal identity in ways that secure the integrity of the community (the people) first and everything else second, and ultimately erode the rights of individuals and other groups within those communities. The argument developed, which flows through many of these posts, seems to be about human rights without illusions, and playing attention to the context within which they are deployed and used in the world of politics and law. Like any other discourse, human rights discourse can be abused (a point that raises as many questions as it answers), and should we feel more confident about naming this practice when it happens?

    This seems connected to a wider debate around progressives not being naive about the world in which we live, and why the socially-democratically inspired tone of these posts is so appealing. Social democrats learned in the very hardest way in the 20th century to sound the alarms when progressive rhetoric is deployed in contexts where the individual voice is denied, and the reality is starkly different. They were often the staunchest defenders of civil liberties, even against some of those to whom they were ostensible connected in political terms. We cannot lapse into a forgetting in these contexts, as they appear in different guises today (isn’t this a key point, that rights-abusing practices on the massive scales of the 20th century sort will not come pre-packaged in the same guise and will not sign-post their own arrival – but some old and familiar signs may be there). How many progressives lined up in the 20th century with brutal rights-denying regimes which ruled under a banner of notionally progressive and world-changing practice?

    The debates may have transformed into different contexts today, but the realities underpinning them, and where human rights advocates should be in those debates have not, in my own view, changed. Rights-denying practice is not altered by utilitarian calculations and pleas from whatever quarter they come and however appealing the surrounding rhetoric may be (communally inspired or not).

    Rights needs, as Conor suggests, a more sophisticated frame of analysis when it comes to communal identities, particularly when it comes to addressing structural inequality, when regrettably some human rights advocates can end up in very odd places indeed.

    The focus of the post is on leaders of groups in a self-serving sense – whose rhetorial commitment to progressive rights-based approaches remains just that, and who rely on the repetition of valid historical greivances to secure and mould group identity – long after their sell-by date. This point is strong and well made.

    The post raises the following points for me:

    1. Is it potentially condescending to think that certain groups (and individuals within those groups) are the pawns of flawed and self-serving leaders? On a bottom-up analysis, might individuals within communities know, that only through determined and cohesive joint action – which links to rights arguments – can gains be made in the world of democratic politics (through political methods and legal methods). Politics thrives on collective action, which needs forms of group cohesion – however sophisticated these need to be to satisfy concerns about individual autonomy – and some person to represent these views. As Conor rightly notes at the end, this is surely about finding a different and better model for explaining and examining human rights and linking this idea to democratic representation (on a rolling and earned basis) rather than domination and control.

    2. Communal arguments often now link to the right to equality, and the ongoing debates about its meaning. An individualised rights-based approach, removed from context, risks lending support to precisely the libertarian approach criticised elsewhere. The challenge at the moment is often tackling in a determined way group-based forms of structural inequality which will only be defeated by determined action that accepts the need for group-based advantages. Human rights has developed sophisticated modern methods to recognise the need for these forms of determined action in the area of equality law and policy – but more work is needed. What is concerning is to hear human rights arguments deployed in essentially the wrong side of this debate about equality, and this is something we need to think about more. That is why human rights advocates do need a substantive view of what the purpose of a world of human rights is. How odd it would be to be for human rights and against social justice?

    3. If we are concerned about legalisation and judicialisation, do we need to pay more attention to democratic design. For example, on self determination and democratic rights, we find today quite sophisticated models of democracy which are designed to recognise communal identity, minority rights and the demands of participatory democracy. Even models of the right to self determination are evolving to recognise all the overlapping concerns. This is probably a bigger poinit, but if, for example, we want to move away from judicialisation of rights, do we need to have more to say about what a rights-based and respecting democratic system would look like. For example, at present, and in terms of voting in elections, there are systems in place which embed minority rule in electoral terms. How might we model our democratic regimes to ensure a correct balance, even in communal representational terms – in ways which respect a secure individual rights-based underpinning?

  10. Lily Megaw says:

    It’s interesting that this week we are questioning whether or not peoples should have human rights when two weeks ago we seriously considered giving trees rights…

    • Paul Bernal says:

      Ah, but wouldn’t the equivalent question be whether woods have rights rather than trees?

      I don’t think Conor (or anyone else here for that matter) is questioning whether people have rights, or even whether peoples have rights, but whether peoples’ rights are really part of human rights, and what the relationship is between peoples’ rights and individuals’ rights.

  11. Colin Harvey says:

    So much of this seems very context specific and case-by-case. How to hold on to a universalist commitment with meaning, when so much seems context specific? Again, do we return to the sort of substantive model of human rights defended by Conor in these posts. In other words, the interpretative and other struggles are witin the discourse and practice of human rights to win the argument for a particular conception of it with genuine content?

    Following on from above, and defining ‘group’ broadly, surely human rights advocates need to find a way of properly acknowledging that ‘peoples, communities, groups’ suffer precisely because of systematic disrespect for perceived and real identification and then accepting what might follow in terms of addressing this by targeted, determined and sophisticated action – that may often involve the group in having to mobilise in a rights-respecting and democratically oriented way. Advances are often made in this way for the particular group that seeks to break the mould, and for everyone else as well, both in setting down a marker and demonstrating what is possible and how it might be done. The legal form in which the gain is made may well in fact be applicable to a range of individuals and communities. Again, I worry that an atomised and individualistic approach to rights might find itself on objectively the wrong side of the progressive argument (for example, arguing for the individual rights of men in societal contexts where there is endemic and systematic structural inequality impacting on the majority community – women). But the dilemma arises when you flip that over, and think of communal contexts where group-based arguments lead to the violation and abuse of the rights of women (as individuals and as a group). May be less of a dilemma when you consider that only localised and determined mobilisation by women, or other similarly situated groups, will stand a chance of achieving change. If our commitment is to politics (including a politics of legality) then do we need to consider what makes for a successful politics of human rights, do we need to observe how some of the better (in outcomes terms) NGOs and other movements function and work. I suspect when we look more closely we will find all the tactics, strategies and struggles for hegemonic control that we might expect to find in a politics of rights. I suspect we also find particular communities and particular individuals making advances that advance group-based aims, but also create openings for others, and that advance the cause of a general rights-based society (understood in substantive terms).

  12. Richard Buck says:

    Joe Hoover is right in suggesting that human rights and rights of peoples both need to be analyzed in terms of relationships. While our analysis of relationships in specific cases can be quite cogent, generalizing to categories of relationships is often unconvincing. This is not necessarily bad, because human rights advocacy ultimately comes down to dealing with cases. There is danger in expecting our grand generalization to be applicable to specific cases.

    I also like what Joe Hoover said about a regime’s human rights record being a test of its legitimacy as a sovereign entity. It cannot legitimately put itself forward as the advocate of the rights of its peoples unless it meets the individual test. But who is dong the testing and who provides the punishment when the regime fails the test? This is where I think Colin Harvey makes a very good point when he talks about the importance of democratic design, using “sophisticated models of democracy” which can balance communal and minority rights. I think that we too often are satisfied with the trappings of democracy: an election is held and the person with the most votes takes office. We in the west have a lot to offer the rest of the world regarding democracy, not because we got it right, but because we have tried many types of democratic mechanisms and we have made lots of mistakes. It is important that the models used have substance in the human rights realm and minority rights be specifically protected. How should one promote these models of democracy? The U.S. method, invasion, clearly is not the way. The EU has a better version: make certain democratic measures a condition of entry into the Union. The positive-incentive route has got to be the rule. Sanctions ends up hurting the people you want to serve.

    Even in democratic regimes humans rights for those taking a minority position are fragile. The group can be a cruel task master. Conformity often does not need government sanction. The people will rein in the nonconformist. This is why the design of a democratic system needs some type of nondemocratic element to protect the nonconformist. This probably will not work at all unless there is a tradition of tolerance for nonconformity. I am not advocating surrender in the face of an opposite tradition, but it is a fight not easily won.

  13. Craig Valters says:

    The positive or negative historical consequences of the ‘peoples’ rights mentioned here surely do little to argue against their potential viability as human rights. Conor, I’m reminded of the logic of the argument you use against giving too much power to the judiciary – on which I agree with you – whereby whether we agree with something they do is of little importance to the grander scheme of the logic behind their power. We may agree with the outcome of Roe Vs Wade, but that doesn’t mean it was undertaken within the correct realm – the democratic political one. Similarly, whilst we may disagree with the appropriation of ‘peoples’ power, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good worth fighting for. Bad consequences don’t necessarily mean it’s the wrong direction, but that potential beneficial schemes of rights need strong protection and to be fought for.

    Additionally, I’m not sure where drawing on difficult philosophical notions of the self really gets us. Of course, extrapolating such difficulties to ‘peoples’ may not work, but we have to question whether that is of great importance. My background is in philosophy and I’ve never been comfortable with any notion of ‘natural’ or ‘fundamental’ rights. As you mention Conor, moving that to the level of ‘peoples’ is possibly difficult to defend and I fully agree. But, if human rights are a compassionate tool (which I see as the root of this project), then it needs to be able to modelled on the different ways in which ‘individuals’ view themselves – and central to many individuals identity is that as part of a group or peoples, something which I feel is worthy of protection (notwithstanding, as others have said the ability to challenge against the appropriation of this by claiming to be the ‘leader’ of such groups). We only need to look to the African Charter for evidence of such expression. Holding onto the individual in this way to me seems a regressive step – a way of human rights not encompassing the universality which makes it appealing.

    On a sombre end note (which displays the uncertainty of my opinions here), we always need to be aware where such ‘peoples’ rights are pure rhetoric. ‘All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.’ This, frankly, appears to be a bit of a joke when we see the way in which the global north rigs the economic globalization game in their own favour against the south. It also highlights the danger of instituting grandiose laws without having the political fight to get there in the first place; something Conor reminds us of astutely in the domestic sphere. To conclude, perhaps these conflicting arguments just go to show that peoples rights are only part of human rights if they are genuine – and often we are huge strides away from that.

    • Christina says:

      Power to the judiciary and law? Only when it is inclusive and truly representative of the diverse composition of the society for which it makes the law.
      Recognises the women, the vulnerable, the trafficked peoples, and the parliament need to have a much wider representation,.
      One woman in the high court?
      How many balck judges?
      and jury of peers? As our exposure to europe widens, we need to take account of their languages, their ethnicity and their talents. forme they have broaden the range of exciting foods which enriches our society. asmall but reasonant, not to say, tasty, metaphor.

  14. Colin Harvey says:

    This post also seems very timely in a week when the people of Egypt bravely stand up for their internationally recognised human rights, including the right to participate fully in the democratic life of their own country.

  15. Christina says:

    I’ve been wrestling for some time over the question of how human rights and climate change relate, whether one is more important than the other. Trees don’t have rights, but the indigenous peoples whose livelihood depends on their immediate livelihood do have rights, are they less important than inanimate objects?

    So I’ve had to go back to my first principles:
    Make it personal;
    Make at it global;
    What about the women?

    Refreshing my memory of Mary Robinson’s core values, things fall into place.

    Make it global: multi national corporations, which bypass the local laws, or buy off the governments. Governments which have gained power by what ever means, apparent democracy, or military regime. They have the power and the responsibility, should they chose.

    Make it personal: not peoples: Inuit, Aboriginal, Dalit, Nubian;
    up hold their rights, to their lands, livelihoods, and their environment, and Gaia will be served.

    Law and transparency, accountability.

    Peoples is an abstract principle. But if you ask me of the quality of life, of asylum seekers from war torn countries. tortured, families devastated.
    Their human rights, to life, liberty, freedom from torture, may be less important to them, than rights to water, health and education.

    Go global; Many of the human rights abuses, come about from driving principles of both corporations, and governments, often in debt, literally to the global corporations.

    Those principle are profit and greed, profit often at the expense of safety and human life, Mexican oil spill, Toyota brakes, QANTAS and Rolls Royce.

    MR speaks of inclusivity when looking at the Irish diaspora. I look from the Jewish Diaspora, each of us has a personal group of peoples who’s land rights, water rights, life rights, are threatened by war or greed.

    For me, the inclusivity is about vulnerable groups represented in governments, and corporations. In Australia is wasn’t even about compensation, though it should have been, it was recognizing the aboriginal rights and saying “sorry”.

    Mary Robinson believes in the rule of law, when it is held accountable, and is transparent.

    What about the women?
    The government is criticizing other cultures attitude to women , while ignoring their own Equality Act which Fawcett’s challenge, up held by the high court, states that the cuts disproportionately affect women by 85%.

    The equality act. Has it got teeth? Not since 1968 (equal pay). now its been referred to the EHRC; another commission. don’t hold your breath

    When I spoke of the importance of the brave investigative journalist, I omitted Heather Brooke of duck pond fame. She changed the face of British politics. she used the law, to the highest court, and was aided by Matrix chambers.

    Accountability and transparency. Baroness Scotland challenged the that there was a case to be heard, over the government ‘s knowledge of torture, and renditions and had to endure the ignominy of the press trawling through her life to find something to discredit her. But she kew what she believed.

    Two women who didn’t know their place.

    Mary Robinson says accountability and transparency.

    But who will hold them to account? Not the press barons who buy the government and dictate their terms.

    Freedom of the press: Its not about prying into our private lives, watching and monitoring our every move, on car, or foot, easy to round up the dissidents.
    Its about holding the rulers and the corporations to account, making their practice “mission statements” transparent and accountable, and holding them to the law.

    Brave and tenacious individuals in the tradition off investigative journalists., from Orwell, through , Fisk, Pilger, Brooke, Miller, Gellhorn, James Cameron. Wiki leaks is in a fine tradition, and it has shown us 2 key things, one the “collateral damage” killing of 2 Reuters journalists, and now where the great and good hide their taxes and the tax havens.
    Assange challenges anyone to say when any life has been put at risk, None has. But the injustices he exposes, are responsible for many, many lives.

    MR believes in the law. she has used it effectively, as did Heather Brooke, but we need a greater global body, none seem to be effective. So the people have spoken. the people have risen up to the injustice they perceive, in London, Cairo and Tunisia. The young people, without jobs, water, electricity and hope.
    A repeat of 1968?
    The future of rights is being hammered out in these very days.

  16. Lee says:

    The politics of the time necessitated the prominence of self-determination and it remains a tool allowing for international recognition of positive movements. It has never been intended that self’-determination is an end in itself. It is a tool for moving nations closer to a system in which human rights are protected and fulfilled. Between them, the documents propounding self-determination go on to consider a full range of rights. If the exercise of self-determination does not lead to these rights then it is not self-determination as conceived in these documents. The system of human rights as a whole, expressed in those documents, is failing to be delivered. There is no blank cheque.

    Moving to peoples’ rights in the group sense, as a western European I find it very difficult to be critical. You view group rights as something pertaining to the individual’s identity, character and social interactions, but still routed in the individual. I read the African Charter, the Endorois case, the Awas Tingni case and others as examples of genuine collective rights, rooted in the community not the individual. Should we tell the Africans and Latin Americans that they’ve mis-understood human rights?

    It surprises me that you are not strongly in favour of this concept of peoples’ rights as someone who seemed (last week) to support historical ideas of common land/property over modern individual property. You attacked libertarianism on this basis. You also support unions as part of the human rights movement. You may argue that unions are a vehicle for the expression and protection of the individual rights of their members – strength in numbers rather than creating a new species of rights in the African “peoples” sense. I think the line is less clear as will be demonstrated the series of political strikes we’re likely to see this year. Whether this is right or wrong is unimportant; the question is whether there is consistency between “up-ing” the unions as a human rights concept but “down-ing” peoples’ rights.

    Finally, there will always be questions like “what are peoples”, “how do you know when you’ve got a people”, “who should speak for them”, “aren’t peoples’ rights ethnically or nationalistically divisive” etc. But questions are asked of the nature, scope and justifications of individual rights, particularly around the fringes and in the difficult cases. It doesn’t stop us feeling comfortable with the good done by the core of individual rights and we shouldn’t dismiss peoples’ rights, or their place in the greater human rights project, because we don’t have clear answers to all of the difficult questions.

  17. Jose-Manuel Barreto says:

    For the last weeks I have been silent –not absent- from this very interesting experiment among other reasons because I was mainly in agreement with the ideas Conor presented in his recent essays. But it appears that disagreement is what takes me to write in this blog, so here they go my comments on Trail 18.

    The main reservation Conor has against the very old tradition –at least 500 years old- of the rights of peoples as human rights is the strong link, or even the identity, he finds between the right to self-determination and the abuse of civil and political rights by dictators in the Third World. The widespread abuses committed by authoritarian regimes all over the South during the last decades are events of utmost gravity in moral, humanitarian and political terms. However, although the right to self-determination has been used a number of times as a trick to fend off intervention of the UN and human rights NGO’s, and the accusations of powerful Western governments, Conor’s criticism of peoples’ rights appears to be misplaced.

    Lily Megan and Joe Hoover have already made the point: problems that can be attributed to the right to self-determination have to do with abuse of its terms, or with the way in which it is enforced, rather than with the content or the definition of the right itself. Self-determination does not authorise killings, torture or disappearances ordered by tyrants, military regimes, old-fashioned kings, charismatic leaders or national liberation movements – not even by democratically elected presidents or prime-ministers. Nor self-determination’ subject is ‘a leader of the people’, but the ‘people’. Neither international treaties allow for leaders or states to ‘take over’ the right to self-determination, least ‘human rights’ in general. It has been the politics of oppression and corruption of governments and military chiefs, in conjunction with the vested interests of the main actors of the Cold War, what has conducted to abusive appeals to self-determination. Paradoxically, and not less importantly, the exclusive focus on the fight for decolonisation has led the leaders of new independent countries and of Third-World organisations such as the Movement of the Non-Aligned Countries, the Group of the 77 and the Organisation of African Unity, to put aside and to stamp on the civil and political rights of those liberated –Mugabe is a perfect case.

    But another historical context can offer a different reading of the role of self-determination and the international community. Late modern empires have sustained tyrants against the right of peoples to self-determination. I am thinking of the dictatorships that populated Central and South America since the 1950’s to the 1980’s: they were installed in office, or aided, or recognised, or their police and military trained in torture, mainly by imperialist US and countless interventions. It is true that those regimes used self-determination as a shield and a cover-up for horrific human rights violations. But it was also crucial that superpowers did wipe away the claims for self-determination and against imperialism made by the peoples subjected to the consequences of what Joe Hoover refers to as the ‘client state/empire dynamic’.

    But there are other aspects of Conor’s argument in need of attention. It should be noticed that the essay is not only against the right to self-determination. The overall target of the critique is the fact that peoples have been adopted as subjects of rights –as being entitled to rights. The objective is not only to exclude self-determination from the corpus of human rights, but to justify the disavowal of one of the modern subjects of rights: peoples. The reasons of the call for getting rid of people’s rights focuses on the bad practice of one single right i.e. self-determination. We are here in front of a conflation of two different concepts, or even of two realms of concepts: the right to self-determination and the issue of peoples as subjects of rights. This raises the question of the consistency of this line of reasoning: even if we were to conclude that the content of the right to self-determination implies the negation of other rights like the right to life, we would be making an unjustified extrapolation if we would go beyond excluding self-determination, and reaching the conclusion that peoples should be discarded as one of the subjects of rights.

    This is not only problematic in other ways. The right to self-determination protects the freedom of peoples to decide on political status, on economic, social and cultural development, on natural resources and on means of subsistence. Assuming these principles are worthy, no meaningful protection would be given to them if they were left to individuals –even if single persons are considered embedded in a social context- to fight against the advances of empires, powerful state neighbours or transnational corporations. Besides, peoples as subjects of rights are also crucial for the existence of other rights such as the right to development, environmental rights and the rights of indigenous peoples, as well as -in general- third generation rights. And what about the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights? Erasing peoples as subjects of rights could turn into the collapse of at least part of the architecture of human rights.

    The logic of exclusion –the very modern way of thinking in binary terms or insoluble contradictions- does not appear the best way to proceed in the realm of corpus of human rights. Human rights are rather a field of tensions between competing rightful interests, which nevertheless point to the all encompassing objective of achieving dignity and equality, and social and global justice. With Joe Hoover I think that the logic of balancing and weighting in particular cases and circumstances appears more appropriate in this arena. As with every single right –freedom of expression, freedom of religion, or the principle of the majority, etc- self-determination can also be interpreted in the wrong way, or abused in practice. But this does not justify getting rid of these rights, or of the individual as subject of rights.

    Finally, there is also the possibility of examining this topic in connection to alternative accounts of the history of human rights. If I may, for elaborating my argument here I would like to rely on a few paragraphs I wrote for Track 1. There, I contrasted the Eurocentric approach to rights -which as far as I can see is also Conor’s understanding of rights- with Third-World or anti-colonial traditions of human rights, and suggested to continue and to open even more the dialogue:

    [The European and today dominant conception of human rights]… ‘revolves around the issue of the relation between individuals and governments in the landscape of the nation-state: how to protect the freedom of citizens in front of the abusive power of the state, and how to satisfy the basic needs of the population by the intervention of the welfare state.
    But another history of human rights can be and needs to be told. Since the very beginning of modernity with the emergence of capitalism in Europe and the discovery and conquest of America, another stream of the history of human rights unfurled beyond the geography of Europe. In this different scenario -that of the relation between empires and colonies in the context of the world system- human rights also played a role, this time in protecting the colonised from the violence and domination of conquistadors and imperial armies, and in pursuing and achieving independence and self-determination.

    This alternative history of human rights -which is not mention in the ‘Heretical History’ except for some tangential reference to the right to self-determination- can start with the works and the writings of Bartolome de las Casas in the Sixteenth century. On the basis of his interpretation of the doctrine of natural law, Las Casas denounced the torture and massacre of indigenous in the Americas, justified their human condition and their ‘right to have rights’, as well as their right to decide as peoples on their authorities. Such a distinct and supplementary account can continue with the struggle against slavery throughout the Americas and Europe fought by Africans and their descendants, including Otobah Qugoano and Olahuda Equinao –slaves turned free man and known by their books describing the plight of the slaves. It is also possible to refer here to the wars of independence in the Americas in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries: the War of Independence fought by the British colonies in North America –interpreted not only as a bourgeois revolution as it is usually done-; the Haitian Revolution and its appeal to the Rights of Man against the French Revolution and Napoleon; the wars of independence throughout Central and South America, whose constitutions had a first title dedicated to the ‘rights of man in society’. This Non-Eurocentric version of the history of rights could also mention the Mexican Revolution which, before the Russian Revolution, enacted land rights and social rights.

    The history of rights in second half of the Twentieth century told from the perspective of the colonized –and not only of the individual and the citizen- includes the formidable impact of the process decolonization of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Middle East had on the international law of human rights: Political independence from colonial rule was transformed into a principle of the Charter of United Nations, and a number of human rights instruments were adopted including the UN Declaration on Decolonisation, the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, article 1 of the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Taken as a whole, this set of treaties created a completely new terrain for international human rights law…

    This takes me to your opinion [Conor’s] and your endorsement of Moyn’s position regarding decolonization and self-determination. In one of your interventions at the launching of the project, you referred to the inclusion of self-determination in Article 1 of both Covenants, but put this aside saying this ‘was not our history’. This raises the question of whether or not the history of human rights outside Europe can be part of the general history of human rights. You also write in this track [1] that self-determination ‘stills fits very uneasily into a system of rights based on individual rather than collective dignity’. This points rightly to the tension existing between individual and collective rights -which does not only come from the sphere of the rights of peoples, but also of from the socialist European tradition of rights. However, does the emphasis on individual rights of the dominant tradition exclude or make strange to human rights collective rights like the right to development and self-determination? Or could the hegemonic individualistic understanding of rights open itself to other interpretations and establish a complex relation with them in which contradiction, coexistence and complementarities are possible? Can the Eurocentric conceptualisation of rights re-think itself radically through a dialogue with other traditions? ’