T2 – Taking To The Streets – Responses

Download the responses article as a PDF

T2 Responses intro video – audio transcript.

Democracy And Violence

I think that Paul is right in his second post that once we see human rights as a kind of politics (the point of track one), we do end up thinking of it as a subject which, like any other kind of politics, can be practised in a variety of ways. Inevitably, some of these can entail the deployment of violence.  But as Zoe points out, this is not to legitimise such violence, it is mainly to set up a discussion about its legitimacy.

Thinking Hard About Political Violence

This is where Anthony’s post is so helpful.  He really narrows the ground down and can be read as a powerful fleshing out of what I have been trying to say in the track.  If we leave aside the force/violence distinction and don’t bother with the distraction of the language of terrorism (on which more in a moment), we are indeed left with particular situations which cry out to be assessed for themselves and not by reference to this or that grand theory.

Also Anthony is right to distinguish situations of sporadic breaches of human rights with their wholesale destruction, and to remind us that the right to rebel does not necessarily entail the use of violence in the course of that rebellion.

It strikes me reading this and many of the other helpful posts on this point that the human rights activist needs to be very reluctant to go down this route but that in extremis it can be from a human rights point of view both right and necessary.  But it is hard if not impossible to say more in the abstract other than perhaps just this – human rights is a peace-loving subject but not a pacifist one and while proponents of human rights appreciate order they also relish justice and know that sometimes it can only be achieved via turmoil, even (there being nothing else) bloody turmoil.

As Holly puts it, ‘in extreme cases violence could be legitimately used’ but the thrust of my comment just now is that we cannot pronounce in advance on what is meant by extreme – it is a creature of so many variables.  Guidelines are risky I think.  As Paul asks, ‘who makes them?’  They can start as restrictions on violence and then get read in a way that makes them a platform for the kind of excesses their drafters never contemplated: language is always vulnerable to bad-faith interpretation, especially when their meaning is not made subject to some independent referee (ie is outside the legal framework as such guidelines would probably need to be).

I remember being very impressed by Tony Blair’s principled argument for intervention in domestic affairs in his Chicago speech delivered at the height of the NATO action in Kosovo – but less impressed when exactly the same leader seemed to put aside all these guidelines when it came to Iraq.  Yet no-one seemed to have the authority (or the guts?) to stop him.

Types Of Political Violence

There is a spectrum of this kind of violence – it can be revolutionary/insurrectionist as Charlotte reminds us in her first post or it can be narrow and subversive.  The first is about mobs and turmoil. It is as Charlotte says ‘sudden and innately disorganised.’

(By the way Idealist’s remarks about the power of the people to ‘create new norms and coerce the government into action’ came to my mind here and speaking of Lady Thatcher as Idealist did, there is the poll tax violence that some of us recall – moral violence in a just cause?  Is something similar going to happen today, in a Britain which seems similarly intent on attacking the poor?)

The second kind of violence is in marked contrast to this – it is about targeted campaigns under the radar of society: Baader-Meinhof and the Red Brigades and the IRA and so on.

And Where Does Terrorism Come In?

Reacting to Favio and Charlotte, I don’t think it ever helps to call either insurrectionist or even subversive violence ‘terrorist’.  As I’ll be saying in a later track and perhaps also a common track I have never believed that the language of terrorism adds much to this debate – it is a kind of abusive description that is fired around the place in discussions about violence but it serves only to obscure the key issue in my view – namely when is it right to be violent for political ends and when is it not.

Incidentally I also think it is wrong to call a state a terrorist state for the same reason. Interestingly by way of response to Charlotte’s second post, ‘terrorism’ as such is not a crime in many places – it is a kind of conduct which permits executive power to be deployed in all sorts of strong ways once it is suspected that such conduct is or might be about to occur.  So it is a weapon available to the state to unlock new and additional powers – that is its attraction to many democratic authorities.

After all what terrorists do is usually also already criminal – it is the extra powers that terrorism law gives them that makes this law so attractive – this is another reason I am against the language of terrorism as I simply don’t believe such laws are necessary.

The Enemies Of An Open Society

I disagree with Favio that democratic leadership’s tendency to identify any opposition to its policies with a threat to democracy itself is ‘the biggest threat to our civil and political rights’.  It is a problem to be sure but I have long fought against being too quick to assume that democratic leaders are as bad as our commitment to freedom allows us to say they are.  (Anthony makes a similar point very well towards the end of his post.) And towards the end of his remarks, Favio sets out the various ways in which – outside of party politics and narrow legislative arenas – civil and political rights can be defended, the NGOs, the courts and so on.

I think culture is a very big deal here, so I was delighted to read what Louise Thompson had to say – the link between art and culture on the one hand and political freedom on the other is rarely made so it is great to see it being so eloquently expressed here.  I couldn’t agree more.


Paul makes a provocative remark about Israel.  The whole Palestine issue will need to be dealt with in a later track, I appreciate that. For now I would say that there are two kinds of subversive violence that produce national leaders later.  The first is where the violence is part of the mainstream revolutionary movement which has generated the push for freedom, and the second is when it is peripheral to that movement – more radical, more violent and, well, more indiscriminate.  Often the leaders of the first despise the promoters of the second.

This was how it was in what became Israel in the period 1945-48.  And whereas we know that the main revolutionary movement secured power initially, the fringe figures took over in 1977 – Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir – with I would say pretty disastrous results, for human rights and much else.  But that as I say takes us on a different story.

And Some Other Ideas We Need To Return To

Ronan McCrea makes some very strong points about the UN: these will be the centre piece of my next common track which I will be putting out on Monday – its title is ‘The UN and Human Rights: Time for a Great Awakening’, and it will be based on the talk I gave at Leicester on Wednesday evening.

I’ll be dealing with ethics in a later track so hope to take on Damien’s important points then (echoed by Charlotte and Anthony): I do appreciate these must not be long delayed so perhaps I’ll get to this next week or the week after.

And Carl – yes absolutely spot on about freedom-loving slave owners.  Watch out for my track on the virtue of hypocrisy (well not quite, but almost) coming soon.

As Zoe says ‘Argh, so many questions!’  But keep them coming!

This entry was posted in 1 - Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to T2 – Taking To The Streets – Responses

  1. Jose-Manuel Barreto says:

    It is very timely to consider the question of the legitimacy of violence for securing or fighting for human rights. The justification of the invasion of Iraq had to do in part with the question of stopping Sadam Hussein’s complete disregard for the rights of Iraq’s population. Human rights were in this way instrumentalised to the interests of the US. Violent interventions like this put human rights in crisis as they transform rights into tools for neocolonial domination, and into justification or cover up of the killing and torture of thousands of civilians -the very same people the invaders said they wanted to protect, –as the Iraq war logs have testified this week.

    In general the essay and the piece on the responses oppose the use of violence in the fight for human rights. However, it seems to me, the track is a bit unbalanced: it allows violence ‘to get away with murder… and terror’; it does not highlight the inner contradictions between human rights and violence, nor the tradition and the possibilities of non-violence in the struggle for human rights.

    It is true: We are used to relate human rights to violence. We have in mind such a relationship when we think of the ‘Rights of Man’ and the French Revolution, and of the Declaration of Independence and the war the US colonies fought against the British Crown. But there is also the possibility of questioning such origins –and such a way of thinking. Regarding the French Declaration, we can avoid presuming that the number of victims, mainly civilians, was just part of the unavoidable consequences of an insurrection –as we frequently assume in relation to the ‘collateral damage’ of contemporary wars. There is also the question of the nature of the other kind of violence unleashed once the ‘Rights of Man’ were adopted: the Terror. While children were learning by heart every article of the Declaration, Robespierre, Saint Just and the other fanatics of the Committee of Public Health, were sending to the guillotine hundreds or thousands of human beings, mainly working class people, and leaders of the Revolution who, like Danton, spoke publicly against the Terror. This was not just an accident of the Revolution, a misdemeanor or a small contradiction. It is possible to say that at the very moment in which the ‘Manifesto of Modernity’ was proclaimed, the Revolution, human rights and modernity itself were already in crisis: the absolute and absolutist contempt for the ‘Rights of Man’ was taken to extremes with the killing all of those who dare to disagree with Robespierre. It is not ethically possible to fight for human rights by destroying human rights. A human rights revolution cannot be sustained by a regime of terror. At the time, Kant took the wrong path of action and thinking: while receiving with enthusiasm the news of the Revolution, and hailing it as a sign of the moral progress of humanity, he preferred not to condemn the Terror. Decades later, Hegel did the opposite by denouncing the Terror as the complete destruction of the singular or the individual. More than two hundred years later, we have also the opportunity of assessing the Revolution and of questioning the validity of involvement of violence in pursuing human rights.

    While the article brings into consideration examples in which human rights and violence have been partners, it does not expand on the reasons why human rights are internally and logically pacifist. It is not only that human rights activists are peace-loving people. A sharp contradiction exists between violence and human rights. The right to life stands in the first row of those that entail the maximum degree of respect. The right to life is precisely a cry and a shield against violence. Human rights have been born through the ages and different philosophical incarnations as a response to all forms of violence. And a human rights politics cannot fall into the today common degenerated politics of adopting any means to attain ends. The aim of securing human rights does not justify the means of violating human rights without destroying the credibility, the utopia and the emancipatory thrust of human rights. Human rights contain and prescribe a different way of achieving rights: freedom of thinking and of speech; freedom of association and of demonstrating; the judicial remedies; the right to vote and to be elected. Political action is at the core of human rights politics. Public controversy and political debate are the ways for achieving human rights.

    The track does not allow enough consideration of the history of the alliance between human rights and peace. There is a well populated tradition of human rights struggles that did not make use of violence. ‘The Heretical History’ essay mentions the movements for freedom in Communist Europe and in South America as examples of human rights struggles, but it does not refer to their commitment to peaceful means. The dissidents in Communist Europe and the movements that contributed to put an end to communist totalitarianism were peaceful. The same can be said of those human rights movements in South America born under dictatorships. The decision about fighting for human rights made in the 1970’s and 1980’s in the context of the authoritarian regimes was made as an ‘alternative’ to that of enrolling in the guerrillas or resorting to terrorism. This was not only the consequence of the crisis of Marxism, and of the decline and disintegration of communist regimes. It was a decision of individuals, social movements and political parties not to go down the way of the armed struggle. But it was also a choice ‘against’ violence and its consequence for human rights: it was ethically immoral and politically unsustainable to reclaim justice while violating rights, or to reclaim rights for some while denying them to others –I am having in mind the Colombian history of the last decades. This is the phenomenon of guerrilla movements of Marxist inspiration that justifie violent actions by reminding us of the history of repression unleashed by authoritarian regimes. This is a tactical deployment of human rights talk to justify the violation of the rights of the enemy, and the rights of the people they say they are fighting for -peasants, the poor, indigenous, trade unionists, children and women.

    In signaling the strong link between rights and peaceful means, the essay could also have mentioned ‘non-violent resistance’ and its possibilities for achieving rights as those of self-determination. Gandhi and his application in the field of politics of spiritual or religious concepts like those of ‘truth’ or ‘satyagraha’ constitute not only an alternative to violence, but also successful means for securing self-determination -even when fighting against powerful empires.

    On the other hand, the track generally opposes the use of violence in the fight for human rights. It completely rejects such a possibility in the context of democratic regimes, and admits violence is justifiable only on two accounts: as a last resource in extreme circumstances, and in instances of ‘rogue’ regimes such as those of North Korea and Burma, cases in which, it is suggested, ‘violence fits in our subject’. However, two objections can be formulated in this respect. When dealing with the question of circumstances that justify violence as a last resource, the article and the responses prefer the option of avoiding the definition of such situations –fearing words can be manipulated to expand the justification of violence. This tactical thinking can be ineffective: in any situation in which the use of violence is at stake, a definition of the extreme circumstances that justify it will need to be made, and the restrictive approach to violence can be bypassed anyway. A plain ban or a total rejection of violence could be more successful when attempting to reduce the use of violence to a minimum. In the second place, admitting violence in order to stop widespread human rights abuses by regimes like those of North Korea and Burma, opens pandora’s box to new invasions and wars like that of Iraq. It also would put into evidence the selectivity and double standards behind the rhetoric of human rights in international affairs: if the ‘rogue’ states mentioned can be attacked, why not other with similar records like China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Colombia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, etc.?

  2. Jose-Manuel Barreto says:

    … sorry, some additional words: Together with Gandhi, as examples of struggles for human rights through non-violence, Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement need to be mentioned, as it is the Dalai Lama and the fight of the Tibetan people against the abuses committed by the Chinese Army and Communist Party.

  3. Ramya Nagesh says:

    As history can show, whenever internal violence has been used to overthrow oppressive / tyrannical regimes, the result is a regime that is just as bad, or perhaps worse (e.g. Al Bashir). The things people look for in a leader when they’re in desperation are rarely the same things they look for when they have the peace to think…that’s why we’re trying to build a working international human rights system to try and prevent people feeling that this is the only choice they have left.

Comments are closed.