T2 – Taking To The Streets

Human rights can be revolutionary but it must always be emancipatory

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Track 2 Intro – audio transcript

It was once entirely normal to link human rights to violence.  The idea’s first great highpoint, at the end of the 18th century, was a direct result of its deployment in two violent quarrels.  The American colonists defeated the British Crown in order that they might give effect to certain unalienable rights, which included ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’: Declaration of Independence 1776. And a  few years later the French freed themselves from despotism so that they might enjoy the rights of man and of the citizen that they thought of as part of their nature: Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

Both events were bloody: wars fought, men, women and civilians died, in vast numbers especially in France.

This idea of human rights as sometimes necessitating violence has stayed with us.  It is one of the rationales of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights  — the preamble to that document states that the protection of human rights via the rule of law is essential ‘if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort to rebellion against tyranny and oppression’: Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

There is a disturbing irony here: since the Declaration is merely that, a declaration – in other words not a legally enforceable document of any sort – does it follow that the document is declaring itself useless right from the start and therefore implicitly calling upon the world’s people to assert themselves more directly when faced with tyranny and oppression?  We don’t have to go this far to see that a world in which human rights are notionally preserved but never properly or adequately enforced is not a world in which the dignity of man is guaranteed: see my first common track Human Right: An Heretical History.

As the Universal Declaration itself makes clear, the rights we are concerned with here are individual rights, civil, political, social and economic, and not the rights of peoples as such – a different (although important) idea which has crept into human rights thinking and which needs to be expunged. I will be talking about this in Track Six.

When To Make Revolution

In the 1970s, a group of serious scholars and political figures in the United States opposed the detente with the Soviet Union that was the main plank of US policy under President Nixon.  They believed that those under Soviet influence were as entitled to freedom as the rest of us.  Originally Democrats, they grew into what became known as Neo-Conservatives and went on to enjoy vast influence during the presidency of George W Bush.  There was much talk of expanding the frontiers of democracy.  And then of course there was the toppling of Saddam.

The catastrophe of the Iraq war – with its spurious deployment of human rights protection by bad faith politicians – should not allow us off the hook when it comes to considering where violence fits in our subject.  It cannot be right that proponents of universal human rights allow themselves to be manoeuvred into a corner in which they find themselves forced to accept the primacy of national sovereignty, of the right of the rulers of Burma, North Korea and many other dismally authoritarian places to govern unchecked.

At the same time Iraq is a reminder of how not to act.  The UN may be a sclerotic organisation slow to act and driven by the self-interest of the permanent five on the Security Council.  But it is all we have – beyond it lies a jungle of chaos and violence, a state of nature worse than nature.

What then to do?

  • The primary responsibility for a human rights revolution rests on the people or peoples subject to extreme violation of their rights by their government, a government that we should recall has rendered itself illegitimate by the extent and range of its disregard of the basic principles upon which our subject is constructed: respect for human dignity, accountability to law and government by the people.
  • Human rights supporters everywhere and governments with a commitment to human rights should do everything possible to nurture human rights principles in such oppressed places: they should support activists to the best of their abilities, be it a postcard to a prison, an illicit radio station that is quietly funded, or an internet facility that is protected from destruction.
  • Mass protests against oppressive leaderships abroad has a place, as does intelligent use of burgeoning systems of direct criminal accountability for egregious international crimes. Sometimes interference in the domestic affairs of other states ins a good and necessary thing, and often it will rightly be covert and cloaked in deniability.
  • Governments can and should do more, via the United Nations and in bilateral and multilateral trading agreements to pressure inhuman regimes for change.  This can involve ‘smart sanctions’ and in extremis military action, though only with the authority of the UN organs.
  • Enormous efforts should be made to give the UN a stronger remit in relation to actions on human rights. (I return to this in Track 16, and in a Common Track coming up next week, ‘The UN and Human Rights: Time for a Great Awakening’.
  • There is a role as well for regional enforcement of human rights standards, allowing for a more intrusive engagement with human-rights-offending regimes where it is its neighbours who are making this point, and not Geneva and New York speaking from afar.

And Violence From Within?

The Nobel Peace Prize went to Liu Xiaobo specifically because his protest has been peaceful.  But he is in jail and many of the Tiananmen Square protestors are dead.  Nelson Mandela is still alive and a glorious hero across the world – but he did not get the Nobel Prize until it no longer mattered, in 1993.  His crime was to have refused to rule out violence in the pursuit of freedom.

Violence can sometimes work to release the energy of an oppressed community.  It is easier to manage when it flows out of a patriotic front, drawing support from across society and pushing for a new indigenous order to replace foreign occupation.  That is why nationalist struggles have proved best at controlling afterwards the violence that liberation has necessarily unlocked.

But it is a dangerous beast, easy to begin, very hard to control.  Violence displaces reason with passion, pushes to the front those least afraid to take the next step into further bloodshed.    Bad governments react by making themselves worse and those of their opponents willing to match this brutality rise quickly to the top.  It is hard to escape this spiral of ascending brutality.  And terrible governments do usually win: terrorists (as they will be called whatever the justice of their cause) are usually weak, and more easily destroyed than the few successful examples of victories from history would suggest.  And if they win, what kind of political life will they lead – those schooled in minority factional violence rarely make effective politicians in peacetime, the anger that made them good subversives makes them bad leaders. (Perhaps readers can offer some examples?)

It is not necessary to be a pacifist to assert that in almost all circumstances, situations of illegal occupation and racist domination aside, subversive violence in support of human rights is likely to be ill-judged and counter-productive.

Imaginative protest from within (mass protest if possible), and strong action from outside plus patience, determination and staying power are what make a human rights revolution with the potential to survive beyond the first exciting flush of liberation.

Does Lawlessness Ever Fit In A Democracy?

Lots of countries with elected governments embark on policies for which electorates have not specifically voted, French pension reform is one recent example, the British spending cuts due this week another.  In other democracies the power of money or the courts or both is such that it is sometimes hard to think of a place as a ‘proper’ democracy at all: the United States of free speech for corporations (summary of the recent supreme court case) and Bush v Gore comes immediately to mind.

But we need to keep our minds focused here.  If it is almost always wrong to engage in subversive violence to destabilise and then seek to destroy repressive regimes, how can it ever be right deliberately to deploy violence for political ends in a democracy, even a faulty one?  Yes parliaments are dominated by money, electoral systems are unfair, manifestos are disregarded – but in even defective democracies there are answers – crowds on the streets; tactical litigation in the courts; mass campaigning in civil society; and of course eventually the vote – no democracy can entirely disregard mass rejection without ceasing to be able even to pretend to be one.

Of course sometimes ostensibly ‘democratic’ countries are so contemptuous of what democracy involves that the guard slips and brutal authoritarianism drifts into view: the Zimbabwe of just a year or two is one example – but even there the MDC has secured a toehold on power and change (however slow; however small) is at least on the way.  And for all their faults the US and the UK democracies are far, far away from the Zimbabwean model.

This is not to say that the only thing you can usefully do in a democracy is vote every now and again and follow the news closely in between.  There is vast scope for sensible non-violent protest in a democracy, even a faulty one – and this action can easily be criminal (if you are brave enough) or just inside the margins of the law (if you are clever enough).  The important point to make here is that in a democracy movement for change requires reason not revolvers, argument not ammunition.

So how far exactly can you go in a democracy?  This tricky question is more subtle than it sounds – my second common track published this morning deals in depth with this issue.

And Emancipatory?

The whole point of these essays, indeed the rationale of the pledges with which I launched this site (Manifesto) is that human rights as a subject is nothing if it is not devoted to the promotion of the talent of us all, to achieving a world in which we all have the chance to do the best we can.  We can and should go far down the road of engagement to achieve this – on our own behalf and on behalf of others.  This can take us to and beyond the margins of the law.  But only extraordinarily rarely – and never in a functioning even if defective democracy – should it take us to violence against the person.

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20 Responses to T2 – Taking To The Streets

  1. Ronan McCrea says:

    I wonder if the lessons you draw from the Iraq debacle are a little too Burkean in there strong embrace of the existing UN framework. Unfortunately the UN and the Security Council in particular contain many powerful actors actively opposed to international recognition of basic human rights. The UN is necessary, important and irreplaceable but there is also significant scope for tension betweeen greater enforcement powers for the UN in relation to Human Rights issues and promoting regional human rights standards. As the decision of the ECJ in Kadi showed, the UN has the potential to undermine important regional human rights standards. The activities of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva often give rise to the same concerns, particularly in relation to issues such as “defamation” of religion ( apologies if I have jumped the gun and this is all dealt with in your upcoming piece on the UN).

  2. Paul Bernal says:

    I realise that this is opening a huge can of worms – and may indeed be jumping the gun in terms of what you’re going to say in later threads – but do you think that current state of Israel is directly connected with its violent origins?

  3. Freedom is inherently a limit to power, whichever shape it may adopt. Nowadays, human rights shall be understood as a limit to democratic power (and its elected authorities) in order not to lose its nature.

    All three paradoxes coming out of national security, democracy and political violence represent the struggle to keep civil and political rights safe from the risk of identifying decisions of people in power with the system itself. In this way, representative democracy is maybe the greatest threat to human rights in the sense that unlike authoritarian governments, democratic power is legitimate and its acts are entitled to a presumption of legality. But the relation between representatives and constituencies is becoming absolutely formal. In a world where new technologies communicate every place on earth in real time, people express through every technological device that exists, instead of using the few (and archaic) ways provided by democracy to communicate with their representatives. Representation and Parties have become essential to democracy, though new technologies receive almost no formal channel of recognition. This disconnection between ways of input and outcome may lead the political elite to identify their own ambitions and worries with that of the nation.

    In this way every threat perceived as such by the political elite will have an immediate response in the form of a direct order (to repress a protest or impose restrictions on certain persons without proof) or in a more subtle way (by passing restrictive legislation or pressing judges). The ‘war on terror’ may be interpreted as nothing more but a coalition of concerned politicians about what they perceived as a number of threats among which terrorism was included, not being the only one. Like ‘witchcraft’ in Medieval ages or ‘communism’ in times of McCarthyism, terrorism plays today the role of anatema. The problem is that to counter terrorism, democratic politicians gave birth to ‘democratic terrorism’, showing that a democratic government may also torture or disappear people (those alleged terrorists).

    A legitimate democratic authority may tend to identify any opposition to its policies with enemies of democracy, while in fact, this identification is the biggest threat to our civil and political rights. In the domestic arena, the answer to arbitrariness remains as always in the rule of law, though this time people shall struggle hard every time a bill that restricts individual freedom is on debate: they cannot leave this task to their representatives alone. From an international approach, international criminal law appears as the ”ultima ratio” in the protection of human rights, in the sense that terrorists cannot be considered as outlaws, they shall be given the same guarantees of the due process of law in any case. Every ’emergency situation’ implies the mandatory respect of that ‘hard nucleus’ of human rights that if exists, should be composed of -at least- the rights to life, liberty and security, the prohibition of torture and the guarantees of the due process of law.

    And which are the tools of civil libertarians to counter this ‘democratic menace’? First of all, there is civil society as opposed to the elite of political society: NGOs have a role to play, demanding transparency and effective representation, not only by picketing in the streets but also by making use of democratic proceedings: denouncing before administrative and judicial agencies, campaigning for or against candidates, sponsoring and monitoring claims before international tribunals of human rights, like the European Court or the Interamerican Commission and Court.
    Moreover, other devices are at hand to counter ‘legitimate democratic’ decisions which tend to cut down civil and political rights, such as encouraging:
    (i) judicial activism, asking judges to defend ‘progressive change’ instead of tradition;
    (ii) a free press, to struggle against monopoly of wisdom by public authorities; and
    (iii) new technologies to help to access to information and transparency in times when information means power.

  4. Damien Shortt says:

    Loving the project, Conor, well done.

    The questionI would like to pose, whilst a little prosaic, is nevertheless important: where is the meta-ethical debate in this discussion of human rights?

    We seem to be starting from a presumption that human rights are, ipso facto, good. But why are they good? And anyway, what does it mean to be good? On what authority do we claim that freedom of speech is good, or freedom to pursue happiness (there’s another term that needs defining!)?

    There is much discussion of justice, but, as Alasdair MacIntyre asks, Whose Justice and according to Which Rationality do we define that justice? Can we be so confident that our version of justice and rationality is the ‘right’ one….one to which all peoples would subscribe? And if not, why not?

    In my opinion, it is very hard to debate human rights in a liberal society; I mean, it’s hard to critique something like a ‘right to life’ in polite society without being thought a cretin (hands up who thinks genocide is a bad idea?)!!!

    However, it would be philosophically sloppy of us to simply gloss over the very important debate as to how we define and rationalise what is good. It seems to me that much contemporary discussion of human rights comes perilously close to deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’: for example, the Burmese government ‘is’ dictatorial, the rest of the world ‘ought’ to do something… upon what philosophical grounds are we deriving that ‘ought’ and can we be sure that that ‘ought’ is universally desireable by all people, in all situations, at all times? Or are we saying that right-thinking people, like us, would subscribe to this view and that, therefore, that makes us right, and might is right, so let’s topple their government?

    Anyway, that’s my tuppence worth. Looking forward to the rest of the installments.

  5. Charlotte Dollard says:

    There are three issues I’d like to cover:

    Firstly, I found Damien’s comments very useful, although I would disagree that a liberal democracy is somehow ill equipped to discuss the meaning of rights. I would be very cautious of taking an interpretation of even the most fundamental-seeming rights as accepted. For example, yes, most people in a liberal democracy would agree that genocide is bad, but what about the death penalty or euthanasia? I would argue that societies which have the residual element of fundamental rights ingrained in their constitution, as we do here in the UK have a duty to continue, and are best placed to continue, the debate surrounding the scope of human rights – defining the frontiers of rights, if you like.

    Secondly, I have difficulty with the presentation of violent uprisings as cohesive movements with coherent and strategic aims. It seems that this is certainly a retrospective and possibly nostalgic view of the reality coloured by the stories of those who gained power in the end. The French Resistance during WWII is an example – although it’s commonly understood to have been a coherent and highly organised movement, unilaterally led by De Gaulle from London, scratch the surface and there were a huge number of separate groups working independently (and wrangling with one another over political and military ideology and for the opportunities of future power) as well as thousands of individuals and small informal groups who acted simply to maintain a sense of agency under occupation.

    It seems that perhaps violent insurrection by its very nature is a sudden and innately disorganised act – an instinctive reaction when backed into a corner. Although, not withstanding that, what of the strategic violent strategy of the Baader-Meinhoff and African Resistance Movement in South Africa? And is there a moral difference between, on one hand, actively targeting people as well as infrastructure and on the other, accepting that human deaths may arise as collateral damage when targeting infrastructure only? Clearly there is a conceptual difference, but if the two courses of action meet the same end, is that difference important?

    Thirdly, Favio has been the first to discuss terrorism – I am cautious of using the word in this context as it has a specific legal meaning and is also (paradoxically perhaps) extremely value-laden. Favio introduced the idea of ‘democratic terrorism’, however I would dispute that such a thing can exist. Yes, I agree that states can become terrorists, but not through the rule of law as the use of the word ‘democratic’ suggests. Terrorism by definition is action taken outside of the law. As inadequate as our constitution has proved in ensuring adequate scrutiny and providing checks and balances on the power of the executive, I don’t think that law passed by Parliament and legally enacted/enforced by the state can and should be called terrorism. In my view a state becomes terrorist (not sure that’s quite grammatically correct?!) when it starts acting outside the law and on a mass scale – i.e. mass killing, mass rendition.

    I’d be interested in anyone’s responses. Thanks.

  6. Charlotte Dollard says:

    Sorry to go on (!) but just had a quick additional thought – another reason why states can’t be accurately described as terrorists, is because terrorism is a criminal offence and a state can’t be held to be criminally liable, only individuals can. (Perhaps someone that knows more about criminal law and state imunity than I do might be able to fill in the gaps here!)Therefore it may be that terrorist acts appear to be conducted by the state (i.e. the involvement of state bodies, such as the military or police) but in fact, in stepping outside of the law, each person engaged in the activity becomes individually liable under national and/or international criminal law.

  7. Thanks once again Conor for a stimulating missive. Herewith some reflections.

    I’m not quite sure what your purpose is in exploring the link between human rights and violence. From the very brief comments you made in your opening address at the LSE there was some hint (perhaps imagined) that you would be breaking the received wisdom that violence should always be a last resort. But the received wisdom is what you argue for in this piece – although you don’t build directly on the language of “last resort” (other than your initial quote from the UDHR) which, if this is indeed what you mean, it might be useful to do. (Obvious links here to the Just War Tradition, which may or may not be useful for your purposes). You end by saying that only extremely rarely, and never in a functioning democracy (even if faulty) should violence be used.

    I agree with this – but I think it needs to be unpacked further elaborated – what, after all, do we mean by a last resort? What are the conditions that satisfy your “extremely rarely”? Perhaps we should unpack further what is meant by violence: one way of doing this might be to make a contrast between force and violence. Force is often seen as the legitimate use of coercion, violence as the non-legitimate use of coercion – but this is only one way of making these distinctions, because quite obviously a lot of the force that is used in legitimate wars is violent – to run all the categories together in an attempt to show how difficult it is to tease them apart! Or again, you seem to refer to violence as it is used by different actors – individuals, terrorists, groups fighting against bad governments, states prosecuting war (Iraq) – as if it was all the same thing. But there are lots of different forms of violence – and of force for that matter – and I find it hard to see that much of use can be said by running them all together under the same heading. The violence of the US army in Iraq is not the same as the violence of a lone farmer distraught at having come to the end of his line of options against the continued environmental abuses of some big mining corporation, which have destroyed the health and well being of his or her land and community.

    You say that the “idea of human rights as sometimes necessitating violence has stayed with us” – from 1776, through 1948, to the present. I agree that it is one of the rationales of the UDHR, but I’m not sure that the last resort clause there is intended to license some *relation* between human rights and violence; I would have thought quite the opposite: that it was there as a warning, rather than as any kind of justification for what might happen in the way of violence if human rights were not respected. Perhaps it is being casuistical, but I think there is a big difference between recognising people’s right to rebel against injustice in extemis, and justifying the use of violence as part of their rebellion, particularly if it was in a way that stipulated a necessary connection with human rights.

    But even here (aware that the above may not be perfectly clear) I think the argument can only go so far in the abstract. You ask – having said that Iraq reminds us how *not* to act – “what then to do?” I think that beyond the “last resort” principle, the answer comes in looking at specific cases. Only then can we take in hand the complexity of the situation and make arguments about how to respond.

    Your occasional references to the UN make us all eager to read the piece you have promised specifically on that august institution – for many people only have criticism for the UN and its role. But perhaps I can run this together with your comment in the “what can we do” section about regional enforcement. It has long been commented that Asia has been the one region of the world without a regional human rights framework – something that has changed radically in the last year or so, at least for Southeast Asia, with the creation of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. Already – before it has even really begun to evolve as an institution – it has been criticised like the UN is, of being without teeth and unable to do anything.

    The glass half full approach however sees in such incremental changes the embodying of human rights norms in institutions which then create possible paths for the future which simply were not there before. Political and institutional reform takes time: the great tragedy of course is that human rights abuses of the present are not relieved by the news of gradual reform that will only bear human rights protection fruit down the track.

    I think it is one of the key variables that has to be taken into account in thinking about the legitimate use of force or violence – the time horizon, combined with the severity of abuse. There is a world of difference between, say, the occasional – or even the continual – inhibition of freedom of association, something which many people endure the world over with relative equanimity; and, by contrast, an immediate and severe likelihood of loss of life due to political affiliation, religious belief, sexual identification, or ethnicity (etc). But there are many other variables as well: where is this happening, who are the agents prepared to commit violence, what is the likelihood of success, will there be “collateral damage”, etc.


    And to finish – I wanted to take up Damien’s point about meta-ethics. I don’t think there is any shortage of meta-ethical debate about human rights. In the last few years there have been a plethora of books published about the supposed “crisis of human rights” – a number of them with that phrase in the title. Human Rights journals bourgeon with articles about the justification (or otherwise) of human rights – James Griffen, Charles Beitz, Andrew Vincent, Amartya Sen – have all had books published recently, just to cite a few luminaries (and then there are the rest of us!) Oh, and Conor too, in his Can human Rights Survive.

    Human Rights in my view are clearly a liberal doctrine and it is clear that liberalism has a very clear – if very broad – set of parameters for versions of justice, rationality and the good life: the acceptable versions are those which protect and privilege the individual; the best version is going to be the one/s that do this most adequately. Of course, we can debate what we think adequate protection and privileging means, and what it means to do it in a way which is compatible with the same for all individuals. It is for this reason that Conor is so concerned about the idea of the rights of groups…. Something I believe he will discuss in due course! But there is no mistaking the underlying commitment – and it my view, it is precisely because of this commitment that we live in a society where we can – and do – have robust debates about the meaning of the good life. People may feel awkward talking about the implications of the right to life, but unlike in some places, no-one is going to take them out the back and torture or disappear them simply for disagreeing!

    • Damien Shortt says:

      Thanks for the refs, Anthony. I realise that I wasn’t thinking about something that no human rights activist or theorist had ever thought of before; my question, rather, was: upon what meta-ethical foundations is Conor’s particular project being built in this instance? Each of the references you provide will undoubtedly provide a different, albeit somewhat similar, meta-ethical rationale: I am interested in Conor’s specific one as it relates to his manifesto.

      Another aspect to my question concerning meta-ethics would call for a discussion as to whether the human rights, as principles, are being understood as Absolute or whether they are being understood as Contributory. In either case, absolute or contributory, a further rationale is required in order to convince one’s interlocutors as to how successful the ethical principles (human rights) would be in informing a moral agent’s actions in practice and whether they could maintain internal coherence when they are subjected to testing via hypothetical situations.

      Anyway, I am way-laying the thrust of this particular track… onwards and upwards; we will undoubtedly be drawn back to this discussion at some point in the future.

  8. Paul Bernal says:

    I have questions about the links between the first two tracks: would it be fair to say that IF human rights is viewed as political THEN violence becomes one of the tools that can be used (as a last resort or otherwise). Conversely, would it be fair to say that if we allow violence in support of human rights, then we are admitting/acknowledging the political nature of human rights?

    From my perspective, Conor’s manifesto makes sense – I view human rights as essentially political, and that in violence can (and even sometimes should) be used as a valid tool in certain circumstances. The questions of what those circumstances are, and what the nature of the violent means might be are much harder questions – but the starting point has to be the realisation that sometimes violence might be used.

    • Zoe Fiander says:

      Interesting, Paul, but both the links you suggest seem to rely on quite a big presupposition that politics *can* legitimise violence, or that there is some sort of fundamental link between politics and violence. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I’m curious about the relationship, if that makes sense. I fear it gets into the wider debate of ‘what the circumstances are’ etc which might be a bit too much of a tangent.

      Still, I don’t think we can really argue along the lines of: ‘human rights are political’ – ‘the use of force to achieve a political aim can be legitimate’ – ‘therefore the use of force to achieve human rights can be legitimate’. (inductive fallacy – I know this probably does the argument a disservice!)

      • Paul Bernal says:

        Good points – tearing my argument to pieces somewhat!

        On reflection – and taking your point on board – I don’t think I want to suggest that kind of an argument, but more of an indirect link, with an underlying point. There can be (and historically has been) a connection between the use of force and revolutionary politics, and for me (and Conor, it seems), human rights can be seen as revolutionary politics. That makes the use of violence more conceivable, doesn’t it?

        One of the things that led me to this point was a look at the arguments put forward on this and the last thread, particularly the commentators. Would people who ‘generally disagree’ with casting human rights as political also ‘generally disagree’ with the idea that violence could be legitimately used to achieve human rights goals? Conversely, would those who support the idea of human rights as highly political be more likely to accept the use of force in the support of human rights?

        I should make it clear that I’m just asking the questions. I don’t know whether what I’m asking is true – or, if it is true, whether that’s a ‘good thing’ at all!

        • I guess I would be one of the people who generally disagreed that rights were political in the last track. As I hope to say later, I would suggest that while in extreme cases violence could be legitimately used, there needs to be some kind of description (or at least guidelines) of when such violence is legitimate. Otherwise groups with an ideological agenda other than the protection of human rights could use such a legitimation as cover for violence.

          • Paul Bernal says:

            Whilst not disagreeing with you, the problem with setting rules or even guidelines is who sets them? Would you trust a government? I mean, any government?

            For me, one of the functions of human rights is to provide a voice and protection for those without power – and that means all to often that it needs to be ‘subversive’ to some degree, and very often would need to break any rules that are set down, because those rules are set or at least influenced by those in power. If you take the UN, for example, if any UN body were to set a definition of when violence was ‘acceptable’ that might include legitimising the use of violence in the Palestinian struggle against Israel, then the US would simply not allow that to happen.

            For me – and I realise I’m probably out on a limb here – it seems impossible to set hard and fast rules because of who would set those hard and fast rules. No two situations are identical, and each situation has its own particular issues and problems.

          • Zoe Fiander says:

            quick reply to Paul (and Holly in part) – sorry, it won’t let me add it below for some reason.

            Rules, guidelines to be set by an authority – if we accept human rights as politics aren’t we debating the content of its ideology here? No need, necessarily, to have any authority enforcing it (though might successful politics want to see its ideology enshrined or codified in some way?)

            of course this doesn’t dispense with the need for it to be coherent – which goes back to the first point on violence, revolutionary politics. I’m not sure I have anything terribly constructive to add but I still don’t think adding ‘revolutionary’ in is enough to make the connection a given.

            It begs the question – well, what is so special about revolution where ordinary politics could not justify violence? especially important when you consider that violence can be a highway to infringement of someone else’s rights – say you use violence to overthrow a govt that has been systematically violating its people’s rights. On a (much smaller) level it would seem that by using violence, you could violate *those* individuals’ rights. Have they forfeited them? Now, that is a dangerous road (and a massive tangent so I won’t go there…)

            Argh, so many questions!

          • Paul Bernal says:

            I can’t argue with any of that, Zoe – and wouldn’t want to anyway! All excellent points – though any ‘rules’ would need to be flexible and ready for revision and discussion as new situations arise.

  9. Idealist says:

    engagement really is perhaps the most important. don’t underestimate the power of the public to create new norms and coerce the government into action. ‘lady’ thatcher was thus forced to acquiesce in sanctions on her beloved boers…tant pis 😉

  10. Louise Thomson says:

    Just a point as an alternative to violence ‘as the last resort to rebellion against tyranny and oppression’ which is art and culture. Artistic expression can sometimes be a form of ‘lawlessness’ which, with its ambiguity, is difficult to suppress even in totalitarian regimes. Art and culture has had a huge role in the more general human rights movement and would hopefully have a place in this discussion. Actually, the scale of achievement of artists in the human rights struggle is quite incredible given an individual artists’ apparent lack of power in comparison to those they oppose.

    In this T2 section “What then to do?”perhaps we could add that there should be encouragement and support for artistic expression in oppressed places and that this should be valued in addition to the typical ‘freedom of expression’ concept with a deeper realisation of its particular role. As Iris Murdoch has pointed out, art stresses the contingent aspects of the world and of individuals which are lost in the Idealist totality. Totalitarian regimes might call art petty and bourgeois but perhaps they disliked it more because of how good it is at stressing the individual. It is hard to hold to a ‘total response’ when individual stories are so moving and compelling.

    Art can also help us to overcome the criticism (which has already cropped up on this site) about opinion or history being written from a particular point of view, which I would argue is pretty much unavoidable. Adorno was prepared to forgive a subjective account of history and cherish ‘cross-grained, opaque, unassimilated material which…has outwitted the historical dynamic’.

    Art can stir the passions to start or continue a struggle against oppression and it can provide an outlet for emotions that might otherwise be expressed only through violence. It is also a powerful form of communication that can transcend some of the difficulties of definitions and perspective that crop up in a discussion on human rights. I agree with Damien that when discussing fundamental rights and recent history, this is hard to do without running the risk of being called a cretin (or something worse) unless you give a politically correct account. Let’s not leave out art, passion and emotion just because we are talking about law and politics and let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt that we are not cretins just because we might depart from the over-sensitivity to perspective (or a fence-sitting approach) that human rights debates can sometimes be accused of. Human rights is very ‘right on’ these days and a bit too scared of upsetting people which might be at odds with any kind of revolution. Art is less afraid it seems.

  11. As a brief introduction, I think it needs to be pointed out that the uses of violence in the name of human rights at the top of the article were for the establishment of a system of human rights in the first place, rather than the enforcement of a system afterwards. Once human rights are part of a valid political system, violence is harder to justify, although, as Professor Gearty says, not impossible to justify in extreme cases. In terms of justification, it may be useful to have some kind of consensus, or even guidelines, as to when such violence would be justified, or at least accepted as justified after the event.

    My main point here, however, is slightly tangential to the main argument. As Professor Gearty says, an individual can do far more than just vote for representatives in the formal democracy Favio also mentions. I would agree with Idealist that democracy needs to be far more participatory than this. Democracy in the Habermasian sense involves a continuous debate between and constant action from members of a society. In this sense of democracy, the final option of violence would be much harder to justify, as government decisions are constantly ratified by the people rather than just approved or rejected at each election. A constant interaction between government and the governed could lessen the need for subversion. This interaction could involved both civil debate as well as physical protest in order to exercise civil liberties to their greatest extent.

  12. Charlotte Dollard says:

    Just a quick point in relation to ‘guidelines’ for legitimate violence as raised by Holly. We do have guidelines for the legitimate use of force – they exist in customary international law and (perhaps to a lesser extent) in our own domestic law. I would argue that they relate to human rights on the most fundamental level, although not always explicitly. For example, jus cogens relating to wars of aggression and crimes against humanity. On a domestic level, we have criminal laws relating to offences against the person and criminal damage – essentially setting out the threshold for acceptable use of force and the circumstances in which it can be deemed reasonable.

  13. Carl Schnackenberg says:

    I didn’t have a long time to read the comments above, so this point may have been raised/rubbished already, but I’m not convinced that violent movements to overthrow oppressive regimes are really concerned with human rights, other than their own human rights, so is that human rights thinking at all? What they want may be inimical to the human rights of others, e.g. groups they identify with the oppressive regime, or groups that both the rulers and the revolutionaries are happy to oppress. The American revolutionaries scored monumental achievements for rights, and their words continue to be made truer, but they were not human rights universalists – they also kept slaves.