T5 – Hatred Can Be Progress

If human rights are not despised by the powerful they are not human rights

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Track 5 Intro – audio transcript

In responding to my last Track on the foundations of human rights, Favio Farinella makes a valuable point about the purpose of ‘our human rights project’ being ‘the positive transformation of the world’, a goal which can be ‘defended simply because we believe that it is superior to any other form of relationship to our fellow human beings.’  As Favio says – the question is about empathy or indifference: which one is going to prevail?

And in the same place, Joe Hoover makes the vital point that (I summarise here) without political action human rights won’t just happen, however wonderful the reasoning that lies behind them.

The last two essays in this project have been about rooting empathy, sympathy and active compassion in persuasive stories about ourselves which we can see as (or at least take to be) true and the success of which can then equip us with convincing answers, for our doubting selves as much as for others, about why we believe in equality and universal dignity, in human rights in other words.

I yield to none in the importance I give this kind of philosophical (or feelings-based) underpinning for human rights.

But clearly there is something missing here – or rather some persons: the victims of human rights abuses, the beneficiaries of human rights protection, the kind of people that I was thinking about when I was writing on Track Two about taking to the streets

If ‘our human rights project’ is to be truly about ‘the positive transformation of the world’ then it must be about taking as well as giving.

This is the vital contribution that the language of rights makes to discussion about empathy and compassion: it takes these essentially conservative virtues, these attributes that all (rich, successful, powerful) people merely ought to have and turns the fact of their existence into a moral system enabling others to insist on them.

So not only is it right to care for others; others have a right that you care for them.  Not only ought you to feel well-disposed towards your fellow men and women and act when you can to help them get on and flourish in their lives, but they can demand that you do this, and not only a little bit here and there whenever it works for you but to the extent that justice requires.

Equality of esteem and dignity are happily conceded by the decent rich and forced out of the selfish by being determinedly seized by the imaginative poor.

The human rights project must always be composed of good givers and brave takers.  Without the first it cannot succeed, since the powerful must be made to doubt their selfish certainties, but without the second it is merely compassionate conservatism, a big society in which the rich applaud themselves for throwing a few morsels more than usual in the direction of the poor they judge deserving.

A human rights movement composed merely of decent people acting out their sympathies in generous acts of giving supports rather than subverts the status quo, making a human rights transformation less rather than more likely.

Human rights must be feared by the powerful and hated for the changes they threaten.

Living In Lies

This tension between givers and takers has been evident through history.   Jose-Manuel Barreto wrote in his response to the last essay about the work of, among others, Las Casas and Vitoria in seeking ‘to oppose and to defend the appropriation of the land, torture and genocide’ in Spanish America. In trying to force selflessness on the rich, an ethic of giving on the takers, these two great men played the best card they had, faith – Heaven and (more to the point perhaps) Hell.  But just like international lawyers today, you could always find an apologist for invasion, Sepúlveda is a good example from those days.  (I’ll leave it to you to come up with some contemporary names!)

Even armed with faith, the humanism of Las Casas, Vitoria and their supporters was not strong enough to break into the vicious cycle of exploitation to which Catholic Spain had committed itself.  Standing up for the Native Americans was eccentric, off-the-wall, not so much virtuous as really quite odd.

Power seeks to command not just material resources but right and wrong as well.  And as I have just suggested, power can always find support for the characterisation of its selfishness as morally necessary and good.  My colleague Stan Cohen has written a brilliant book about the way we can easily make sure we miss the obviousness of human rights violations, even when these are happening right under our noses.

  • The favourite trick in religious days was to dehumanise the victims as infidels. Even Las Casas tried this, pointing out the Native Americans knew no better and could not be blamed for their lack of faith (unlike the Jews, Las Casas could not help saying…).
  • These so-called victims are not people at all but property, their human capacities being useful attributes, the way wheels are on a cart, or a roof on a house.  The founders of the US Republic were, famously, deniers in this vein, and the Supreme Court they created for their new country was afterwards solemnly to proclaim slaves to be property under the US bill of rights, in the infamous Dred Scott case.
  • Everybody can be very happy as long as they are allowed (encouraged? compelled?) to develop in their own way, along racial/ethnic lines rather than mixed in some unnatural melting pot.  The US Supreme Court hit on this ruse when the civil war got in the way of their earlier certainty. Apartheid South Africa tried to make it work when raw white supremacism was proving a little unpopular even among apartheid’s more sympathetic foreign supporters(all those disinvestment campaigns and human rights protests).
  • They are people for sure, but – poor lambs – not ready (yet… ever?) for the awesome responsibility of being well… human.   This is a favourite trick of colonial powers that have a self-image of being benign, those too squeamish to acknowledge to themselves the extent of their plundering.  ‘We must educate the native to be ready eventually to be … human… but above all humans like us.’

And taking things up-to-date

  • They are not people but terrorists – a kind of animal-human lobbing bombs into our land ­– and they would kill us all if they got half a chance.
  • They may be people but they are unworthy, desperate and probably criminal seeking a chance to put one over us by using our liberalism against us to seize what is rightfully ours or to force us to share a life-style and life opportunities that rightfully belong to us not them (asylum seekers; refugees; migrants:common track four )
  • They are, well, different, so different we really think (and sometimes now say) that ordinary rules of humanity do not apply (the Roma: common track four again).
  • They are human and yes they are poor but they are undeserving of our support – they are wasters, hangers-on, parasites on the labours of the rest of us (the language of many UK government ministers when justifying current proposals for forced labour and the removal of living support for many of the sick).

Inspiring Anger

If the colonies had quietly waited to be ready, freedom would never have come.

If the US Supreme Court was given the last word, US African-Americans would still be enslaved.

South Africa would still have separate beaches, parliaments and ways of life, one very prosperous the others mired in poverty

If the Palestinians accept that they are a ‘terrorist’ people……

If the poor buy into the deserving/undeserving distinction…

Some emancipatory movements use or have used the language of human rights, others do not – I considered the reasons for this in my first common track.  But they are all in practical terms human rights movements.  The vision driving them is one of equality of esteem and respect for the dignity of all.  They fight or have fought against the instrumentalisation of their peoples, whether on account of their race, their national origin, their ethnicity or their poverty.

Of course these radical movements are very pleased to have support from within the powerful blocs that they oppose but they cannot rely on it, knowing that – caring, generous, empathetic as such support is – it is bound to be a minority interest, marginalised, perhaps even deplored within its own culture (think Helen Suzman or the Richard Goldstone of the angry imagination of Melanie Phillips).

Asserting their human rights means imposing their vision of humanity (Anthony from the last track) on those reluctant to accept it.  Taking if not given.

Seizing Right

  • Build links with the decent and empathetic among the powerful communities but do not depend on them;
  • Use law, religious sensibility, the constitution and the ‘international community’ to insist on your humanity and the rightness of your human goals, but do not rely on them;
  • Create sectors of solidarity across the communities of disempowerment that exist in all cultures: be sure to see each other even if power claims to see none of you;
  • Deploy culture and art to force the fact of your people on those trying to look the other way.
  • Foster a sense of solidarity which subjugates difference to the common human struggle (easier for some than others I know: asylum seekers have not got the same strengths as the ANC had at the time of Apartheid or even the Palestinians today)

And then, with this new-found ethical solidarity, confident fraternity and empowered sense of communal self, challenge, confront, destabilise, if necessary fight for your interests which –  being rooted in your humanity – are truly the interests of all.

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18 Responses to T5 – Hatred Can Be Progress

  1. Damien Shortt says:


    The powerful have duties and the weak have rights..

    Given that there are far more weak people than there are powerful people, it is the weak who determine what the duties of the powerful are … after all, most liberation movements have succeded through the weight of numbers and popular opinion…

    The weak are permitted to force the powerful to perform their duties (through using their collective weight of numbers to elect a government that will be sympathetic to their claims/demands, or, as a last resort, through violence) .

    But what happens if Atlas shrugs?

  2. Luis Paulo Bogliolo says:

    Great examples of how human rights have to be taken, and are not just given, can be found in Lynn Hunt’s book “Inventing Human Rights: A History”. The book explains how The Declaration of Rights proclaimed by the French Revolutionaries fostered many minority groups to pursue inclusion and how the declaration provided them a language and an instrument of fighting for equality.
    It also shows that human rights need constant vindication against those in power.
    As Professor Gearty clearly declares, today’s tricks of excluding certain groups from rights includes naming them terrorists or even “illegal enemy combatants”. I am shocked to see that recently the State of Oklahoma approved an amendment to their Constitution prohibiting judges to refer to international law and sharia law. This is just another example of the constant struggle between those who fight to differentiate “us” from “others” and those who fight for inclusion and for our common human dignity.

    We also need to be aware that the rights language can be used against further inclusion and emancipation. Koskenniemi states this point very clearly. According to his article “The effect of rights on political culture”, human rights language can be used to exclude other points of view and to perpetuate a certain status quo. While this should not be taken as something negative, it serves the purpose of alerting us to the fact that the struggle towards the universalisation of human rights goes into how they are interpreted and how human rights language can be used both for emancipation as for exclusion.

    • Zoe Fiander says:

      Givers and takers. I think the point on the possible misuse of rights language is an important one, and we have to be careful here. It’s another of those deep tensions – on one hand this is a project which claims a universal foundation. Yet on the other, it can only be realised by categorising people into opposing groups? I’m not sure the argument goes as far as advocating an ‘us and them’ sort of mentality, which I think goes close to being exclusionary and therefore harmful to the soul of the project. Dividing and opposing is a natural way of thinking (is there any other?!) and adds the sort of clarity which successful political projects demand – but it has a dangerous side, which Luis is right to highlight.

      It’s easier to reconcile when considering that givers’ rights will rarely be jeopardised by the actions of ‘takers’, whereas takers’ ability to enjoy their rights may frequently be impeded by the very position of givers. Though, the further you see the sphere of rights extending (away from a minimum core and into ‘flourishing’) the more likely it might be that a situation of conflicting rights arises. It’s there that the horrid arguments about forfeiture of rights start creeping in, and allowing these sort of arguments has the potential to undermine the foundation.

      Still, even at a level where rights are a ‘minimum core’ there is potential for conflict. I wonder what is our rationale for saying that human rights activists who employ violence to overthrow a repressive regime are justified, whereas governments who remove the fair trial rights of ‘unlawful enemy combatants’ are not? It sounds ridiculous laid out like that- how can I even be drawing the comparison? – but it troubles me that the same arguments could potentially be employed to justify each (and there’s a forfeiture of rights in each case). Especially so in the context of ‘them and us’. We need to be clear why human rights will resist the slippery slope.

      • Zoe Fiander says:

        sorry for the addendum – another point occurred.

        Conor writes: “Power can always find support for the characterisation of its selfishness as morally necessary and good.”

        Does the fact of having power change how legitimate it is to make the sort of arguments I set out above?

      • Paul Bernal says:

        Zoe, there’s one kind of ‘right’ of the ‘givers’ that is often in jeopardy: their ‘right’ to property. The way that the ex-kings of Greece and Romania were able to make claims under human rights law against ‘their’ nations is perhaps the most dramatic example, but the whole idea of property is potentially at stake here. Is it a right? A ‘human right’? Hmmm….

        • Zoe Fiander says:

          Yes, this is important. I suppose it reflects the point that Holly is standing firmly by – that the substance of rights is tied up with the way they are fought for and justified.

          A variety of ways of looking at this, I suppose. If you see a hierarchy of rights it is easier to justify social rights getting trumped by civil & political rights/fundamental claims. The right to property is an interesting one in that it isn’t in the ICCPR or ICESCR (though it is in the ECHR if I remember right…) but seems more like a social right to me. Anyway, I’m not a fan of hierarchies of rights though in practice there very often are.

          I think I’d question whether the right to property should be thought of as a human right at all – or certainly in the way we seem to understand it (a qualified right to ownership of real property, which seems to claim legitimacy from the fact of ownership rather than the way ownership was arrived at). I should add this fits very uneasily, if at all, with my general worldview!

  3. Christina says:

    I guess some of the ‘taking’ might refer to taking benefit from those who don’t seek work?

    I have to personalize it. The single parent mother with 3 children and no child care?
    the recently or longterm arrival from another culture who isn’t fluent in the language, and has no access to learn it, or who doesn’let the women in his family out? “They” who might they be? the Kosovan Maths teacher who is not allowed to work, because he is an asylum seeker, despite a shortage of maths specialists. OK some are taking advantage, rather like those in House who claim benefit or allowances, but let’s give each a human face?
    Are they ethnic, female, refugee lets take some examples. How did they become these benefit people? Albie Sach gives a good model, of going for common humanity and never losing your own humanity, and he had cause enough.

  4. Paul Bernal says:

    The ‘good givers and brave takers’ idea brought back to my mind two very strong memories I have from my formative time in human rights.

    I was one of the facilitators at a kind of ‘children’s rights conference’ held in Lillehammer in 1994, before the Winter Olympics. The conference was organised by the Norwegian Redd Barna (their equivalent of ‘Save the Children’), and brought together children from all over the world – from what I remember, they were from about 60 countries, including some of the most contentious areas in the world. There were, for example, girls from both Palestine and Israel, and children from most of the different ethnic/national groups in former Yugoslavia – at a time when the conflict was still very much under way.

    One of the aims of the conference was to put together a kind of ‘manifesto’ to put to all the World Leaders who were congregating for the Winter Olympics. The woman in charge was a Quaker, and I think she was imagining that it would be a ‘manifesto for peace’, with all kinds of positive, pacifistic ideas – things like an end to war, stopping the arms trade and so on. The children, however, didn’t have nearly such an obvious agenda. In fact, they could only agree on one thing: an end to corporal punishment. A number of the kids refused to agree that war was always bad, and others said the arms trade was the only way that they could get what they needed to defend themselves. They were mostly between 10 and 15, and were of course more articulate and aware than most, but they were quite clear about the need to defend themselves and their rights. Lots of the facilitators, who mostly came from NGOs of various kinds, were very surprised by this – but the kids were insistent.

    The second thing surprised me even more at the time, though these days I don’t think it would. Each of the children had come with a chaperone – an adult from their own country – and on one day the organisers arranged to have a special day for the adults, in which they all got their chance to talk and discuss the issues that concerned them. I helped in a workshop for the adults from Africa – there were about twenty of them – and at one point the Norwegian organiser asked an open question: what do you want the West to do for Africa? The answer was simple and unanimous: leave us alone, and let us find a way to sort ourselves out. This, again, deeply surprised the facilitators. They had expected, I suspect, that the answer would be something along the lines of ‘more aid, stop the arms trade, help with developing institutions etc’. None of the facilitators could quite believe it – they kept on asking things along the lines of ‘are you sure you mean that? Don’t you want our aid?’ No. What we want is the chance to sort things out. We want your multinationals to withdraw, we want you to stop supporting our corrupt governments, etc etc… We don’t want to be seen as victims, as poor and needing help…

    In effect, they wanted the chance to be ‘brave takers’. Now I don’t think for a moment that they were in any way a representative group, nor that their views are shared by that many today, but to hear them at that time, amongst a group of some of the most compassionate and generous people you could find, was quite an eye opener, as was the strength of will of the children.

  5. Holly Bontoft says:

    My only comment so far this week is on a relatively small part of the essay:

    “Use law, religious sensibility, the constitution and the ‘international community’ to insist on your humanity and the rightness of your human goals, but do not rely on them”

    If we go by this, is there anything on which we can rely? This relates back to last week’s discussion of the truth of human rights, but has a more practical basis here. Not relying on any of these bases allows us the ability to continuously reevaluate our beliefs and opinions, but creates problems when we attempt to avail ourselves of human rights when they are needed. I may again be accused of legal fetishism here, but to rely purely on the fact that there are more people asserting their rights, and asserting the same specific rights, than denying them seems a risky prospect without any formal agreement.

  6. I really appreciate the notion of ‘good givers’ and ‘brave takers’. Three ideas came to my mind after the first reading.

    First, what are human rights for ‘permanent’ victims?. What are human rights for all those vulnerable groups which suffer lifelong violations because of their nature (religious, racial, ethnic) and are placed under a status which denies their human nature?. Many students, professors or scholars may see human rights as an intellectual challenge, victims being the object of research. Even having a strong compromise with the promotion and defence of rights, it is always about ‘violations suffered by others’. But for ‘everyday’ victims human rights may mean just to accommodate or to rise up against the circumstances, never an intellectual exercise. Theory is acceptable for good givers, action is essential for brave takers.

    The second idea is about empathy and struggle, about givers and takers. Maybe we can add a third character to the play, which determines the existence of good givers and brave takers. We are going to call them ‘bad givers’ (or not givers at all). Conversely ‘bad givers’ monopolize the means to make rights effective, and consequently they intend to monopolize a theory of rights. In practice, they isolate good givers and confront brave takers. The former are a symptom of illness, the latter represent a menace.
    Bad givers are instrumental to human rights: without their lack of justice and selfishness, there would be no need to create a theory to confront power and take it to the streets. Bad givers could be an individual, a community or even a nation: what really matters is the feeling of uniqueness they share. Empathy is strictly limited to their kin, never beyond.
    From this view, it is not empathy or courage, but selfishness what sets the mechanism of human rights in motion. A selfish -man, community or nation- instrumentalizes every thing that is within their reach. They consciously decide to steal each other’s share of universal justice.
    Empathy and courage are useful to fight against selfishness by challenging, confronting, and destabilising ‘bad givers’. Every way of human expression could be used to achieve that end. Culture and education play a magnificent role, but power politics understands just one language: that of force.

    And here comes a third idea. To what extent our brave takers can make use of force? (this is the line that divides movements of national liberation from terrorism). Are they going to deny the rights they are claiming for to the ones they are confronting? Even unwanted, this situation was extremely repeated in history (for instance, colonial peoples who had won their independence from European nations and afterwards they apply the same treatment to other indigenous peoples).
    If selfishness is (at least) as important as empathy (to be a good giver) and courage (to become a brave taker), what selfishness deserve? To fight against it? For sure. To annihilate it? (Hiroshima and Nagasaki were instrumental to the fight against an authoritarian regime). And who is the judge? ‘Empathizers’ or brave takers themselves?. Victims may become successful brave takers, who once in power, run the risk of becoming newly bad givers. In time they set human rights in motion on and on as historically happened.

    In brief, for victims human rights can only mean struggle. At this point, do human rights need permanent violators to keep on moving?. If so, which is the limit on the use of force against them?.

  7. Damien Shortt says:

    “Create sectors of solidarity across the communities of disempowerment that exist in all cultures: be sure to see each other even if power claims to see none of you.”

    This phrase of Conor’s has been bubbling away in the back of my mind since the beginning of the week, and it has just struck me why.

    It brings to mind Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’.

    A brief summary of the essay can be found on Postcolonialweb.org: http://www.postcolonialweb.org/poldiscourse/spivak/spivak2.html

    The nub of this summary is:
    “[…] any attempt from the outside to ameliorate the [subalterns’/disempowereds’] condition by granting them collective speech invariably will encounter the following problems: 1) a logocentric assumption of cultural solidarity among a heterogeneous people, and 2) a dependence upon western intellectuals to “speak for” the subaltern condition rather than allowing them to speak for themselves. As Spivak argues, by speaking out and reclaiming a collective cultural identity, subalterns will in fact re-inscribe their subordinate position in society. The academic assumption of a subaltern collectivity becomes akin to an ethnocentric extension of Western logos–a totalizing, essentialist “mythology” as Derrida might describe it–that doesn’t account for the heterogeneity of the colonized body politic.”

    So, applying this to human rights movements, there seems to be a double bind: to speak on behalf of the disempowered only serves to further disempower them; to ‘educate’ the disempowered so that they can articulate their own claims is to commit cultural violence aginst them in that such ‘education’ replaces their original identity, moral framework, and world view, with one that is favoured by Western academics.

    It is conceivable that, to some, a human rights movement is simply Western cultural imperialism by a different name. This makes me believe that the annecdote Paul relates above about the Africans who want the West to butt out is perhaps more representative of common opinion in Africa than Paul allows.

    • Paul Bernal says:

      Interesting stuff – and you may well be right that I’m underestimating the feelings of many in Africa (and beyond) in these terms. When I heard them at the time it was an eye-opener – and it was the unanimity of it that was the most surprising.

  8. I think Conor makes a really great point here – about the way in which human rights should strike fear and loathing into those who are not in the business of Favio’s “positive transoformation of the world”, but who instead continue in their self serving ways: accumulating power, wealth and influence to further advance their own interests at the expense of most of the rest of us. I think it is clear from much of the politics of human rights that these sorts of people do fear human rights – it is one of the key reasons that they invest so heavily in anything which will prevent rights getting traction against them.

    Conor uses the phrase “good givers and brave takers”, which I must confess I am still not entirely sure how to interpret. But I fully agree with what he says at one point – that the human rights project must be comprised of more than those who give with good intentions. My take on this formulation is that charity is not justice. This is why, for example, I find myself very critical, as I’ve written elsewhere, of people like Peter Singer, who argue for charity, for giving, in order to help with global poverty. Well, a certain amount of good can be achieved here (in my view less than Singer thinks). But, to put my objection in Conor’s terms, this picture does not include, in the way it needs to, the brave takers.

    In my forumulation, Conor’s “Takers” are those who make their demands in the name of justice – and it is because they are made in the name of justice that they have their bite, their plausibility and legitimation. Often they will be made in a system where there already exists institutional leverage – the capacity to compel the force of the state to back their claims. But as often – perhaps more often – they will not, and the “taking” that is engaged in is the taking of unjustly inegalitarian distributions of wealth, power and influence and re-distributing them on a pattern which can be persuasively argued for in virtue of its comparatively just nature.

    The key word in all this for me is justice – a word that presents as many problems as it does answers, but that is nonetheless indispensible for explaining this political programme – and, importantly, one which appeals to our best intuitions regarding the purpose of human rights.

    I wanted to comment briefly as well on Conor’s reference to something I said earlier. Conor says “Asserting their human rights means imposing their vision of humanity (Anthony from the last track) on those reluctant to accept it.” I’m not sure that I used the language of imposition in my last comment : but it does raise key issues. If we are “taking”, in Conor’s terms, it means we are putting up a political fight to get or achieve a certain end, a consequence of which will be that others in the political discourse are constrained by what we (hope to) achieve. When they agree, this is unproblematic; when they don’t agree, it is important for human rights to be operating – as much as it can – in a political culture of contestation, where people can continue to dispute, where the political discussion is not closed, or closed down. This is very contentious, because we usually want to have our political debates within certain limits – for example, as much as we might want to debate labour rights, we do not want anyone re-opening the book on slavery. I think it is fair to say that most people would agree with this!

    The difficulty is that there are a range of very serious issues where there is no agreement about the limits within which the debate should be had – and so the debate becomes one also about its own limits. And when this is the case, the language of imposition can be very dangerous. At the same time, it cannot be avoided: when one is ordaining human rights standards, one is saying that there are certain things that people should be constrained from doing. How we translate this into political action is, I think, a matter of the utmost sensitivity – and one where if it is done in an ill advised way, all the “right” that one might have been hoping to contribute to our corporate social and political life can evaporate extremely quickly, leaving atrocity in its wake.

  9. Christina says:

    Thank you Conor, I didn’t think anyone would be listening.

    I’m also not sure where this should go, which track etc, probably truth or perhaps, rights need to be something we can imagine.

    Now I have to come clean and say that I am an alien, and a woman, and so bring a completely different perspective the rights’ future. I am also a wordsmith.

    I am not White Male Oxbridge educated like most of the current government.
    so I must approach from a personal perspective.

    From a philosophy major I brought the following knowledge. There is no such thing as truth, time is unreal, and reality is how you perceived it. You make your own reality, and in Platonic and existential terms you set the pattern for ?mankind?

    However I do know what is right. I was fortunate to hear Tom Bingham speak on “Which of these rights would you want to give up? the right to life, to liberty, freedom from torture?”

    and Conor, I know, that you know that false imprisonment, probably and wrongful arrest, accorded to terrorists’ be they Muslim, Irish or Jewish, have a long history. Viewed by someone with some experience of a minority existence, helps to clear the vision.

    Lord Bingham’s words will forever ring in my ears, but 3 key elements underpin these.

    The right to life is dependent on access to water, and for much of the world that has been damned ( a particularly appropriate word) or acquired by multi-national companies at the expense of poor people (Arundhati Roy.)

    I am minded by a colleague in LSE law that health care is also pretty crucial for the right to life.

    One of the Australian Drs, sent to provide surgery and support to the peace keeping forces in Rwanda, came across a woman 10 days in labour. They had to push the baby back into the womb and perform a cesarean. The baby came out black. The Dr. thought he’d failed, then the baby screamed and he realized he had just delivered a child to one of the blackest races in whole Africa. Ithink an anecdote, or story as I call it, is memorable and makes a point.

    He said that’s why the women have taken over the peace process, because they know the importance of health care. Rwanda: Women Hold Up Half the Parliament

    The number of women who die in childbirth are a disgrace to the “civilized” world.

    Approximately 585,000 women die every year, over 1,600 every day, from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. In sub-Saharan Africa, 1 in 13 women will die from pregnancy or childbirth related causes, compared to 1 in 3,300 women in the United States. (WHO stats.)

    If you are looking at human rights as a male, you will hardly notice these figures. health care in chidlbirth not a human right? Fascinating stats at this url:

    tinyurl http://tinyurl.com/yyekaxy

    Which brings me to slavery again, apart from sex and domestic slavery, mostly women, but Chinese cockle pickers would qualify. its in our own back yard, or sweat shops, and will increase in 2012 with the games.

    On 23 November Lord King and Baroness Verma celebrate the UN manifesto against violence to women.

    I know these things to be right. I know because of my core values and common humanity. Every time I abuse another human being, like Callly in Vietnam or Lindy English in Abu Ghraib or am complicit in their behaviour, I lessen my humanity.

    I take issue with Conor on “human are not the only ones with rights.” Any discussion of human rights which ignores half, more than half of humanity, falls down for me.

    I grew up amongst holocaust survivors, it’s in my marrow . How do I know what is right? Well Descartes : “I think therefore I am,” as probably as good a defense as any. Genes has become the latest quasi science/academic get out free card, from intellectual rigour. The human brain is plastic and it can rise above its genes. But defending and explaining that is another essay, so I will just assert it.

    Yes we need the theory, the arguments, but never forget the person, the individual , and what we can do. My weapon is words, and persuasive argument.

  10. Louise Thomson says:

    I think it is true to say that not everybody wants to be able to assert universal rights and comments here identify different cultural perspectives and concerns about the West doing things for other cultures that they may not want or need. So is it true that for all cultures, reality is not in any way absolute but is actually socially constructed? And do you believe the truth of that statement so strongly that you would feel at least intellectually comfortable that it is fine for other cultures to use slave labour or to torture or to assassinate people who pose a political threat. If you do hold to the claims of cultural relativism to such a degree, what is that relativist statement if it is not an assertion of truth for humans everywhere? It is taking a ‘last word’, Universalist approach while denying that any such approach is possible. If there is an intellectual ‘get out free card’ in this debate, I think it is cultural relativism.

    I agree with Christina that looking at the personal and giving value to emotional reaction to situations discussed or witnessed is crucial. So the voice has been generally white and male in the philosophy debate (as Carol Gilligan has pointed out) but stressing intellectual, rational thought process in the style of Descartes might pull us away from emotion. Genetics might help to reignite a wider discussion as to why looking at internal and emotional responses (in men and women) is justified and I don’t think it is meant as scientific reductionism or a replacement for intellectual process. Being white and male of course does not mean that you cannot empathise on issues of childbirth but as Carl Jung has pointed out, Patriarchal societies tend to undervalue emotion and interior response in favour of exteriors and rational, objective thought.

    Developmental psychologists argue that the very capacity to protect and promote universal equality is the product of at least five stages of interior hierarchical growth. Liberal cultures with human rights regimes that embrace or promote universal equality concepts now have an academic centre of gravity in relativism which denies hierarchy and universality. So liberal cultures now deny the very path that produced liberalism. We are benefiting from the actions of brave takers before us and we are happy with extreme relative viewpoints because these are rarely forced upon us. It is OK for me to say that ‘to speak on behalf of the disempowered only serves to further disempower them’ until I am one of the disempowered, and then I will want a really good lawyer.

    I might be wrong but I see the push to talk of violence, Darwin, brave takers and other controversial topics in the field as a move to go beyond modernism and postmodernism and to actually argue for universal human rights with new tools. Bad givers, bad takers, brave takers and good givers can partially be explained. If there is any truth in the studies done on moral development, respecting universal equality is an elite value reached by a minority of the population at this time although it suggests that the stage is universally obtainable. This does not mean that this elite view sits in western cultures only but that we are fortunate that our legal and political structure supports it. It seems that the very people who have been given the benefit of a platform to fully be able to argue for universal equality are not angry enough to do so and are too hung up on coming from an ‘elite’ position to feel justified in doing this on behalf of others. I’m not sure there is anything brave about that.

  11. Jose-Manuel Barreto says:

    For this comment I decided to accept Conor’s invitation to those who disagree with him to take part in the discussion that will lead to the publication of his book. However, I will start writing on the idea I share with him -which it is the main point of his essay: human rights are created mainly by the struggles advanced by the victims. Historically human rights have been won by peoples and individuals fighting to protect themselves against the powerful. This is the key path and sine qua non of all the triumphs of human rights: the struggle of US colonies against the British, the French Revolution, Haitian and Latin American revolutions of independence, the fight against slavery, the Mexican and Russian revolutions, the Universal Declaration, the struggles in Central and South America, and Eastern Europe in the 1970’s and 1980’s against the military and totalitarian regimes that ended up in the return to democracy, the current struggle against the abuses committed under the banner of the War on Terror. The history of human rights has been a history of ‘takers’, but those who have sympathized with them have also made an important contribution.

    Considerable space has been given in this debate to speak about emotions and human rights, and with this, to speak of feelings like sympathy. However, reflecting on sentiments like empathy took us to the false impression that we put too much hope on the powers of emotions and solidarity for securing justice and human rights claims. However, the turn to emotions in the human rights arena aims at supplementing, rather than discrediting or excluding, the common strategies that appeal to argument, promotion, duty, law and reason. Much has been said about feelings in this website, but perhaps this is a sort of reaction to the dominant rational approach to rights.

    On the other hand, it seems to me the discussion has moved to assume that emotions like sympathy have to do only with a politics of human rights that relies on ‘givers’: those who have the capacity for feeling for others can do something to protect or to help victims –this can be the case of human rights defenders and NGO’s, or of mass demonstrations or social movements protesting against the plans for war of their own governments against distant countries. This is in fact part of the involvement of sentiments in human rights culture and politics. However, this is only one of the ways in which sympathy, empathy or compassion (which need not to be confused with pity or mercy) can be related to the struggle for rights. Perhaps one of the more elaborated reflections on sympathy and human rights culture is that developed by Adorno. For him, the Holocaust was possible –among other factors- because of the existence of a cold modern European culture that allowed Nazi Germany –and the German soldiers and citizens- to implement and to support such policies of extermination. So sympathy is not only a way of ensuring people act for others who are suffering, but it can also operate as a restriction or self-restriction of the capacity for violence and destruction residing inside societies.

    Unless identification is made between sympathy and pity, I see no reasons to think of sympathy as a ‘conservative’ virtue. Acting to help others does not necessarily mean that victims should remain passive. Here the fight for independence in India and a famous phrase by Gandhi can be very telling: ‘I want world sympathy in this battle of right against might’. The support Gandhi was asking for from all the peoples of the world -including the British society- against the British Empire, did not mean the Indian people could do nothing and rely on the good sentiments and consciousness of the citizens of the world. More than thirty years of mobilisation of the Indian people were necessary to win independence. But the desirable political support for the decolonization of India was to translate in a lack of legitimacy of the British before the eyes of the world.

    For this reason I believe ‘givers’ is not the best term to describe those who sympathise with the suffering of others, because they give nothing. The social movements for rights and the agency of the victims are the key factors in ensuring human rights are recognised and respected. The ‘sympathisers’ can be key actors, but the victims acting for securing human rights are the protagonists. ‘Givers’, ‘decent rich’ and the ‘poor’ could not be the best words to use here also because it creates a sort of hierarchy between those who supposedly ‘give’ and those who ‘receive’, as when we think of pity and mercy. But the sympathizers do not have anything to give to the victims of human rights abuses, because the dignity of the victims does not depend on somebody else bestowing it upon them. Also because authorities do not act just out of mercy for victims; they just have the duty to protect them.

    Finally, probably hatred is not the best feeling to empower or to guide human rights struggles –as it is suggested in the title. It can not only ensure respect for victims, but also can lead to new abuses and new victims –innocent or not. Perhaps, together with sympathy, love, hope, etc, outrage can prove as being an effective sentiment as hatred, and more consequent.

    I also have a different interpretation regarding Bartolome de las Casas. I agree with Conor’s assertion that Las Casas’ work of around 50 years to protect the aborigines of America was not powerful enough as to restrain the violence of the Conquest. It is also true that the writings of Las Casas, Vitoria and Sepulveda -the first reflections on natural law made in modernity- defended both the victims (in the case of Las Casas) and the conquistadors (in the cases of Vitoria and Sepulveda). But it is difficult to consider that Las Casas incurred in the practice of dehumanising the natives. Against the idea that being infidel was reason enough as to kill the indigenous peoples of America, Las Casas maintained that they could not be charged of not following Christianity because they did not know about such a religion. On the contrary, in the ‘Controversy of Valladolid’ his critique of the violence of the Spanish relied crucially in his defence of the humanity of the natives. He described the aborigines as gentle, moderate and very skilful in the use of reason as Greeks and Romans were in antiquity.

  12. Antonia says:

    I have to take issue with the idea of ‘givers and takers’. I understand what Conor means by having to demand a right in order to give it some strength, rather than rely purely on philanthropy. However, I must agree with Jose-Manuel and question why sympathy is a conservative virtue and down-plays the importance of such emotions in the fight for human rights. These sorts of feelings have made a huge difference in the progression of human rights. Moreover, I don’t see why human rights must always be a moral concept, because, as history has shown, in the introduction of universal benefits etc., it is something that has been indentified as benefitting society as a whole, and not just the poor and helpless due to its economic value in improving the health and productivity of a nation.

    I would also like to suggest perhaps the word ‘providers’ instead of givers? The issue being that it seems to oppress others if you demand that they give, whereas if you demand something from those that provide, or offer provision, it seems it is more their place to offer this. Moreover, it would be interesting to know what the limits of what people can demand are. There is a danger of turning the provision of equality of opportunity, as stated in the first essay, into universal equality of condition etc. I would have to agree with one of the comments, stating that the distinction between givers and takers is both too simplistic in trying to deal with a more complex issue and that it is not helpful to divide society in this way when thinking about human rights.

    Finally, I do not believe that hatred achieves human rights. Even after apartheid, hatred is the problematic memory which prevents the progression of South Africa and its human rights. Although it may enflame the passion within someone to fight for what they believe in, it is never helpful to be the key reason to do anything, as it is reactionary and not progressive.

    • Paul Bernal says:

      Just a tiny point: I’m not sure Conor’s saying hatred can achieve human rights. Rather, I think he’s suggesting that those who support or go after human rights inspire hatred in the powerful. Its the powerful who show the hate…..

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