A Conversation about the Politics of Rights within Rights as Weapons

| November 2019
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Clifford Bob’s book Rights as Weapons: Instruments of Conflict, Tools of Power builds a powerful argument that rights can be weapons of political conflict. Instead of taking rights as inherently human, universal, absolute, and apolitical, Bob invites us to consider how activists leverage the rhetorical power of these oft-assumed attributes to mobilize constituencies and deploy and counter rights claims in the pursuit of political goals. On Bob’s account, since rights are “empty” of inherent normative value (p. 210), they can be used as tools both to liberate and to oppress. Yet, if this work masterfully brings our attention to the politics of rights, it is still important to reflect on the ways Bob conceptualizes politics in the book. What is political about the politics of rights and how can we take this conversation further?  To begin to answer this question, it is necessary to break down the book’s central thesis: rights can be weapons of political conflict.

In adhering to the language of weaponry, Bob distinguishes between rights, activism, and political goals at the analytical level. Indeed, two differentiations underscore the account of rights as weapons: 1) rights are considered means to the achievement of more substantial political ends; and 2) rights are considered to be separate from movements that utilize them to pursue political goals. Regarding the first differentiation, these means—rights analogized as weaponry such as rallying cries, shields, parries, spears, dynamites, blockages, and wedges—are set against the backdrop of political goals that Bob describes as “concrete” and “substantive” (p. 9), and at the same time “open and indeterminate” (p. 12). Although Bob lists some political goals, such as freedom of thought or the right to food (p. 9), and although he implies that what is political about goals is that they are open to competition about their content (p.12), he does not further elaborate on the relationship between the definition of rights and the definition of political goals. While this choice rightly highlights the myriad ways political goals can be determined by movements, it suggests that some political goals can be considered on their own without a closer inspection of the contours of the rights that are supposed to advance them. Bob both undertheorizes the political processes through which rights get defined as legal constructs with a logic on their own and overstates the degree to which the decision to leverage rights in pursuit of political goals is always first and foremost a matter of strategic calculation. He focuses primarily on the instrumentality of rights, rather than the relationship between the content of the right and the end it is meant to achieve.

A brief engagement with two cases from the book will illustrate what I mean. As a first example, Bob portrays the crucifix case in Italy (ch. 5) as being part of a broader strategic attempt to transform Europe into a secular society (the end) by leveraging the right to religious freedom (the means). Bob does not, however, address the perplexities of the legal right to religious freedom itself.1. Rights are political not only because they are aimed at political goals, but also because they are political constructs themselves. In the case of religious freedom, it would be hard to think how this right could be possibly used to promote secularism as a political goal without considering that the very idea that it would be possible or desirable to separate religion from politics is already contained in the way religion is treated in the formulation of this right, emphasizing protestant interpretations to the detriment of other possible conceptualizations of religion. This makes Bob’s characterization of such rights as mere weapons much less amenable. The lack of further explanation about how the content of these rights is also object of dispute can give the impression that rights are readily available to be weaponized.

Moreover, this emphasis on the instrumental use of rights suggests that we should first consider how they mediate relations between their proponents and foes, and only then consider how their content has been produced historically. A second example is the case of the advocacy efforts to expand voting rights in nineteenth-century America (ch. 7). Here, Bob asserts that viewing the choices of black and women activists as being strategic challenges their classic portrayal “as passive conveyors of their society’s prejudices” (p. 212) and gives us another layer that goes beyond explanations based on sexism and racism, although these factors are certainly still important in his account. But, what do we miss? Even if voting rights are not to be considered ends in themselves, but rather means to broader goals of political participation, equality, and other substantial guarantees, it is hard not to consider how racism, sexism, and other power dynamics are related to the form and content of the right to vote, especially if we consider that its formal recognition has not always resulted in actual gain.

The second differentiation, that between movements (or activists) and rights, is no less important than the first. In some ways, the focus on the instrumental use of rights also assumes a considerable level of cohesiveness within movements. While this framing might well depict the actual result of political processes, that is, the sidelining of dissenting or minority views, it risks erroneously considering such views “less” political simply because they are not part of the winning strategy. Case in point, in chapter 4 we learn of the outlawing of bullfighting in Catalonia as a way to curtail the province’s independence within Spanish politics, with animal rights leveraged as a weapon against the Catalans. However, in addition to the majority views, there were certainly Spaniards who supported Catalonian autonomy and also Catalans who supported bullfighting independently of any connection to Catalan independence. However, these positions become less relevant to the argument of the book precisely because they are not part of the winning strategy. It is worth reflecting on the politics of those left behind in the instrumentalization of rights.

At a more profound level, the differentiation between rights claimants and rights implies that the latter do not necessarily affect the former. Bob concedes that rights “form not out of individuals’ will to power but out of shared identities, principles or conditions, which in turn are shaped by their interactions with others who are different from themselves” (p. 18), and that rights claims (especially when used as rallying cries) “may foster a sense of group solidarity and identity” (p. 29). Still, he explains neither how these people got together in the first place (even though the idea of movement necessarily suggests shared purposes and solidarities) nor, more importantly, how rights help to shape political subjectivities. In chapter 6, for example, the cases of the LGBT rights in Africa should not only be read as an effort to mask the postcolonial attempt to destroy local cultures via the assertion of persecuted minority rights but also as genuine efforts by certain domestic and international actors to provide protections for LGBT peoples in these societies. Although we should not affirm that LGBT rights fully capture the complexity of people’s lived experiences, the process of claiming a right as an LGBT person contributes to a certain extent in the formation of these political identities as such. Bob’s use of the case of transgender versus cisgender women’s rights in chapter 7 provides a similar example. While his focus remains on the tactic of “blockading” undertaken by certain cisgendered feminist activists to limit access by trans women to “women’s rights,” I would argue that the actual dispute over what it means to be considered a woman should be an equally important part of this conversation. According to the Bob, rights claimants are either proponents or foes, even if in reality the line between these conditions is always blurred by the constant need to fight for rights. Rights help to produce the categories of “men” and “women,” “foreigner” and “national,” and so many other conditions that are supposed to correspond to legal designations, and these identities, artificial and controversial as they are, still matter. Accordingly, there might be something in-between the offensive and defensive use of rights to account for this productive power.

Let us now examine what Bob means when he says that rights are weapons of political conflict. It is crucial to note that Bob does not define conflict. This might have been a deliberate choice to avoid restricting the meaning of politics in his work. But, given the importance that conflict has for the argument of the book, some reflection on what it could signify should help us get to the politics of rights. On the one hand, the book seems to point us to the blurry line between “normal” and “exceptional” politics, peace and wartime. Bob insists that although rights are “rhetorical weapons,” they are no less real than physical ones, and are deeply related to material resources. One of the most compelling claims of the argument is that rights can oppress and hurt; they are weapon-like even when they foster what we would consider good aims. This dynamic is intrinsic to the very definition of rights since they impose a duty on another party (p. 8–9). On the other hand, Bob states in the conclusion that rights are indeed more peaceful than overt war; they shape, but also tame conflicts (p. 214). As a result, “political conflict is inevitable in democratic settings,” and rights are perhaps the most well-suited channel through which politics can occur. All the same, providing a definition of what he means by conflict could help to more precisely explicate the relationship and differences between rights and conflict, and thus help to avoid what starts to feel like a tautological loop between the two.

Ultimately, Rights as Weapons accomplishes its mission to provide a systematic account of the offensive capabilities of rights and serves as an important entry into and an ongoing and crucial dialogue on the politics of rights, especially in its instrumentality. It is my hope that the reflections offered here on the relationship between activists, rights, and political goals, as well as their relation to political conflict, can contribute to the themes raised by this vital book.


-Nathalia Justo

Nathalia Justo is a PhD candidate in political science at Northwestern University in the fields of international relations and political theory.   

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  1. For a critical analysis of religious freedom see Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. The Impossibility of Religious Freedom : New Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018

Category: Online Book Symposium: Rights as Weapons, Online Exclusive

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