Rethinking the Politics of Rights

| November 2019
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Many international human rights advocates have long assumed that rights are natural, universal, indivisible, and absolute–or, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it, recognition of the “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Clifford Bob’s Rights as Weapons suggests otherwise, arguing that an accurate understanding of the nature and function of rights in politics requires abandoning the conflation of rights with morality and justice and recognizing the strategic and malleable character of rights claims. Rights may advance the interests of the oppressed and downtrodden, but they can also be marshaled to serve the interests of the powerful, reinforce economic inequality, and even underline ethnic supremacism. For Bob, rights are always contentious, always a means to an end. In developing this analysis, Bob adds to a tradition of critique with roots in Marx, E. H. Carr, and legal realism, and joins a growing literature on the instrumental use of human rights and international law in global politics.1

In parsing Bob’s argument, it is essential to grasp his minimalist definition of a right as “the power of one entity, the rights-holder, to enforce a duty on another, the duty-bearer, whether directly or through some institution such as a court” (pp. 8–9) and a rights claim as “a demand for such a right made by a proponent against an opponent through a rhetorical, legal, political, or military campaign.” (p. 9) These definitions are not restricted to individual human rights, and controversially encompass property, corporate, group, majority, states’, and sovereign rights. Bob traces a wide range of rights claims and counter-claims through numerous case studies including Catalan bull fighting bans, litigation over crucifixes in Italian schools, LGBT rights in Africa, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Islamic veil restrictions in France, the invocation of women’s rights in the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Cold War civil rights politics, and religious freedom campaigns. One especially illuminating chapter focuses on the dynamics of  “divisionality” embedded in debates over Black and women’s suffrage in nineteenth century America and between transgender advocates and what have been labeled “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” today (p. 183), showing how proponents and opponents wield rights strategically. Alongside his previous work on right-wing activism, some of Bob’s most important contributions are to demonstrate that the rhetorical tools and organizational forms most often associated with liberal, social justice, and humanitarian causes can also be employed in the service of illiberal and repressive forces and, further, that rights claims often contradict each other. Rights, for Bob, are a largely empty vessel with the “capacity to be filled with any political goal” (p. 126). There is, moreover, “nothing imminent in rights, or even human rights, that makes particular successes certain or permanent” (p. 210).

While Bob advances these points cogently, the analysis does somewhat gloss over the degree to which there is a meaningful and substantive relationship between liberalism and the legal protection of civil and political rights (or “negative rights”). It is undoubtedly true that a variety of political actors can appropriate rights-talk to advance their interests, and may attach the label “rights” to their own goals. But when it comes particularly to civil and political rights, these claims are often, and obviously, philosophically incongruent with certain political outlooks. Conservative and communitarian theorists root legitimacy in traditional hierarchy and culture; while populists, nationalists, and fascists of various stripes do so in the people, nation, or charismatic leader. In contrast, liberals are more deeply and consistently committed to the idea of at least some kinds of rights as a foundational part of their politics. This leaves them much more vulnerable to both self-entrapment in rights rhetoric and accusations of hypocrisy when those rights are violated than are advocates of political ideologies that reject rational-legal authority and rule-of-law based order. Accordingly, rights claims can, for example, more effectively constrain the U.S. government than the Egyptian military regime, whose grossly disingenuous and temporary concern for rights when ousting the Muslim Brotherhood serves as the opening to Bob’s book. His highly agential story focused on political tactics should thus not rule out the ongoing importance of social context and political background conditions for understanding what kinds of rights claims emerge, how they are received, and whether they effectively exert influence over state policy.

Violent metaphors play a prominent role in Bob’s analysis. Rights are instruments or tools used to rally proponents and assert power over others. They are deployed offensively as “camouflage,” “spears,” “dynamite,” “blockades,” and “crowbars,” while targets “shield” and “parry” with their own rights claims (p. 14). Bob is careful to note that many human rights advocates are genuine in their pursuit of equality, dignity, and justice for all people. He does not argue that rights claims necessarily emerge from a “will to power” (p. 18) and would likely reject a Schmittian characterization of politics as inherent existential enmity. But the violent metaphors that run through Rights as Weapons raise deeper questions about the nature of the political. Is social change, via policy shifts or normative transformation, always a conflictual and combative process? Are persuasion and dialogue possible or are aggression and rivalry inevitable? Are there always winners and losers, insiders and outsiders? In this regard, there is a remarkable gap between the organic and evolutionary “norm life-cycle” models associated with constructivist international human rights scholarship and the political warfare, or rights-fare, described by Bob. This corrective jolt to how we imagine rights politics is a welcome intervention, but includes only a partial view of how people may engage each other politically.2

The use of violent metaphors is not value neutral, at least for any who ascribe negative connotations to violence. For instance, Bob describes “dynamite tactics” as “the use of rights arguments in a direct and immediate attempt to undermine or destroy a targeted culture or community, often by forcing alteration in key values, ideas, or institutions” (p. 120). Bob links these “explosive” efforts to imperial ventures and majoritarian laws that seek to radically transform targeted societies or minorities. He notes that in such cases, victims may eschew intervention, fearing they will become “collateral damage” in outsider attacks on their broader community (pp. 124–125). Insofar as these dynamics do exist, they challenge the universal efficacy of efforts to improve human rights through external pressure, a hallmark of classic transnational advocacy networks,3 particularly without the explicit invitation of local rights claimants.

While this point is well-taken, certain examples in the book, such as the discussion of U.S. and European efforts to push back against a wave of draconian anti-gay laws in Africa, risk uncritically endorsing simplistic claims about what is traditional culture and what is a foreign imposition. Bracketing the problematic use of foreign aid as leverage, as argued by African LGBT advocates, it is not clear that such efforts aimed to destroy traditional African societies––a point Bob himself acknowledges (pp. 133–136). Nor is it clear there was anything particularly traditional about the extreme criminalization of homosexuality in places such as Uganda, where such laws have genealogies in British colonialism and, more recently, intense American evangelical influence. Likewise, Bob rightly notes a range of cynical and naïve efforts to link women’s rights to U.S. security in the context of the Afghanistan war under the “Hillary Doctrine,” although the actual progenitor of the war, the Bush doctrine, receives less attention. Once again, the critique of the “rightsification” of security and the harms of kinetic war waged in the name of rights is welcome, but there is little reason to dismiss as a Western feminist delusion the idea that there is a link between misogyny and extremism that animates a great deal of men’s wanton violence around the world (pp. 142–143). For instance, the indigenous Afghan women’s group RAWA (discussed in the book p. 145) does not actually reject the link. Rather, it argues that the West today continues its long and sordid history of supporting fanatics and warlords as proxies. Far from dynamiting such actors, the United States backs them, no matter how odious their women’s rights records, so long as they remain pro-American.4

Rights as Weapons is a fascinating and provocative book that challenges human rights scholars to revisit their most basic assumptions. However, while Bob repeatedly notes that rights movements have made significant and positive contributions to human emancipation, readers may be left skeptical if not disillusioned. This would be unfortunate, in my view, as the human rights defined in UN treaties and related instruments remain some of the least worst guides currently available for organizing societies, constraining state violence, and identifying state responsibilities, even if these rights are not natural, universal, indivisible, or absolute. We can recognize the dark side of rights that Bob identifies while bringing personal and collective ethical sensibilities to judging the normative desirability of contending and contradictory rights claims and related tactics. In this regard, Bob reminds us that making such judgments is necessarily a political exercise and that we cannot rely on the concept of rights alone to clarify what is moral or just.


-Rebecca Sanders

Rebecca Sanders is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati. Her book, Plausible Legality: Legal Culture and Political Imperative in the Global War on Terror (2018), examines the role of legal justification in constraining and enabling abusive American security practices while other recent research analyzes growing conservative backlash against international women’s rights.

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  1. For instance, Stephen Hopgood, The Endtimes of Human Rights (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013) and Ian Hurd, How to Do Things with International Law (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).
  2. Admittedly, I have similarly borrowed metaphors from the conflict literature in Rebecca Sanders, “Norm Proxy War and Resistance Through Outsourcing: The Dynamics of Transnational Human Rights Contestation,” Human Rights Review 17, 2 (June 2016): 165-191 and Rebecca Sanders, “Norm Spoiling: Undermining the International Women’s Rights Agenda,” International Affairs 94, 2 (March 2018): 271-291.
  3. Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998).
  4. RAWA, “The murderous criminals of 27th and 28th April are responsible for our people’s suffering!,” 27 April 2015, http://www.rawa.org/rawa/2015/04/27/rawa-statement-on-saur-dark-days-2015-english.html.

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

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