Rights as Weapons: A Rejoinder

| November 2019
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It is an honor for Ethics & International Affairs to have chosen my book, Rights as Weapons: Instruments of Conflict, Tools of Power, for an online symposium. I am grateful to the six respondents for their insightful and challenging reactions. Before addressing them, it is useful to note that I wrote Rights as Weapons primarily because I believed that the literature on rights has erred in a number of ways. It has focused on the use of rights arguments by progressive movements, largely ignoring the ways in which contrary rights claims are used for illiberal goals. The literature has characterized rights, particularly human rights, as noble moral ends in themselves, rather than as means, tools, or weapons utilized in a variety of ways, often by the strong against the weak. Finally, although scholars have noted the existence of normative and rights conflicts, few have systematically analyzed such struggles—and the battles over contradictory rights they entail. Instead, much of the literature has suggested that change happens through logics of appropriateness or persuasion.

As Rebecca Sanders puts it, Rights as Weapons is a “corrective jolt” to that literature. I do not dismiss all forms of political activity other than conflict; dialogue and persuasion do occur. Yet, although scholars of rights and norms have paid lip-service to conflictive tactics, few have seriously sought to examine or theorize about them. Rights as Weapons continues an effort to do so, which I began in my prior book, The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2012), by digging in on one of the most common and effective tactics: the use of rights arguments.

In doing so, I make no apologies for having proposed stark concepts or for analogizing certain rights-based tactics to weaponry. Too much of the literature is filled with vague and ill-defined concepts that make it difficult for scholars to be sure of what we are debating. Terms commonly used in the literature, such as “constitutive,” “appropriateness,” “norms,” and even “human rights” itself, cry out for clear and objective definitions. In their absence, scholars talk past one another or engage in wishful thinking. The forms of rights weaponry I propose—based on several simple factors such as the number of actors involved in a conflict and their power relative to one another—are Weberian ideal types. They aim to present unambiguous concepts to guide rigorous analysis. Rights as Weapons begins that task by including brief empirical accounts, both contemporary and historical, to serve as “plausibility probes” of the concepts.1

To turn to conceptual issues raised by my respondents, several question my 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).  Búzás worries that my stress on the politico-legal dimension of rights may undercut their ability to serve as “metaphysical-moral objects” useful for the critique of unjust laws. True, the book’s focus is not on that aspect of rights, but I do not ignore the moral attraction exerted by rights arguments. One chapter is devoted to analyzing how political leaders (and sometimes moral philosophers) mobilize constituents and allies by portraying favored rights as natural, human, universal, apolitical, and absolute. My point, however, is that in and of themselves such framings of rights will not convince those who do not already sympathize with a movement’s underlying goals. Political processes rather than moral rhetoric are critical to achieving concrete goals. Kang’s related point, that rights have value in themselves and not merely as a means to substantive ends, is a good one.  Her example of the right to marriage conferring social recognition (and not just marriage itself) on a married couple is valid. As Kang agrees, however, these points do not undermine my theorization about the instrumental aspects of rights.

Justo is correct that I do not define “conflict” in the book. Perhaps I should have done so, but my definition would be an ordinary one: any situation in which individuals or groups seek to achieve competing political goals. As she notes, however, I do draw a distinction between violent and nonviolent conflicts, stating my preference for the latter and for rhetorical weapons over material ones in most situations. Several authors (Sanders, Búzás, Pham) make or suggest the important point that every political movement is not equally likely to adopt rights claims—and certainly not the same rights claims (Justo). In Rights as Weapons, I accept that point.  However, as long as rights claims remain a critical means of galvanizing political movements and that rights themselves are integral to imposing legal obligations, it is likely that political goals will continue to be wrapped in rights rhetoric. Such rhetoric may not always promote civil, liberal, or human rights. Conservatives and communitarians may prefer some of the other forms of rights claims I examine, such as states’ rights, or the rights of political or cultural majorities. In other cases, familiar terms such as human rights may be used to promote goals different from those that progressives normally champion, for instance, the right to life from conception, or the right to bear arms. This is precisely why I chose to examine all forms of rights—because despite the obvious differences in political goals sought by ideologically opposed groups, there is a commonality in the rights tactics they use.

Dijmarescu suggests that we need to study norms and not merely rights, because the existence of rights “does not guarantee that they are followed in practice, or that they are interpreted in a manner consistent with the vision of their authors. Successful rights-claims must therefore change norms as well as laws.” Certainly, the study of norms is worthwhile (although the concept needs better definition). I acknowledge that conflict over rights does not end when they are written into law. It continues, swirling around the interpretation and implementation of legal terms. But normative change across an entire society does not seem necessary for rights to be vindicated, as we see in numerous contemporary examples. Typically, in conflicts over LGBT rights, abortion, and much else, a rights claim can succeed if it attracts enough support to be legislated and implemented—even if the underlying political goal encapsulated in the right continues to face stiff opposition from those who reject it and any associated norms. More to the point, in the prolonged periods of conflict over such goals, both proponents and opponents continue to use competing rights (and norms) arguments.

A few empirical matters require brief mention. The book’s opening anecdote focused on how liberal activists in Egyptian civil society (not in the Egyptian military, per Sanders) used rights arguments to attract international support for their protests against the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013. Yet the liberals then welcomed a coup by the Egyptian military, with its long history of extreme rights violations—indicative of the tactical if not cynical use of rights that the book examines. My discussion of rights’ use by powerful actors against weaker ones (what I term “rights as dynamite”) is clearly controversial, probably because the powerful dress up their interventions with concern for real victims of rights violations, such as Afghanistan’s women or Nigeria’s LGBT community (Sanders and Búzás). Far less real, however, is the unproven core of the “Hillary Doctrine” used to justify continuation of the U.S. war in Afghanistan: that crusades to promote rights overseas protect U.S. security, preventing Americans at home from becoming victims of misogynistic or homophobic attackers.2 I stand by my central argument that many of the victims in foreign countries oppose such rights-based interventions because of their destructive consequences and futility. My examination of these cases suggests that, given the difficult cultural and political circumstances they face, local victims prefer the gradual growth of indigenously-adapted rights rather than the sudden external imposition of alien rights.

Several of the commentators chide me for not examining a number of additional issues. But in focusing the book on the tactical uses of rights arguments, I expressly bracketed other matters. With that focus, for instance, I did not seek to study the relationship between rights and the ends they are meant to achieve (Justo), to uncover where activists’ underlying substantive goals come from, or which “rules” they cite to create an “illusion of stability and immutability” (Dijmarescu). Nor did I explore the precise ways in which rights claims help mobilize material support (Kang) or “shape political subjectivities” (Justo). Still, my respondents offer a number of cogent suggestions regarding areas for future research. Sanders makes the important point that analysts should look to “social context and political background conditions for understanding what kinds of rights claims emerge.” Justo argues for consideration of “racism, sexism, and other power dynamics,” as well as for studying the “politics of those left behind” in rights battles. Pham raises the intriguing idea of examining the way in which national languages and especially non-Western cultures interpret the concept of rights. He also suggests that my approach needs to be tested outside Western cultural zones, particularly in Asian countries where concepts of duty may still dominate over those of rights. Búzás asks whether weaponization erodes the right that is weaponized. All of these are excellent suggestions, and I hope that the symposium’s respondents as well as other readers will use Rights as Weapons as a foundation for research in these and other areas.

-Clifford Bob

Clifford Bob is professor and chair of the political science department at Duquesne University. His areas of research and teaching include human rights, globalization, and U.S. foreign policy.


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  1. Harry Eckstein, “Case Study and Theory in Political Science,” in Handbook of Political Science, vol. 7 of Strategies of Inquiry, edited by Fred I. Greenstein and Nelson W. Polsby (Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1975).
  2. U.S. Department of State, “Secretary Clinton Remarks at the TEDWomen Conference,” December 8, 2010, http://m.state.gov/md152671.htm ; Samantha Power, “U.S. Diplomacy: Realism and Reality,” New York Review of Books, August 16, 2016, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/08/18/us-diplomacy-realism-and-reality/; Valerie Hudson and Patricia Leidl, The Hillary Doctrine: Sex and American Foreign Policy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

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

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