Online Exclusive 11/7/2019 Online Essay

Sources of Firepower for Weaponized Rights

“Rights” are often portrayed as things that are universal, apolitical, inherent, or natural, and as ends in themselves. But what if “rights” are mere rhetoric, a mobilizing device that can be used in service of any political aim, however liberal or illiberal it may be? Clifford Bob’s provocative and excellent book Rights as Weapons shows how rights have been deployed in the real world as means to other ends. Drawing on a diverse set of cases from across the globe, he scrapes away the “carapace of morality around rights to uncover what activists care most about and how they strive to achieve it” (p. 215).

Challenging common intuition, he shows how rights have been used strategically as offensive—not just defensive—tools in political conflicts, with a particular emphasis on how the powerful use rights to harm the weak. Contrary to conventional wisdom, he shows that rights are not only used by the weak against the strong. Rights, on Bob’s account, are ultimately empty and can be used in pursuit of any goal. Some might find this cynical, bleak, or depressing, but Bob argues persuasively that it is preferable for actors to use the figurative rights-language “weapons” in political conflict instead of literal physical weapons and bloodshed (p. 217). In this vein, scholars and activists could view the book as a handbook for how to use rights to advance their own causes.

The book argues for a significant shift in how scholars and activists think about rights. It also inspires many questions about the nature of rights-language. This review will explore a few. To start, do the powerful really evoke their rights as much as Bob suggests? In chapter 5, “Rights as Spears: Overturning Laws,” Bob describes how Italian atheists fought to remove crucifixes in public schools in Italy and then shows how the more powerful, majority Italian pro-crucifix camp fought back. He asserts multiple times that the pro-crucifix camp retaliated by evoking the nation’s rights and majority rights.1 However, in this case the term “rights” is always in Bob’s own words, not theirs. From the quotes that Bob provides, this camp never actually uses the term “rights.” Instead, the pro-crucifix camp talks about the importance of the state’s “heritage” (p. 103), the defense of their “value system” (p. 105), “tradition” (p. 110), the “will of the people of Italy,” and so on, never using the term “rights.” Here, Bob’s assertion that the majority camp uses rights language without providing evidence should give us pause. Are these so-called “rights” actually being invoked? Can “rights” be deployed as weapons if the actual term is not used?

To be sure, sometimes powerful majorities do explicitly invoke their own rights. Elsewhere, Bob quotes Nigerian Senate President David Mark who says, “we are a sovereign nation and we have a right to decide… Same-sex marriage is against our…culture...” (p. 118). It is also well known that Israel frequently asserts its “right to defend itself.” But far more prevalent are cases in which a powerful actor invokes the rights of a weaker third party against its opponent. For example, Bob is convincing in showing how the United States used women’s rights to justify invading Afghanistan and destroying Afghan culture, and how Israel invokes LGBT rights to weaken pro-Palestinian coalitions.

If it is true that the powerful rarely invoke their own rights, this might suggest that there are limits to the use of rights language. One reason for this may be the individualistic nature of rights-holders and the widespread assumption that rights are used to help the weak, not the powerful. Would not most activists view powerful groups’ use of rights language with suspicion? And believability matters. Whereas bullets will cause harm regardless of what one thinks about getting shot, the weapon of “rights language” only has force if the audience is convinced—and rights language often fails to hit its target. When Bob discusses the “Marc” Youtube video (p. 185), an Israeli-produced film that attempted to use LGBT rights as a wedge to weaken pro-Palestinian coalitions, he does not mention that the video was mostly “disliked” and criticized as “pinkwashing” in the comments section. It missed its target. Katherine Sikkink is similarly skeptical and argues that the term “human rights” should never be conflated with the human rights policies and rhetoric of powerful countries like the United States or Great Britain, asserting that “the fact that a small handful of human rights writers in the United States supported the invasion of Iraq does not earn it the label of a human rights war rather than a war of aggression.”2 Century (Princeton: NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), p. 41. Given that rights can be used as weapons, what makes the use of some more believable than others?

The believability of words can in part depend on the national language the audience feels most at home in. Given that Bob’s book is primarily about the use of rights language, it is surprising that there is no discussion about the role of national language, something that could lend nuance to how people around the globe understand rights. Do “rights” translate across languages and cultures consistently? The endnotes show that Bob draws on Western language sources (English, French, Italian, and Spanish) but we are left to wonder how rights are articulated into non-Western contexts (in Vietnamese, for example, the term for rights, quyền, is interchangeable with power). Rights language in western languages may help speakers simplify complex conflicts abroad. However, a point for further exploration would be whether, as a result of the dominance of Western languages in rights discourses, rights must be deployed in Western languages in order for them to have heft as weapons.

Although Bob does “not hold rights up for censure against some ‘implicit ideal,’ some better way of conducting politics” (p. 215), the book will surely make readers wonder if such a better way might exist. Could the answer be found in non-Western traditions?

For example, there is a general consensus among scholars of Confucianism that rights are never spoken of in the Confucian tradition; such a tradition places more emphasis on duties, and the closest thing to “rights” is the concept of fen, which means something like one’s share in society.3 One must show they are worthy of receiving their fen. Those who are duty-bound to provide others their fen must be educated so that they can have the goodwill to do so. While not without its own problems, perhaps there is value to the idea that duty should be emphasized, if not more, then at least as much as rights. The “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, agreed upon by all member states of the United Nations in 2005, shifted the “right to intervene” rhetoric to the language of duty, that all states are responsible for protecting their citizens from atrocities. This new emphasis on duty also meant that states now have the duty to engage in international assistance and capacity-building. In other words, states now have the duty to help other states that might want to protect their people from atrocity crimes but lack the capacity to do so. Thus, preventing atrocities became a goal after the introduction of the rhetoric of duty. This is different from the old rhetoric of “right to intervene” which justified intervention after atrocities have begun. The change of language from rights to duty was praised by many as a good thing, but also criticized as problematic by others as it can also justify aggression and controversial actions. Regardless, Bob’s book should make us wonder if perhaps it is a good thing to sometimes think more in terms of what we owe each other, rather than what rights we can claim.

-Kevin D. Pham

Kevin D. Pham is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside. His work explores how Vietnamese intellectuals interpret Western notions of rights and democracy.

  • 1 “…the right of the nation…” (p. 104), “…they had argued that their rights…” (p. 105), “…they raised a rival set of rights…” (p. 108), “…the coalition urged respect for the rights of majorities…” (p. 109), “the pro-crucifix coalition argued for the rights of sovereign European states…” (p. 110). All of these are examples of Bob’s descriptions in the book.
  • 2 Kathryn Sikkink, Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st
  • 3 Wejen Chang, “The Confucian Theory of Norms and Human Rights,” in W. Theodore de Bary and Tu Weiming, eds., Confucianism and Human Rights, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 128.