Human Rights vs. Human Agency

With little agreement on the substance of human rights, or the means of implementing them, it is easy to see why the claims made are often declared to be normative ‘wish lists’. To achieve the good ends of human rights advocates … is ‘to reshape political and social relations so that this moral vision will be realised’: ‘Human rights thus are simultaneously a “utopian” vision and a set of institutions – equal and inalienable rights – for realizing at least an approximation of that vision.’

The lack of an autonomous human subject means that human rights advocates’ aspirations for a better and more just society must necessarily focus on a beneficent agency, external to the political sphere, to achieve positive ends. There may be a duty to act to fulfil human rights needs but there is no politically accountable institution that can be relied upon. In order to help bridge this gap, between the ideal critique of the real and solutions which are necessarily part of the profane reality, human rights advocates tend to privilege the role of institutions which can stand above politics.

In the world of realist political and international relations theory, the focus is on existing institutional arrangements. This focus makes it difficult to accept the possibility of institutions that stand independent from social and political pressures. When addressing practical alternatives, the advocates of human rights are forced either to take existing political institutions, at state or interstate level, out of the political sphere or to posit some form of alternative institutional arrangement, which is independent of politics. For some theorists of human rights, the solution is to bring the state back into the analysis. But, of course, only if the political sphere is subordinated through the institution of forms of regulation independent of elected government. This can occur through political actors being bound by a bill of rights and, therefore, capable of acting morally, that is, independently from the economic pressure of the world of business and the political pressure of parliamentary competition.

The idea of the state acting morally to guarantee a set of moral ends seems to fly in the face of the democratic political conception of the state, based on the need to achieve consensus between competing interests within society. To justify the subordination of politics to moral ends, human rights theorists often stress the protective and morally progressive role of the state as the guarantor of democratic political rights as well as potential human rights….

What was lost in the promulgation of human rights theory in the 1990s was the connection between rights and subjects who can exercise those rights, which was at the core of political accountability and democracy. Once the historical and logical link between rights and the subjects of these rights is broken, then democracy is a meaningless concept. The epistemological premise of democracy is that there are no final truths about what is good for society that can be established through the powers of revelation or special knowledge…. If we accept that people are the best judges of their own interests, then only self-determination can be the basis for collective self-government. Democracy, therefore, is only a means to an end, to the realisation of the public good because it allows people to define what that good is, as well as to control the process by which it is realised….

All human rights advocates share the view that social justice, the righting of ‘human wrongs’ should stand above the formal political equality of liberal democracy. The protection of women, national minorities, children, the environment, peace, multi-ethnic society and many other rights-causes are considered, by their advocates, to be too important to be left to the traditional instruments of domestic and international government. Whereas representative government works to realise the derivation of the state from the will of the people, human rights theorists seek to subordinate the will of the people to ethical or moral ends established by a less accountable elite. The traditional conservative critique of democracy was that of the ‘despotism of the multitude’; today’s human rights advocates dress these nineteenth century arguments in the twenty-first century garb of normative rights theory….

In place of the democratic participatory society, assumed as the basis of the political conception of rights, the role of the individual is a much less empowered and passive one. In place of politics, we have the moral advocacy of a liberal elite. The voices of the human rights victims and politically excluded are not expressed through the ballot box but are the raw material for their self-appointed liberal advocates in the media, academia and the international NGOs….

Once humans are universalised, not as competent and rational actors capable of determining their own view of the ‘good’, but as helpless victims of governments and the forces of the world market or globalisation, then democratic freedoms and civil liberties appear meaningless. Under the guise of ‘ethical’ universalism the human subject is degraded to the lowest level, in need of paternalist guidance from the ‘great and the good’ who can establish a moral agenda of human rights to guide, educate and ’empower’ the people. The assumptions and processes of representative democratic government are turned on their head.

SOURCE: From Kosovo to Kabul and Beyond: Human Rights and International Intervention, new ed., by David Chandler (Pluto Press, 2006), pp. 110-111, 114, 116, 119 (reference citations removed)

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