In ‘Intervene, I said’, in Overland 207, writer and academic Jessica Whyte explores the history and discourse of humanitarian intervention. Overland intern Rachel Liebhaber spoke with her about the finer points of political writing.
Why do you think it’s important to critique the concept and language of human rights?
‘Human rights’ is the hegemonic political language of our time. This universal uptake of the language of human rights has led to the unnerving situation in which they are used for dramatically opposed purposes. Corporations rely on the rights to liberty and private property to oppose labour regulation and taxation, while labour and environmental organisations use the language of human rights to oppose unchecked corporate power. George W Bush declared, in the wake of the war in Afghanistan, ‘no US President has done more for human rights than I have’, while former British Guantanamo detainee Moazzem Begg, who supported and fought with the Taliban, now runs a human rights organisation dedicated to helping other Guantanamo detainees. Wars are fought to defend human rights, while antiwar movements declare war a violation of human rights.
After I completed the piece for Overland, Amnesty International was embroiled in controversy when it produced posters for the Chicago NATO summit that read ‘Human Rights for Women and Girls in Afghanistan: NATO: Keep the Progress Going!’ Unfortunately this is not an isolated case. Today, human rights organisations are increasingly likely to give support to Western military campaigns. In the article, I suggest that the language of human rights came to prominence along with the Cold War victory of the West and the rise of neoliberalism. If we wish to challenge Western militarism and the global imposition of neoliberal capitalism, then it is time we critically engaged with the language of human rights that legitimises them.
Is this idea something you’ve spoken about in other forums? What kind of reactions have you had to your critique of human rights?
I have, and repeatedly I’ve been surprised by people’s openness to this critique. Two years ago, I presented a paper on critiques of human rights at the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights. It was a nerve-wracking experience! These were the people who were then suing Donald Rumsfeld for war crimes and torture committed at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. I felt like they all probably had better things they could be doing! After the paper, we talked and argued for more than an hour, and it was some of the most productive and stimulating discussion I can remember.
Last year Justin Clemens and I gave a Melbourne Free University session on human rights and democracy at Occupy Melbourne. That morning, a young woman who was wearing her tent as clothing was stripped of it by a group of police, who left her on the ground in her underwear. Faced with such brutality, it is tempting to reassert our rights – our right to protest, our right to free association, our right to free expression, even our right to choose what we wear. Again, people were surprisingly receptive to our critiques. I think many people fall back on the language of human rights simply because it’s so readily available, not because they’re antagonistic to the attempt to formulate other political languages.
Do you think the language and nature of politics and dissent is shifting with recent developments around the world – the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, the resistance to austerity measures in Europe?
I think there is currently an opening, in which radical political ideas, and anti-capitalist ideas, compete with existing liberal political discourses. It is an exciting time. Whether these struggles will be recuperated back into the liberal-democratic horizon, or whether they can re-found a politics of collective emancipation remains to be seen.
What else are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing a book on the development of the idea of the ‘right to intervene’. This idea emerged in the 1970s as a non-state idea, which enabled NGOs to provide relief across borders. Since then, it has morphed into a legitimating discourse for state militarism. The book examines this trajectory, and looks at the connections between this new politics of human rights and the rise of neoliberal capitalism.