Saturday, 26 January 2013

Skeletons All The Way Down: why the EU matters

Of late, the Cameron regime in the UK has been playing what looks a dangerous game, but on closer inspection is positively bloodcurdling.

In his speech on 23 January, the prime minister declared his intent, should the Conservative Party be re-elected, to re-negotiate the terms of Britain's membership of the EU – and to put that very membership on the line in an 'in or out' referendum. This comes amidst a certain modern tradition, of condemning the EU for eating too far into British sovereigty – particularly on workers' rights, social policy, the environment and crime – with two cabinet ministers, including Chancellor Osborne, the architect of Britain's austerity programme, having spoken with staggering casualness about marching Britian for the exit unless the EU 'changes'.

The threat, now politically manifest, seems simple. Reduce the power of the EU; return that power either to all member states, or if not, then to Britain exclusively; otherwise, Britain may leave.

Why is this not merely a problem, but bloodcurdling?

Not merely because it does not represent political sense, economic sense or plain common sense for the UK, its people, and its relationships with its European neighbours.

Not merely because it has alarmed the opposition, the Americans, and even veterans in Mr. Cameron's own party.

Not even merely because the Conservative Party's appalling human rights record puts Britain in foremost need of the EU's judicial intervention, to check the Cameron regime's excesses against its people.

One might wonder what the fuss is about. The EU has fallen into miserable times: the apparatus of cruelty that is British austerity reflects a wider trend that takes its toll on populations across the European continent. Old divisions resurface, between and within these countries; new ones emerge; the sharing of pains between them becomes a disguise for the stronger imposing their interests or ideologies to the detriment of the weaker; genuine human solidarity across their borders is often found illusory; and then in what may be the foremost indicator that not all is well, it receives the Nobel Peace Prize. There are questions indeed, about both the sustainability of the EU and what any country gets from being part of it.

They are the wrong questions. The right questions look more like this.

That is to say, those are not so much problems with the EU, as problems with Europe, and some of the people in it. When I use adjectives like 'bloodcurdling' and 'harrowing' in here, these are not exaggerations. To anyone in their seventies or over, conditions in Europe now should carry echoes of a chilling familiarity.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Refuting West-Centric Narratives of Human Rights: A Three-Pronged Critique

Happy new year everyone. Here's a present.

Refuting West-Centric Narratives of Human Rights: A Three-Pronged Critique
Ai Chaobang, Tokyo, 4 December 2012

1) Narratives of ESSENCE: the Universal Origins of Human Rights
a) The "Right" Human Rights – Who Decides?
b) Contributions to Human Rights
c) Contributions Against Human Rights
d) Strengths and Weaknesses
2) Narratives of FORM: the Universal Establishment of Human Rights
a) The Western Declaration of Human Rights?
b) The Universal-Except-The-West Declaration of Human Rights?
c) Resonance and Dissonance
3) Narratives of RELEVANCE: the Universal Enemies of Human Rights
a) Charybdis: The Whirlpool of Universal Human Wrongs
b) Scylla: The Multi-headed Monster of Inhuman Diversity
c) Through the Straits and Around the World: A Tool for Global Problems
Conclusion: In It Together

Human rights are many things simultaneously. What looks at first a simple concept is loaded with highly contextualized theoretical, political, and normative agendas, beliefs, aspirations, dreams and passions. In the wider story of humanity, human rights have their own story which as any story, can be told from multiple perspectives.

Some have dominated unduly. In this paper I seek to comprehensively refute a set of influential narrative forces in the human rights story: those which draw its centre of gravity towards the "West".1 I will argue that such Western-centric narratives, or indeed any territorializing narratives regardless of who is at their centre, are neither an accurate nor a helpful telling of the human rights story. Rather, I will present that human rights are, and should be, universal, and in so doing will overarch and consider some of the major ongoing debates in human rights discourse.

That discourse is enormous, and the territorializing narratives in question occur throughout. We shall confront them on three levels:
1) Narratives of essence: of humanity's development of the human rights idea;
2) Narratives of form: of twentieth-century attempts to implement human rights in practice, and the modern international human rights framework of laws and norms; and
3) Narratives of relevance: of the place of human rights today in relation to diverse human cultures, histories and problems.
At each level I aim to critically assert the universality of human rights, as well as the inaccuracies or dangers posed by elevating the story's Western characters above others.

Throughout, we must bear in mind the essential problem. Thomas Paine lamented in 1776 that 'Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her as a stranger and England hath given her warning to depart.'2 He might as well have said that this morning. Every society, today and in the past, has abused human beings in ways that any meaningful concept of human rights must embody. Every society, regardless of location or culture, has had its politically, socially, economically, and/or spiritually pernicious orders, that in innumerable ways have forsaken people within them or aggressed those outside. Every society has had its descents into madness, and most display an abysmal record in facing up to those disasters with humility. Therefore, when this paper considers the human rights contributions of any given society, this should not at all be taken as an absolution of that society for whatever grievous treatment of human beings it once authored or still does now.

This is nowhere a pure academic question, but an emotively-charged core of political agendas and clashing superiority complexes. The academic community and its human rights commentators, as humans too, are not insulated from this, but are themselves affected by human rights politics and value preferences, and affect these in turn by their choices of how to regard them. We should note that disciplinary academia as we know it, now globalized across the world, is itself a constructed and politicized unit, itself of Western extraction, and itself a culturally loaded tool of legitimating – or refusing legitimation to – ideas and knowledge, according to rules not necessarily objective in direction.3 It is vital that in assessing global issues, we be actively conscious of the norms and assumptions influencing us, and look past their clout in academic politics so as not to unfairly exclude contributions.

I take the trouble to state this because in the politicized paradigm of international relations today, any human rights discussion runs the risk of having all meaning drained off into a competitive morass of ulterior agendas, where participants divert attention from their abuses by stating "no, you". As is really the overarching message in this paper, to territorialize human rights is to play straight into this contest, and turn a concept which was meant to help us escape that paradigm into a rhetorical instrument that sinks us deeper in it – and buries our efforts in shame.

Thus the argument I seek to make here is as normative as empirical. Human rights not only are universal, but should and must be. Only then can they represent not our determination to persist with self-interested conflict and mutual contempt, but a universal will to overturn that order, to get past divisions which should never have been dug, and to re-found our globalized world on a basis of sincere responsibility and mutual care: to show, indeed, that humanity can do better.