The liberals have used human rights discourse to counter Hindutva. It’s time to rethink this strategy


On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly in Paris adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and countries. The Declaration has since been translated into more than 500 languages ​​- and paved the way for the adoption of more than 70 human rights treaties.

Has all this talk about human rights brought us closer to a more secure world? No. Instead, human rights are used to justify wars. Wars are now called military or humanitarian “interventions”. In other words, the discourse on human rights has been militarized.

Human rights discourse has been used to justify the war from Yugoslavia to Iraq and from Libya to Afghanistan. Some lawyers even speak of a “human rights-based approach to drones” and write about how wars and counter-insurgency operations can be carried out in accordance with human rights principles.

Arming of rights

Chase Mader, the author of Chelsea Manning’s passion, the story behind the Wikileaks whistleblower (2013) has written extensively on the militarization of human rights.

He specifies :

“The elite factions of the human rights industry had long been normalized within the tightly knit spectrum of US foreign policy. Sarah Sewell, the recent director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard, wrote a slavery introduction to the new Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Campaign Manual: human rights tools can help the US armed forces conduct better peace campaigns in conquered territory…. the influential liberal think tank Center for American Progress also appeals to human rights in its call for an escalation of troops in Afghanistan – to better “engage” the enemy. ”

This militarization of human rights has been rooted in the history of the rule of law from the start. If we look closely at the history of human rights law, we can see that the law has always been an instrument of oppression. Writers, poets, philosophers throughout the ages have warned us that the law is not a reliable tool in the struggle for justice.

Human rights discourse has been used to justify the war from Yugoslavia to Iraq and from Libya to Afghanistan. Photo credit: Johannes Eisele / AFP

The mathematician Charles Dodgson (1832-1898), better known as Lewis Carroll, showed the absurdity of pure and applied logic in Alice in Wonderland and on the other side of the mirror. Jurists and judges have quoted extensively from both books. The most popular quote is of course the conversation between Alice and Humpty Dumpty. He has been cited by judges in the United States, Australia, Britain and beyond.

Alice through the looking glass was first published in 1871 and within 14 years of its publication lawyers were citing the famous exchange:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said rather scornfully, “it means exactly what I mean – no more and no less. “

“The question is,” Alice said, “can you make words mean so many different things? “

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “who is to be the master – that’s it. “

Humpty can unilaterally determine the meaning of his words – it is the absolute power that comes from being both lawmaker and judge.

Humpty Dumpty and the law

Liversidge v Anderson (1941) is a landmark administrative law case in the United Kingdom. It concerns civil liberties and the separation of powers. The court had to rule on the legality of the emergency powers in a 1939 regulation which allowed the British Home Secretary to intern people if he had “reasonable grounds” to believe they had “associations”. hostile ”.

Judges had to decide whether the court could investigate on the objective basis of reasonable cause. In other words, could they assess the actions of the Home Secretary against an objective standard, comparing them to what might be taken by a reasonable man, or were they to measure them against the personal standard of the? Secretary ?

The majority of the legal lords felt that the law should be interpreted so as to give effect to the intention of the legislature, even if it meant adding words to give that effect.

The majority of the lords seem to have been very concerned that they were dealing with a matter of national security. In their view, it was not appropriate for a tribunal to deal with national security issues, especially since they were unaware of classified information that only the executive had.

However, in his dissenting speech, Lord Atkin said that in his opinion the majority had abdicated its responsibility to investigate and control the executive and were “more executive oriented than executive”. Atkin protested that it was “a tense construction on words that effectively give the minister an uncontrolled power of imprisonment,” and went on to say:

“In England, amid the clash of arms, the laws are not silent. They can be changed, but they speak the same language in wartime as they do in peacetime … I only know of one authority who could justify the suggested construction method.

“When I use a word,” said Humpty Dumpty, rather scornfully, “it means exactly what I mean, no more and no less”. “The question is,” said Alice, “if you can make the words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” says Humpty Dumpty, “who is to be the master, that’s all.” After all this long discussion, the question is whether the words “if a man has” can mean “if a man thinks he has”. I am of the opinion that they cannot and that the matter should be decided accordingly.

The potential power of this dissenting judgment was clearly recognized even before its publication. The Lord Chancellor wrote to Lord Atkin asking him to change the proposed terms of the speech. He does not have.

The idea of ​​equality before the law, the foundation of human rights discourse, rests on the idea that all individuals are equal. However, the social and political reality of the rich and the poor has always been very different. Anatole France (1844-1924), socialist and fervent supporter of the Russian Revolution of 1917, wrote in 1920, in his book The red lily“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.

In one sentence, he exposed how the law is a weapon in the hands of the rich against the poor.

But perhaps even these writers would not have imagined that human rights would be used to justify wars and drone attacks in which civilians would be targeted or countries would be destroyed by bombardment.

Manufacturing consent

The international human rights community is deeply complicit in the militarization of human rights discourse. Organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been accused of approaching issues selectively to advance the foreign policy agenda of Western governments. Some foreign-funded NGOs play a role in fabricating consent for the Western agenda.

Ajit Doval, India’s security adviser, rightly pointed out: “It is civil society that can be subverted… that can be divided, that can be manipulated to harm the interests of a nation. Doval was speaking at the Hyderabad Police Academy fainting parade in November.

Leftists and Communists have pointed out the dangers of such subversion by foreign-funded NGOs since the 1970s. One of the sharpest criticisms of NGOs was made by James Petras when he wrote his article founder entitled “NGOs in the service of imperialism”. He wrote:

“NGOs are important political and social actors on a global scale operating in rural and urban sites in Asia, Latin America and Africa and often linked in dependent roles to their main donors in Europe, to states United and Japan. It is symptomatic of the ubiquity of NGOs and their economic and political power over the so-called “progressive world” that there has been little systematic criticism from the left of the negative impact of NGOs. In large part, this failure is due to the success of NGOs who displace and destroy organized left movements and co-opt their intellectual strategists and organizational leaders.

Indian civil society is being manipulated by various forces and this is a matter of concern. If India and Indians are to learn lessons from other countries where such manipulation has led to growing ethnic and religious divisions, we must heed Ajit Doval’s warning.

The problem with Ajit Doval’s analysis is not the diagnosis but his cure.

Doval’s way of countering the manipulations of civil society is to build “a strategic culture”. The Vivekananda International Foundation and the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis have organized a series of lectures on the subject. The strategic culture they build is based on the militarization of Hinduism as a tool to forge national unity.

The liberals have, for the most part, used the language of human rights to counter the tide of Hindu nationalism without criticizing the way human rights themselves are militarized. On this anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we must rethink how the vision behind the declaration can be reimagined in line with today’s grim reality.

Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and most recently author of The flavors of nationalism.


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