Otherwise Human: The Institutes and Institutions of Rights

christophe-easton-102  The present book project is a response to the specific arguments presented by adherents of specific intellectual and ideological traditions. These are liberal (and) cosmopolitan views of human rights and the processes of their implementation as international norms. These views are derived from Enlightenment philosophers (including but not limited to John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and Jeremy Bentham); natural law theorists (Francisco Vitoria, Alberico Gentili, Hugo Grotius, Samuel von Puffendorf, Emerich Vattel among them), and humanitarians (for instance Bartolome de las Casas). Their ideas and derivative theories constitute distinct traditions of human rights discourses. These traditions are inherited by contemporary theorists like Jurgen Habermas, Michael Ignatieff, Anthony Pagden, Michael Walzer, Amy Gutman, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Marha Nussbaum, and Amartya Sen among others. These traditions have established customary patterns of thought that both guide behavior and prescribe action. They hand down information in manners, methods, and styles that are characteristic of the customs and institutions of particular subjects in specific geographic spaces. The ones under examination here carry specific intimations. These are that the moral and ethical precepts implied in the concept of human rights are of exclusive Western origination. They also insist that Western entities (state, society, and cultural elites) must retain guardianship of the norms of human rights and enforce their applications elsewhere around the world.

dessalinesBecause traditions incorporate a wide range of views and perspectives, the present study necessarily deals with its objects in broad strokes. The approach carries the risk of oversimplifications. I wish therefore to stress that I understand that not all adherents of the implied traditions subscribe entirely to the specific views of individual adherents, even if they collectively perpetuate the central thrust of the presumed traditions. Indeed, like any traditions, liberal and cosmopolitan traditions have never been as temporally and spatially uniform as they appear in authoritative academic discourses. It is more than obvious that there are significant ruptures, deviations, and transformations in the processes of institutionalization of Western precepts of human rights. Yet, it is not enough that some liberal cosmopolitans have disowned significant dimensions of post-Enlightenment ideologies in an effort to recuperate and/or re-articulate Reason and rationalism. I appreciate such arguments but I have no stake in them. My concern is the authoritarianism and resultant violence that characterize the tendency to erase other traditions.

The book project is set against three premises on human rights prevalent today in academic and professional circles. The first is that a valid theory of human rights must necessarily concede the Western origination of the concept and the ontological primacy of related Western institutions.  The second contestable point is that the possibility of universalization of human rights resides in affirming the sufficiency of the classes of ‘rights’ enacted by the American and French revolutions and liberal democracies generally. The final point is that culture, tradition, and practice provide Western states and their constituencies with the legitimacy and authority to determine the extent of human rights violations and thus to define the form of intervention required in any context to rectify the conditions of abuses. Related arguments are at once theoretical, ideological, and ethical.

I do not dispute that Western institutions of human rights are the primary references for theorists and advocates. Nor does it discount approaches to human rights that identify the historical points at which ‘natural rights’ become ‘rights of nations’ and later ‘human rights.’ Indeed, I take it for granted that the revolutions in America and France encoded historical conceptions of political subjectivity, personal liberties, and political freedom. Together with the US Declaration of Independence, the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens have been held across the world as key references. These events partly provided the background for the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which itself has been frequently cited by political actors during specific political contestations: for instance in Eastern Europe, before and after the fall of communism, and Latin America, during struggles against dictatorship and authoritarianism.

From the above, it is easy to deduce that the concerns for the ennobling of human existence are widely shared across space and time. To the extent that this is true, and taking the concepts of human rights loosely as a formalization of those concerns, it is possible to advance the theory and advocacy of human rights beyond, first, fixed notions of human rights and arguments about their universality and non-contestability and, second, their peculiar understandings of political subjectivity and the moral requirements of subjects. For, throughout modern times and the world over, a multiplicity of social and political entities have contingently appealed to higher moral orders beyond the available socio-political imaginaries as standards by which to measure social acts and political relations. These appeals were founded upon broader classes of moral codes and multiple formulations of ethics that sought to ennoble human existence through enforceable standards akin to human rights.  These moral codes and their ethical expressions constitute alternative enunciations of what may be called human rights precepts or institutes.

These precepts and institutes might be a good measure of the relationship between human institutions and what it means to be human, to be alive, to lead a dignified life. The distance between institutes and institutions is paved by conventionalization and instrumentalization of precepts through select interpretations, translations, and appropriations. In this light, Western institutions of human rights represent spatial and temporal formalization and categorization of moral imperatives bearing on what it means to be human and to a lead a noble and dignified life. They necessarily compete with multiple other ethical systems and competing enunciations of moral concerns. Nowhere are their competing norms more palpable than in Western traditions themselves. Contrasting the American and French norms with those emanating from the Haitian revolution, one arrives at different arguments on the conditions of ‘enslavement’ (literal and metaphorical) and therefore of freedom. Specifically, the analyses of the human rights regimes propounded by the participants of these events underscore the fallacy of contemporary theoretical categorization of human rights norms into first, second, and third generations. These domains of rights appear conjointly and contemporaneously in Western practices including in Haiti. These respective domains and their precepts introduced equally enforceable notions of ethics.  While American and French revolutionaries sought to rectify the political context of the degradation of social life, former slaves in Haiti rightly identified economic, social, and cultural systems as the historical threat to human dignity.

george_masonThe ultimate purpose of the book is to sketch the constitutional developments from the first modern revolutions at the end of the 18th century to the present. It consists of five chapters. The first three chapters are reserved each to one of the three constitutive revolutions that, at the end of the 18th century, defined the contours of modern political subjects: the citizen, the individual, and the politically unclaimed. The participants were historical actors who responded to the conditions of their existence through a diversity of linguistic artifices: languages or idioms through which thoughts originate and are expressed. At times, these languages (of human rights for instance) exude the precision and imprecision of juridico-political vocabularies. They also may contain clear theological and moral references overlap with them. As we see later, thoughts and ways of speaking did not prescribe human rights norms in a straightforward manner. Norms and institutional practices are the result of political decisions and modes of arguments that are themselves grounded in ideologies (formulated by intellectuals and other opinion-makers), political temperaments (obtained from social and political movements), and ethical dispositions (generally of leaders and in the context of political actions). The emergence at the end of 18th century of human rights discourses reflected thus ways of speaking about politics, society, and the place of humans in them; but also specific thoughts about teleology (regarding the purpose of life, including dignity) and modes of arguments about how best to attain desirable outcomes. Each of the three revolutions exhibited different combinations of the different parts of these linguistic dispositifs or assemblages on human rights. Each revolution favored a specific economy of human rights. The latter consisted of entitlements and privileges and immunities and liabilities, all of which were produced and distributed authoritatively by according to the historical priorities of specific agents and subjects.

If the modern idioms or language of human rights appear complex, contradictory, and incomplete, it is because the effects intended by the three revolutions have been obscured by ideologically motivated arguments –and now theories. For instance, the American and French revolutions conferred dignity and legitimacy upon specific historical subjects. Yet, taken alone, or even together, the citizen and the individual did not exhaust what it meant to be human. The original individual and citizen were initially recognized by his masculine and property owning status or political clout. These are not minor point because the constitutionally excluded (including the enslaved blacks of Haiti) never ceased to think of themselves as human. Beyond the American, French, and Haitian revolutions, the language of human rights proved an exceedingly useful idiom with which to express the substance of human dignity. Modern solidarity groups – from philanthropists to abolitionists, secular and religious humanists, to socialists, anarchists and others– have been important agents in institutionalizing human rights. Anti-colonial struggles contributed to broadening the idea of human rights. Not only imperialists and colonial powers, but also anti-colonialists (and less powerful peoples in general) have sought authorization for their desires through historical idioms of rights.  Anti-colonialists engaged in rights talk even though they were fully conscious of the fact that imperial and colonial powers had tried to subvert the idea of human rights, associating human dignity with their own political and ideological aims. These invocations and applications of human rights discourses to political struggles throughout the 19th and 20th centuries are the object of Chapter Four.

Chapter Five covers the manners in which the universal appeal of the concept of human rights has been both compromised and strengthened in politics and theory. First, it is not a revelation that modern states and social and political movements have not always embraced the universalistic aspirations of the concept of human rights. For instance, the language of brotherhood spoken by solidarity groups frequently often excludes those who aren’t brothers, sometimes for purely sectarian reasons. Nor is it new that states and other political actors instrumentalize human rights. Indeed, the spread of ‘human rights’ discourse throughout the world has been (and remains) highly differentiated historical processes in which human rights language, for a variety of reasons and in a variety of places, have been available as conversational idioms. As a result, the form and content of the diverse idioms of human rights have varied with the political struggles that brought them into existence.

The above phenomena are important. Nonetheless, the focus of this chapter remains the empirical and theoretical errors of a certain liberal rationalist and/or cosmopolitanism approach to human rights. Unlike previous chapters which focused on political thought (or ideas, concepts, and their applications, this one stressed the relationship between theory and political discourse, or their contexts, intentions, and linguistic games. The aim to uncover the political and emotional loyalties implicated in the ideological defense of specific human regimes (as reflected for instance in the Helsinki Accords), which are taken to morally vindicate the West as bastion of freedom. For the ideology of common humanity that appears in such theories does not imply full historical awareness (not knowledge) of the human condition and of the sort of freedom that can be attained under different circumstances than those attained contemporaneously in the places of origination of theory. Nor have theories of human rights been sensitive to the context, intentions, and linguistic games behind alternative visions of the moral order and what might be likened elsewhere to human rights regimes. Specifically, liberal (and) cosmopolitan accounts of human rights frequently obscure political partisanship in public and theoretical debates that lead protagonists to affirm, dismiss, or distort competing accounts.

In contrast, the way forward to globally agreed conceptions of ‘human rights’ is to resist the conflation of regional idioms –and their generative intentions and motives– with the general aspirations of peoples everywhere regardless of the time, space, and circumstances. Even if one were so tempted, it bears remembering that idioms and languages display continuities as well as changes and that the specific contexts upon which they are they perpetuated or modified have bearing on their meanings and implications. It is neither universalism nor relativism to highlight these changes and their contexts and conditions. The Haitian case, when former slaves sought to expand ‘the claimed domain of human rights’ for the enslaved, bears witness to this point. One already detects in Haiti a constitutional effort that joins the post-Enlightenment discourse of (human) rights but also an innovative move away from the institutions emerging in France and the US. To be sure, Haiti was a province of the West at the time of its revolutions. As a result, its enslaved blacks were enthralled by the contemporaneous languages of constitutionalism that are found the two Western revolutions. Haitian revolutionaries too believed that humans possessed inherent faculties and capacities deserving of constitutional protection. They too explored the manners and purposes for which specific moral precepts must be assembled as institutions of human rights in the context of their struggles to enact liberty, freedom, and political justice. On the other hand, by examining events in revolutionary Haiti, one is able to underscore the specificity of human rights institutions while endorsing the universalist position that there exist human faculties and capacities that require protection as a matter of utility and pragmatism.

From this perspective, this project rejects the sufficiency and universality of modern conventions of human rights, which are all (without exceptions) parochial and ideologically-laden. Such conventions are intricately linked historical conceptions of moral and political subjectivity, desiring the protection of particular faculties as means to development the capacities required for its existence. Instead, it maintains that the realization of universally agreeable institutions of human rights necessarily invite reconciling diverse positions born of ideological (or cultural) contestations and political confrontations. One is also able to refute neo-imperialist Western arguments disguised as moral concern and the disingenuous resistance to transparency and accountability in the name of communal autonomy and authenticity. While the project holds that human collectives everywhere have sought to protect certain human faculties through moral institutes, it does not hold that any particular conventions of human rights capture the full spectrum of moral institutes associated with moral and political subjectivity and the ennobling of human existence across time and space. In other words, the project subscribes to the view that there exist globally shared moral institutes pertaining to the protection of human faculties in order to ennoble human existence. It also maintains that these institutes may be loosely translated or likened to human rights for the purpose of political discourses.


The aim of this project is to break down disciplinary, institutional, and regional or linguistic impasses surrounding contemporary discourses of human rights. The book is sensitive to the fact that these impasses have led to incommensurable positions. These positions can be amalgamated loosely around two set of propositions: 1) universal human rights discourses as languages of authority and command and 2) relativist defiance and retrenchment based on cultural and historical specificity. Neither meets the requirements and propositions implicit in the precept of human rights as enacted their historical points of origination. The command-like speech acts espoused by liberal cosmopolitans are often received by many around the globe as instrumentalized directives, indeed authoritative and command-like injunctions, that others must follow regardless of the inapplicability particular institutions in order to avoid the wrath of global imperial powers. In contrast, it is not uncommon for authoritarian rulers in the so-called developing world to change the subject away from their repressive ways to discussion of cultural specificity and historical circumstances.

Again this background, the present project seeks to foster discussions and thoughts on global governance that invite engagement and are morally solicitous of others. It is an expository investigation that invites and thus allows the listener to partake in reflections and policies toward mutually perceived problems. Indeed, the globalization of public life today mandates open theoretical approaches to international institutions. This project does claim that the language and institutions of human rights are always required when human decency is at stake. It also highlights the requirements of equal partnership and the constraints stemming from power disparities. Theorists must be aware of the tensions between the aspiration to universality and the instantiations of the precepts and institutions of human rights in concrete struggles. Such tensions are often productive. But theorists must keep in mind that both recognition of rights-bearing subjects, and the conversation in which they engage, occur within history and that both are suffused with power –powers that must held in check. This last point should be the ultimate point of departure of any reflections on human dignity. The object of such reflections may be framed as human rights according to the specific linguistic of a set of precepts that invite others in exchanges about the requirements of life today.

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