14 August 2008

On "Playing for Human Rights"

I had heard about, then forgotten to track down, this statement by Vaclav Havel, Desmond Tutu, et. al.; I came across it just this evening. The authors voice concern that "the Beijing Olympics might simply become a giant spectacle to distract the attention of the international public from the violations of human and civil rights in China and in other countries with the Chinese government’s significant influence." I think they are right to speak out. I think they are right too in calling on the International Olympic Committee to insure that participants in the games are free to speak out. (I've said as much here repeatedly - click the Olympic label for earlier posts.) But I think they are simply mistaken when they attempt to square the circle by rendering this demand a moral duty so that it would not entail any conflict with the putatively apolitical stance established in the Olympic Charter. Here is what they say:

"An interpretation of the Olympic Charter according to which human rights would be a political topic not to be discussed in the Olympic venues is alien to us. Human rights are a universal and inalienable topic, enshrined in international human rights documents that China has also signed onto, transcending international as well as domestic politics, and all cultures, religions and civilizations.

To speak of the conditions of human rights therefore cannot be in violation of the Olympic Charter. To speak of human rights is not politics; only authoritarian and totalitarian regimes try to make it so. To speak of human rights is a duty" (stress added).

Anyone who thinks that human rights are not political, that they inhere in our status as human beings, and do not presuppose monitoring and enforcement by political agencies (states , international organizations, and NGOs) needs to read Hannah Arendt's essay "The Perplexities of the Rights of Man" from her The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Simply put, Arendt rightly claims that we have rights only and as long as there is some state willing and able to enforce them. Absent such a state - an entity against whom claims for protection can be lodged - human rights in the abstract simply evaporate.

Arendt reminds us that speaking out about human rights and the ways they are protected or abrogated, means speaking to states, to government officials. We use rights (and other principles) to make claims on political entities (states) and the agents who occupy them. The sort of moralism to which the authors of this little manifesto resort is simply wrongheaded because it neglects to stay focused on the audience to whom we address claims of "human rights." It neglects, in other words, to stay focused on politics.

Finally, and more broadly, if we follow the lead of Havel and the others here, we are going to cede the terrain of politics to those who depict in purely "realist" terms. That will only further disable us from rising up and using the language of rights or consent or consequences to press claims on the politicians and their lackeys.

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Blogger Navid said...

I think another section that captures that same sentiment is "Decline of the Nation State and End of the Rights of Man"...

Also, Wendy Brown tackles the same question in her critique of Michael Ignatieff (i.e., the allegedly pre-political status of HR).

09 September, 2008 02:23  

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