About ‘seizing’ human rights

It sounds clever, doesn’t it?

We’re all supposed to praise self-empowerment; it reaffirms our individualist ideology in which unsuccessful individuals may be dismissed as having gotten what they deserve.[2] And it’s a lot easier to praise things in the abstract.

But we have to ask: What rights? Whose rights? To do what? Whom shall we seize these rights from?[3] And how shall we seize these rights?

Let’s talk about some rights. How about the right to free speech?[4] It’s a guarantee that the government may not suppress political speech. But if you do not already possess this right, how shall you seize it? Will you raise an army to take on a most assuredly better-equipped government force?

How about the right to an attorney in a criminal trial?[5] How shall you seize this right? Will you kidnap an attorney, put a gun to their head, and compel them to defend you? In full view of the Court? Really?

Those two are from the U.S. Bill of Rights in the constitution of a country that has refused to ratify[6] the International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR),[7] a core human rights treaty that has been ratified by every other country in the world except Comoros, Cuba, and Palau.[8] How shall I seize my right, a right accorded in the ICESCR to all workers, to “[a] decent living for themselves and their families” when my government only pretends to acknowledge my right “to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts?”[9] Whom shall I force to hire me and pay me a decent wage?

Bhagat Singh, assuming that he actually said what the tweet attributes to him[10] and that this quotation has not lost too much from its original context, should be ashamed of himself. He uses vague talk of self-empowerment and vague talk of rights to obscure that he’s actually talking about seizing these rights, whatever they are, through violence. Indeed, Wikipedia states that he was executed by British authorities on March 23, 1931, for acts of violence.[11]

There are a few problems here: First, violent revolution (which seems to have been Singh’s project) has a nasty habit of substituting one set of thugs (I do not mean Black males) for another. It doesn’t actually solve the problem that an authoritarian system of social organization inherently has with being violent, either implicitly or explicitly, in order to preserve its grip on sovereignty and its power over the people.

Second, and I think more seriously, the discrepancy in military technology between that available to governments and that available to insurgents is greater than ever before. The classic weakness in asymmetric conflict where inevitably the technologically superior force commits crimes against humanity and is then shamed into withdrawal seems to have less impact on the U.S. and other contemporary major human rights violators. Insurgencies, as we’ve seen in Colombia for example, have become wars of attrition in which ideals atrophy.

Third, the reason that human rights require state guarantees[12] is that, in general, it is not a majority, but rather a minority, that requires protection. Violence implies that “might makes right” and therefore serves a majority in imposing its will on subaltern groups, depriving the latter of their rights. There will thus always be a dissonance in relying on violence to gain or protect rights.

This is not to say I join in a fetishization of nonviolence. I think too many, especially on the Left, view much too simplistically the legacies of such folks as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., whose apparent successes often seem to have relied at least in part on the violence of others and often seem to divert attention from violent efforts that may ultimately have had a greater impact in those successes.[13]

But human (and non-human) rights ultimately require those who have power to refrain from using that power to harm people (and non-human animals) and instead to use that power to protect them. Which is to say that rights-holders depend on the power and the good will of others who actually possess the power to regard or disregard those rights. Which is why Singh is wrong: The very point of rights is that subaltern human or non-human animals lack the ability to enforce these rights on their own. They cannot simply seize these rights.

  1. [1]dog respecter [pseud.], [microblog post], Twitter, February 4, 2019, https://twitter.com/redmadheshi/status/1092334361524011008
  2. [2]Thomas Shapiro explains in his introduction to Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), p. 3, that “A core element of the American credo is that talent, skill, hard work, and achievement largely determine life chances. We believe that everyone has a fair shot at whatever is valued or prized and that no individual or group is unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged.”
  3. [3]George Lakoff observes a conservative critique of human rights that they impose obligations on some humans to protect the rights of other humans in Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006).
  4. [4]U.S. Const. amend. I.
  5. [5]U.S. Const. amend VI.
  6. [6]United Nations, “Ratification Status: International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,” January 15, 2019, http://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=IV-3&chapter=4&lang=en
  7. [7]International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, December 16, 1966, United Nations, General Assembly resolution 2200A (XXI), https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/cescr.aspx
  8. [8]United Nations, “Ratification Status: International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,” January 15, 2019, http://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=IV-3&chapter=4&lang=en
  9. [9]International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, December 16, 1966, United Nations, General Assembly resolution 2200A (XXI), https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/cescr.aspx
  10. [10]dog respecter [pseud.], [microblog post], Twitter, February 4, 2019, https://twitter.com/redmadheshi/status/1092334361524011008
  11. [11]Wikipedia, “Bhagat Singh,” February 2, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhagat_Singh
  12. [12]United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “What are human rights?” n.d., http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Pages/WhatareHumanRights.aspx
  13. [13]Benjamin Ginsberg, “Why Violence Works,” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 12, 2013, http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Violence-Works/140951/; Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1994).

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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