Comment | ‘Exporting Ethics’: The Case Against Human Rights Universalism
Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, October 3, 2013 13:22 - 10 Comments
Alan Duncan MP with Amnesty staff/volunteers
Everyone is getting in on it: nation states, the UN, not to mention recent new-comers like the IMF and the World Bank. Heck, even Multinational Corporations have bought into the fad. The Human Rights narrative is no longer the distinguishing mantra of the international left. The tragedies that continue to blight modern history have finally registered on the conscience of these actors who have a truly global reach.
Western states – the progenitors of the cause – are now immersed in discussions regarding the intricacies of human rights legislation and simultaneously adopting a rhetoric that has transformed their former Cold-War ‘real-politik’ into one directed by a moral compass. Indeed, even businesses and other institutions are engaged in this ‘human rights’ undertaking, through ingenuities such as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), philanthropy, promises of prosperity through ‘good governance’ and a general commitment toward ‘development.’ This novel (and suddenly relevant) obligation has created the ‘Exporting Ethics’ initiative, an enterprise actualised through the portal of universalising human rights.
However, whilst the proliferation of “Human Rights” sounds emancipatory, it is an endeavour we should all vehemently resist. The objections against this universalising crusade include both the practical and principled. The first charge levelled at it is that of cultural imperialism. Edward Said offered a revolutionary critique of Enlightenment episteme that fashioned the dualism of the “Occidental” West pitted against the “Oriental” and homogenous East that mirrored the colonial subjugation of the latter by the former.
Cultural Imperialism was thus the residue of the decolonisation process that embedded the praxis of western cultural legacies in the former colonies. In effect, the ‘exporting ethic’, deployed through universalisation, re-ignites and reconstitutes these residual legacies, transporting them through unequal trade agreements, ratification of western-inspired legal instruments or ‘democratizing’ wars. It assumes that these Western actors are the ubiquitous moral arbiter, thus regurgitating old colonial narratives of ‘civilising the barbarians.’
These Western actors are additionally faced with a whole host of questions. Pushing aside a less than impressive track record, how do businesses, in particular, respond to promoting ‘ethics’ when importing oil or exporting weapons? This moral quagmire, quasi-perpetual rather than merely transitory, exploits the vernacular of human rights discourse to essentially endorse capital accumulation.
Amidst the enthusiasm for ‘Project: Human Rights Everywhere’ is an ignorance of gigantic proportions. Part of the enthusiasm stems from the tendency to use our human rights as a barometer for transgressions committed elsewhere. But more importantly, in their haste and excitement, global actors reduce rights to ‘points in time’ on a Euclidean line rather than understanding that they are the terminus of a process. Such rights are always fought for and their actualization through legal instruments merely formalises these victories. The suffragettes in the UK brought the canonisation of women’s liberation into British legislation. It was the culmination of a mass social movement, shaped by the industrial revolution and illogic of the era. It was a truly British experience that resulted in a British outcome.
The failure of global actors in their universalising mission comes in their inability to recognise that these processes are temporally, spatially and thus culturally unique. For example, rights conceived in the West attribute the fundamental social unit to the individual, a notion generally alien to the communitarian values of the Global South. As such, this transplanting of the ‘western experience’ onto non-Western shores commits a blunder rooted in intellectual arrogance. But it is the limits of our consciousness that prevent us from seeing human rights as a durational process, as historical events which are vulnerable to all the impulses and structures of life. Appreciating this reality would allow us to unravel the complexities and nuances of the struggles and, in doing so, situate rights temporally and spatially.
Fundamentally, one has to question why ‘ethics’, and its vehicle of human rights, have become a part of the programme for states, business and institutions. The post-68 attitude of ‘cultural capitalism’, as Slavoj Zizek phrases it, attempts to disguise the brutishness of capitalism – particularly in its unforgiving, Friedmanesque sense – with a human face. The ‘exporting ethic’ and its universalising mission have bequeathed a similar tragedy of anthropomorphism. Oil-leviathan Halliburton boasts of a ‘Supplier Ethics Statement’ and other community initiatives that seem incompatible with the scandals that have despoiled the company. Yet it continues to rake in increasing profits. This paradox resides in inherently-unequal institutions engaging in the business of equalising. Of course, this ‘exporting ethic’ merely allows for the agent’s redemption, to appease its conscience from the toxic externalities of its day-to-day operation.
Universalising human rights, conceived in our Western corner of the globe, is an exercise in degradation, indignity and egotism. However, one should hasten to add that this position is not against human rights per se. Who would subscribe to such a school? Rather, it is the assumption – and its accompanying arrogance – that such a programme can be universalised when it packages the experiences of a specific geographic region.
Of course, the real culprits are the actors of this crusade. Not only are their intentions disingenuous, but they have resulted in the proliferation of greater enmity, animosity and inequality. Our difficulty comes in our hastiness to use our human rights as applicable standard for the rest of the world. Costas Douzinas puts it thus: “social and political systems become hegemonic by turning their ideological priorities into universal principles and values. In the new world order, human rights are the perfect candidate for this role. Their core principles interpreted negatively and economically, promote neoliberal capitalist domination.”
Ultimately, the vocabulary of universal or global rights ignores the endemic ill-distribution of power within the international system, assuming a default level-playing field where none exists. It wrongfully de-temporalises all the actors, assuming the same histories, resources and experiences for all. Rights that we have, by virtue of our very existence, are of paramount importance, of course, but they should be grown and nurtured from the roots within, not edified and imposed from without.
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