Comment | ‘Exporting Ethics’: The Case Against Human Rights Universalism

The notion of Universal Human Rights has gained significant prominence in Western political and intellectual discourse. However, Tanzil Chowdhury argues. it is a form of cultural imperialism based on the implicit superiority of European modes of thinking.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, October 3, 2013 13:22 - 10 Comments



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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.

Tanzil Chowdhury

Tanzil Chowdhury recently completed his doctorate and lectures at the School of Law, University of Manchester. His research centres around the UK's legal power to declare war and commit troops abroad. He also co-founded the Northern Police Monitoring Project and help set up the Greater Manchester Law Centre.


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Eugene Egan
Oct 3, 2013 14:05

Food for thought and an enlightening piece. Two actors who come immediately to mind are those so-called ‘celebrity philanthropists’ Bono and Bob Geldoff. A pair of self-serving opportunists who cause more harm than good and push the neo-liberal agenda.

Oct 3, 2013 16:46

So, the question becomes, what would you envisage instead? What yardstick can we use to work together to see where governments and organisations are failing? How do we, as citizens of the world, effect change for the better internationally in the image that the other citizens want? Do we just leave them to it, and hope that they don’t get crushed under the machinery of government?

Notice also that there are different declarations of rights in different regions – the African communities rights and responsibilities of a child is vastly different from the UN Rights of a Child in form and function, and takes into account the differences in cultures. This means that while there is an argument that there is a level of international colonialism with regards to the concept of human rights, this is producing vastly different results that are developed locally into a form that fits the community.

Is it so wrong to have a document that lays out the minimum standard that a government must adhere to? Whether you call this document a Human Rights Act, a Constitution or a Code, I think that the basic concept of a defining document that forms the base principals, the rights and responsibilities of a country, is not a bad thing. Whether you define this a human rights of a declaration on the independence of the person, the recent NSA and GCHQ revelations can clearly show that this is somthing that citizens need as far as I can see.

But please, prove me wrong! Show me somthing that’s better, as I’ve been struggling for an answer for a while…

E Yates
Oct 8, 2013 10:51

I broadly agree with this article; the argument that the West is exporting its own values and attempting to universalise them is evident in policy statements from the international organisations and TNCs you mention.

This then leads onto the question of why this is occurring. You present Said’s notion of Orientalism along with explanations that such a universalising tendencies are tied up with capitalist expansion. Would you argue that the two are linked and that Western values are fundamentally capitalist? It is highly possible to argue that they are, but then it must also be realised that within capitalism there are always competing values (Gramsci said that capitalism was always only ever supremacist, rather than hegemonic ); is it not possible that part of the Western discourse transmitted through international organisations (I am thinking of the ILO here) is not evidence of these critical perspectives, and could conceivably be supported in that sense?

This point leads onto a deeper question that I think is alluded to in the article, namely; by what system would we use to measure or rank values? In this instance, are Western values “bad” because they are being imposed externally and are not freely chosen, or are they bad because they promote and legitimate capitalist development? Conversely, are the values of the countries that are experiencing this process “good” because they are endogenously developed? I must point out that this questions are not criticisms of the article (which I support and agree with) but are more questions for a follow-up.

Oct 16, 2013 1:17

What would ‘Eastern’/Non-European Human Rights look like in a globalised world? Are Non-European Human Rights even coherent

In the case of China, let’s not forget the Confucian’s attack on Tibet during the 20th despite their philosophical tendencies to pluralism over blunt ‘US-style’ imposed hegemony. The track record of Western governments makes a a mockery of everything they purport to stand for – However would the same circumstances necessarily be true if there were a reciprocity of ethical roles i.e. Chinese ethics etc. ruled in the UK as they eventually may come to.

I recognise to posit this ‘veil of ignorance’ argument abstracts us from the particularities of a 1000 years of histories but it is not an invalid point for a historicist-influenced account of ethical relativism.

Even you don’t like the Enlightment episteme, the alternative, not necessarily by default is a subjugation of perspicacious and worthy women in places like Western Africa or Asia Minor where genital mutilation and withholding access to academe still prevail.

Of course I don’t need to tell you that human rights represent an important water-mark in inter-human relations; it certainly plays favourably to the thesis of Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature”

Ideas and philosophies have always flowed between continents and while I do accept your argument, but can not accept how we can overlook certain egregious acts.

‘Exporting Ethics’: The Case Agains...
Oct 18, 2013 5:27

[…] The notion of Universal Human Rights has gained significant prominence in Western political and intellectual discourse. However, Tanzil Chowdhury argues.  […]

Oct 19, 2013 21:33

Spot on.

Unfortunately, working in Bangladesh, when our own systems have a way to go, we fall on to the western instruments. Going in to UN human rights process, having read ”confessions of an economic hitman” and being cynical with processes like the ”universal periodic review” a four yearly review on a countries human rights violations, I realised it was the only structure civil society have to use as tools, tools for accountability. Having been to Geneva earlier this year and witnessing the theatrical farce before my eyes, the government lying but being congratulated, member states giving brownie points to the government like euro vision song contest ”chums”. I burst out to an organiser, ”whats the point?” , why are we, the civil society out here, when we have the reports, the figures, the truth and the government uses this opportunity as a PR exercise, the hammer drops and its over. His reply, we need to try harder to raise awareness. So we go back to Bangladesh and write press statements, hold campaigns, problems still exist. Unfortunately its until the public, start taking proactive action, we can start building our own systems and instruments.

As a UN Special Rapporteur who came to visit Bangladesh said earlier this year, of course you will be disappointed, after all, the UN are the ”government of governments”.

Rasheeda Manjoo, a professor in human rights law at cape town uni. Voluntarily, works as special rapporteur collecting cases regarding violence against women. Specialist in her field, she is not part of that imperialist crusade – she was the spark of hope who managed to inspire me. I accept there are sinister motives behind selecting certain human rights issues as a theme of the month (Malala), however, for the average people suffering the human rights violations in less developed parts of the world – these structures are the only chance to bring awareness and possible change. Of course, don’t just depend on these systems, use all possible ways. As my Lady Arundati says ”“Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness – and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe.

The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling – their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability.

Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them.

Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” .

Please keep more coming. We need to be fueled with the awareness, to remember its a difficult fight, to remember not to revel in paper victories in such systems but to use the systems to develop solutions.

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