Introduction: Human Rights for All? The Problem of the Human Rights Box

Human Rights Dialogue 2.1 (Winter 1999) "Human Rights for All?"

December 5, 1999

Human rights are undeniably a central dimension of international affairs today. To an unprecedented degree, government and corporate policy as well as social and political activism are being conducted in their name. Ironically, at the same time, human rights activism is failing to resonate with, or even reach, communities where it could make an important difference. Despite the dedicated and fruitful efforts of human rights professionals around the world, many social justice advocates in local communities either have never known the promise of human rights or have become disillusioned about it. Often, the human rights movement is stigmatized; people view it as a “top down” process, imposed by international lawyers and human rights professionals who are out of touch with local realities.

The purpose of the human rights regime is to promote and protect vital human interests. But this purpose cannot be realized if the work of human rights practiced by the international community continues to have limited popular legitimacy. The problem does not appear to be a difference in fundamental norms across cultures. Rather, it is often a question of the international human rights movement’s having priorities that neither adequately reflect local needs nor take full stock of the expertise of people on the ground.

The essays that follow, written by local advocates from different regions of the world, give voice to this concern and shed light on why this is so. Chidi Anselm Odinkalu argues that the human rights movement in Africa lacks accountability to its constituency as a result of domination by local elites and organizations dependent upon Northern countries. Dimitrina Petrova questions whether human rights have lost all meaning for those whose lives were damaged in the wake of the Western alliance’s military campaign in the Balkans. Carlos Basombrío explains that for many Latin Americans, the notion of human rights is unpopular because it is seen as upholding the rights of terrorists and criminals while failing to address the pervasive problem of crime. Bahey El Din Hassan discusses the dominant concern of many Arabs with collective rights rather than notions of human rights they associate with the West, a preference that stems from a deep sense of having been wronged by the West.

From these essays, the image of the “human rights box” emerges. The human rights box is a set of historical and structural circumstances that enables the human rights framework to gain currency among elites while limiting advances, and even creating setbacks, among the general population. Metaphorically, the box contains a universe of options and opportunities for the few, while sealing off the vast majority. For instance, Larry Cox argues that the pursuit of human rights worldwide has become a specialized profession characterized by an increasingly technical language and approach that have weakened the concept’s moral power and popular appeal. Loretta Ross points out that the U.S. government, corporate media, and international human rights organizations have so controlled the human rights discourse and agenda that most Americans fail to recognize rights violations in their own backyard.

Despite their serious implications, these observations of the human rights movement from the academic, policy, and practitioner communities have yet to be systematically analyzed and addressed in a public forum. The essays in this inaugural issue introduce, in broad terms, the barriers to popular identification with human rights in the quest for social justice. Subsequent issues in this series of Dialogue will explore how the practice of human rights can enhance understanding of and commitment to human rights ideals across all sectors of all societies. Each issue will focus on a specific topic, such as human rights litigation, humanitarian intervention, national human rights commissions, the right to live in a secure environment, access to natural resources, corporate codes of conduct, conflict prevention and response, and the corporatization of medicine.

To open up or break down the walls of the human rights box, the practice of human rights needs to be reconfigured into a powerful tool of social change, not a social tool of the powerful. Human Rights Dialogue will pursue this goal in the course of exploring how human rights work can be more responsive to vital human needs throughout the world.