Thursday, February 02, 2006

on human rights

A response to a comments from the previous post (and me trying on some ideas)

Gordon (and everyone else) ,

I definitely understand you point, which is first and foremost a theological point about the nature of human beings. And while i would agree with the drift of you response, I would have to say that I'm coming at the question somewhat differently. While explicitly what goes around as a discourse on human rights (even by Christians) goes along the lines you suggest (that we have obligations to act decently toward each other) I would ask questions at the implicit level.

like, 1) who benefited from the creation of 'rights' during the enlightenment; 2) who guards these 'right'; 3) and for what purposes do they deploy them.

The answer to the first question is that merchants (the precursors to capitalists) benefited most from the creation of 'universal rights' because it leveled the playing field between them and the Lords, Barons, Dukes, and other land owners, shifting the flows of currency and commodity out of the aristocracy into the hands of the merchants. Some have even argued that the merchants spearheaded this discourse to wrest power from the powerful (who relied on tradition, heritage, and title). But here the exploitation is more hidden than the over exploitation between serfs and lords.

In answer to the second question, in general the guardians of ‘human rights’ are nation states who have the power (police within territory; military outside of borders) to protect these human rights. But generally, the right to have ‘human rights’ comes with the cost of citizenship. Being a citizen of the USA gives you the right to be treated humanely by the USA. And the same with other countries. If you are a citizen, then you have rights. But if you aren’t a citizen, then things get sticky. The paradigmatic example (for Agamben) is the image of the refugee because the refugee is one without a land and therefore stripped of everything but his very humanity, his body without symbolic support. Yet, these are the very people which the nation-state know not what to do.

And to the last, this discourse, guarded by the State is put forward for questionable purposed. Military intervention in the name of humanitarian aid becomes the norm in the name of basic human rights, yet prevention beforehand is not considered, nor are economic measures (like debt relief) seriously considered.

Which all comes back to my basic problem, that the discourse of human rights (while in it theological articulations within the church) tend to be used for dubious means by the State and by Capitalism.

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