Human rights and the politics of victimhood.

Author:Meister, Robert

In the lexicon of rights, the concept of human rights can play a wide variety of roles. Human rights can be defined as substantive natural rights that transcend politics and culture or as the rights that underlie political and cultural differences. They can be defined narrowly as rights that could be asserted against enemies in war or, more broadly, as the aspirational goals to which governments are held accountable by their citizens and the world. Despite their lack of recognition in covenant and positive law through much of the twentieth century, human rights are increasingly asserted on the basis of such recognition. To some, human rights are simply the sine qua non (procedural? biological?) for asserting other rights, whatever these may be. In this paper I do not choose among these uses of the concept of human rights by propounding a single definition; neither do I defend or criticize human rights in general.

My focus, rather, is on a specific political use of human rights discourse that emerged in the 1990s: a fin de siecle triumphalism that sees human rights as a global secular religion, prophesied at the end of World War II and proselytized in the "third wave democratizations" that accompanied the long wind-down of the Cold War. (1) According to this view, the Cold War (in which both sides claimed the mantle of human rights) was a fifty-year-long hiatus in the ability of the "international community" to enforce the consensus on "crimes against humanity" that emerged from Nuremberg and that was embodied in the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, both of which were adopted in 1948. This emerging politics of human rights was heralded by journalists beseeching "the West" to use its military might to avert humanitarian disasters throughout the world (2); it was later celebrated by a generation of "mainstreamed" human rights activists who viewed the growing willingness of Western powers to heed their message as a (more or less qualified) vindication of the promise of 1945-48 that they would "never again" stand by while large-scale atrocities were committed. (3)

This mainstreaming of a particular politics of human rights into a "fighting creed" of the international establishment (4) is not without problems, even for its staunchest advocates: the bombing of civilians to enforce human rights bears uncomfortable resemblances both to a war crime and to the means used in earlier eras of Western imperialism to inflict a punishment from on high when "barbarian" races committed "inhuman" acts. (5) Notwithstanding these problems, however, the mainstream version of human rights advocacy--which I will henceforth call "Human Rights Discourse"--sees the present moment as the end of a fifty-yearlong tunnel between the postwar promise and the imminent realization of a global human rights "culture," defended, when necessary, by internationally sanctioned military intervention. (6) I am concerned in this paper with how the outcome of struggles of the past half-century, which were articulated through the competing ideologies of revolution and counterrevolution, has eventuated in a Human Rights Discourse that is rapidly developing into a new rationale for war.

I am focusing here on the dark side of the version of Human Rights Discourse that has predominated since 1999, but my criticism is not directed at the goal of human rights, nor at the work of organizations on the ground promoting that goal. Neither is it directed at the pragmatic compromises necessary to reflect, for example, the fact that violators of human rights in Chechnya possessed nuclear weapons, while those in Kosovo did not--rendering intervention in the latter less risky. I am concerned, rather, that in order to rationalize the U.S. war in Afghanistan (and perhaps similar future actions), the themes of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 have been turned on their head. Many would have argued in the mid-twentieth century that terrorism was an appropriate weapon of the weak in combating human rights violations in nations suffering under forms of colonialism that had clear internal and external beneficiaries. Now, however, terrorism is defined as itself a human rights violation, justifying international intervention on a scale that could eventually resemble the neocolonial occupation of independent states accused of aiding or condoning the new transnational barbarians.

Why has the perspective changed? Precisely because the concern with those who benefit from large-scale injustice that gave the Universal Declaration of 1948 its anticolonial force is largely missing from today's Human Rights Discourse. There has, thus, been a significant reversal of the pre-Cold War understanding of what human rights violations are, and who can claim to be a victim. The reason, as I shall argue in the following section, is that the Cold War itself was largely about the moral relation of beneficiaries to their victims and that the Cold War's end was wrongly believed to have silenced that issue.


At the level of moral psychology, the ideological divide of the Cold War directly concerned what I will call, henceforward, the politics of victimhood. Those who believe themselves to be victims of politically inflicted suffering face a choice about what to do with their grief: should it be harnessed as the politics of grievance or suppressed as the politics of resentment? (7) The moral implications of this political choice underlie the ideologies of revolution and counterrevolution that dominated the last century.

On the revolutionary side of the ideological divide, the unreconciled victim--the victim-as-revolutionary--was a central figure in twentieth-century political thought. Revolutionary ideologies (whether Marxist or not) typically had a theory to show that human suffering has both perpetrators and beneficiaries, as well as a practice aimed at provoking those beneficiaries into siding with the perpetrators when their benefits were threatened. In revolutionary thought, victims would achieve the heightened "consciousness" necessary for self-liberation by identifying the beneficiaries of injustice with its perpetrators. For these unreconciled victims, justice itself would henceforth become a continuing struggle--not merely to defeat the evil regime but also to eliminate its material effects. Thus, the least fortunate in society would come to regard themselves as "victims" when presented with such a theory and, convinced that the beneficiaries of their suffering posed a counterrevolutionary threat, they would continue to engage in struggle, even after the perpetrators of injustice had been defeated (both politically and morally). As the twentieth century's agent of revolutionary change, the unreconciled victim was not merely recalcitrant in both victory and defeat; he also remained a revolutionary because he continued to think as a victim even after the perpetrators of past injustice had been dislodged from power. By refusing to distinguish between perpetrators and beneficiaries of social oppression, he would carry on his struggle until the beneficiaries were forced to relinquish their illegitimate gains. To take the revolutionary side in the twentieth century was to imbue social suffering and the struggle to overcome it with a presumption of virtue. From the perspective of unreconciled victims, their victorious victimhood would confer a right to rule not only on themselves but also (and more significantly) on those who benefited from past oppression.

On the counterrevolutionary side of the twentieth-century ideological divide, the defining fear was precisely that these victorious victims would come to exercise a militant and punitive form of rule. Those who embraced a counterrevolutionary politics did not necessarily believe that their cause was just; some may even have accepted the revolutionary theory revealing them as beneficiaries of the suffering of others. This, however, only heightened their anxiety. For counterrevolutionaries, it was often enough to believe that one's cause has made one hated by one's enemies (even justly hated) in order to conclude that rule by victorious victims would be worse than the status quo. To be a counterrevolutionary was to fear being ruled by those who regarded themselves as one's (former) victims--to fear them because the moral damage of victimhood itself, or of struggling against it, would make victims, if they were to achieve victory, capable of worse atrocities than those they suffered. The counterrevolutionary saw the experience of victimhood as morally damaging in itself, and rejected the revolutionary faith that this damage would be overcome through the redemptive effects of struggle. From the counterrevolutionary perspective, the least just state would be that in which victors rule with the consciousness of victims. (8) The fear that beneficiaries of injustice have of living under rulers who think they are still victims is the ethical basis for condoning regimes that they might otherwise concede are unjust.

A disagreement over the significance of victimhood provided a moral logic to the politics of revolution/counterrevolution during the Cold War: for revolutionaries, political militancy cleansed the victim of the moral damage that accompanies resentment; for counterrevolutionaries, the politics of victimhood was morally damaging in itself, whether it took the form of revolutionary action or festering resentment.

Now, however, we are told that a culture of respect for human rights has narrowed or overcome this ideological divide. In the large and growing literature on human rights, this outcome appears as the desirable result of the techniques of transitional justice--including truth commissions and human rights trials (9)--that if practiced in just the right amount, and with just the right degree of restraint, can bring about...

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