Human rights in the vernacular (2023)

GeorgeSoros’ decision in 2010 to bankroll the creation of regional Human Rights Watchcenters reflects the widespread view that the “emerging powers" will haveto take some ownership of human rights if that enterprise is to gain momentumin the developing world. But it isunclear how much buy-in there will be if Soros has to pay them to play, and ifthe home office in New York keeps the regional centers on a short leash. First-Worldactivists and liberal states will no doubt keep pushing developing states tosustain their engagement with the canonical liberal human rights agenda. Without this push, many developingsocieties would likely slack off or veer off in idiosyncratic directions. But there will be a push, and theresponses to it in developing societies will range across every point on thespectrum from enthusiastic embrace to volatile backlash.

Somepeople in the developing world are eager to adopt the language and methods ofhuman rights because they are weak and exploited. Some disempowered groups, cultural minorities, women, andoppressed classes, unaccustomed to hearing the idea that they should have abetter deal expressed in their own societies, are understandably enthralled bythe notion that the most powerful, most successful societies on eartharticulate well-worked-out, universal arguments that can be applied to theirown plight. In earlier times, suchpeople were attracted to Christianity or to Marxism for the same reason: the Christians say I don’t have to bindmy feet. Hallelujah!

Othersare eager to adopt human rights rhetoric and practices because they areopportunists. Even Northern humanrights organizations have to adapt to the priorities of funders. In some locations in the South, whereeconomic opportunities outside of the state sector are slim, educated middleclasses that are not in power have strong incentives to recast themselves as“civil society” NGOs.

(Video) Vernacular rights cultures: The politics of origins, human rights and gendered struggle for justice

Bangladeshi women take part in a rally in Dhaka to campaign for women's rights. Demotix/Shafiqul Alam. All rights reserved.

Oftensuch organizations, even when well funded, lack the capacity to act effectivelyin societies that are organized not around impersonal policy ideas but aroundpatronage, religion, ethnicity, and tribe. This makes it difficult to connect to a social base exceptthrough patronage or through the defense of an existing identity group, bothprinciples of organization that make a poor fit with impersonal, universalistrights concepts. As a result,“civil society” activists have an incentive to translaterights talk into the vernacularof the people they seek to serve and recruit as supporters. In the religiousvernacular, for example, rights can sometimes be explained better as duty ordignity. Sometimes translationgoes smoothly, as when Senegalese Sufis explain within the logic of their owndiscourse why female genital cutting is wrong. But often something is lost inthe translation.

InEgypt, for example, the Morsi government arose in the context of therights-and-law talk of the popular movement that overthrew Mubarak’sauthoritarian regime. Itsinternational and domestic legitimacy depends to some extent on the results offair elections and on the claim that it is procedurally superior to the thugsit replaced. Yet its conservativeIslamic support base rejects free speech on religious matters, alienatessecular and Christian minorities, and demands that constitutional interpretationpass a strict religious test.Trying to force through a constitution over objections from allquarters, Morsi resorted to highhanded shortcuts around due process. This will be normal in emerging powers,including reforming regimes, that take ownership over human rights. Even Turkey, which is fairly far alongin its civic evolution, stands out for its use of the courts to muzzle andpunish journalists.

(Video) Prof. Sumi Madhok 'Vernacular Rights Cultures'

Developingcountries that take rights seriously typically deviate from developeddemocracies in the priority they place on economic rights as opposed to civilliberties. Aryeh Neier, thefounder of Human Rights Watch, explains in his recent bookon the history of human rights that economic rights aren’t really rights atall; they are just policy demands that water down the rights brand. Even themost dedicated NGOs in poor countries think differently. Shareen Hertel documents what she callsthe “backdooring” strategies of NGOs in Mexico that need the megaphone of HumanRights Watch to publicize their campaigns, but in local discourse replace NewYork’s civil and political language with their own economic talking points.

Whilethese divergences from First-World priorities might lead to rights improvements,an economics-first approach to rights can go too far. Despite the absence of civic rights in China and the bloodyTiananmen crackdown, Deng Xiaoping lifted up more people from poverty and reducedchild labor more than any other person in history. Playing on those successes, the Chinese regime proudlyissues regular humanrights white papers outlining its plans to enhance humanrights by improving medical care, rural development, and public schooling.

Rutgersanthropologist DanielGoldstein reports on the confrontations between Bolivianpolice and slum dwellers who claim it is their “human right” to lynch thecriminals who prey on them. NYU scholar RachelWahl interviewed Delhi policeto find out why they torture criminals and learned that they see themselves asdefending the human rights of the victims.

Inall contexts, including the emerging powers, defining human rights is aboutcontentious politics, which can spin off consequences that are unintended byinternational rights activists.International justice activism, for example, has interacted in complexways with the Kenyan political process.An International Criminal Court indictment over inciting violence duringKenya’s 2009 elections handed Uhuru Kenyatta talking points against imperialistthreats to Kenyan sovereignty and Kikuyu identity, which helped him rally theelectorate in his successful 2013 presidential campaign. The ICC indictment ofhis ethnic Kalenjin running mate William Ruto also helped Kenyatta gain crucialvotes from the large Kalenjin minority, when Kenyatta’s main opponent brokewith Ruto in an attempt to show Kenya’s vocal rights activists that he hadclean hands. Neither Kenyatta nor Ruto seem too exercised by the threat of anICC trial hanging over their heads, since their henchmen have successfullyintimidated witnesses into silence.Still, ethnic violence in the 2013 election was far less than in theprevious one, in part because the ICC process turned the spotlight on Kenyanbehavior and probably made its billionaire politicians worry about reputationalconsequences for international business deals.

(Video) Human Rights and Anthropology

AsSamuelMoyn’s book The Last Utopiahas shown, postcolonial statesmen have long understood that the key to bothpower and rights lies mainly in the development of domestic civic institutions,not in the rather utopian notion that they can be delivered by an internationalcommunity of activists and lawyers. Indeed, Beth Simmons’ impeccably designedand executed statisticalresearch shows that signing rights treaties makes adifference for rights outcomes if and only if the country has already madesubstantial strides in creating an independent judiciary and protecting spacein which local activists can organize.

Toget traction in the emerging powers and the developing world, human rights doesneed to move out of New York and London headquarters to find owners insocieties where abuses present steep challenges. As these new owners articulate their own perspectives, thisprocess will be fraught with politics and unintended consequences, but at leastit will be real, and less utopian.

Ifliberal states and rights activists are to play a constructive role in thisprocess, they will need to use a lighter touch. Many human rights reports hammer away at what actors in thedeveloping world “must” do.Instead, they will be more effective if they help to create anenvironment in which such actors have the incentive and the capacity to dovoluntarily do what liberal rights activists want them to do.

Research shows that the two strongest predictors byfar of good human rights outcomes are peace and democracy. Providingconditional access to special “club goods” of liberal democracy has also provedan effective tool for democracy promotion. The European Union’s conditional terms for membership are apowerful example. The EU’s astute tactics in conditioning Romanian and Slovakaccession on the adoption of policies to guarantee the rights of minorities,backed by strengthened rule of law, helped support the efforts of democraticcoalitions to create favorable conditions for transition. Another example is the EU’s Cotonoutrade agreement with many of its former colonies, conditioning benefits onverified compliance with human rights norms.

(Video) Vernacular education: Silence of the Constitution

Such “open door” policies send thesignal that the benefits of membership in the liberal club are available tostates that are ready to liberalize.This strengthens the hand of progressive elements in the country, whocan argue that liberalization will work if it is tried, and who will gainresources by following this path.At the same time, the opened door, unlike the banged-on door, relievesprogressives in developing countries of the burden of seeming like the stalkinghorse of the insistent neo-liberal imperialists.

Most important, open door strategies donot depend on the heroic assumption that outsiders can foresee the politicalconsequences of coercing locals to hold elections, indict rights violators, orundertake radical cultural reforms. If the assumptions behind open doorstrategies are wrong, the incentives will not work, but no additional harm isdone, and the incentives can stay in place for later, whenever the moment isripe (Mary Anderson, Do no harm – How aid cansupport peace – or war).Good timing is everything in reform.

Human rights in the vernacular (2)


Why is human rights important in the preservation of human dignity? ›

Human rights are needed to protect and preserve every individual's humanity, to ensure that every individual can live a life of dignity and a life that is worthy of a human being. Question: Why "should" anyone respect them? Fundamentally, because everyone is a human being and therefore a moral being.

How can the right to human dignity be violated? ›

Some of the practices that violate human dignity include torture, rape, social exclusion, labor exploitation, bonded labor, and slavery. Both absolute and relative poverty are violations of human dignity, although they also have other significant dimensions, such as social injustice.

What are the practices of Vernacularization? ›

This is the process of vernacularization: the extraction of ideas and practices from the universal sphere of international organizations and their translation into ideas and practices that resonate with the values and ways of doing things in local contexts.

How do you define human rights in your own words? ›

Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that belong to every person in the world, from birth until death. They apply regardless of where you are from, what you believe or how you choose to live your life.

Which human right is the most important and why? ›

The quick answer: All human rights are equally important. They are all dependent on each other. The violation of one right often leads to the violation of another right. There is no hierarchy among human rights.


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