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In this provocative and timely book, David Kennedy explores what can go awry when we put our humanitarian yearnings into action on a global scale--and what we can do in response.
Rooted in Kennedy's own experience in numerous humanitarian efforts, the book examines campaigns for human rights, refugee protection, economic development, and for humanitarian limits to the conduct of war. It takes us from the jails of Uruguay to the corridors of the United Nations, from the founding of a non-governmental organization dedicated to the liberation of East Timor to work aboard an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.
Kennedy shares the satisfactions of international humanitarian engagement--but also the disappointments of a faith betrayed. With humanitarianism's new power comes knowledge that even the most well-intentioned projects can create as many problems as they solve. Kennedy develops a checklist of the unforeseen consequences, blind spots, and biases of humanitarian work--from focusing too much on rules and too little on results to the ambiguities of waging war in the name of human rights. He explores the mix of altruism, self-doubt, self-congratulation, and simple disorientation that accompany efforts to bring humanitarian commitments to foreign settings.
Writing for all those who wish that "globalization" could be more humane, Kennedy urges us to think and work more pragmatically.
A work of unusual verve, honesty, and insight, this insider's account urges us to embrace the freedom and the responsibility that come with a deeper awareness of the dark sides of humanitarian governance.
"Important and timely. . . . The most systematic and attentive treatment of the problems that arise when ideas of humanitarian professionalism contradict the real needs of people in distress."--Eric A. Heinze, Perspectives in Political Science
"This is an interesting and important book. . . . [W]hat Kennedy does do well is to argue that the humanitarian community has by and large failed to confront the reality of bad consequences flowing from good intentions."--Ramesh Thakur, Japanese Journal of Political Science
"David Kennedy . . . has written in this work a provocative analysis of those who would better the lives of individuals through action in international relations. . . . Kennedy is always stimulating and well worth reading."--David P. Forsythe, The American Journal of International Law
"There is a sort of almost spiritually liberating quality in [Kennedy's] relentless self-examination, in his search for a meta-shift of focus for the discipline, in his search for new boundaries to trespass beyond what can be concretely said. . . . Kennedy's call for a pragmatic and responsible humanitarian self-empowerment can appeal to many."--Ignacio de la Rasilla del Moral, European Journal of International Law
THE INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS MOVEMENT: PART OF THE PROBLEM?
There is no question that the international human rights movement has done a great deal of good. It has freed individuals from great harm, provided an emancipatory vocabulary and institutional machinery for people across the globe. It has raised the standards by which governments judge one another, and by which they are judged, both by their own people, and by the elites we refer to collectively as the "international community." A career in the human rights movement has provided thousands of professionals a sense of dignity and confidence that one sometimes can do well while doing good. The literature praising these, and other, accomplishments is vast. Among well-meaning legal professionals in the United States and Europe-humanitarian, internationalist, liberal, compassionate in all the best senses of these terms-the human rights movement has become a central object of devotion.
But are there also dark sides? This chapter develops a short list of hypotheses about the possible risks, costs, and unanticipated consequences of human rights activism. These are all familiar to human rights activists; they circulate in the background of conversations as worries, cynical doubts. The best human rights practitioners often assess their work in just these terms. Sometimes, of course, critical reflection can itself become part of the problem. If the costs turn out to be low or speculative, any time spent fleshing them out is time lost to the project of using human rights for emancipation-although having "been through" criticism might also strengthen the movement's ability to be useful. Periodic hand-wringing might do more to stabilize the humanitarian's confidence than to undermine it, even where it turns out the costs far outweigh the benefits. But in the end, one cannot think pragmatically about human rights work without some such list of possible costs in mind.
In the first instance, thinking pragmatically about humanitarianism means taking care that humanitarian intentions are realized-that the purposes of human rights are achieved. This chapter focuses on pragmatism in this sense-assuming the goals and intentions of humanitarian action are clear, how can we improve our ability to assess whether humanitarian work in fact contributes more to "the solution" than to "the problem"? Doing so requires careful evaluation of the benefits and the harms of our humanitarian endeavors. The list of hypothetical harms developed here might serve as a checklist.
Difficult as such assessments can be to make, they get us only partway. The problem and the solution will not look the same to everyone. Nor will the costs and benefits of humanitarian action. For those who feel the death penalty deters, its abolition is a cost which effects a distribution from victims to criminals. Although I speak in this chapter of costs and benefits (or the "problem"and the "solution") as if we shared the aspiration for a more humanitarian, progressive, and egalitarian global society, it would be more accurate to think of these "benefits" as distributions of power, status, and means toward those who share these objectives and away from those who don't.
A pragmatic assessment of humanitarian activity also requires attention to these distributional consequences. Doing so will take us to the special difficulties of representation-advocacy on behalf of particular groups or individuals-and of political commitment in humanitarian work, as well as to the intensely human problems raised by the ambivalent and contradictory feelings we bring to assessing these choices. The chapters which immediately follow address these human and political difficulties more directly. The politics of international humanitarianism preoccupies the later chapters on humanitarian policy making. Here, I develop a list of possible costs, as a first step toward pragmatism about humanitarian action.
A checklist of possible downsides is not a general critique of human rights. Benefits and harms must be analyzed in particular cases, under specific conditions, at particular times. The cases and conditions may be extremely specific (pursuing this petition will make this magistrate less likely to grant this other petition) or quite general (articulating social welfare needs as individual "rights" makes people everywhere more passive and isolated). Indeed, benefits are often cast in immediate and local terms-these people out of this prison, those people provided with housing, this country's political process opened to elections, monitored in this way, these individuals spared the death penalty-while costs tend to be expressed more generally, as indictments of the human rights "idea." Most likely, however, these general costs will also be more or less intense in different times and places.
Toting up the costs and benefits is no simple thing. It is as easy to give human rights too much of the blame for costs as it is too much credit for benefits. Sometimes, of course, the costs of human rights-as a vocabulary and as a movement-arise when they are misused, distorted, or co-opted. Or the benefits and burdens of human rights might, in the event, be swamped by the effects of other powers. That said, we should be suspicious if costs are always attributed to people and forces outside the movement, just as we should be suspicious of claims that everything bad which happens was somehow always already inherent in the vocabulary used by unwitting human rights advocates. And it will be terribly hard to isolate the effects of "human rights"-humanitarians will also speak other languages, or use the human rights movement and its vocabulary to get in the door before speaking instrumentally or in more exclusively ethical terms. Ultimately, we must also compare whatever assessment we make of the human rights vocabulary against the costs and benefits of other emancipatory vocabularies which might be used to the same ends.
In the end, of course, different observers will weigh the costs and benefits of human rights activism in different ways. Imagine an effort to use the vocabulary and political capital of the international human rights movement to end capital punishment in the Caribbean. It might well turn out that leading corporate lawyers acting pro bono in London define the problem and solution differently than do lawyers working with nongovernmental groups in London, and differently again from lawyers and organizers in the Caribbean. For some the anti-death penalty campaign might seem a distraction from more pressing issues, might occupy the field, might, if the campaign is successful, even legitimate other governmental (in)action or other social conditions which kill more people in the Caribbean. There might be a struggle within the movement about the usefulness of the vocabulary, or within the vocabulary about the conditions and costs of its deployment in particular places. Some people might use the death penalty and the human rights vocabulary to generate interest in other issues or other vocabularies-others might use it to close off broader inquiries. Wherever you are located, if you are thinking pragmatically about devoting scarce institutional resources to furthering or limiting the effort to bring human rights to bear on the instance of Caribbean death penalty, it will be necessary to come to some conclusion, however tentative and general, about how these conflicts and divergent effects will net out.
And the factors influencing the pragmatic humanitarian making such an assessment will not, by any means, all be empirically proven, or even provable. To count as a cost (or benefit), effects must be articulated only in terms plausible enough to persuade people seeking to pursue human rights to take them into account. People will evaluate risks, costs, and benefits differently. Some people are most influenced by ethical criticism, others by political, philosophical, even aesthetic objections. Others focus on the bad effects not so much of what the human rights movement does, as what it leaves undone. Costs might include what happens to potential victims and violators of human rights, or to innocent bystanders. They might include what happens to other elites-people doing good things weakened, doing bad things strengthened-or which affects participants in the human rights movement itself: professional deformations of various kinds which might be subject to ethical, political, or philosophical criticism and then count as a cost of the endeavor.
For some people, it matters (ethically, politically, philosophically, aesthetically) what the human rights movement expresses. If the human rights movement increases the number of descriptions in legal decisions or elsewhere of women as mothers-on-pedestals or as victimized care givers, that, for some people, is already a cost-ethically, aesthetically, politically. It is bad if women have been represented in too narrow or stereotypical a fashion, even if the only consequence is to pry lose some resources for redistribution to women. A number of the criticisms I have included here are of this type.
For other people, and I must admit, for me, nothing goes in the "costs" column until the human rights movement has a bad effect. A bad effect means influencing someone to act (or fail to act) or to think in a way which counts as a cost (again, ethically, politically, philosophically, aesthetically) for the person making the argument. Intensifying stereotypical representations of women might be thought to have an effect on at least some women, encouraging them to become narrower and more stereotypical or to think of themselves more narrowly than they otherwise might. We might imagine this happening to plaintiffs, to women using the human rights movement as a vehicle of self-expression and freedom, or to others who learn who they are from what the human rights movement says women are. And, of course, such representations would have an effect if they encouraged people in some positions of authority-judges, men, legislators, other women-to exclude women not meeting this stereotypical profile from benefits they would otherwise receive.
In building my own checklist of downsides, I have tried to eliminate criticisms that are altogether disconnected from effects-for example, the debate about whether human rights "really exist" or are "just" the product of efforts to articulate and use them. Although I find it hard to take too seriously the idea that rights exist in some way, let us assume that they do, and that the human rights movement is getting better and better at discovering and articulating them. If it turned out that doing so caused more misery than it alleviated, because human rights turned out to be more part of the problem than the solution, then, as a good-hearted legal professional, I would advocate our doing all we can to keep the existence of rights a secret. In a similar way, if it turns out that rights are "just" a fantasy, a social construction, and so forth, that tells us nothing about whether they are useful or not. If they are more useful than not, more power to the society which constructed them.
Traditional debates about whether human rights do or do not express a social consensus, in one society or across the globe, are similarly beside the point. Indeed, we could see them as updated ways of asking whether human rights really exist. Let us say they do express a social consensus-how does this affect their usefulness? Perhaps being able to say they express consensus weakens them, thins them out, skews their usefulness in various ways; perhaps it strengthens them. To decide, as my grandmother used to ask, "whether that's a good thing or a bad thing" we still need to know whether once strengthened or skewed or weakened or whatever they are useful, and if so for what and for whom.
Or take debate about whether human rights "talk" is or is not coherent. Let's say the human rights vocabulary, institutional apparatus, even the soul of the human rights advocate are riddled with contradictions which would not stand up to logical scrutiny for a minute. Knowing only this does not move us any closer to an understanding of whether they are part of the problem or the solution. Perhaps ambivalent porosity is their secret strength-to the extent human rights is useful, we should then be grateful for the contradictions. Perhaps incoherence is a fatal weakness, but if human rights creates more problems than it solves, this would be all to the good.
I have also left out criticisms which could be answered by intensifying our commitment to the human rights movement-that rights are not adequately enforced, that the list of rights is underinclusive, that participation in the movement or in rights enforcement could be broader, that rights are poorly or unevenly implemented because of opposition from people outside the movement or the movement's own lack of resources. Criticism of this sort is certainly important, but it sheds less light on whether the human rights idea and movement themselves are causing harm-unless it appears that these deficiencies will not, in fact, be solved by more commitment and resources and will have bad effects.
Here is my short list of pragmatic worries.
HUMAN RIGHTS OCCUPIES THE FIELD OF EMANCIPATORY POSSIBILITY
Hegemony as Resource Allocation
The claim here is that this institutional and political hegemony makes other valuable, often more valuable, emancipatory strategies less available. This argument is stronger, of course, when one can say something about what those alternatives are-or might be. But there may be something to the claim that human rights has so dominated the imaginative space of emancipation that alternatives can now be thought only, perhaps unhelpfully, as negations of what human rights asserts-passion to its reason, local to its global. As a dominant and fashionable vocabulary for thinking about emancipation, human rights crowds out other ways of understanding harm and recompense. This is easiest to see when human rights attracts institutional energy and resources which would otherwise flow elsewhere. But this is not only a matter of scarce resources.
Hegemony as Criticism
Human rights also occupies the field by implicit or explicit delegitimation of other emancipatory strategies. As an increasingly dominant emancipatory vocabulary, human rights is also a mode of criticism, affecting other emancipatory projects which, by comparison, can seem "too" ideological and political, insufficiently universal or objective. Where this is so, pursuing a human rights initiative or promoting the use of human rights vocabulary may have fully unintended negative consequences for other existing emancipatory projects, including those relying on more religious, national, or local energies.
Excerpted from The Dark Sides of Virtue by David Kennedy Excerpted by permission.
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