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Chapter 13: The Role of ‘Best Examples’ in Human Rights

Published onSep 11, 2019
Chapter 13: The Role of ‘Best Examples’ in Human Rights

Human rights discourse is shaped by best examples—privileged reference points that make some rights and some violations of human rights stand out among others.

Human rights discourse is shaped by best examples—privileged reference points that make some rights and some violations of human rights stand out among others.

‘Legal rights have been the building block of Western law since early modernity modelled on the right to property, the first and still most significant right’, Costas Douzinas has argued in this book. With this he points at an important pattern in the world: while national constitutions and international declarations present rights in the form of long and growing lists, not all rights are born equal. Some rights carry more weight than others and those rights, often linked to the image of a specific kind of violation, shape how human rights are imagined more broadly.

We should not rush to try to aggregate privileged reference points into an ideology that is supposed to provide hidden unity to disparate practices. Categories like Western or modern might suggest more coherence than the evidence allows if we start our investigation of human rights discourse from the bottom-up. Psychologists, starting from the microprocess of cognition, call privileged reference points for a category of objects prototypes or best examples. These are clearly affected by social, cultural, and historical context.1 Professional communities have their own best examples. Biologists routinely focus attention on specific animals such as the fruit fly, or the mouse, which serve as stand-ins for a broader category of organisms. They call these research objects ‘model systems’.2 The literary canon plays a similar role: it focuses attention on some works rather than others, which then shape how whole genres, such as poems, or novels, are read and imagined.3

Like in other fields, the salience of best examples of human rights is sustained by specific professional communities and with that by specific practices; these practices are diverse and they are changing over shorter time frames than the term liberalism would have us believe. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion were perhaps the best examples of human rights in the 1970s and 1980s, and prisoners of conscience the most exemplary victims of a human rights violation. We might call this ‘liberal’ but by doing so we would draw a too easy line from this phase of the Cold War all the way back towards the classics of liberal political philosophy.

To the extent that human rights discourse existed before the Cold War—Samuel Moyn has most forcefully argued it was much less prominent then, and very different4—free speech was not at its core in the same way, and free speech is no longer that central today. The focus on free speech was favoured by a specific geopolitical constellation; it was also buttressed by an infrastructure of organizational practices, built by Amnesty International, the OSCE, Helsinki Watch, and PEN International. Amnesty’s focus on individual prisoners of conscience was not just an ideological choice, it was tightly linked to its organisational innovation of linking members to each other through the adoption of particular victims.

Not all prototypes for human rights are liberal or individualistic. Business and human rights, for example, has become an important area of human rights practice—a new and distinct genre, so to say. The typical cases in this field—the explosion at the chemical factory in Bhopal, India, prominently among them—are ones where victims are groups of workers and communities who depend on specific ecosystems.

Thinking about prototypes highlights questions about how concrete situations are assimilated to the categories that are read in light of different best examples. There is an internal inequality among cases in terms of how well they fit their prototype and a risk of reducing what is specific about each case. But as other assumptions change, new realities can fit old prototypes.5

LGBT rights were once thought to be a cause of special interests quite separate from the mainstream of human rights work but are now quite a central part of it. Because sexual orientation is increasingly accepted as part of who people are rather than a choice that can be legislated against, victims of anti-LGBT legislation have newly become assimilated into the category ‘prisoners of conscience’. In some ways victims of legislation targeting people for their sexual practices play a role similar to that of emblematic victims of past periods: LGBT victims are used to construct broader lessons about the way everyone becomes vulnerable when there are no protections for those who are different.

Prototypes in human rights work tend to bring a right, a victim, and a perpetrator together in a powerful image. Perhaps because the image that comes to mind lacks a perpetrator, the starving, the sick, and the unemployed as such have never quite become emblematic of human rights violations.

Best examples also sometimes add a specific response to the image of right, victim, and perpetrator. The historian Paige Arthur has shown this for example for the case of ‘transitional justice’.6 She argues that transitional justice came to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s as a new field in the repertoire of international human rights practice. As an approach, it linked the atrocities associated with dictatorships, the promise of a democratic future with an emphasis on prosecution—as opposed to say redistribution—as a response. This linkage was all the more remarkable because it pushed human rights activists into a role they were initially not used to—working with states instead of against them. Though Arthur stresses that this new area of work was transnational and comparative in its inception, we can ask how it was influenced by some cases more than others, such as Argentina and South Africa.

Best examples don’t explain all the selectivity of human rights, but it is worth remembering that ideology is not the only other alternative hypothesis available. Mundane logistical constraints as well as inequality of power and resources also play an important role in the process by which indeterminate and contradictory values are translated into practice.


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