The Problem With “Human Rights” Discourse

Human rights. A safe concept. The idea that all humans have basic rights, inalienably, by birth, is one that is accepted throughout industrialized societies. It drives the formation of the United Nations and other NGOs and organizations such as the Amnesty International. However, human rights discourse should be questioned. There are several problems with the discourse that have physical and material effects.

First, to accept the idea of “human rights” is to also accept the idea that there is an inherent “nature” to humans. In particular, Hobbesian and Lockean ideas are commonly accepted. The logic of the social contract is particularly flawed because by its foundation, the social contract allows no human contingency. That humans “consent” to the state by being born is both preposterous and a lie. No one ever consented, and certainly exile is not written within the Constitution as an alternative of the state itself. With the state-form an ever present entity around the world, there is no way out to a liberal ideology system that claims “freedom” as its highest ideal. It is not universal, despite claims of U.S. government that it is. All the time, such as the passage of the Patriot Act show, there are exceptions to people from claiming rights under the law. If the authorities refuse it’s universality, is there really such as thing?

Human rights, then, should probably be safer in pointing out what it really is: human desires, demands, collective agreements. However, it seems that pin-pointing human rights as human desires would be more dangerous to dominant authorities. If the social contract is questioned, the whole foundation, the whole basis, for liberal society would be at odds. The state would be seen as nothing more than an entity that should be tossed off. Fighting in the arena of human rights depowers the potential creativity and subversiveness of movements. It prompts the state to action, and de-adapts to co-opt or suppress such movements that destabilize the state-form. Or, in the worse case scenarios, such language is used to enter in governments who are in violations.

Countries with plenty of questionable human rights (such as the U.S. itself) come up with bureaucratic methods to check the list itself. In this case, human rights become a question of, “no foul, no harm.” Saudi Arabia, for example, was allowed membership in the human rights commission of the United Nations, despite having a horrid record of human rights violations. In this case, the whole system put in place to check states on humane treatment of its citizens becomes nothing more than a joke.

Disassociating or over-writing human rights is more tricky. I am not saying that there is no validity in preserving the ethics and morality concerning humane treatment. But this is something that groups like the Zapatistas in Mexico have realized. While their engagement with the Mexican state does allow them to claim human rights discourse, they claim something more simpler: human dignity. A value instead of a universal claim. Perhaps this is the start of an alternative of both the social contract and the state itself.


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