the Disillusioned kid: From Kosovo to Gaza
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Thursday, December 14, 2006

From Kosovo to Gaza

In From Kosovo to Kabul, David Chandler argues that human rights discourse conceives of the human subject as passive, an inherently undemocratic idea, as it undermines the conception of active agency on which participation in the political process is predicated. In the place of popular action as the driving force for political change, this view inserts elite, top-down reform and even, in the most extreme cases, humanitarian intervention.

In many respects, this is a controversial view. Human rights in many respects has become the prevailing ideology of our age and one which goes largely unquestioned. A recent article by Jonathan Cook provides an insightful example of this aspect of the discourse playing out. Back in November, a number of Palestinians organised themselves to protect homes about to be the target of Israeli air strikes. At the time, I argued this was a positive step, a conclusion Cook seems to concur with. However, as Cook points out, Human Rights Watch (HRW) aren't so keen.

HRW argue that "it is a war crime to seek to use the presence of civilians to render certain points or areas immune from military operations," even "where the object of attack is not a legitimate military target." Cook suggests that their interpretation of international law may be wrong, noting that popular resistance to oppression has always been a dangerous venture in which civilians risk serious injury and even death. "Responsibility for those deaths must fall on those doing the oppressing, not those resisting, particularly when they are employing non-violent means. On HRW’s interpretation, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela would be war criminals."

HRW's Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson opines, "There is no excuse for calling civilians to the scene of a planned attack... knowingly asking civilians to stand in harm’s way is unlawful." Note that there is no suggestion of compulsion here. Civilians have been "called" or "asked," but certainly not forced. However, having implicitly accepted the conception of a passive human subject, Whitson seems unable to accept that people may have actually chosen to participate in these actions of their own volition, with full knowledge of the dangers. Once individuals have been stripped of agency it becomes impossible to understand their actions without reference to their leaders.

Clearly, one doesn't want to throw the baby out with the bath water. Many of the abuses which human rights organisations oppose are worthy of condemnation and the struggles to end them deserve widespread support. By denying the agency of their victims, such organisations can only call for top-down reform. For what it's worth, I agree with Chandler suggestion that what is needed is for the active subject to be re-emphasised, collective politics to be rejuvenated and for the maximisation of "people's capacity for autonomy and collective rational decision-making, a capacity denied by the proponents of ethical regulation from above."

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