The Future of Human Rights

by André Dao

This article was originally published in Issue 2 of the New Philosopher. Buy a copy here.

It has been 65 years since the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, the world has witnessed a proliferation of international human rights treaties and organisations. The language of human rights has become the dominant moral language of our time. Yet that has not stopped the atrocities, from Rwanda to Syria, nor uplifted the wretched of the earth. Have human rights failed?

It is tempting to think that human rights’ failures over the past half century can be attributed to the moral frailty of self-serving politicians, or the so-called “compassion fatigue” of the world’s middle classes, desensitized to mediated images of war, famine and torture. But what if the problem runs deeper – what if there’s something about the very concept of human rights, or how we talk about them, that fails to penetrate everyday lives, and cultivates apathy?

The French thinker Simone Weil certainly thought so. Born to Jewish parents, her short life was marked by a remarkable compassion for the suffering of others. At the age of six, she refused to eat sugar after learning that the soldiers in the trenches of World War I had none for themselves. She was later drawn to radical strands of Christian mysticism, and her politics was informed by what she called Christ’s mad love.

It is from this perspective of mad – that is to say unreasonable – love, that Weil rejects the language of rights. For rights operate within the logic of reason – after all, the concept of rights was born out of that great celebration of human reason, the Enlightenment. We talk about reasonable limitations on human rights, and as Weil would put it, rights have a measured out quality; rights must be adjudicated by a court of law and administered by the state. “Rights are always asserted in a tone of contention,” wrote Weil, “and when this tone is adopted, it must rely upon force in the background, or else it will be laughed at.”

In stark counterpoint to the reasonableness of rights is the madness of love – the sort of madness which inspired Antigone to defy all laws of men and reason to honour a dead brother who died attacking her own city. Of course, Antigone is destroyed for her mad love, buried alive, just as Christ died for humankind. They both serve as exemplary saints in Weil’s cosmology, lighting  the path beyond reason to reach transcendent Justice: “to listen to someone is to put oneself in his place while he is speaking”. It’s a commonplace thought – putting yourself in someone else’s shoes – but if you take it seriously, it takes on the radical tones of an impossible injunction. To truly listen to those who suffer – and what else could human rights be for – we must ourselves suffer. This isn’t an empty gesture either; when Weil died in 1943 at the age of 34, the coroner reported that she had essentially starved herself to death in solidarity with those trying to survive on meagre rations in Vichy France.

In this spirit of absolute ethical commitment, Weil inveighs against rights talk for aiming too low. She wrote unabashedly that the workers’ movement must not ask for higher wages but instead dignity in work and the space and time necessary for the soul to grow. To merely ask for higher wages is akin to haggling with the devil over the price of your soul.

In 2013, can we even countenance such language, which falls so far outside the dominant economic rationalist paradigm?

Upendra Baxi, an Indian human rights scholar, recognizes the inherent limitations of state-bound human rights laws which tend to “professionalize, atomize, and de-collectivize energies for social resistance.” But he counsels against a wholesale rejection of human rights: for lack of anything better, the language of human rights is all we have available to hold power to account. What’s crucial is that human rights must always find itself on the side of the oppressed – as Baxi puts it, the mission of human rights must be to “give voice to human suffering, to make it visible and to ameliorate it.”

That unflinching gaze upon human suffering is not easy or comfortable – it requires far more than watching the evening news or the occasional act of charity. It requires, in Baxi’s words, that we share “both the nightmares and dreams of the oppressed.”

That means resisting what may seem all too reasonable in a world and a time dominated by the logic of the market. Since corporations are people, why not grant them human rights as well – like freedom of expression? Because, as Weil would say, freedom of expression is not simply a right to propagandize, but the right of the oppressed and afflicted to be heard. We should not be asking whether the government is censoring this writer or gagging that organisation. Rather, we should ask, is this a society in which the cry of a suffering soul can be heard by those with ears to hear?