Human Rights Discourse as Alibi for Humanitarian War

Recently, Zygmunt Buaman called the refugee crisis “humanity’s crisis,” arguing for “the solidarity of humans” capable of mutual love rather than hate or indifference beyond the boundaries of national sovereignty. Yet, philosophers Hannah Arendt and Giorgio Agamben, among others, have challenged abstract concepts of the human or humanity as apolitical and therefore unable to ground political rights for refugees (e.g., see Halley and Brown 2002, 432–33; see also Rosemont 1991; Kennedy 2002).[1] Taking up the rally cry for humanity and the human does not mean we are necessarily equipped to ward off violence, inside the camps or outside. The abstract category of human rights, founded in the Enlightenment notion of cosmopolitanism, can even become an alibi for genocide. On the other hand, human rights discourse has been effective and transformative in securing rights for those disenfranchised in many situations.[2] Although we cannot dispense with human rights discourse, we must be vigilant in critically examining how it can be used to justify violence and as an alibi for war.[3]

More than sixty years ago, following her own escape from Nazi Germany, Hannah Arendt identified what she called the paradox of “inalienable human rights” that reduce the person to an “‘abstract’ human being who seemed to exist nowhere,” “independent of all governments.” As stateless, there is “no authority, or basis on which to protect” refugees (Arendt 1973, 291–92, 300). Specifically, in the case of Jews fleeing the Holocaust, she says, “Abstract nakedness of being nothing but human was their greatest danger” (Arendt [1943] 1994, 118). Arendt argues that rights are political and therefore a matter of enforceable laws, not abstract conceptions of some supposedly innate quality such as humanity.[4] Nearly a decade earlier, already living in exile in 1943, Arendt wrote an essay titled “We Refugees,” first published in a small Jewish magazine called The Menorah Journal. There Arendt argues that prior to the war, refugees were people who committed acts or held political opinions making them enemies of one state, thus seeking refuge in another. But Jews and others escaping the Nazis had done nothing to challenge their nation-state; they were so-called voluntary exiles with the supposed “choice” (individual sovereignty) to leave and live or stay and die.

These World War II refugees, in response to whom the 1951 UN Refugee Convention protocol was ratified, are akin to contemporary refugees from Syria in that they are not necessarily enemies of the state and they supposedly flee voluntarily. Yet, unlike refugees from the 1950s, today’s refugees are not necessarily fleeing “owing to well-found fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” demanded by the 1951 refugee protocol and its 1967 amendments. Instead, they are caught in a war zone in an undeclared war between the Syrian military, ISIS, Russia, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and others committed to the so-called war on terror. At the very least, these refugees are collateral damage in the war on terror, if not also climate refugees from an increasingly drought- and famine-wrought region.

Arendt argues for a political solution that takes us beyond human rights. And certainly much of what she had to say about her own situation and that of other refugees fleeing Nazi Germany applies to refugees today. For example, she identifies the problematic binary of treating refugees as either threats to be detained (even worse off than criminals in that they are imprisoned without a trial) or charity cases to be saved, often through so-called voluntary internment (Arendt [1943] 1994, 110). And when they aren’t interned, refuges are paradoxically considered both “pariahs and parvenus” or social climbers (110).

Closely following Arendt, fifty years later, Giorgio Agamben transforms her notion of abstract nakedness into what he calls “bare life” and argues that there is no place in politics for the concept of the human or rights based on this abstract concept. Like Arendt, he insists that only citizens have rights, and even those rights are linked to this problematic apolitical notion of the human. Proposing to take us beyond human rights, and beyond nation-states, Agamben (2008) claims that the refugee is the central figure for contemporary political philosophy, the figure on which we can build a new community of those who don’t belong, beyond borders and frontiers. He says, “It is even possible that, if we want to be equal to the absolutely new tasks ahead, we will have to abandon decidedly, without reservation, the fundamental concepts through which we have so far represented the subjects of the political (Man, the Citizen and its rights, but also the sovereign people, the worker, and so forth) and build our political philosophy anew starting from the one and only figure of the refugee” (90). The problem these philosophers identify is not with human rights per se but rather with the depoliticization of human rights insofar as the notion of the human remains fluid or undefined, which is not to say that it cannot also be a useful category in politics.

Although, like Arendt and Agamben, Jacques Derrida is critical of human rights and state sovereignty, he demonstrates how, within Western thought, the human operates as the flip side of the sovereign citizen. He shows how the category “human” has always been political, part and parcel of the politics of naming. He shows how humanity and sovereignty are traditionally, conceptually, and politically linked (in particular, see Derrida 2008; 2009a). Furthermore, he argues that the concept of the human already includes what it defines itself against, namely, the animal, the machine, the beast, the sovereign. As Agamben provocatively suggests, then, beginning with the figure of the refugee may turn political philosophy on its head, but it still leaves in place the binary opposition citizen–refugee. Rather than merely replace the dominant side of a binary opposition with its underside, Derrida works to deconstruct the opposition on which binary hierarchies depend, and he does so from within the philosophical, political, and literary traditions we have inherited—or to put it in more Derridean terms, that we will have inherited, since the past is not a thing lying there to be found but rather a kernel of the future (the to-come) that shakes the foundations of what we take to be our world.

Derrida repeatedly demonstrates that the designation human is always political insofar as, historically, the names “humanity” and “human” have operated as exclusionary categories, based on a dangerous notion of sovereignty that reasserts itself with more force in those moments when it is undermined or under scrutiny, as it is now with the massive influx of refugees in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. As Derrida points out, the category of the human or humanity has been used to justify killing, even genocide. Indeed, insofar as the category operates as an exclusionary category, it is part and parcel of a logic of genocide. As we know, genocide is typically justified by identifying the target group with animals, subhumans, or inferior beings. Derrida reminds us that human rights discourses inherit this questionable and problematic history wherein the category “human” was (and continues to be) used to justify oppression, torture, and murder.

In 2002, speaking of the way human rights discourse was used as an alibi in NATO’s response to violence in Serbia, Derrida said,

We must deconstruct ad infinitum but also denounce the machinations, ruses, lies through which this respectable discourse of human rights accommodates, in an unjust and selective fashion, the hegemonic aims of state-nationalist superpowers. These superpowers do not renounce their own sovereignty. As soon as it seems opportune for them, they do not even respect any longer the organizations of international law that they institute and continue to dominate. (Derrida 2009b, 127)

Certainly this opportunist approach to international law is evident in today’s covert international military operation’s “rules of engagement,” which are not sanctioned by the UN.

In that same lecture, Derrida questions the separation of humanitarian missions from government interests: “precisely where one claims to be acting in the name of humanitarian and human rights principles that are superior to the sovereignty of states, precisely where one grants oneself the right of intervention in the name of human rights, where one judges or intends to judge the authors of war crimes or crimes against humanity, it would be easy to show that this humanitarianism, which cares little about so many other examples of ‘ethnic cleansing’ going on in the world, still remains, and brutally so, in the service of state interests of all kinds (economic or strategic), whether they are interests shared by the NATO allies, or even in dispute between them (for example between the United States and Europe)” (Derrida 2009b, 125–26). There are, of course, so many examples of this disparate caring. For just one case, take disparities between Western media reactions to refugees arriving in Europe and to the deaths of refugees at sea on their way to Greece or Italy, Western media coverage of refugees fleeing civil war in Africa and of the recent announcement of plans to close the largest refugee camp in the world, Dadaab, which “houses” more than three hundred thousand people on Kenya’s border. Another example, mentioned earlier, is the exodus of women refugees from Central America who seek asylum in Mexico and the United States; these refugees get very little media attention. In a world where the lives of some matter more than the lives of others, genocidal logics always loom on the horizon. Humanitarian aid becomes an alibi for the lack of a political solution in the war on terror, a war without an easily identifiable enemy.

Recall the Bush administration’s use of the rhetoric of women’s rights to justify invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Women’s rights, and human rights more generally, have often been used as justification for wars of so-called liberation.[5] Another striking example of the collusion of human rights discourse and the justification of war, killing, and even torture is the current textbook for U.S. counterinsurgency, the one used in Baghdad and Afghanistan, which was co-sponsored by the director of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights, who helped draft the manual. According to Eyal Weizman (2011, 17), “in her introduction to the Chicago University Press version of the manual, [Sarah] Sewall [then director] announced it as the product of an ‘unprecedented collaboration [between] a human rights center partnered with the armed forces’ that focused on reducing collateral damage as a military tactic.” Reducing loss of life is a human rights issue but has become a military issue insofar as it is also strategically advantageous in winning a war.

According to Weizman, former general Stanley McChrystal “was one of the manual’s most devoted followers” and saw his military objective not in terms of “seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces” but in terms of “population” by limiting civilian causalities and collateral damage (18). One military historian went so far as to say that contemporary warfare is “social work with guns” (18). But, as Weizman points out, the “utilitarian use of humanitarian and human rights principles must acknowledge the possibility of its inverse and the speed by which such inversions occur. If protecting civilians is used as a way of convincing people to comply with military government, at other times inflicting pain on them might usefully achieve the same ends” (18).

This new “humanitarian” warfare uses the calculus of collateral damage in conjunction with human rights discourse as a contemporary weapon of war. In the words of Derrida (2005, 46), in these cases, “a discourse on human rights and on democracy remains little more than an obscene alibi so long as it tolerates the terrible plight of so many millions of human beings suffering from malnutrition, disease, and humiliation, grossly deprived not only of bread and water but of equality or freedom, dispossessed of the rights of all, of everyone, of anyone.”