In a world of unprecedented refugee flows, seemingly endless wars and rising levels of xenophobia and inequality, many have been questioning the point of human rights. What do they mean to the huge numbers of asylum seekers detained across the globe? To the Rohinyga, fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar? To the children dying in bombings across Syria and Yemen?
For many the optimism of the post-WWII era when the international human rights system was set up is dead. Some critics go further, arguing that not only have human rights not delivered greater justice, they have in fact been part of the problem. Their individualistic focus has taken attention away from structural issues like global economic inequality. Their claims to universalism have failed to properly address the legacies of Western imperialism. And their legalistic form has done little to empower the world’s most marginal, simply creating a new industry of “international experts”. As a result, more and more radical scholars and activists in the West are rejecting human rights in search of a new, more revolutionary social justice project.
Without disagreeing with these critiques, I would like to tell another story of human rights. It is the story of Amali, who lives in a small village in eastern Sri Lanka.
In 2009, Amali’s husband was abducted while working in his paddy field. He sadly represents the fate of thousands of men, women and children: victims of the decades of political violence that have marked Sri Lanka’s modern history.
Until then, Amali had been a housewife focused on raising her two daughters and relying on her husband to take care of all the financial and administrative needs of the family. The search for her husband catapulted her into a new complex, frustrating and often terrifying world of dismissive and threatening police officers and soldiers, ineffective and indifferent bureaucrats and politicians and suspicious and unsympathetic community members. In the face of this, a courageous and resourceful woman emerged, drawing on human rights to reframe her personal suffering as rights violations requiring redress.
Amali now travels all over the country, protests in the streets of the capital, Colombo, and lobbies political leaders. She has even met with the president. She has also become a recognised local community leader, offering support and advice to others in similar situations. While clearly an exceptional woman, Amali is not alone.
Giving women a path
Across Sri Lanka many individuals, particularly women, have mobilised and become politically active as a result of human rights violations suffered by themselves or their loved ones.
When I ask them what human rights mean to them, and tell them about the increasing scepticism with which many of us in the West view human rights law, they are pragmatic. They are not stupid. They know better than we do that the law all too often favours the powerful and that governments all over the world loudly proclaim human rights while engaging in abusive and repressive behaviour. They too understand the hypocrisy that leads to selective attention to certain types of rights violations and certain types of victims.
But as people who have never had the luxury of feeling valued as citizens, they also experience a different relationship to human rights law. Even if the outcome is not as desired, there is something to be said for the process made possible by human rights law. As another remarkable female activist (and wife of a disappeared man), Jeyatheepa explained to me, human rights had provided her with the opportunity to speak for herself in a public sphere that otherwise treated women like her as passive objects to be controlled, “saved” or spoken for.
Both Amali and Jeyatheepa are part of a group of women who together decided to study the Right to Information Act passed in Sri Lanka in 2016. Without any legal background and often with limited formal education, these women independently made applications to the authorities, demanding information be released on what happened to their family members. In making use of this new law, they see it as another tool to maintain pressure on a state that wants the issue of disappearances to just go away.
A new human rights?
The stories of Amali and Jeyatheepa suggest that perhaps we do still need human rights law. Not because the critiques described above are wrong. On the contrary, we clearly need to revisit our assumptions about what human rights law can and does offer in such an unjust world.
But this assessment must recognise the many ways in which human rights law is currently being used by different types of people in different situations. Up until now, most of the debate about the advantages and limitations of human rights has focused exclusively on elite actors (international human rights organisations, Western governments) and on institutional spaces like the UN. These may be the most powerful players in the human rights world and they do dominate the ways in which human rights are interpreted and applied.
But they do not have a complete monopoly. There are also many brave individuals in situations of great difficulty and with very limited power and resources that are using human rights law to make claims and assert themselves as political agents.
By only focusing on and criticising dominant versions of human rights, we run the risk of further excluding and ignoring the voices and perspectives of those who are already neglected and disempowered. Ironically, just as human rights currently often fail to protect and empower those most in need, so do critiques of human rights that treat these populations as passive, ignorant victims. By shifting our attention to the ways in which disenfranchised people experience and engage with human rights law, we can remain attentive to its failings while also recognising and paying tribute to the sometimes unexpected ways in which people do make human rights law work for them.