This Introduction explains what we mean by the "subject of human rights" by setting up three questions that orient the chapters in the collection. First, Who is the subject of human rights? Recognizing critiques of the putative universalism of the human rights subject, this chapter asks, How is the subject of human rights defined today, and who and what does it include and exclude? Second, Who is subjected to human rights? Questions about how human rights ought to shape and subject the exercise of state authority provoke contentious debates about the tension between democracy and human rights, security and human rights, and efficiency and human rights. Third, How do human rights make subjects? How do human rights shape and inform how people see and experience themselves, others, and the wider world, and what kind of subjects do human rights characteristically produce?
The practical issue is not whether but how the language of rights will be used. This chapter argues that the best approach is to understand the subject of rights as fundamentally relational. I outline my relational theory of self, autonomy, and law. Questions of rights are best analyzed in terms of how they structure relations, which allows for better strategies of both advocacy and resistance. A relational approach invites structural analysis (of inequality, for example) and offers answers to common critiques of rights as individualistic, obfuscating, and alienating. The definition of rights inevitably involves contestation, and that contestation must take place in a democratically accountable way. Thus, the issue for rights cannot just be protection or implementation. Equal attention must be given to the question of who has defined the rights in question. The transformation in concepts thus needs a transformation in institutional practice.
The chapter begins by describing its epistemological orientation in relation to the anthropological study of human rights. It then turns to human rights subjectivity and explores a paradox at the heart of human rights projects. To explain this paradox, it draws metaphorically on Leibniz's curious category of the "monad." The human rights subject at the center of dominant accounts has, like Leibniz's monads, suffered from the impossibility of encapsulating a closed and totalizing (normative) universe while also reflecting the whole (human rights) system. The chapter surveys work from the contemporary anthropology of human rights to gesture toward an alternative conception where human rights subjectivity is no longer seen as centered in rights-bearers (individual or collective) but in networks of relationships and the values that they embody. The chapter concludes by provocatively reimagining human rights as a system that does center on the abstract subject of the liberal imaginary.
This chapter explores the rise of animal rights. Debates about rights have always involved questions of "the subject," including hierarchies of sentience, rationality, and autonomy. For centuries, women had been key to debates about the human/animal divide, including in discussions about the links between the rights of women and those of animals. The chapter explores contrasting conceptions of rights based on issues of similarities versus differences. It draws on concepts such as radical alterity and negative zoélogy.
Colonization and the imposition of foreign sovereign rule have situated Indigenous peoples as degraded subjects to be eliminated, constrained, or managed. This chapter considers the dilemmas Indigenous peoples face in seeking to thwart the direct and structural violence they suffer at the hands of colonizing states by establishing themselves as full subjects of human rights. It examines the tensions that arise in seeking recognition from a system of international law that has itself authorized colonial logics, and within a framework that assumes that the primary subject of rights is the abstract human individual, thus conflicting with Indigenous ontologies. The chapter includes an interview with leading Indigenous rights advocate Mick Dodson, who argues that by understanding the right to self-determination as the foundational human right, Indigenous peoples have been able to creatively deploy the international human rights system as part of their ongoing fight against state violence, marginalization, and oppression.
To better understand the risks and ethical responsibilities of representing gendered terrorism, this chapter offers a constitutive rhetorical analysis of Kurdish photojournalist Seivan Salim's project "Escaped," which features portraits and testimonies of fifteen Yazidi women between the ages of eighteen and thirty who were held captive by the Islamic State. The chapter argues that the recognition of Yazidi women's human rights is linked to the global mediation of their story and spectacle of gendered precarity, which construes the Yazidi female body as a site of moral, cultural, and political crisis. Attention to the conditions of intelligibility and constitutive processes of human rights recognition, as various contextualizations of "Escaped" exemplify, reveals how particular meanings become attached to Yazidi women's performances of "cultural purity" and how their gendered precarity sets the parameters for political engagement and action.
This chapter analyzes human rights education (HRE) for police with a view of understanding how this increasingly prevalent strategy of human rights promotion imagines "the subject" that it seeks to transform. It argues, first, that in its overwhelming emphasis on developing individuals' knowledge about human rights standards, HRE imagines the subject as autonomous and primarily cognitive. This fails to account for the critical work that the situation and system, and not individual disposition, do in shaping how police form values and the actions they take. Second, in presenting arguments on why police ought to comply with human rights, HRE oscillates between two incompatible models of the subject. One assumes a utilitarian subject who can be brought to comply with human rights through consequentialist arguments (complying brings more benefits). The other assumes a deontological subject who can be invited to embrace human rights as an ethically superior form of life.
Human rights activists may sometimes succeed in compelling state officials to comply with human rights through naming and shaming campaigns, but human rights educators often have a more ambitious aim. Beyond restricting violations, many educators hope to engender the positive desire to protect rights. Yet in-depth interviews with law enforcement officers in India reveal that state actors in human rights education programs may learn, understand, and accept the basic values and laws of human rights but interpret them in ways that support their interests and their beliefs. In the process of negotiation, state actors use the language and logic of the norm to justify its violation. As such, human rights norms may travel and win acceptance without changing behavior.
A shift has taken place over the past several decades in the dominant model of testimonial practice in public inquiries and truth and reconciliation commissions in many parts of the world, from an evidence-based "Nuremburg" model that seeks to establish the culpability of perpetrators through material evidence to a "victim-centric" model oriented toward truth-sharing, empowerment, and healing. This paper considers the variety of forms that this latter model has taken, with the bulk of the data drawn from a long-term study of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools (2010–2016). The long-term healing benefits of survivor-affirmative testimonial practice are often touted but little known and appear to vary considerably, influenced both by the meaning attributed to traumatic events and to the cultural and political values attributed to testimonial practice.
This chapter examines how Eliane Caffé's 2016 film Era o Hotel Cambridge critically engages with human rights discourse via the contradictory relationships among aesthetics, politics, and spectatorship. Through the production of a fictional movie filmed at the site of an occupied abandoned building in São Paulo, Brazil, and using both real-life occupiers and professional actors to play the fictional characters, Caffé explores the relationship between documentary and fiction cinema aesthetics to inscribe tensions between directorial intent and spectatorial practices in the production of meaning in a "political" film. This chapter contends that the movie makes visible the complexities of the aesthetics of human rights by portraying subjects fighting for economic and social rights in ways that resist the rhetoric of liberal humanitarianism that has come to dominate global human rights discourse today.
This chapter examines how people can consciously and voluntarily use human rights to transform themselves. It begins by contrasting two complementary yet distinctive conceptions of human rights. The first sees human rights primarily as an institution designed to protect all human beings, whereas the second sees human rights primarily as a set of principles and practices that can be used by subjects for the goal of personal transformation. The chapter then turns to three great authors—Mary Wollstonecraft, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Charles Malik—in order to demonstrate how central this second conception is to the history and philosophy of human rights and also to propose why it is valuable for the present-day practice of human rights.
The adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989 is widely seen as a victory for an agentic understanding of the child as a subject of human rights. Focusing on the drafting and later interpretations of the Convention's Article 12 on the right to be heard, this chapter contends that this victory was only partial. The Convention distinguished between having rights and having the right to exercise such rights, with the latter being dependent on one's "age and maturity." The subsequent commentary also re-described the child's civil and political rights as rights of participation, effectively distancing them from any association with political protest or dissent. Instead, civil and political rights were approached as calls for increased cooperation between children and adults in various social and political processes, with the assumption that this would help children become mature and responsible subjects of human rights.
This chapter explores the interrelated religious and secular dynamics of human rights, focusing in particular on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An analysis of the creation of the Declaration reveals that this document was designed not merely to separate religion from politics but also to give rise to a particular human subject: namely, a subject willing and perhaps even eager to step back from personal religious commitments in the interest of cultivating accord within an increasingly pluralistic world. While this prescriptive type of secularity is arguably a crucial feature in the construction of a document capable of transcending religious difference and thus laying a universalizable foundation for human rights, it also evinces a subtle preference for particular religious subjectivities over others.
This chapter is an interview of Samuel Moyn by Alexandre Lefebvre. It begins by discussing the ways in which human rights do (and do not) shape and inform subjectivity, as well as the relationship between human rights and religion. It then discusses human rights in relation to the political ideologies and movements of conservatism and socialism. It concludes with an extended discussion of the often-fraught relationship between human rights, distributive justice, economic welfare, neoliberalism, and the welfare state. Sustained reference is made to Moyn's three major books on human rights, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (2010), Christian Human Rights (2015), and Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (2018).