Sunday, January 08, 2012

Behind the Rhetoric of Human Rights

Guest Post by Kathy Vandergrift, Chair, Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children:

In one week Canada’s political leaders celebrated Vaclav Havel as a champion of human rights and denounced Kim Jung-il for violating human rights. At the same time Canada’s Justice Minister dismissed as irrelevant human rights concerns about Bill C-10 and the Minister of Immigration dared anyone to raise a Charter challenge to arbitrary changes he announced for citizenship requirements. Bill C-10 violates obligations Canada has under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, one of the most widely endorsed human rights treaties that protect persons with the least political power in any country. And one might expect our government to check if proposed laws comply with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms before adopting them rather than challenging citizens to bring a lawsuit – especially after the government cut any funding for expensive Charter challenges.

At a deeper level, rights language in political rhetoric reveals widely different understandings of what human rights are and why they are important. Some assume international norms apply for dictators in undeveloped countries, but not in Canada.Others use the term to mean civil rights, but dismiss any suggestion that economic and social rights are equally important if we are going to build a rights-respecting culture.

Political actors of all stripes use rights language when it bolsters their position, but dismiss it when it raises uncomfortable questions. Campaigners often use it as a trump card: if a cause is a right, then it trumps any objections. More importantly, huge assumptions behind superficial slogans are a barrier to actually making progress towards a society that respects the rights of all.

We need a more thoughtful discourse about human rights in Canada – one that can inform public debate and public policy at home and enable Canada to be a credible actor in all-important international arenas, where human rights treaties are the only counter-balancing force to military might and blunt economic power.   

--Kathy Vandergrift


  1. I find your reflections here quite fascinating. Academics speak a great deal about the liberal framework of politics and political institutions in N. America. "Rights" would be, I have assumed, part and parcel of that liberal koine. But your piece seems to suggest that "rights talk" is part of our discursive koine to be sure but that what that talk is about is not "rights" at all but rather political advantage, because our acceptence of "rights talk" as part of our shared political lexicon does not include a consensus on what it is to be deployed to speak about. So do we have to agree on a field of human existence which rights talk properly names? Would agreement on an overlapping partial field be enough (but then what about the areas of disagreement?)? What level of consensus would in your view enable "a more thoughtful discourse about human rights?"

  2. You pose an interesting question, Bob, and I spent some time thinking about it before I wondered whether discourse is necessarily about consensus. Certainly discourse is often aimed at the hope for consensus, but sometimes, particularly with very difficult or contentious issues, I wonder whether we try to move too quickly for a consensus?

    Perhaps that is what you mean by "levels of consensus", since sometimes decisions must be made, even if they are tagged as only "temporary" decisions? Otherwise we reach an impasse. But perhaps we, as a society, need to spend a longer time discoursing on rights without consensus on rights? Particularly when different "rights" come into conflict with each other, I like your suggestion of "levels of consensus" in response to Kathy's call for a more thoughtful discourse. In my experience, aiming for eventual consensus while reaching a "provisional/ operative agreement" to try particular courses of action while maintaining open discourse about the matter at hand can have really positive effects, not only on building an eventual and real consensus, but also in understanding the matter on a deeper level--thus making it more likely that the consensus built has fruitful consequences.

  3. Allyson, this seems right. I also recognize my tendency to go for consensus prematurely. But in this instance I was trying to think through the implications of Kathy's piece. Were we as committed as a whole to rights talk being the right talk when dealing with the intersection of ethics and politics or was rights talk just another discursive pawn in the ancient chess match of power, its acquisition and [discursive] deployment. Your reframing of the implications actually helps me to be less cynical. There seems to be a consensus that rights talk is right talk but the consensus doesn't extend to cover the appropriate circumstances in which rights talk is appropriate and the proper way to talk about them. One place where we might debate is whether rights talk is in part energized by the spectre of eventual consensus or whether there is a legitimate and normative talk in dissensus that serves disputation and re-enforces certain kinds of difference (as occurs in wedge politics to name an odious example, can you name another and more positive example?

  4. Yes, I do think that there is a legitimate and normative talk "in dissensus" that serves disputation, though I would not necessarily point it toward "re-enforcing certain kinds of difference", because I think you are right to point out that tends to lead to wedge politics.

    If, on the other hand, we see true disputation not as an attempt to shout each other down or score rhetorical points to make oneself look better without adding anything to the discussion (as with wedge politics), we can be committed to seeing "disputation" as a dialogue in the best sense of the word, where some form of consensus is eventually reached. This form of disputation would be a process instead of an event, if that makes any sense. It is less likely to happen than wedge politics because it takes a lot longer and requires the commitment of all parties to the process, no matter how hotly they disagree. I hesitate to name a particular example, because I think there is a continuum between "wedge politics" on the one hand and the form of disputation I am describing on the other, but group identity comes to mind. About thirteen years ago as an undergrad I re-started a writer's group that had existed before, but had fallen apart. When we began meeting and began drawing members, some wanted to go back to the way it had been run before, where people would just come and read stories for comment, while others wanted to bring in workshops, run events, and come out with statements we had all agreed on about what it meant to be a writer. Another person wanted to involve the group in political discussion and urged that we write literature condemning particular political parties/groups. Yet another couldn't care less about politics, but wanted to ban poetry from the meetings as "inconsequential dribble" while the three poets who had started coming were incensed and began clamoring for more time and freedom from poetic persecution. A writer of horror was struggling with whether his religious convictions should prevent him from writing horror and wanted issues like that discussed. How to mediate among all these concerns of the members? All of us wanted to remain part of the group, and all of us had our own ideas of what the group's identity should look like. Luckily, the majority of us were committed to hearing each other out and talking it through, and over the course of three years we came to a configuration of the group that seemed to work well, and continued functioning even well after we had left the school. During those three years we still met weekly and continued functioning alongside our disputes, while keeping the discussion of the identity of the group going.

    So that's my more positive example (and I'm sorry it's so long winded!) Does that answer what you were getting at?

  5. "Speaking the truth in love" is one of the wisdom sayings around talking from different and opposing points of view. But even in such a wisdom framework the idea is to testify to the world as one sees it in order that another can see it too, if only as a plausible alternative to one's own viewpoint. So to agree that rights talk is right talk is not inconsiderable. But to disagree on what rights are and in what contexts they are to be invoked and what work such invocations are to do, seems to me a mighty limitation on the effectiveness of rights talk. Rights become far too slippery and in being that way, they become vulnerable to appropriation for partisan political gain. So the question for me is how we work to increase the level of consensus around what we mean by rights, what we think are the proper circumstances in which to invoke the existence of rights, and the work such invocations are to do. I wonder if anything less than consensus around these things will successfully foreclose on rights talk being an instrument for partisan political gain rather than a contribution to the common good.