This paper is an excerpt from a much longer chapter in the forthcoming book on People-Centered Human Rights.
“Ours is the age of rights. Human rights is the idea of our time, the only political-moral idea that has received universal acceptance.”
― Louis Henkin
This quote from Louis Henkin, the venerable international legal scholar and passionate advocate for human rights, represents both the promise and the contradictory limitations of the human rights idea. For Professor Henkin and most of the human rights establishment, the universality of human rights is uncontested. The dominant values, assumptions, legal framework, research methodologies, forms of advocacy, institutional expressions and norm-setting processes that developed over the last six decades of the “modern” human rights period are seen as a natural evolution of progressive global relations.
However, it is my contention that this view, historically decontextualized and cleansed of the nasty and brutish influences of power, race and ideology, grossly distorts the political character of the human rights project. What is projected as an apolitical, neutral human rights project is instead a partial and—for people suffering from global structures of oppression—politically-limited project and framework. The human rights idea and project is not innocent. It emerged in its modern expression as a contested idea at a historical moment when the assumptions, world-views and social practices of Western, liberal, white supremacist, patriarchal, colonial-capitalist states were dominant. The result was that the human rights framework and methods of practice that emerged and were projected as universal truths were informed by the very specific experiences, needs and world-views of those states and their intellectual elites.
This does not mean that the dominant human rights framework lacks value. Like all social processes, the human rights regime and idea is contradictory. On one hand, it represents a significant development towards real human liberation, but its vision and possibilities are limited because it also serves as an ideologically-driven instrument for rationalizing and maintaining the dominance of the Western colonial/imperialist project.
What this means for people(s) committed to radical social justice work is that this dominant worldview and the practices that flow from it ideologically “naturalize” a liberal, pro-Western conception of human rights, freeze structures of oppression in place, and privilege an elite form of human rights practice that emphasizes state-centric, legalistic and legislative advocacy.
This knowledge was one of the foundations of the project to build the U.S. Human Rights Network (USHRN), where we introduced, within the context of the U.S., the notion of a people-centered approach to human rights practice (PCHR) that could serve as an alternative approach to human rights praxis in the U.S.
Ten years later, significant progress has been made toward the development of an authentic, independent human rights movement grounded in the interests and perspectives of the oppressed. Many activists have embraced PCHR language as part of their discourse on human rights. However, the organizational forms, strategies and political content of much of the human rights activism in the U.S. still suggest that more conversations on this approach and its radical implication for human rights praxis is needed. I am offering this discussion paper as part of that conversation.
The analysis and framework that I offer in this paper has been informed by more than forty years of social justice activism with more than twenty-five of those years involved in human rights movement building work in the U.S. and abroad.
What is a people-centered approach to human rights theory and practice?
PCHRs are those non-oppressive rights that individuals and collectives define and secure for themselves through social struggle that reflects the highest commitment to human dignity and social justice for themselves and all humanity.
The feature that distinguishes the people-centered framework from all of the prevailing schools of human rights theory and practice is that it is based on an explicit understanding that to realize the full range of the still developing human rights idea requires: 1) an epistemological break with a human rights orthodoxy grounded in Euro-centric liberalism, 2) a reconceptualization of human rights from the standpoint of oppressed groups, 3) a restructuring of prevailing social relationships that perpetuate oppression and 4) the acquiring of power on the part of the oppressed to bring about that restructuring.
As opposed to the fraudulent claims of being “non-political” and value neutral made by mainstream human rights practitioners and organizations, PCHRs is a political project that has identified all forms of oppressive relations, including capitalism, neoliberalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism and imperialism, as structural and ideological constraints on the ability to realize the full range of human rights.
The Ethical and Conceptual Framework of People-centered Human Rights:
• The PCHR approach recognizes the contingent and contested nature of the human rights framework. The meaning and content of what are recognized as human rights are to be determined by the people—not State elites.
The rarefication of the human rights framework, cognitively connected to Western liberalism and in practical terms to positive legalism, or state-centered treaty processes, engenders a top-down and conservative understanding of the scope of available human rights and the process for human rights norm-setting and potential for transformative politics. The documentation, advocacy and activism of mainstream human rights activists is usually informed by and limited to the language of human rights treaties and the authoritative interpretation of that language by treaty monitoring bodies and judicial authorities. Issues of “justiciability” and State ratification of human rights treaties are, therefore, central concerns for these activists because they provide the legal and normative framework for accessing State compliance.
The PCHR approach to human rights activism does not limit itself to a national legal regime or to the normative standards reflected in international human rights treaties, covenants or declarations. While this approach recognizes the importance of these texts and the legal and ethical principles implied in them, the ultimate meaning of the language in the texts, the scope of rights that will be recognized, and the modalities for rights implementation, are an evolving process whose final determination is dependent on popular political struggles and societal dispensations of power. This is not to say that the PCHR approach lacks a “foundation” or source of legitimacy—nor is it arguing for moral relativity. The approach simply recognizes a different foundation, source of legitimacy and moral authority – that of the people’s positive struggle for social justice.
• Based on the popular needs and democratic aspirations of the people. A “people- centered” human rights praxis uses Black feminist intersectional analysis to anchor its social justice demands and liberatory program on the sectors of the population who live at the intersection of multiple oppressions. In the US, this suggests that the objective conditions, experiences, needs and perspectives of working class and poor African American, Latino and Native women must be a central component of a radical human rights program. Continue reading