“People-centered” human rights as a framework for social transformation
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.
In order for human rights work to have legitimacy and a real popular base, it must be guided by a bottom-up, participatory, democratic process informed by the subjugated knowledge and experiences of the oppressed. International human rights advocacy by NGOs that is not connected to or guided by the people—and the issues that impact the people they claim to be speaking on behalf of—lacks legitimacy and in some cases may be working at cross-purposes to the people being directly impacted by human rights abuses. This is both a practical concern and an issue of principle. PCHRs’ “centers,” as a matter of principle and programmatic orientation, the experiences of oppressed people through a conscious effort to reflect, in structures, organizing and programmatic activities, the physical presence and political control (agency) of the people.
The analytical lens that the people-centered approach uses to apprehend reality and construct programmatic work is informed theoretically by the Black feminist methodological construction known as intersectionality. The intersectional approach to organizing involves recognizing what Patricia Hill Collins calls the “matrix of domination” – the interwoven and interlocking ways in which race, class and gender oppressions exist, support, and break down all forms of oppression simultaneously. As an analytical framework, intersectionality provides a lens for seeing how “intersections of race and class, or race and gender, or sexuality and class, for example, shape any group’s experiences across specific social contexts.” So while an intersectional perspective rejects the notion of a “hierarchy of oppression,” a human rights framework that is not informed by the experiences, needs and realities of the sectors of society that experience the most intense negative confluence of gender, race and class oppression will always be partial and illusionary.
• Consistently anti-oppression and employ a human rights based lens to all social policy.
The anti-oppression lens that informs and guides the people-centered approach is uncompromising on the issue of oppression. When we identify oppression as the enemy, we are not talking about a benign force. Oppression by its very nature is defined by a dominant/subordinate structural relationship that prevents the full realization and development of the human potential of the oppressed. Therefore, any talk of human rights that does not address the reality and consequences of oppression has little relevance to people actively engaged in the struggle to liberate themselves. The de-contextualized highlighting of individual violations as if they are occurring in a vacuum, which is the methodology of mainstream human rights documentation and advocacy, inevitably misses the systemic basis of most, if not all, human rights abuses.
• Internationalist and recognize the interconnections and interrelationship of local and global issues and processes.
The PCHR process effectively addresses the issue of “translation” of human rights from global principles and processes to local realities by inverting that process and injecting new meanings and possibilities into “human rights.”
The demands for public services, the right to organize, the fight for a living wage, de-militarization of communities, ending discriminatory hiring practices against transgender people (especially transgendered “people of color”), ending policies of internal displacement because of mega-development projects, stopping paramilitary violence (George Zimmerman phenomenon), halting FBI infiltration and disruption of lawful organizations—these are but a few of the local demands that are being reconceptualized as human rights demands locally, but are also being seen as fundamentally linked to the global fight for working class power, self- determination and individual and collective dignity. This reformulation, emerging out of practice and reflection from the bottom-up, is at the heart of the PCHR process for human rights.
• Transformative and proceeds from the position that the struggle for human rights and dignity must move societies toward the establishment of social institutions, structures and social relationships that reflect a real commitment to human dignity and social justice.
The people-centered framework proceeds from the assumption that the genesis of the assaults on human dignity that is at the core of human rights violations is located in the relationships of oppression. Therefore, the realization of authentic freedom and human dignity can only come about as a result of the radical alteration of the structures and relationships that determine and deny human dignity. On the macro-level of society, if the structures and social relations ensure that the vast majority of the people are denied the full range of human rights, the logical and thus legitimate aim of a human rights movement is a radical transformation of those relationships, structures and the State that props up and defends the oppressive order. The legitimization of the struggle for power as an essential task of a human rights movement that is grounded by the interests of the oppressed is the one element that defines the difference between this approach and mainstream human rights practice.
For the PCHR approach, if society is structured and organized to degrade and dehumanize the individual and collectives, the demand for human rights, with its full spectrum of possibilities, is in essence a call for revolutionary transformation. The logic is this position is quite simple. Inequality, systematic discrimination, domination and marginalization cannot be reconciled with an idea of human rights that is informed by a commitment to the elimination of all forms of oppression. If oppressive relationships are reflected in the organization of society and the State, the task for human rights activists, in order to realize human rights, is to build alternative structures of power in order to transform those relationships –nothing short of this is acceptable from the view of the oppressed.
As a result of the cynical use of human rights by Western states, particularly the last two administrations in the U.S., there is deep dissatisfaction with the human rights idea. This is occurring right at the historical moment when the idea of human rights could provide an alternative ethical and policy guide for countering the global economic, political and social crises that governments and tens of millions of people are experiencing. Without a radical “de-colonization” of its basic tenets, methodologies and institutions, the orthodox human rights framework is unable to offer anything more than bland reforms and a “de-politicized” politics. The notion of a PCHR alternative presented in this discussion paper is only a modest attempt to move us in the direction toward the development of a more relevant and authentic human rights praxis.