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Human Rights Scholars


Thursday saw the first meeting of my Human Rights Scholars Seminar, and it’s taken me a few days to mull over the readings and the discussion.

Our texts* were critiques of the entire human rights corpus (HRC); the general gist was that the human rights movement (HRM) was a new form of colonialism.

This was hardly a new argument to me. The patronising, ‘let’s save the African/Chinese/Mexican children’ attitude that you can run into every day in the streets wherever there is a liberal arts college seems to me to at least partly prove the point, and there are a few of those people taking part in the seminar, whose response to the critique was solely, ‘Well, no, in my experience as an activist… No, it’s just not true… You can’t label… You know, it’s just not true.’

But some more cogent people managed to raise a substantial point: that these people are the misinformed do-gooders who do not form the larger population of human rights scholars/advocates. Those actually serious about working in the field are fully aware of the ‘savage-victim-saviour’ (SVS) mindset that is a significant pitfall waiting to trap them. And I hope that this is true and that those running Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are aware of and avoiding the pitfall.

But that doesn’t seem to answer the larger critique: the West (particularly the US nowadays), still makes the rules and plays at being the bully in the school playground. China, Africa, Latin America, all these places need to pay lip-service to the West’s formulation of the HRC because otherwise there will be much head-shaking and reproval from the West. There is no larger forum where global inequalities do not make themselves felt and influence countries’ responses to human rights instruments. We can hardly deny that the West is bolstering up the savage-victim-saviour image of human rights issues when, for example, we see the US sweeping into Iraq to ‘save’ the people and ‘repair’ the country, committing their own atrocities in the process.

The criticisms of the HRM and the SVS mindset remain unsettling and unanswered; perhaps they are unanswerable because they conflate the saviour and the savage, and no Western mind can possibly disentrench itself from its own cultural milieu to see the full implications or properly rebut the criticism.

* Texts, for those interested:

Makau wa Matua – Savages, Victims and Saviors: the Metaphor of Human Rights

Jack Donnelly – The Relative Universality of Human Rights


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