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The Endtimes of Human Rights, by Stephen Hopgood

Conor Gearty on an impassioned attack on ‘imperialism disguised as moralism’

This is a provocative, angry book – and an important one. Stephen Hopgood’s argument is that the “vast superstructure of international human rights law and organization is no longer ‘fit for purpose’”. This is because the “deep norms that sustain this superstructure are under attack as never before by conservative nationalist and religious forces”. The normal human rights reaction to this is: “We need to fight back.” Not Hopgood. He argues not only that it would not work, but also that (more to the point) it is not worth doing. A shift “in the distribution of power globally, away from a unipolar American-led system toward a more multi-polar world, has revealed just how much Human Rights institutions rely on liberal state power and its reinforcement by the middle classes who staff and finance humanist organizations”.

Human rights are not and never have been something special, a truth hovering above the fray of normal politics, Hopgood contends. Rather, they are a creature of 19th-century European humanism, part of that era’s “revolution in moral sentiments” – itself a consequence of “contradictions within scientific and industrial progress” that threatened revolution. It is from this fertile soil that the “three branches of the humanist tree we now call humanitarianism, human rights, and international justice all grew”. But the end times are on their way, with “pushback…not just from states in the international system that feel empowered to defy the international community (Syria, Uzbekistan, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Israel, Sudan) but also from the hugely confident major powers: China, Russia, Brazil, India”. In Hopgood’s view, they are right (or at least not wrong) to dump this human rights lark, an imperialism in the guise of moralism that was once good, then quaint and is now just an industry.

The larger the NGO is, the greater the likelihood that it has been tamed by capital, existing to raise money rather than raising money to exist

The book delivers its message via a series of attacks on pretty well every sacred cow in the human rights church (Hopgood uses the religious metaphor for human rights a lot – and he is clearly not keen on religion). With the Red Cross (all those stern Swiss Protestants) we see the “displacement of Christ’s sacrifice in favour of human suffering” that was “the first step in the sacralization of humanity” – but so ponderously protective of itself was this organisation that it – infamously – “did not speak out publicly about the Holocaust, in order to protect its ‘aura of moral leadership’”. The Holocaust itself is next in Hopgood’s sights, in particular the manufacture of its “sacred metanarrative” and the transformation of the whole idea into a subset of US foreign policy (eg, the Obama administration’s “Atrocities Prevention Board”). A marvellous interlude on the “moral architecture of suffering” reflects on the child as the image of choice in the industry (always “the passive and innocent victim” screening out “context, specificity, responsibility, agency”) before critiquing with savage power the various buildings with which the human rights industry has long sought to impose itself: edifices without culture, community or context constructed to defy the real world it seeks (in the interests of one faction but ostensibly in the name of good) to contain.

The chapter on the US (“Human rights were, in effect, foreign policy for non-Americans”) makes an understandable meal out of that country’s hypocrisy in its application of the humanist ideal that fell to it to police after Europe’s post-Second World War decline. The book is particularly good on the link between human rights and liberalism, and how the larger the human rights non-governmental organisation is, the greater the likelihood that it has been tamed by capital, existing to raise money rather than raising money to exist. The final two substantive chapters exceed even the author’s earlier high levels of vitriol in the scorn they pour on the International Criminal Court (all those Africans who must play their part in Europe’s lies to itself about global power) and, even worse, the charade of “Responsibility to Protect” under which Western power now justifies to its squeamish citizenry the killing of foreigners and the grabbing of other people’s loot.

This is a disturbing read, the anger driving the narrative, the passion evident in every paragraph. You can almost hear the author shouting for years at the newspaper every day, “all lies, lies – I’ll write about this some day”. Well, now he has. Does it matter that by condemning so completely the idea of human rights he will be popular in all those countries whose pushback he (almost) celebrates – the Cambodias, Chinas and Uzbekistans – where no doubt he would be a celebrated visiting lecturer? Not in the least: freedom of thought takes you where the mind goes, regardless of the consequences. But the book does not give a full picture of human rights, hinting only now and again at a different side to the story that – not fitting the bill – is invariably set aside.

There is nothing here on the way in which human rights law has played havoc with European military power, such as the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg forcing the right to life and the prohibition on torture on to the agenda in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor do those remarkable global citizens who as unpaid United Nations human rights experts travel the world highlighting gross injustices receive any credit: people such as Raquel Rolnik, who so angered the UK government over the “bedroom tax”, Magdalena Sepúlveda (poverty) or (in the dark days after 2001) Martin Scheinin on terrorism. Opposition movements in vilely governed states who grasp on to human rights in the way Václav Havel did 40 years ago (as a way of articulating a truthful vision of the future at a terrible time) are nowhere in this book, while the powerful are given free rein. In a disconcerting paragraph, we are told that trying to stop female genital mutilation is an “object lesson to the hubristic” supporters of human rights – “it remains deeply entrenched and legitimate among millions of African women who see it not as a physical assault on their daughters and granddaughters but as an identity marker and a key requirement for marriage”. Entrenched, yes – but “legitimate”, too? Hopgood gives the impression that the former leads to the latter. So should we repeal UK laws against the practice? If Hopgood’s view had always prevailed we’d still be bear-baiting, buying and selling humans and treating female partners as chattels.

He does accept that there is a subaltern tradition to human rights, which he honours with the lower case (“a non-hegemonic language of resistance”), while reserving his wrath for the Human Rights industry, the “norms, laws, courts, trials, conditional aid, international campaigns, funding” that cause such groups “to assume power in their own right, whatever their impact on the ground”. But Amnesty International (upper case Human Rights par excellence) is self-evidently going in the opposite direction, driving into the South and towards more local networks: “a pivotal test case”, Hopgood admits, and one that has “put increasing, and perhaps fatal strain” on the organisation. You almost feel he wants it to fail.

The author

Author Stephen Hopgood

Stephen Hopgood, reader in international relations at Soas, University of London, says, of The Endtimes of Human Rights, “I don’t think it is an angry book. In places I felt it was almost melancholic. I see my role as a tenured academic as being to provoke and question rather than to support accepted wisdom – to try to challenge a few myths. The worlds of human rights and humanitarianism are full of accounts that either mythologise the origins and practices of human rights, or are so full of caveats you aren’t sure what the author is arguing. As I explained it to a group of humanitarian activists in Berlin recently, I want to be convinced by them that I am wrong rather than to convince them that I am right. In this way, social movements become more grounded, coherent and stronger.

“I feel that human rights in particular is losing its way at the global level – often compliant with power, unduly narrow, and despite the best intentions of organisations such as Amnesty International, hard to make effective, democratic and accountable. Humanitarians are on the whole more comfortable with the inevitability of ongoing suffering and the tragic dimension to their work. Why shouldn’t human rights advocates be answerable for their choices and priorities? Why should they get a moral pass, particularly when they speak in the name of others who have no voice themselves?”

Asked whether he would agree that a flawed, Western, liberal, compromised, incomplete attempt to address misogyny, violence, repression and injustice around the world is better than none at all, he responds: “Not necessarily. It may make things worse. False hope may make local activists make choices that get them into more difficulty; it may enrage the state and other political and religious authorities and lead to a backlash. Why can the activists themselves not decide the priorities of such movements? Why does the funding from the West come with strings (and campaigning priorities) attached – a set of procedures and policies that on-the-ground human rights workers must observe?

He adds: “Local people have tremendous resources; we see, for example, in non-violent resistance movements that women are increasingly prominent and inventive about how they challenge power on all dimensions. These movements, embedded in people’s real lives, will be potentially far more sustainable than anything branded with Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. But the priorities of those local movements – how socially conservative they are, how they feel about order and justice, or retribution, or the death penalty, or abortion, or education, or welfare – may not be identical with those that Western non-governmental organisations promote. Real democracy must mean accepting a position that isn’t just your priorities turned into everyone’s priorities.”

Asked who will be most upset by this book, and whether he is bothered by the prospect, Hopgood responds: “Many human rights advocates will not like it at all, and there have already been reviews with titles like ‘Human rights deserve better than this diatribe’ by someone who didn’t appear to have read more than three pages of the preface. But within discussion groups, and some human rights organisations, there is a deep unease about how the world is changing, and this book will help focus that debate and refine its arguments, I hope, in a positive and productive way.

“It does bother me because, as I say very clearly in the preface, there are a huge number of human rights advocates doing extraordinary work in very difficult situations. But this is entirely different from globally branded NGOs and the International Criminal Court being built in The Hague. Coming from Soas, it is impossible not to take seriously the critique of Western norms that often look a lot like Empire-lite Christianity in terms of tone and content. The self-righteous hectoring by Western advocates is such a turn-off for vast numbers of people.”

Hopgood was born near Lincoln. “My father was an Air Force bomber pilot, so we moved around and eventually settled north of Swindon.”

“My parents made a rapid class ascent from rural life (my mother) and working-class life (my father), Swindon – a town almost entirely composed of incomers – exacerbating this M4 corridor sense of dislocation socially and geographically. It’s something I have always felt – alienated from all available social classes, unable to belong in a true sense to any of them.”

He adds: “My parents were natural Thatcherites (Mrs. Thatcher being a petit-bourgeois Lincolnshire girl made good), determined through force of will to better themselves rather than follow the collectivist route their parents had taken, which was Labour and socialism (the irony being Robert Maxwell stole my grandfather’s pension). Also, having a military father always made me hypersensitive about a certain kind of masculine authority that promised protection at the cost of subjugation.

Dividing his time between Oxford and London, Hopgood observes: “Oxford was where I went to graduate school and where my family have grown up. But it remains highly provincial, conservative in a deep sense, so working in London at Soas has always provided an antidote to the sense of malaise that can affect you in a city that is proud to claim it has remained more or less unchanged for 800 years.”

Where would he live if he had the choice? “Like many academics, I am torn between a small cottage in the dark woods where I can at last really get some work done, and the energy that comes from being in a major city. Getting the introvert-extrovert balance right is difficult. I could live in New York. And as I get older, the attractions of places where there is reliable sun and warmth increase. The tormented romantic aesthetic of cold, grey English rain eventually loses some of its charm and the thought of California becomes more seductive. One works out that there is enough suffering without inflicting it remorselessly on oneself. It’s okay to let in the sun.”

Of his early years, he recalls, “I was anything but a studious child, growing up in a small house where one could never escape from the sound of the television. I spent a huge amount of time in my own head, but almost never on schoolwork. I did very poorly at 16 and 18 and after odd jobs and night school and signing on for a while I trained in Cardiff as a journalist and worked on newspapers for several years. Eventually I got a place at Bristol as a mature student, then Oxford, and here I am. I always responded positively to praise and extremely negatively to criticism. The teachers I remember fondly are those who didn’t laugh when I said I wanted to go to university.

“When I did get to Bristol, three of my teachers – Vernon Hewitt, Mark Wickham-Jones and Nick Rengger – were life-transforming, because they took my gauche intellectual aspirations seriously and cultivated them. By the time I got to Nuffield College at Oxford, a remarkable institution for graduate research, I had started to feel like this was somewhere I could be at home. No one in my family had ever even been to university before.”

Soas, he says, is not simply an institution with an international focus. “Because it is organised in the main around the experience of Asia and Africa, the formerly colonised world, it is also highly critical, ensuring that we produce students who are questioning of the established order in an often radical way. There is also a strong Socialist Worker presence in the school. So it’s hard to think of any other UK university where things are livelier politically. This means that most of our students are passionate about the causes they are committed to, and they will all, in their own way, make a real difference in the world. We don’t produce many who are apathetic!”

Of his pastimes outside of work, Hopgood says: “I used to play a lot of football and cricket, but now I confess I mostly work. Being an academic is a strangely 24/7 occupation, its cost being long periods spent trapped inside your own head ignoring your other needs, and its benefit being that life is constantly fascinating because you have your own sort of Weberian re-enchantment machine on tap. It’s probably illusory, but it’s comforting all the same.”

Karen Shook

The Endtimes of Human Rights

By Stephen Hopgood
Cornell University Press, 272pp, £18.50
ISBN 9780801452376
Published 29 October 2013

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