On Human Rights; an interview

Conducted at the US Human Rights Network December 2011 Conference in Los Angeles

1.  How, specifically, are Human Rights defined and shaped by social movements today, (i.e. Rights of Indigenous, Rights of Mother Earth)?

NAJI: I dont think that Human Rights (HR) are defined and shaped by social movements; I don’t agree with that assessment. I think that Human Rights (with regard to international law, etc.) are a co-optation of peoples struggles. I don’t necessarily think that that is a bad thing… it just is what it is. I think social movements may provide the inspiration or the impetus, but once the government or NGOs take it on, ultimately, they are the ones that shape and define it. I conclude this from my Western-centered vantage point, perhaps social movements elsewhere have had more direct influence, but in the US, I think it has been somewhat minimal.

I’m not familiar with the struggles that led to the two examples you mentioned, however, I think that there were genuine peoples movements that pushed the issue to the fore. Examples of peoples movements effecting change with regards to Human Rights, are most likely going to be found outside of the US. It is my opinion, that the claimed successes of peoples movements in the US are somewhat exaggerated. However, the (white) populist struggles of the early 20th century were exceptional. These struggles led to a lot of gains as far as labor and workers rights are concerned. The Women’s Lib movements and suffrage movements were also successful. White movements [tend] succeed; Black ones [usually] only give the illusion of success.  It doesn’t take long for the same issues that they address to morph into some other related form of oppression or discrimination.  That’s why Black people have been fighting for the same things [for the most part] since slavery ended.

2.  Briefly what brought about the social movements in this country that led to the adoption of civil and political rights.  Why was that revolutionary in the context of the Original American Constitution and why was important for those in power in this country to allow Civil and Political rights and not Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights?

NAJI: The creation of the UN (1945) and the writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), was a response to the end of World War II (1945). At that time, because of the Holocaust and other atrocities against various European peoples, the world wanted to ensure that nothing like that ever happened again. However, if I’m not mistaken, input from Black and Brown countries did directly influenced the process. Human Rights then, developed as means for the European powers to exercise moral superiority over others. The split between Civil and Political Rights and Economic Social and Cultural Rights came as a result of the burgeoning Cold War and a power struggle between Communist Russia (proponent of ESCR) and the United States (proponent of CPR). Its really not my understanding that the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) was particularly revolutionary. With regards to the ICCPR and the Constitution, one of the reasons that the US got behind it was because it is inherently aligned with the Constitution; much more so than the International Covenant of Economic Social and Cultural Rights which the US has yet to sign.

3.  What are the benefits of a human rights paradigm? i.e. proactive and positive rights, state obligations?

NAJI: In theory, I think that the benefits have a tremendous upside. If smaller countries can acquire more influence and power within the UN. For the US specifically, because the US promotes itself as the beacon of liberty and moral superiority in the world, it is a means to hold them accountable for their proclamations. The civil rights struggles didnt gain traction until the abuses perpetrated against African-Americass became international knowledge and it exposed the hypocrisy of this country. I’m not aware of any cases where international HR has been used in court to anyones advantage. Creating a culture of positive rights would be a welcomed change, but in this country, you have a significant push towards cutting back social welfare programs.

4.  How is the HR framework elitist, and why even still should social movements adopt it?

NAJI: It is elitest because of its use and cooptation by former colonial countries. Most often, rather than being a tool for the people to use to protect themselves from government repression and negligence, it is used by more powerful (Western or NATO) countries against their former colonial subjects or enemies. Nevertheless, it should still be used because it has potential. Also, we dont have much else, unless we’re ready to kill and be killed. The state exercises power and authority because of its monopoly on violence. So unless groups are prepared to challenge that monopoly, it is only prudent to try to use existing channels to our advantage.

5.  Why is it important from a solidarity standpoint for social movements in this country to adopt HR in their work from the perspectives of social movements around the world?

NAJI: Because, the world needs to see that the same struggles going on around the world are going on within the US. The US has the same unresolved problems that it claims to be going around the world to solve and admonishing other countries about. The hypocrisy of the US government must be made clear to everyone, including those within the US.

6.  Why do HR mean something substantive for real people?

NAJI: Because the majority of the issues speak to the basic needs of people, that’s why they’re called “Human” rights, it is really indicative of the miserable state of the world and so-called civilization. HR are bare minimum standards for human equity and dignity; it shouldn’t even be a question. The rights don’t lack substance, the application of those rights lacks substance. Its the fear that we could go through all this trouble, but not receive the benefit. But that doesn’t mean the human rights struggle lacks substance, it means the legal and judicial system do; but thats another issue.’


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