Invoking Rights…for Human Beings

Armando Chaguaceda

Photo by Ihosvanny

After a prolonged break imposed by one of those terrible “occupational diseases” (tendinitis), I am now returning to this column with Havana Times and am filled with the desire to share my ideas and experiences.

Some of these were born out of my initial involvement in the course “Human Rights from Below: Contributions by Counter-Hegemonic Social Movements toward the Construction of Alternative Paradigms,” a satisfying initiative in virtual education by the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO).  Working within that body for one month, I shared knowledge with academics and activists from the Caribbean, and Central and South America.

As a Cuban, I come from a country where the issue of human rights is the object of outlooks that are much too slanted, and manipulated, both on the part of the government and its opponents.  Moreover, this is an issue about which the public is largely ignorant; one needs only mention the phrase “human rights” in a public place for it to cause reactions of fear and suspicion.

Because of this I was seduced by the idea of “educating myself” in a forum that combined the basic call for human rights (so necessary for Cubans) with the experiences of social struggles – ones that are fought in contexts where the legitimacy reached by talk of human rights collides with the concrete and dehumanizing outcomes of neo-liberal policies.

Human rights can be defined as group of basic rights that define a person’s condition and their dignity as such.  They take on judicial and cultural forms that evolve depending on the context, militancy, values and world vision of the subject and their society.

They can legitimize the exclusion of large majorities —through speeches and practices that instrumentalize or restrict rights for the benefit of the powerful— or transcend institutions and those who are dominant.

As a field of battle between emancipatory and dominant projects, human rights are expressed in instruments such as the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (UN, 1948) or the “Universal Declaration of the Rights of People” (Algiers, 1976), which are fruits of popular and national liberation struggles over the last two hundred years and part of the cultural patrimony of civilization.

Our discussions during the course have been fascinating.  In our chats we have come to understand that the “South” today is not reduced to a geographical location, because it spans multiple forms of subordination (economic exploitation as well as ethnic, racial, gender and other similar categories of oppression) associated with neo-liberal globalization.

States, as much as people, are the subjects of numerous civil rights, as well as political, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights that go beyond formal written law.  These become law as they unfold, with significant processes, organizations and social leaders (such as the Haitian Revolution, various social movements, Gandhi, Martin Luther King) having generated new norms and practices.

Vision of rights from above

Historically, definition has come “from above” in forming a vision of “universal rights” that ignore different, unequal and culturally diverse contexts.  States assume the monopoly of the writing, orientation and interpretation of the national and international judicial norms through “legal rationality” based on suppositions of legitimacy, neutrality, equality and universality.

This modern law, with its idea of coercion and State control, pushed away the social movements of law and valued justice as a factor with few transformational possibilities.  Until the beginning of the 20th century it was embodied in a liberal matrix that de facto considered “citizens” —effective holders of rights— only to be men, whites, owners and the literate, while ignoring the other subordinate sectors of society.

Institutions of so-called global governance (e.g. the UN and its agencies) continue not to be very suitable settings for constructive and symmetrical debate between actors.  That focus relies on a solution to the problems of globalization through networks of collaboration between corporations and civil associations, ignoring the asymmetries of power between these actors and considering the much celebrated “public sphere” as a depoliticized space that blocks the collective action of those who are excluded.

Counter-hegemonic globalization supposes the construction of a “subordinate cosmopolitan legality,” a union of theory and practice that testifies and gathers non-state expressions of social regulation based on the multiplicity of actors: marginalized communities and movements, and intellectual heretics.

This focus calls for the substitution of institutions and dominant discourse, and it implies analytic effort (studying official judicial systems along with alternative judicial norms) as well as other policies that promote the voices of the victims of neoliberal globalization: indigenous peoples, landless campesinos, poor women, workers and undocumented immigrants.

Laws defined by correlation of forces

Judicial instruments are a mirror of the order they seek to defend and develop to the degree that the law is the product of the correlation of forces in society and reflects (along with the institutional system) the interests of the dominant classes.

However, avoiding false radicalisms, it is not possible to classify all law as bourgeois since this also reflects the tensions between classes and sectors in society, which acquire an important value in criticizing the lack of guarantees and freedoms in societies subjected to authoritarian and repressive processes and under military, oligarchical or bureaucratic dictatorships.

Even with its deficiencies, the existing international system of human rights has become a juridical framework for counter-hegemonic action, and its instruments can be used creatively to deepen emancipatory actions whenever these are complements to social organization and mobilization.

We are conducting the current struggle for true counter-hegemony so that transnational capital does not dominate our lives (controlling access to water, food or knowledge) and so that States (their allies) lose the monopoly to grant or defend rights since too often they do not fulfill their duties and violate the rights of their citizens.

The construction of the new human rights paradigm understands that “sovereignty” is constantly questioned by the non-definition of geographical-institutional borders and by the globalization of cultures, and is manipulated by global and national powers against non-conformist movements.

That does not expressly mean forming permanent opposition against any government, but in fact defending a differentiated and autonomous approach by social movements to prevent the struggle for counter-hegemony from leading to the establishment of a new “avant-garde” hegemony on behalf of “the masses.” But that will be theme of upcoming posts.