On the Critique of Human Rights

From this specific insight, we should move on to the general level and consider the problem of the very depoliticized humanitarian politics of „Human Rights“ as the ideology of military interventionism serving specific economic-political purposes. As Wendy Brown argues apropos of Michael Ignatieff, such humanitarianism „presents itself as something of an antipolitics — a pure defense of the innocent and the powerless against power, a pure defense of the individual against immense and potentially cruel or despotic machineries of culture, state, war, ethnic conflict, tribalism, patriarchy, and other mobilizations of instantiations of collective power against individuals.“ […]

What happens to Human Rights, then, when they are reduced to the right of Homo sacer, of those excluded from the political community, reduced to „bare life“ — that is to say, when they become useless since they are the rights of those who, precisely, have no rights, are treated as inhuman? Here Rancière suggests a very striking dialectical reversal:

    when they are of no use, you do the same as charitable persons do with their old clothes. You give them to the poor. Those rights that appear to be useless in their place are sent abroad, along with medicine and clothes, to people deprived of medicine, clothes, and rights. It is in this way, as the result of this process, that the Rights of Man become the rights of those who have no rights, the rights of bare human beings subjected to inhuman repression and inhuman conditions of existence. They become humanitarian rights, the rights of those who cannot enact them, the victims of the absolute denial of right. For all this, they are not void. Political names and political places never become merely void. The void is filled by somebody or something else. … If those who suffer inhuman repression are unable to enact Human Rights that are their last recourse, then somebody else has to inherit their rights in order to enact them in their place. This is what is called the „right to humanitarian interference“ — a right that some nations assume to the supposed benefit of victimized populations, and very often against the advice of the humanitarian organizations themselves. The „right to humanitarian interference“ might be described as a sort of „return to sender“: the disused rights that had been sent to the rightless are sent back to the senders.

So, to put it in Leninist terms: what the „Human Rights of suffering Third World victims“ actually means today, in the predominant Western discourse, is the right of Western powers themselves to intervene — politically, economically, culturally, militarily — in Third World countries of their choice on behalf of the defense of Human Rights. A reference to Lacan’s formula of communication (in which the sender gets back from the receiver-addressee his own message in its inverted — that is, true — form) is absolutely relevant: in the reigning discourse of humanitarian interventionism, the developed West is, in effect, getting back from the victimized Third World its own message in its true form. And the moment Human Rights are depoliticized in this way, the discourse about them has to resort to ethics: reference to the prepolitical opposition of Good and Evil has to be mobilized. Today’s „new reign of Ethics,“ clearly discernible in, for example, Michael Ignatieff’s work, thus relies on a violent gesture of depoliticization, of denying the victimized other any political subjectivization.

Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 339, 341.


1 Antwort auf „On the Critique of Human Rights“


  1. Gravatar Icon 1 Name notwendig 08. Januar 2008 um 19:19 Uhr

    Ja, Zizek ist toll. Gibt’s aber auch auf deutsch…

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