Costas Douzinas has a lengthy (understatement) article in the Monthly Review that provides another take on humanitarianism and human rights. Weaving together moral philosophy, geopolitics, and much more, Douzinas offers a critique that would make Bono weep. I don’t feel nearly erudite enough to comment much more; you need to take 30 minutes out of your day to read it for yourself. Here are a couple key quotes:
The westerner used to carry the white man’s burden, the obligation to spread civilisation, reason, religion and law to the barbaric part of the world. If the colonial prototypes were the missionary and the colonial administrator, the post-colonial are the human rights campaigner and the NGO operative. Humanity has replaced civilisation. ‘The humanitarian empire is the new face of an old figure’ one of its supporters admits. ‘It is held together by common elements of rhetoric and self-belief: the idea, if not the practice, of democracy; the idea, if not the practice, of human rights; the idea, if not the practice, of equality before the law.’ The postmodern philanthropist, on the other hand, does not need to go to far-flung places to build clinics and missions. Globalisation has ensured that he can do that from his front room, watching TV images of desolation and atrocity and paying with his credit card. As Upendra Baxi puts it, ‘human rights movements organise themselves in the image of markets’ turning ‘human suffering and human rights’ into commodities.
The stakes of humanitarian campaigns are high. Positing the victim and/or savage other of humanitarianism we create humanity. The perpetrator/victim is a reminder and revenant from our disavowed past. He is the West’s imaginary double, someone who carries our own characteristics and fears albeit in a reversed impoverished sense. Once the moral universe revolves around the recognition of evil, every project to combine people in the name of the good is itself condemned as evil. Willing and pursuing the good inevitably turns into the nightmare of totalitarianism. This is the reason why the price of human rights politics is conservatism. The moralist conception both makes impossible and bars positive political visions and possibilities. Human rights ethics legitimises what the West already possesses; evil is what we do not possess or enjoy. But as Alain Badiou puts it, while the human is partly inhuman, she is also more than human. […]
We should reverse our ethical approach: it is not suffering and evil which define the good as the defence humanity puts up against its bad part. It is our positive ability to do good, our welcoming of the potential to act and change the world that comes first and must denounce evil as the toleration or promotion of the existent, not the other way around. In this sense, human rights are not what protects from suffering and inhumanity. Radical humanitarianism aims to confront the existent with a transcendence found in history, to make the human, constantly told that suffering is humanity’s inescapable destiny, more than human. We may need to sidestep rights in favour of right.