By Dr. Christopher Carrico
The quote ‘History is written by the victors’ is normally ascribed to Winston Churchill. Even without the fact that Churchill is a person to whom a great deal of apocrypha has been attributed, he clearly was not the first person to conceive of this idea.
Walter Benjamin, a far lesser known figure than Churchill, also addressed the question of how the victorious write history: in his essay ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History.’ This dark essay, though one ultimately filled with faith and hope, was completed in the spring of 1940. Later in the same year, Benjamin was arrested by Spanish authorities while trying to flee Europe and Nazi persecution. Benjamin fully expected to be handed over to the German authorities and sent to the Nazi concentration camps. Instead of facing these horrors, he chose to commit suicide by overdosing on morphine.
About history, Walter Benjamin wrote ‘in every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.’ The only historians capable of inspiring hope are those who are ‘firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.’
The cultural histories of peoples who have been conquered become part of the spoils of the victors. Even in developing countries that celebrate their multiculturalism, there is the risk that official state-sponsored observances like Amerindian Heritage Month or Emancipation Day will become another way that those who have ‘won’ in these societies appropriate the culture of national minorities as part of the spoils of their victory. The bigger portions of these spoils, however, are collected in the museums and archives of Europe and America; in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.; they were in the World’s Fairs in London and in the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries, where ‘savages’ and ‘barbarians’ were brought from around the world and placed on view before the ‘civilised’ to show the inevitable linear progression of history towards its teleological end: Western civilisation. Documentation of the civilising mission of the West is always also a documentation of the barbarism that the West has carried out.
It is in this sense – the Janus-faced nature of imperial power (where they write history as if they were the rest of the world’s saviours) – that the critics of ‘human rights imperialism’ in fact have a valid point about how the notion of rights functions in the world today. Human rights organisations as they actually exist can sometimes be the 20th and 21st century equivalents of the Christian missions of the colonial era. Whatever the individual intentions of the missionaries, or of the human rights activists, their ideas help to form part of the justification for imperialism. Because feudalism, despotism, ignorance, and social backwardness exist in the world, the ‘enlightened’ West has a duty to civilise the rest. The West is called to carry, in Rudyard Kipling’s words, ‘The White Man’s Burden.’
There is an element of the appeal to human rights in every American imperial intervention of recent times. In the Iraq War, even after the world learned that Iraqis did not have weapons of mass destruction, the war was still justifiable on the grounds that Saddam Hussein was a dictator, and a gross violator of human rights.
In Afghanistan, the war is said to not just be about the ‘hunt for al Qaeda’ but also to be about the freedom of the people of Afghanistan. In particular, in fighting a war in Afghanistan, the US claims to be fighting against extreme forms of gender oppression, and other forms of cultural tyranny, not just against the Taliban.
The case against Iran has being built for years. The high profile sentencing of Sakine Mohammadi Ashtiana to be stoned to death for adultery will no doubt be used by imperialists as another reason why sanctions against (and possibly even an invasion of) Iran is the right thing for the ‘civilised’ world to do. The fact that in Iran, homosexuality is punishable by the death penalty will, no doubt, also be invoked as a justification.
The Cold War was full of instances that are similar to the ‘War on Terror’ in their ideological use. The terror and repression of socialist states was used as justification for taking preemptive action against left-leaning governments in the name of stopping the spread of communism.
The logic of the Cold War never totally went away, as we can clearly see in Latin American and the Caribbean. American-Cuban relations have still not been normalized; Hugo Chavez is presented in the American media as the South American equivalent of Saddam Hussein. The Chavez government was so harassed by human rights imperialism that they expelled foreign human rights groups from the country. Even Aristide was vilified as a human rights violator whenever he became inconvenient for the Bush administration in Washington to keep in power.
In addition to the fact that the human rights agenda always presents the danger of being hijacked as a justification for war and imperialism, there are other problems. The agendas of international agencies are not always what seem best from the point of view of local organisations. The funding streams that keep NGOs running severely limit what kinds of actions can be done to address problems in local settings. Organisations from the developing world often have a lack of autonomy to set their own agendas, and when they have fought for the space to set their own agendas, foreign organisations often take credit for the progress that has been made by action that came from the grassroots.
Organisations that are attempting to fight social problems in the developing world are going to need to develop more strategies that help them to move past the trap of the liberal democratic – human rights based paradigm. Real social movements are going to need to forcefully assert themselves again from the grassroots up, from the most marginalised and dispossessed, and not from NGOs who have lost the ability to be ‘movements’ because they are just a string of foreign-funded projects.
More activists around the world will have to recognise that taking your case to the UN in Geneva, or to the OAS, or to Copenhagen, may not be the most effective use of your time, energy and resources in creating real social change in your communities right now. Liberal human rights strategies, legalistic reforms, lawsuits against the government, etc. can be one part of an effective struggle for social change, but used alone, without the support of a broad-based movement to push government and society for change from below, there will not be an effective ‘revolution from above’ coming from the UN or the OAS, or from individual nation-states like the U.S., the U.K., Canada, or Norway.
By taking the internationalist human rights paradigm as the default setting in the world of social activism, activists have already admitted defeat before they have begun the struggle. They have done so by giving up the fight over local power and local conditions, by not taking seriously enough the power of their own nation-states, and the space of the nation-state as a site of struggle. They have given up hope of substantially transforming their own societies and governments from within, and hope, in vain, that outside ‘pressure’ from international bodies is what will save them at the end of the day.
Finally, an appeal to the liberal human rights paradigm requires that those who seek redress in this manner perpetuate their identities as victims instead of taking concrete steps to empower themselves in practical ways in the local and the national context.
In the end, the issue at stake in the absolute hegemony of a single model of how to achieve human justice in the world has less to do with the universality of liberal democratic values, and has more to do with the failure of earlier projects of liberation to be successfully carried out. If national liberation struggles, the struggle for socialist construction, or the struggles for co-operative or communist societies had been successful, then appealing to the international bodies that are designed around the Washington Consensus model of liberty and formal equality would not seem like the only option that activists have when entering a struggle to end inequality and to expand the space for human freedom in the world.
What are we left with? A struggle on two fronts. First, a struggle against reactionaries: people who defend their power and privilege as a part of their culture and customary rights, people who condone or look the other way at violence against the vulnerable, people who explain away and rationalise extra-judicial killings, people who assert things like ‘homosexuals ought to be beheaded.’ But there is also a struggle on a second front that needs to be fought: a struggle against international capitalists who are glad to have those reactionaries around, because they give them the excuse to do everything possible to undermine any kind of autonomy that might be possible at the local or national level.