Sunday, March 12, 2006

Human Rights Crisis?

Milosevic's death (or rather, his death prior to conviction) and the UN HRC problems (this article is vague, hopefully more will be out soon) are an interesting news pairing. Is there a crisis in human rights? I know very little about human rights theory, besides the fact that some in France (Benny-Levy? Furet? See, I know nothing) have criticized it as an inadequate basis for freedom and equality. The US also seems to be totally uninterested in supporting its enforcement, to the point where it doesn't really disturb a lot of Americans that we're breaking those rules. (To be fair, the BBC story doesn't say what the US objections are--maybe they want more sweeping reforms than others do?) This seems a fairly popular way to think about foreign policy from a non-realist perspective. Do we need another way? What are the alternatives?

One idea I'm toying with, and considering sharing with my students: Europe bases much of its postwar (or maybe post-cold war) self-image on being anti-genocide. Which is a fine thing to be, except that it has the annoying side effect of pissing off lots of Muslims, many of whom see their situation as comparable to what happened to Jewish Europe in 1940-45. I don't happen to agree with them, but to privilege genocidal oppression over versions of colonial and post-colonial oppression seems, shall we say, a little path dependent. Or to be less charitable: suspiciously convenient, from a European perspective.

The usual way this question gets raised is this: why does no-one rally to support Holocaust deniers like David Irving, but when it's a matter of anti-Muslim cartoons everyone jumps on board the free speech bandwagon? Andre Glucksmann says it's a matter of truth (the Holocaust was a fact) versus belief (Islam is merely a religion.) I think this is wrong: the idea of "the Holocaust" as a historical object is a construction that (if I'm right about Europe using it to ground its identity) is just as motivated by political and social reality as is the Muslim religion. I realize I need to be careful here: I don't doubt for a second that 6,000,000+ people died, nor that their deaths were willed by Nazi leaders, nor even that this was unprecedented and a crucial event in human history. I just question whether we can neatly separate that event as a genocide from the thousand other atrocities of the period or even now. Especially considering the Eastern European context, it's fair to say that there were other factors in play. It was genocide, but it wasn't JUST a genocide, and to pretend that's all it was is to let ourselves off to easily. "Never again" has become a sick joke at this point--let's be honest with ourselves.

I would prefer a lower bar for going after human rights abuses--Milosevic's trial would have been faster had people been less concerned with convincing everyone he was the reincarnation of Hitler and more concerned with pinning him with every one of his individual crimes. That would make the reconciliation process easier, probably. Tough in the case of Milosevic, who was less directly involved than Karadic and Mladic. I'll hold off dancing on Milosevic's grave and pray instead that they get those two.

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