Recovering the Human in Human Rights

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It is often said that human rights are the rights that people possess simply in virtue of being human – that is, in virtue of their intrinsic, dignity-defining common humanity. Yet, on closer inspection the human rights landscape doesn’t look so even. Once we bring perpetrators of human rights abuse and their victims into the picture, attributions of humanity to persons become unstable. In this essay, I trace the ways in which rights discourse ascribes variable humanity to certain categories of people. I set the stage for my discussion of the human in relation to human rights by examining John Locke’s account of the justification for punishment. For Locke, in committing a crime one abrogates one’s humanity and forfeits one’s rights. Likewise, I argue, human rights discourse takes a scalar view of humanity. I consider victims of genocide who are dehumanized as helpless and passive, victims of state persecution who are super-humanized as righteously agentic, and perpetrators of genocide who are dehumanized as out-of-control beasts. In each case I use relevant testimony to argue that the scalar view of humanity is factually incorrect and morally deplorable. For genocide victims, I discuss testimony that Selma Leydesdorff gathered from women who survived the Srebrenica massacre. For a victim of persecution, I discuss Liao Yiwu’s memoire of his detention and imprisonment in China because of his artwork protesting the Tiananmen Square massacre. For perpetrators of genocide, I discuss testimony Jean Hatzfeld gathered from Hutu men who systematically murdered Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide. Finally, I apply my critique of dehumanized and super-humanized victims and dehumanized perpetrators to the problem of transnational trafficking in persons and argue that the view I advocate necessitates reforming immigration policy with respect to persons trafficked into forced labor
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Archival date: 2014-05-19
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