Chat with us, powered by LiveChat ASU Cultivating Multicultural Human Rights Embracing Cross Cultural Diversity Discussion - Uni Pal


the discussions that are part of the learning part of the course are low-stakes writings. What it means is that you do not have to give the right answer to get the full points. The purpose of these assignments is to facilitate reflection, discussion, and respectful exchange of arguments on the topics we are discussing. When debating a topic, keep in mind that our purpose here is to learn the different views and understand the arguments that people make to support them. Our purpose is not to decide who is right. We can leave the question of who is right for another day.For your convenience, I included the guidelines on how posts and replies are graded at the bottom. It may be a good idea to remind yourself of the expectations before delving into the discussion.Discussion Topic for this Module:Write a post in which you discuss the following two questions:1. Mutua suggests that “the Article is a plea for a genuine cross-contamination of cultures to create a new multicultural human rights corpus” (page 245). What are your thoughts about Mutua’s argument about the human rights narrative (make sure to explain what you take to be the important elements of Mutua’s claim)? Consider the following: during the World Cup in Qatar, a journalist posted a tweet about being denied entry to a game because he was wearing a pride shirt. In response, a Qatari person “As a Qatari I’m proud of what happened. I don’t know when will the westerners realize that their values aren’t universal. There are other cultures with different values that should be equally respected.” What can a “genuine cross-contamination of cultures” look like in this particular case?Let’s not forget that the West is not the spokesperson for humanity.2. What are your thoughts on the idea of standpoint theories? Do you think that marginalized people see social reality in a way that is different or better than people in privileged social positions? (try to give an example to illustrate your argument)Then, write replies to the posts of two other students. Make sure to engage their arguments and not just repeat your own (in particular, if you think that they did not understand the readings or your interpretation of the readings is different, make sure to point this out).How discussion posts are graded: In general, the purpose of the discussion board is to facilitate discussion on the readings by way of comparing them and thinking through their applications. Keep in mind that most of the learning in this course takes part through the guided readings and the discussion (so it is not enough to listen to the short lecture I provide!).The items that we read present complex arguments, so there is no single correct way to compare arguments or apply them. Nonetheless, there are more or less informed engagements with the readings. Keep in mind that your posts do not have to be conclusive. If you are not sure, explain why you are not sure. You don’t have to pick a side. You can also explain what you consider to be the strong arguments on each side. Posts are expected to be 2 – 3 paragraphs long and to be based on the readings. (longer posts are accepted. I do not count words but look at the depth of the quality of the engagement; do not just write stuff to meet the length requirements; engage the question and the readings in a meaningful way). Replies are expected to be 1 -2 paragraphs long.In some cases, it is possible to write an apparently coherent answer to the discussion question without mentioning (or doing) the reading at all. To be clear, this is not the right way to go about answering the discussion board. In general, posts that do not mention the readings directly or indirectly are expected to get 2-5 points out of the 10, based on the quality of the answer.It is also possible to engage the readings in a superficial way, for example by quoting one sentence from the readings, by mentioning only one of the items when the question asks to compare two or more, or by writing posts that are very short or very general. These kinds of replies are expected to receive 5-8 points based on the quality of the post.To get 9 or 10 points, posts have to answer the discussion prompt in a way that is meaningful and informed by the reading. It is important to emphasize that students can and should expect to get 10 points for their posts if they do the work. The posts are not expected to get everything accurate or to be masterpieces. It is okay to admit that some parts were difficult or that you are not sure that you got things right. Just share what you think you got. Once you submit your post, you can see what others have written and re-evaluate your own positions.7
Globalizing Global Justice
Margaret Kohn
In this chapter I argue that scholars who are concerned about global
justice should draw on perspectives from the global south. This claim
rests on a modified version of standpoint theory, which I explain and
defend. The term “global justice” describes normative theories about the
sources and extent of obligations to combat economic inequality, human
rights abuses, and poverty in poor countries. The title of one influential
article captures the core concern of this approach succinctly: what do we
owe to the global poor?1 Drawing on Kantian or utilitarian frameworks,
this literature urges people living in wealthy countries to examine their
obligations to distant others.
Before explaining the limitations of this approach, I want to
emphasize its value. This way of posing the question forces students
and scholars to consider themselves as agents who are at least partially responsible for the unfair distribution of burdens and benefits
in the world. There are different ways of construing this responsibility. Some writers describe the source of this responsibility as the
wealthy world’s failure to meet the basic needs of the poor, and
others emphasize that inequalities are actually produced by economic and political structures that benefit the privileged.2 These
philosophical arguments about responsibility call on the reader to
respond, to think about global poverty, and to think about it in a way
that gives it a sense of urgency and proximity. Furthermore, while
early contributions such as Peter Singer’s may have relied on problematic analogies and may have overlooked political and economic
analysis, this is much less true of recent debates, which have focused
Leif Wenar, “What We Owe to Distant Others,” Politics, Philosophy & Economics, 2/3
(2003), 283–304; Matthias Risse, “Do We Owe the Global Poor Assistance or
Rectification?” Ethics & International Affairs, 19/1 (2005), 9–18.
Thomas Pogge and Darrel Moellendorf (eds.), Global Justice: Seminal Essays (St. Paul,
MN: Paragon House, 2008).
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Margaret Kohn
on international institutions, structures, and the legacy of
Given the considerable strengths of the literature on global justice, why
are other perspectives important? One reason is that at least some analyses
of global justice fit into what Makau Mutua called the narrative of “victims, savages, and saviors,” a narrative that dehumanizes the poor,
obscures their agency, and legitimizes global institutions.4 It legitimizes
global institutions by depicting them as instruments of global justice and
overlooking the way they have secured rather than dismantled global
inequalities.5 According to Nancy Fraser, the dominant theories of global
justice are not adequate because they do not tell us how to proceed when
we encounter conflicting views on moral standing, social cleavages, and
the means of redressing injustices.6 My chapter also builds on recent work
calling for greater pluralism in discussions of global justice.7 Attending to
the perspectives from the global south is one specific way to foster greater
pluralism by incorporating distinctive arguments about the grounds,
agents, and content of global justice.
The term global south is not simply a geographical designation. It is
often used as an alternative to “lesser developed countries,” because
that latter term rests on a strong notion of historical progress that
scholars have come to question. “Postcolonial” would be a possible
alternative because it signals that global inequalities were produced by
a shared history of military, political, and economic domination, but
this term is limited by two weaknesses. First, the prefix “post” implies
that the legacy of colonialism is superseded; second, postcolonialism is
often associated with a specific set of theoretical arguments about
power and representation. In order to avoid these sources of confusion,
I use the terms “global south” and “subaltern perspectives” to identify
theories that emerge from or focus on countries with minimal economic
and political power.
Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1/3 (1972),
229–243. For work discussing colonialism, see Lea Ypi, Robert Goodin, and
Christian Barry, “Associative Duties, Global Justice, and the Colonies,” Philosophy &
Public Affairs, 37/2 (2009), 103–135; Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights,
2nd edn. (Cambridge: Polity, 2008); Leif Wenar, Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules
That Run the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
Makau Mutua, Human Rights: A Political and Cultural Critique (Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 2002).
Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
Nancy Fraser, “Abnormal Justice,” Critical Inquiry, 34/3 (2008), 393–422.
Helena De Bres, “The Many, Not the Few: Pluralism about Global Distributive Justice,”
Journal of Political Philosophy, 20/3 (2012), 314–340; Lea Ypi, Global Justice and AvantGarde Political Agency (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
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Globalizing Global Justice
Standpoint theory is a methodological approach that is opposed to
abstraction, and highlights the importance of history, context, perspective, and power.8 The first two sections of this chapter clarify this methodology by responding to two very different objections: the essentialist
critique and the objectivity/impartiality critique. Elements of these critiques are persuasive, but a modified version of standpoint theory is both
defensible and necessary to explain why we need to globalize theories of
global justice. The final section provides a preliminary sketch of some
distinctive ideas from the global south about how to address global
injustice and inequality. These include alternative ways of thinking
about the content, grounds, and agents of global justice. For example,
global justice could focus on the redistribution of wealth or on the
regulation of production. It could emphasize the individual moral responsibility of wealthy people, the power of corporations, or global solidaristic
The more abstract discussions of global justice explain why agents have
a duty to aid disadvantaged people from other countries, but they tell us
less about what mechanisms are effective at alleviating poverty. This
argument is similar to the Hegelian critique of Kantian morality.
Abstract reason indicates that we should act according to duty, but it
cannot specify the determinate content of that duty. Standpoint theory
explains why the content of this duty cannot be discerned without considering the causes and solutions from the perspective of those most
directly affected. If you want to help someone, the first thing to do is to
ask what they need. The postcolonial approach identifies structural
inequalities and relations of subordination as key features of poverty
and focuses on building power and agency as solutions.10
Drawing on global perspectives can provide tools for thinking critically
about some of the answers proposed in the global justice literature.11
Some scholars have proposed to remedy global inequality by challenging
the sovereignty of “authoritarian predators” who rule poor countries.12
Charles Mills, “‘Ideal Theory’ as Ideology,” Hypatia, 20/3 (2005), 165–184; Mills,
“White Ignorance” in Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana (eds.), Race and
Epistemologies of Ignorance (Albany: SUNY Press, 2007), 11–38.
Carol Gould, Globalizing Democracy and Human Rights (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2004).
Monique Deveaux, “Beyond the Redistributive Paradigm: What Philosophers Can Learn
from Poor-Led Politics” in Helmut Gaisbauer, Gottfried Schweiger, and Clemens Sedmak
(eds.), Ethical Issues in Poverty Alleviation (Leuven: Springer, 2016), 225–245.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide
(Abingdon: Routledge, 2015).
Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights, 2nd edn. (Cambridge: Polity, 2008);
Jan Narveson, “Welfare and Wealth, Poverty and Justice in Today’s World,” Journal of
Ethics, 8/4 (2004), 305–348.
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Margaret Kohn
These solutions rely on a social imaginary that juxtaposes idealized
images of Westerners and realistic or negative portrayals of nonWesterners. By making this social imaginary visible and rendering it
problematic, more critical accounts can contribute to the search for better
Subaltern Standpoint Theory
The term “standpoint theory” describes the feminist reworking of the
Marxian view that ideology is the product of class interests. According to
Marxists, the free market looks free from the perspective of the bourgeoisie, but it may feel like coercion to the worker who is forced to sell his labor
at any price or starve. As Marx and Engels famously put it in the
Communist Manifesto, “Your very ideas (the ideas of the bourgeoisie) are
but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and
bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class
made into a law for all.”13 Nevertheless, actual workers did not necessarily evaluate capitalism from a proletarian standpoint, and Marx realized
that it was not easy to penetrate bourgeois ideology. Widespread identification with the proletarian standpoint required both historical processes
such as urbanization and industrialization as well as political mobilization. Marx’s underlying analysis, however, rested on a distinction
between appearance and essence. What looks like freedom and equality
is actually exploitation and coercion. The concept of commodity fetishism also rests on this distinction; what looks like the circulation of things is
actually the expression of social relations.14
Feminist standpoint theory suggests that women play a structural role
similar to the role of the proletariat in Marxist theory. According to Nancy
Hartsock, “Women’s lives make available a particular and privileged
vantage point on male supremacy.”15 This vantage point provides critical
perspectives on patriarchal institutions and ideology. This version of
feminist standpoint theory rests on the strong epistemological claim that
insight into domination is the product of a determinate social position.
Feminist standpoint theory has been widely criticized over the past two
decades. There are at least three main lines of criticism. First, “women’s
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto in The Marx–Engels Reader,
ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2nd edn. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 487.
The Marx–Engels Reader, 320.
Nancy Hartsock, “The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically
Feminist Historical Materialism” in Sandra Harding and Merrill Hintikka (eds.),
Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology and
Philosophy of Science (Leuven: Springer, 2004), 284.
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Globalizing Global Justice
lives” cannot be the basis of the feminist standpoint because women’s
lives are extremely diverse. Given this heterogeneity, women’s experiences of oppression are better understood through the lens of intersectionality, a framework that highlights the role of class, race, and sexual
orientation, among other factors.16 Second, standpoint theory may not be
as emancipatory as its proponents suggest. In States of Injury, for example,
Wendy Brown suggests that identity politics can be a form of ressentiment
that instrumentalizes powerlessness or dispossession in an effort to
assume a position of moral superiority.17 She uses the term “wounded
attachments” to describe a politics that is invested in its own marginality
because it provides a coherent identity and privileged standpoint. In so far
as these wounded attachments attain coherence by politicizing exclusion
from an ostensible universal, they are reproducing rather than challenging
the dominant political logic.18 Third, feminist standpoint theory, like its
Marxist forerunner, is premised on a contradiction. How can workers or
women be both socially constructed by capitalism or patriarchy and
simultaneously be the source of counterhegemonic truths? According to
Brown, standpoint theory “requires suspending recognition that
women’s ‘experience’ is thoroughly constructed, historically and culturally varied, and interpreted without end.”19 In other words, the epistemic privilege of the disempowered (women, people living in peripheral
countries, racial minorities, etc.) is based on the untenable assumption
that their identities and insights are not constructed by dominant social
These critiques of feminist standpoint theory are convincing and they
cast doubt on the assumption that subject position can be an unproblematic basis of critique. Are they applicable to subaltern standpoint theory? Many of the intellectuals who participated in the decolonization
movements of the twentieth century defended some version of standpoint
theory. In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon wrote, “When the
native hears a speech about Western culture, he pulls out a knife.”20 This
suggests that the colonized have a distinctive standpoint, one that penetrates the colonial ideology of Western superiority.21 At times Fanon
Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and
Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review, 43/6 (1991), 1241–1299;
A. M. Hancock, “Intersectionality as a Normative and Empirical Paradigm,” Politics &
Gender, 3/2 (2007), 248–254.
Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1995), 45.
Brown, States of Injury, 65. 19 Brown, States of Injury, 41.
Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press,
2005), 43.
Joan Tronto, “Frantz Fanon,” Contemporary Political Theory, 3/3 (2004), 245–252.
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Margaret Kohn
implies that this perspective emerges directly out of the lived experience of
the colonized. There is a contradiction between the native’s certainty of
his own humanity and the dehumanizing treatment that he receives from
the colonizer. Fanon notes how the settlers describe the native in zoological terms (“breeding swarms,” “reptilian movements”), but rather than
accepting this characterization, the native laughs every time he spots such
an allusion, because he “knows that he is not an animal.”22 At other
points, however, Fanon suggests that the critique of the “universal”
values of colonial society is the outcome of a historical and political
process. He draws a contrast between the colonial period – when hegemony functions effectively – and decolonization – a process of “discovery” that “shakes the world” and forces a revaluation of values.23
Initially, The Wretched of the Earth seems to reinforce the Manicheanism
of colonialism itself. The colonized and the colonizer appear as two
stable, unified, and opposed groups starkly divided, in the same way
that the native medina and the colonial town are divided.24 Later in the
text, however, Fanon complicates this picture. He explains how urban
intellectuals initially identify with the ethical principles and culture of the
colonizers. Yet, this view shifts when they come into sustained contact
with the people during decolonization. According to Fanon, the process
of struggle itself – not rational reflection25 – provides the experiential basis
for reconsidering Western ideas. For example, the forms of organization
required to achieve decolonization are based on solidarity, and this leads
the intellectuals to reconsider the value of individualism.26 This mirrors
the Marxist claim that proletarian consciousness emerges out of the class
Fanon’s analysis of decolonization is a nuanced version of standpoint
theory. Throughout his writing on both the struggle for decolonization
and the process of postcolonial founding, Fanon is acutely aware of class
differences among the colonized. He notes that the urban bourgeoisie and
even the small working class benefit from the colonial system in some
ways and tend to support compromise with the colonizer rather than
independence. After independence, the native middle classes have little
economic power and ensure their status by serving as intermediaries who
protect the economic interests of the former colonial powers.27 In order to
secure political power and its concomitant economic benefits, this native
elite tries to foster a shared sense of cultural identity. This national,
Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 43. 23 Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 45.
Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 37–38. 25 Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 41.
Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 47.
Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 151–155.
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Globalizing Global Justice
cultural, or group consciousness is the glue that holds the people and the
elite together and secures the elite’s power.
Fanon’s account shows that it is possible to advance a form of standpoint theory that avoids the simplifications and distortions that Brown
identifies in her analysis of feminist standpoint theory. Fanon is also very
aware that the colonial subjects are positioned differently in relationship
to class and gender. Moreover, he emphasizes that national consciousness
and identity politics have both a positive and a negative dimension.
The positive side is the way that solidarity helps overcome the tendency
toward atomization (individual or familial), which is depoliticizing and
disempowering. The political process of struggle and emancipation
depended on and created solidarity. The negative side is the way that
essentialized identities can obscure economic interests and possibly
undermine more emancipatory class-based solidarity. Fanon worried
that racial, ethnic, or national solidarity would function ideologically to
ensure that the masses would give uncritical support to the new indigenous elites.
What about the argument that subaltern subjects cannot be both
deeply embedded in the dominant social structures and yet still somehow
outside of them? Here The Wretched of the Earth provides somewhat less
guidance. Fanon suggests that colonial society, unlike capitalist society, is
not based on hegemony. In capitalist society, the education system and
paternalist workplace guarantee a high degree of consent that “lightens
the task of policing considerably.” In the colonial world, the order is
secured primarily through coercion rather than consent.
The intermediaries are the soldier and the policeman, and these intermediaries do not seek to hide the fact that power is based on
domination.28 The colonized are aware of this domination but do not
have the ability to resist it, and therefore, at least initially, they express
their frustration through internalized violence.
In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon analyzes his own experience as
a black from the Antilles and reaches a somewhat different conclusion
about the position of the colonized subject.29 He describes a divided self
who identifies with French culture even while experiencing exclusion
from the ideals of universalism, equality, and reason. In contrast to
The Wretched of the Earth, this text describes the colonial world as governed by hegemony rather than sheer coercion, but Fanon also emphasizes the distinctive way that colonial hegemony functions through both
Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 38.
Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press,
2008), 188.
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Margaret Kohn
inclusion and exclusion. Fanon argues, “A normal negro child, having
grown up within a normal family, will become abnormal on the slightest
contact with the white world.”30 The encounter with the white world is
a traumatic one that creates a racialized subject.31 Fanon emphasizes that
the trauma is not a personal experience of violence or hatred.32 It is the
traumatic confrontation between the black child’s identity and his position in a symbolic order that valorizes whiteness and fears or hates blackness. The child is alienated when his sense of self is not confirmed and
recognized by the other (white society). Fanon uses the example of
children’s novels and comic books to illustrate how this happens.
In popular stories, the brave, heroic adventurer or missionary is always
white, and the sly or cruel adversary is always a dark-skinned Indian or
a cannibal. According to Fanon, both black and white children identify
with the white hero, but for the black child this identification is precarious, and it is shattered when the white man’s gaze confronts him with
“the full weight of his blackness.”33
Black Skin, White Masks explains how colonized subjects can be
constructed by colonialism/racism and still be the source of counterhegemonic perspectives. Fanon emphasizes that both blacks and whites
internalize the “collective unconscious” that links whiteness to progress
and civilization and blackness to savagery and physicality. For blacks,
this experience of identification and exclusion creates a divided consciousness and sense of alienation. The psychic responses to this alienation are varied and can include denial, internalization, rage, revenge,
or overcoming. This means that the experience of alienation does not
manifest itself as a distinctive, unitary black or colonial point of view.
For example, Fanon notes that literary works produced by black poets
do not necessarily differ from the work of white poets because the
Antillean poets “are white.”34 In the following sentence, however,
Fanon states that “the Negro lives an ambiguity that is extraordinarily
neurotic.” I take this to mean that Antillean blacks inhabit
a contradictory position, which can be resolved in different ways.
Some “are white” insofar as they work within the dominant framework,
and others promote negritude as a way of challenging the symbolic
order. Fanon himself eventually chose political struggle in order to
Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 143.
Françoise Vergès, “Creole Skin, Black Mask: Fanon and Disavowal,” Critical Inquiry, 23/
3 (1997), 578–595.
Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 143; Fanon also writes, “Did the little black child see his
father beaten or lynched by a white man? Has there been a real trauma? To all this we have
to answer no.” Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 145.
Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 150. 34 Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 192.
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Globalizing Global Justice
undermine the economic and political structures that underpinned the
colonial order.
After his involvement with the Algerian struggle for independence,
Fanon began to emphasize that the solution to this alienation was collective and political. In The Wretched of the Earth, he argued that the native
intellectuals and the people each have limited insight into the structures of
domination, and he hopes that sustained contact between them will
enable them to overcome these limitations and produce a higher synthesis. Education, which plays a key role in his understanding of decolonization, is not knowledge that is transmitted from above to below, but
rather a process of building a more comprehensive understanding out of
existing fragments of knowledge.
Fanon’s analysis of black consciousness illuminates the possibilities
and limits of a modified version of standpoint theory. His nuanced insight
into human psychology enables us to see that you cannot simply deduce
an individual point of view from the person’s structural location. On the
other hand, he insists that there is a powerful collective cultural unconscious that is invisible to privileged actors because they do not experience
it as a source of tension. The people who are drawn in by its hegemony yet
excluded by its hierarchies are forced to confront it.
Fanon’s work shows us that standpoint theory does not have to incorporate the features that scholars have rightfully criticized. It does not necessarily rely on an essentialized, unitary identity or uncritically assert an
unassailable truth. To summarize, there are two salient features that distinguish this version of standpoint theory. First, notwithstanding the awkward nomenclature, it should be called standpoints theory. This plural
version of the term highlights the fact that there are multiple subaltern
(or feminist or working class) subject positions and different insights and
experiences associated with these positions. Second, the political ideas or
arguments advanced from these perspectives are not immune from criticism or outside of power. Both Gayatri Spivak and Aijaz Ahmad have
argued that promoting a subaltern perspective can intentionally or unintentionally be a way of advancing elite interests. Fanon too made this point
when he argued that indigenous elites used ethnic and national identity in
order to secure their positions and exploit the masses. In the final section of
this chapter I will return to this issue and explicitly consider the questions
raised in Spivak’s influential essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”
Standpoint Theory and Objectivity
This modified version of standpoint theory is one that I think many
people would find plausible, but there is another line of criticism
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Margaret Kohn
advanced by normative theorists. These scholars object to standpoint
theory and claim that perspectivalism is antithetical to objectivity.
According to Thomas Nagel, “A view or form of thought is more objective than another if it relies less on the specifics of the individual make-up
and position in the world, or on the character of the particular type of
creature he is.”35 Since standpoint theory explicitly draws on the insights
gained from a determinate position in the world, it would seem to be
subjective rather than objective. In this section I will argue that this
conclusion rests on a mistaken understanding of how we come to know
the social world.
My defense of standpoint theory is not based on the distinction
between appearance and essence. I do not claim that scholars or citizens
from the global south have access to truth or that they are necessarily able
to penetrate the dominant ideology. Instead, my claim is the more modest
one that political and normative issues are extremely complex, and therefore the best account of these phenomena must draw on multiple perspectives. In Justice as Fairness, John Rawls analyzed the sources of
reasonable disagreement among reasonable people. These include the
complexity of empirical evidence, disagreement about how to balance
different factors, and indeterminacy.36 He also emphasized the importance of perspective. According to Rawls, the way that we assess moral
and political values is shaped by our experience. Since our experiences
differ, so do our judgments, especially in complex situations.37 Rawls
describes these constraints as “the burdens of judgment” but we can also
see these factors as the “benefits of judgment.”
Alternative perspectives improve judgment because they do not rely on
the same tools for filtering information. The views of dominant actors
(including social classes, intellectuals, policy-makers) tend to be hegemonic, and this hegemony often renders alternative accounts or views
invisible or incomprehensible. For example, Page, Bartels, and Seawright
have found that the policy preferences of wealthy Americans diverge
considerably from those of other citizens.38 My version of standpoint
theory rests on the claim that scholars should explicitly privilege the
insights and views of subordinate actors in order to counteract this
tendency. Standpoint theory does not provide a privileged access to
Thomas Nagel, “The Limits of Objectivity,” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values
(1980), 75–139.
John Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, ed. Erin Kelly, 2nd edn. (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 2001), 35.
Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 36.
Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels, and Jason Seawright, “Democracy and the Policy
Preferences of Wealthy Americans,” Perspectives on Politics, 11/1 (2013), 51–73.
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Globalizing Global Justice
truth but can be a way of breaking the discursive lock of dominant ways of
According to Amartya Sen, “What we observe depends on our position
vis-à-vis the objects of observation.”39 For example, during an eclipse, the
sun appears to be approximately the same size as the moon. Anyone
observing the eclipse from the same position would reach the same conclusion about the relative sizes and could give the same reason for reaching this conclusion, e.g., the fact that the moon totally blocked the sun.
Yet, the sun and the moon are not the same size, and they only appear
equivalent when viewed from the earth. Sen calls this “positional objectivity.” At first, this example seems to highlight the problem with standpoint theory. Something may reasonably appear to be true from
a particular perspective, even though it is actually false.40 Sen’s sociopolitical examples suggest that something can be “positionally objective”
but still wrong. For example, he notes that the Indian state of Kerala has
the longest life expectancy but the highest rate of self-perceived morbidity. Residents of Kerala have better access to medical assessment and
treatment, and therefore they live longer. Their access to medical care
means that they are also more knowledgeable about sickness and its
consequences, and therefore they express greater fear of death. Their
assessments of their own morbidity are not accurate, but they are neither
subjective nor irrational. Both the examples of the eclipse and morbidity
rates suggest the superiority of scientific or what Sen calls “transpositional” assessment.
It would be a mistake, however, to conflate scientific knowledge with
“trans-positional” assessment, especially when we are examining political, cultural, and normative issues. Scientific knowledge is one perspective that should be taken into account alongside others in order to perform
trans-positional assessment. By scientific knowledge, I mean “normal
science”: the way in which a particular topic is analyzed according to
methods that are recognized by academic experts. Take for example the
study of morbidity rates in India. Sen takes it for granted that the morbidity rates reported by the Indian government are themselves accurate.
He assumes that the inconsistency between the statistics and perceptions
must be due to inaccurate perceptions by ordinary people, but it is
possible that government statistics may be distorted and that this distortion is known to the people in the local community. In Katherine Boo’s
ethnography of an informal settlement in Mumbai, several informants
Amartya Sen, “Positional Objectivity,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, 22/2 (1993), 126.
Jonathan Quong, “Political Liberalism without Scepticism,” Ratio, 20/3 (2007),
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Margaret Kohn
mention that death certificates are routinely falsified by government
officials who record “death by natural causes” and underreport the number of people who are killed by traffic accidents and violence.41 These
statistics are subsequently used for scientific analysis, but the perspective
of the people living in poor communities generates a different and possibly more accurate insight into the phenomenon.
The benefits of trans-positional assessment are even more obvious
when we look at normative issues rather than empirical ones such as
morbidity rates. Consider one issue that is particularly relevant to the
topic of global inequality and poverty: free trade. Since Adam Smith,
most economists have agreed that free trade is beneficial because it allows
different areas to increase efficiency by specializing in the production of
goods for which they have a comparative advantage such as wine in Spain
and wool in Britain. Most international political economists support this
view, and conclude that increasing levels of global trade have benefited
both poor and rich countries by contributing to higher levels of economic
growth. Countries may benefit from free trade in the sense that GDP per
capita increases, but this tells us nothing about which groups within
a country benefit from these additional resources. Statistics also show
that inequalities between countries are beginning to decrease (after a long
period of dramatic increase), but that inequalities within countries are
increasing.42 This suggests that the benefits of international trade are not
shared by all, and some people, such as local producers who cannot
compete with foreign manufactured goods, may even be worse off in
absolute terms. Nor are the benefits of globalization shared by the farmers
who lose their land when their government leases large parcels to multinational agricultural companies to grow crops for export.43 Even if we
assume that these deals are not motivated by corruption in the narrow
sense of financial kickbacks to government officials, elites benefit and the
poor are dispossessed. How do we decide if free trade is beneficial without
asking for whom and in what way?
The main goal of standpoint theory is to insist that normative and
sociopolitical issues be examined from the perspectives of those who are
not in positions of privilege. The epistemic claim is that this will generate
a deeper, more thorough understanding of the issue. This does not mean
that any particular viewpoint is guaranteed to be more accurate or to
advance justice. A worker may be thrilled by low-wage employment in an
Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
(New York: Random House, 2012).
Robert Wade, “Global Trends in Income Inequality,” Challenge, 54/5 (2011), 54–75.
Saskia Sassen, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
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Globalizing Global Justice
export processing zone and be unable to see that her country is losing tax
revenue and that the local river is being poisoned. Benefits and harms are
also agent relative. In order to decide whether something advances the
public good, or whether there even is a public good, it is necessary to
consider it from diverse perspectives. Since the perspectives of the subaltern tend to be ignored or dismissed, they must be privileged.
By privileged I do not mean that they trump others, but rather that they
should be given especially careful consideration.
Global Justice at the World Social Forum
The global justice literature tries to answer the question “What do we
owe to distant others?”44 The problem with this formulation is that the
term “we” conflates two positions: the normative theorist and the
ethico-political agent. Consider how the question changes if posed
like this: “What do distant others (e.g., the rich in wealthy countries)
owe to us?” This formulation shifts the conversation about global
justice and privileges perspectives from the global south. Even if
wealthy people or wealthy countries are the ethico-political agents
who have a duty to promote global justice, this does not mean that
they are uniquely able to understand the determinate content of the
duty. Another related question that needs to be asked is “what are the
political strategies that might generate global solidarity and destabilize
the categories of us versus them?” Are there works of political theory
that address these questions?
There has been a growing interest in examining whether diverse
cultural, religious, and intellectual traditions such as Confucianism
and Islam endorse democracy and human rights.45 There is
a growing English language literature that draws on non-Western
or postcolonial perspectives on global justice.46 This diverse scholarship draws on a wider range of sources such as legal debates about
social rights in India and South Africa, manifestos of the World
Social Forum (WSF), writings published by or about the Zapatista
movement and Porto Alegre participatory budgeting process,
Wenar, “What We Owe to Distant Others”; Risse, “Do We Owe the Global Poor
Assistance or Rectification?”
Joanne Bauer and Daniel Bell, The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1999); Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Human Rights in
Cross-Cultural Perspectives: A Quest for Consensus (Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 2010).
See for example Jomo Kwame Sundaram (ed.), Islamic Economic Alternatives: Critical
Perspectives and New Directions (Berlin: Springer, 2016).
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Margaret Kohn
academic postcolonial theory, and ethnographies of global social
There is a tendency in the field of political theory to ignore these
sources, and I suspect that there are three reasons for this. First, there
are implicit understandings of what types of writing can be recognized as
legitimate political theory. Manifestos, ethnographies, policy documents,
and legal briefs may articulate a clear vision of how to advance global
justice, but they seldom explain and defend this vision in the writing genre
of normative theory. They do not always have the nuance, rigor, or
theoretical richness of academic political theory. Second, some scholars
may worry that drawing on these accounts involves “speaking for others,”
which entails the risk of distortion, orientalism, and possibly
exploitation.48 Finally, the range of sources and views is so heterogeneous
and pluralistic that it can seem daunting to know where to begin.
In this chapter I start with the WSF because it was explicitly designed as
a place to examine global justice from the perspective of less privileged
actors. The WSF was created in January 2001 in Porto Alegre (Brazil) in
order to bring together local, national, and transnational movements
engaged in challenging neo-liberal globalization from below. It was conceived as an alternative to the globalism of international institutions such
as the G20, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund
(IMF). According to Boaventura de Sousa Santos, the WSF is an expression of the epistemology of the South and an attempt to generate and
strengthen alternative solutions to the global inequalities.49 These solutions are alternatives to the policies that are usually described as neoliberalism, or the Washington consensus. The Washington consensus
promotes economic growth through austerity and deregulation.
By dismantling welfare state provisions, weakening unions, privatizing
public companies, and deregulating, states can lower the cost of doing
business and attract investment. According to this theory, the role of the
state is not to promote the public good directly, but rather to create an
environment that enables business to flourish. The governing assumption
is that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
Rahul Rao, Third World Protest: Between Home and the World (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2012); Manfred Steger and Erin Wilson, “Anti-Globalization or AlterGlobalization? Mapping the Political Ideology of the Global Justice Movement,”
International Studies Quarterly, 56/3 (2012), 439–454; Boaventura de Sousa Santos,
“The World Social Forum and the Global Left,” Politics & Society, 36/2 (2008),
Thomas Pogge, “Responses to the Critics” in Alison Jaggar (ed.), Thomas Pogge and His
Critics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010); Linda Alcoff, “The Problem of Speaking for
Others,” Cultural Critique, 20 (1991), 5–32.
de Sousa Santos, “The World Social Forum and the Global Left.”
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Globalizing Global Justice
The unifying idea that links many of the groups in the WSF is opposition to marketization. This opposition does not necessarily imply advocacy of direct state control of the economy, but it does involve promoting
alternatives to the market and exploring other ways of distributing burdens and benefits. These alternatives include the following: strengthening
local democracy to assert collective control over local resources; decommodification of key areas such as education and health care; protection of
the environment; promotion of values such as solidarity and justice;
control and regulation of multinational corporations. In a systematic
study of the ideology of the WSF, Manfred Steger and Erin Wilson
found that that groups affiliated with the WSF advanced a coherent vision
of “justice globalism.”50 Justice globalism is one important perspective
that emerges from the global south. The key features of justice globalism
include universal rights (especially economic, social, and cultural rights),
participatory democracy, global solidarity, and socioeconomic and environmental sustainability.
How do these solutions compare to the ones that are most prominent in
the Anglo-American global justice literature? There are a number of
similarities, most notably the shared emphasis on universal rights and
justice. Nevertheless, the discourse of the WSF points toward some subtle
but important differences between the two approaches. For example, the
term solidarity could be construed as a way of describing the normative
claim that moral obligation extends beyond national borders and implies
obligations to distant others. Yet, in the standard “what do we owe
them?” frame, distant others remain both distant and other. Solidarity,
on the other hand, connotes acting with others and implies common
responsibility among members of a group.51 At least at the rhetorical
level it suggests a relationship of mutuality and reciprocity rather than
a hierarchical relationship of donor and beneficiary.52
Among the forty-five organizations studied by Wilson and Steger, there
were five common political claims. All five of these claims pointed toward
the market, financial institutions, or corporations as agents responsible
for increased inequalities. For example, Focus on the Global South
emphasized that promoting the well-being of people and the planet
requires “democratic controls over financial institutions.” The Bamako
Appeal is another document that expresses some of the core ideas of
justice globalism. The Bamako Appeal was issued at the conclusion of
Steger and Wilson, “Anti-Globalization or Alter-Globalization?”
Avery Kolers, “Dynamics of Solidarity,” Journal of Political Philosophy, 20/4 (2012),
See also Ruth Lister, “Power, Not Pity: Poverty and Human Rights,” Ethics and Social
Welfare, 7 (2013), 109–123.
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Margaret Kohn
a meeting of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and think tanks
that was organized by Samir Amin and held in Bamako, Mali.
The meeting took place in 2006 on the fiftieth anniversary of the
Bandung Conference. The Bamako Appeal emphasized the suffering
caused by “the dictatorship of financial markets and by the uncontrolled
global deployment of transnational firms” and called for democratic
control over international organizations, environmental sustainability,
international solidarity, and alternatives to neo-liberalism.
There are some similarities between these proposals and the ones
promoted by Thomas Pogge in his influential book World Poverty and
Human Rights. Pogge argues that wealthy countries are partially responsible for global economic inequality, because these inequalities were
produced by colonialism and are reinforced by a shared institutional
order. Pogge advances two specific proposals to modify international
institutions in order to help ensure “that all human beings can meet
their own basic needs with dignity”53: the global resources dividend
(GRD) and the borrowing privilege. The GRD is a tax on extractive
industries such as mining and oil drilling. This tax would have the dual
benefit of encouraging conservation and also generating funds that could
be redistributed to help poor people in developing countries.
Pogge’s second proposal is to end the “borrowing privilege of authoritarian predators.”54 He argues that many people are poor because of the
actions of their own leaders, who extract resources, borrow money, and
steal foreign aid in order to enrich themselves at the expense of the public.
One way to weaken the power of these leaders would be to limit their
ability to borrow money that must be repaid by the public. Pogge suggests
that nations in the global south should adopt constitutional amendments
stating that debts incurred by nondemocratic governments will not be
repaid by the people.
These two proposals are broadly consistent with the theory of justice
globalism outlined above. The first aims to use international institutions
to promote environmental sustainability and fill basic human needs;
the second mechanism promotes democracy and weakens authoritarian
governments. Yet, there are also some subtle differences between Pogge’s
approach and justice globalism. First, Pogge insists that the design of the
GRD “must draw upon the expertise of economists and international
lawyers.”55 Instead of recognizing the value of both grassroots and
“expert” perspectives, Pogge only incorporates the latter. Despite
Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights, 203.
Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights, 159.
Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights, 212.
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Globalizing Global Justice
decades of research in development studies that documents the ineffectiveness and destructiveness of projects designed entirely by outside
experts,56 Pogge embraces technocratic solutions. He positions the poor
primarily as beneficiaries and not as agents of change.57
Second, in outlining the rationale for the GRD and restrictions on the
borrowing privilege, Pogge depicts the leaders of poor countries in
a negative light. He describes them as “predators” and writes, “In some
poor countries, the rulers care more about keeping their subjects destitute, uneducated, docile, dependent, and hence exploitable.”58 In these
cases, he proposes funneling aid through UN agencies or NGOs rather
than domestic governments. He also considers the possibility of authorizing military intervention to depose authoritarian predators.59
In a similar vein, Martha Nussbaum suggests that the mechanisms for
promoting global justice include “global economic policies, agencies and
agreements, including the World Bank, the IMF, and various trade
agreements” and “multinational corporations, to which we shall assign
certain responsibilities for promoting human capabilities in the nations in
which they do business.”60 These texts depict multinational corporations
and institutions in their ideal form and developing countries in an
ambivalent or negative way. This rests on and reinforces a social imaginary composed of Western saviors and third world predators. This is
problematic for two reasons. It functions ideologically to justify concentrating greater power in the hands of existing international institutions
even though this power has been the cause of much global
injustice. Second, it frames the problem in a way that delegitimizes
other kinds of solutions.
Consider Nussbaum’s suggestion that multinational corporations
should do more to foster human capabilities in places where they do
business. This involves a certain level of critique, since it implies that
multinational corporations do not currently promote human capabilities
to a sufficient degree. But, more importantly, it depicts multinational
corporations as organizations that could be persuaded to become agents
of capability promotion. This seems extremely unlikely, given that
Jan Nederveen Pieterse, Development Theory: Deconstructions/Reconstructions (London:
Sage, 2002); Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of
the Third World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011); James Scott, Seeing
Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New
Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999).
Monique Deveaux, “The Global Poor as Agents of Justice,” Journal of Moral Philosophy,
12/2 (2015), 125–150.
Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights, 161–162, 212.
Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights, 159.
Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice, 314.
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Margaret Kohn
multinational corporations are acting in a competitive environment and
are legally required to maximize profit for shareholders. As Marx pointed
out in The Poverty of Philosophy, the moral character and intentions of the
factory owner matter very little given that his choices are structured by
Similarly, from a subaltern standpoint, it seems unlikely that existing
global institutions can become agents of redistribution. They emphasize
the evidence that supports the view that the austerity measures promoted
by the IMF and the World Bank have increased poverty in developing
countries.61 The governance structures of the World Bank and the IMF
gave a disproportionate share of power to the United States and underrepresent heavily indebted poor countries.62 Carla Norloff concludes that
even though international institutions would seem to limit the power of
strong states, in reality, the strongest state is well positioned to gain more
than other states.63 Trade agreements often force poor agricultural countries to allow free access to imports without requiring wealthy countries to
end farm subsidies. There is also research that highlights the ways that
international institutions or agreements benefit poor countries. The point
is not to resolve this dispute, which is too complex and multifaceted to
have a single definitive resolution, but rather to point out how the radical
critique of economic orthodoxy can generate new questions, different
answers, and alternative approaches.64
Justice globalism is informed by a distinctive social imaginary.
Rapacious domestic elites are only mentioned in a spectral fashion,
haunting the calls for greater accountability through democratic participation and mobilization. Multinational corporations and international
institutions are depicted as the agents of dispossession and sources of
inequality. This perspective too undoubtedly has its limitations, but it
challenges the ideological assumption that only the distribution of aid –
and not the production of economic inequality through the market – is an
ethico-political issue. It also has the important effect of disrupting the
narrative that casts Westerners as saviors and people in developing countries as passive victims or predators. This is the first step in building
transnational movements that address global inequality both from
David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005);
Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Random
House, 2008).
Rao, Third World Protest. In 2008 the Board of Governors approved a package of reforms
that increased the representation of poorer countries.
Carla Norrlof, America’s Global Advantage: US Hegemony and International Cooperation
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
Thomas Pogge and Krishen Mehta (eds.), Global Tax Fairness (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2016); Wenar, “What We Owe to Distant Others.”
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Globalizing Global Justice
above and below.65 One part of this coalition consists of citizens in
wealthy countries who are demanding that their governments regulate
multinational corporations and the financial sector in order to change the
way that inequalities are produced through the economy. It also includes
citizens in poor countries who are mobilizing to elect governments that
promote social rights, sustainability, and growth strategies that benefit the
least well off. Both must work together in order to democratize existing
international institutions so that they become more responsive to the
needs of poorer countries.
There is a final issue to consider. What are the distinctive challenges that
emerge when scholars represent subaltern perspectives and employ them
for their arguments? Linda Alcoff examined this question in her pathbreaking essay “The Problem of Speaking for Others.”66 She identified
two specific challenges. First, there is the epistemic point that a scholar
drawing on the insights of others is engaged in representation and must be
aware that she is not revealing a viewpoint but rather interpreting, translating, and constituting it. As Spivak put it, “the much-publicized critique
of the sovereign subject . . . actually produces a subject.”67 Second, there
may be power relations that are reinforced through these representations.
When a privileged person speaks for a less privileged one he may be
strengthening preexisting hierarchical relations.68 Furthermore, the less
privileged person usually does not authorize the privileged person and the
privileged person is not accountable to him.
One response is that the goal of global standpoint theory is not speaking
for others but rather listening to others. Theorists, theologians, lawyers,
writers, and activists from the global south have written texts that advance
arguments about global justice, and these texts are often ignored because
their writing genres are not recognized and their authors are not part of
dominant academic networks. Interpreting, organizing, and presenting
(and potentially misrepresenting) them involves certain kinds of power
relations but so does ignoring them. Although the pitfalls of the former
have gotten more attention, it is this latter move that Spivak questioned in
her famous essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak focuses her attention on the problems that emerge when scholars attempt to avoid the
Gould, Globalizing Democracy and Human Rights.
Alcoff, “The Problem of Speaking for Others.”
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Cary Nelson and
Lawrence Grossberg (eds.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (New York:
Macmillan, 1988), 271–317.
Alcoff, “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” 7.
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Margaret Kohn
pitfalls of representation by, as she puts it, letting the subaltern speak for
themselves. She argues that “listening to” is problematic because it treats
subaltern speech as authentic and transparent, thereby obscuring the way
that it is already constituted through knowledge/power.
Many readers took the term “subaltern” to describe a broad category largely synonymous with “marginalized” or “lower rank.”
In a more recent essay, however, Spivak explains, “Neither the groups
celebrated by the early subalternists nor Bhubaneswari Bhaduri, in so
far as they had burst their bonds into resistance, were in the position
of subalternity. No one can say ‘I am a subaltern’ in whatever
language.”69 This suggests that the term subaltern marks a social
position that cannot be fully recognized within the dominant framework. If we follow Spivak, then subaltern should not be used to
describe categories like colonial subjects, workers, or women, since
these categories contain individuals who vary considerably in their
political subjectivity and agency. This restricted definition, however,
departs from the broader Gramscian sense of subaltern. He used the
term to describe groups that were in a subordinate position in the
hierarchy of power and did not exercise hegemony. In “Notes on
Italian History,” Gramsci emphasized that subaltern groups may
reproduce dominant ideologies, assert partial autonomy, or begin to
produce new institutional formations.70 I use the term in the
Gramscian sense, as a structural position that can generate different
perspectives on dominant ideas and practices.
Subaltern perspectives may be marginalized within Anglo-American
normative theory (or even academia more generally), but they have been
articulated with a great deal of sophistication by thinkers drawing on both
indigenous traditions and European and global theories such as Marxism,
liberal rights, and theology. These intellectual traditions are not subaltern
in Spivak’s sense, but a great deal can be learned by reading them and
drawing on their insights, while remaining attentive to the point that
transparency and authenticity are impossible and power is ubiquitous.
This means that the messy, political, critical, contested work of interpretation is necessary.
In her essay “Scattered Speculations on the Subaltern and the
Popular,” Spivak raises a concern that is particularly relevant to this
chapter. She worries that “the leaders of counter-globalist resistances”
may be “faking subaltern collective initiative” in order to advance their
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Scattered Speculations on the Subaltern and the Popular,”
Postcolonial Studies, 8/4 (2005), 476.
Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, eds.
Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 52.
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political goals.71 This may refer to organizations affiliated with the WSF,
which organized meetings attended by activists from the global south and,
perhaps, used their presence to legitimize a political strategy that was
formulated with little input. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to
evaluate whether this is an accurate criticism of the WSF, but I do think
that it raises a valuable cautionary note. It is possible that a “counterglobalist resistance movement,” could function like Fanon’s “national
consciousness” and be used to create a false solidarity that obscures
important issues and voices. Authenticity, like objectivity, can also be
used to close off consideration of heterodox ideas and arguments.
The best solution is to recognize that the benefits of judgment are secured
by paying particular attention to marginalized perspectives.
Spivak, “Scattered Speculations on the Subaltern and the Popular,” 484.
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University at Buffalo School of Law
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Journal Articles
Faculty Scholarship
Winter 2001
Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights
Makau wa Mutua
University at Buffalo School of Law
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Savages, Victims, and Saviors:
The Metaphor of Human Rights
Makau Mutua*
The human rights movement 1 is marked by a damning metaphor. The
grand narrative of human rights contains a subtext that depicts an epochal
contest pitting savages, on the one hand, against victims and saviors, on the
other.2 The savages-victims-saviors (SVS) 3 construction is a three-dimension-
* Professor of Law and Director, Human Rights Center, State University of New York at Buffalo
School of Law. SJ.D., Harvard Law School, 1987; LL.M., Harvard Law School, 1985; LL.M., University
of Dar-es-salaam, 1984; LL.B., University of Dar-es-salaam, 1983; Co-Chair, 2000 Annual Meeting of the
American Society of International Law. In March 1999, an early draft of this Article was presented at the
Faculty Workshop Series at Harvard Law School. In November 1999, a later version was presented at
Yale Law School under the auspices of the Orville Schell Center for International Human Rights. I am
greatly indebted to the participants at both fora for their valuable comments. I am also grateful to the
following colleagues who enriched this Article with their insightful conversations: William Alford,
Guyora Binder, Christine Desan, Gerald Frug, Mary Ann Glendon, Paul Kahn, Duncan Kennedy, Randall Kennedy, Martha Minow, Spencer Overton, Richard Parker, Peter Rosenblum, James Silk, Joel
Singer, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Lucie White, and David Wilkins. I wish especially to thank Leila Hilal,
David Kennedy, Frank Michelman, and Henry Steiner for closely reading a draft of this Article and
making critically significant and vital comments and suggestions.
I. For the purposes of this Article, the “human rights movement” refers to that collection of norms,
processes, and institutions that traces its immediate ancestry to the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A.
Res. 217(111), U.N. GAOR, 3d Sess., 183d mtg. at 71, U.N. Doc. A/810 (1948) [hereinafter UDHR].
The UDHR, the first human rights document adopted by the United Nations, is the textual foundation
of the human rights movement and has been referred to as the “spiritual parent” of most other human
rights documents. Henry J. Steiner, PoliticalParticipationas a HumanRight, 1 HARV. HUM. RTs. YB. 77,
79 (1988). Elsewhere, Steiner and Philip Alston call the UDHR “the parent document, the initial burst
of idealism and enthusiasm, terser, more general and grander than the treaties, in some sense the constitution of the entire movement … the single most invoked human rights instrument.” HENRY J. STEINER & PHILIP ALSTON, INTERNATIONAL HuMAN RIGHTS IN CONTEXT: LAW, POLITICS, MORALS 120
2. This oppositional duality is central to the logic of Western philosophy and modernity. As described
by David Slater, this binary logic constructs historical imperatives of the superior and the inferior, the
barbarian and the civilized, and the traditional and the modern. Within this logic, history is a linear, unidirectional progression with the superior and scientific Western civilization leading and paving the way
for others to follow. See generally David Slater, Contesting OccidentalVisions of the Global: The Geopolitics of
Theory andNorth-South Relations, BEYOND LAw, Dec. 1994, at 97, 100-01.
3. This Article hereinafter refers to the “savages-victims-saviors” metaphor as “SVS.” The author uses
the term “metaphor” to suggest a historical figurative analogy within human rights and its rhetoric and
HarvardInternationalLaw Journal / Vol 42
al compound metaphor in which each dimension is a metaphor in itself.4
The main authors of the human rights discourse, 5 including the United Nations, Western states, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs),6 and senior Western academics, constructed this three-dimensional
prism. This rendering of the human rights corpus and its discourse is unidirectional and predictable, a black-and-white construction that pits good
against evil.
This Article attempts to elicit from the proponents of the human rights
movement several admissions, some of them deeply unsettling. It asks that
human rights advocates be more self-critical and come to terms with the
troubling rhetoric and history that shape, in part, the human rights movement. At the same time, the Article does not only address the biased and
arrogant rhetoric and history of the human rights enterprise, but also grapples with the contradictions in the basic nobility and majesty that drive the
human rights project-the drive from the unflinching belief that human
beings and the political societies they construct can be governed by a higher
morality. This first section briefly introduces the three dimensions of the
SVS metaphor and how the metaphor exposes the theoretical flaws of the
current human rights corpus.
The first dimension of the prism depicts a savage and evokes images of
barbarism. The abominations of the savage are presented as so cruel and
unimaginable as to represent their state as a negation of humanity. The human rights story presents the state as the classic savage, an ogre forever bent
on the consumption of humans. 7 Although savagery in human rights discourse connotes much more than the state, the state is depicted as the operational instrument of savagery. States become savage when they choke off and
4. Each of the three elements of the SVS compound metaphor can operate as independent, stand-alone
metaphors as well. Each of these three separate metaphors is combined within the grand narrative of
human rights to compose the compound metaphor.
5. I have elsewhere grouped the major authors of human rights as belonging to four dominant schools:
conventional doctrinalists, who are mostly, though not exclusively, human rights activists; conceptualizers, mostly senior Western academics who systematize human rights discourse; multiculturalists or pluralists, who are mainly non-Western; and instrumentalists or political strategists, who areWestern states
and Western dominated inter-governmental organizations such as the United Nations and the World
Bank. Seegenerally Makau wa Murna, The Ideology of Human Rights, 36 VA. J. INT’L L. 589, 594-601
6. Human rights international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) are typically “First World”
non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that concentrate on human rights monitoring of, reporting on,
and advocacy in “Third World” scates. These INGOs share a fundamental commitment to the proselytization of Western liberal values, particularly expressive and political participation rights. See HENRY J.
STEINER, DIVERSE PARTNERS: NON-GO VERNMENTAL ORGANIZATIONS IN THE HUMAN RIGHTS MOVI3MENT 19 (1991). For a further explanation of the term “Third World,” see infra note 23.
7. The human rights corpus is ostensibly meant to contain the state, for the state is apparently the
raisond’itre for the corpus. See Henry J.Steiner, The Youth ofRights, 104 HARv. L. REv. 917, 928-33
(1991) (reviewing Louis HENKIN, THE AGE OF RIGHTS (1990)). Thus the state is depicted as the “antithesis of human rights; the one exists to combat the other in a struggle for supremacy over society.”
Makau wa Mutua, Hope andDespairfora New South Africa: The Limits ofRights Discourse, 10 HARv. HuM.
RTS.J. 63, 67 (1997).
2001 / Savages, Victims, and Saviors
oust civil society. 8 The “good” state controls its demonic proclivities by
cleansing itself with, and internalizing, human rights. The “evil” state, on
the other hand, expresses itself through an illiberal, anti-democratic, or
other authoritarian culture. The redemption or salvation of the state is solely
dependent on its submission to human rights norms. The state is the guarantor of human rights; it is also the target and raisond’etre of human rights
law. 9
But the reality is far more complex. While the metaphor may suggest
otherwise, it is not the state per se that is barbaric but the cultural foundation of the state. The state only becomes a vampire when “bad” culture overcomes or disallows the development of “good” culture. The real savage,
though, is not the state but a cultural deviation from human rights. That
savagery inheres in the theory and practice of the one-party state, military
junta, controlled or closed state, theocracy, or even cultural practices such as
the one popularly known in the West as female genital mutilation (FGM), 10
not in the state per se. The state itself is a neutral, passive instrumentalitya receptacle or an empty vessel-that conveys savagery by implementing the
project of the savage culture.
The second dimension of the prism depicts the face and the fact of a victim as well as the essence and the idea of victimhood. A human being whose
“dignity and worth” have been violated by the savage is the victim. The victim figure is a powerless, helpless innocent whose naturalist attributes have
been negated by the primitive and offensive actions of the state or the cultural foundation of the state. The entire human rights structure is both anticatastrophic and reconstructive. It is anti-catastrophic because it is designed
to prevent more calamities through the creation of more victims. It is reconstructive because it seeks to re-engineer the state and the society to reduce
the number of victims, as it defines them,11 and prevent conditions that give
8. In Western thought and philosophy, the state becomes savage if it suffocates or defies civil society.
See generallyJohn Keane, DespotismandDemocracy, in Civa. SociETY AND THE STATE 35 (John Keane ed.,
9. Mutua, HopeandDespairfora New South Africa: The Limits of Rights Discourse,supranote 7, at 67.
10. There has been considerable debate among scholars, activists, and others in Africa and in the West
about the proper term for this practice entailing the surgical modification or the removal of some portions of the female genitalia. For a survey of the debate, see Hope Lewis, Between Iruaand “FemaleGenital
Mutilation”: Feminist Human Rights Discourseandthe CulturalDivide, 8 HARV. HUM. RTs. J. 1, 4-8 (1995);
Hope Lewis & Isabelle R. Gunning, Cleaning Our Own Houe: “Exotic” and FamilialHuman Rights Violations, 4 BUFF. HUM. RTS. L. REV. 123, 123-24 n.2 (1998). See also Isabelle R. Gunning, Arrogant Perception, World Traveling and MulticulturalFeminism: The Case of Female GenitalSurgeries, 23 COLUM. HUM.
RTs. L. REv. 189, 193 n.5 (1991-92).
11. The human rights movement recognizes only a particular type ofvictim. The term “victim” is not
deployed popularly or globally but refers rather to individuals who have suffered specific abuses arising
from the stare’s transgression of internationallyrecognized human rights. For example, the human rights
movement regards an individual subjected to torture by a state as a victim whereas a person who dies of
starvation due to famine or suffers malnutrition for lack of a balanced diet is not regarded as a human
rights victim. The narrow definition of the victim in these instances relates in part to the secondary status
of economic and social rights in the jurisprudence of human rights. See generallyU.N. ESCOR, 7th Sess.,
Supp 2, at 82, U.N. Doc. E/1993/22 (1992) (criticizing the emphasis placed upon civil and political
HarvardInternationalLawJournal / Vol. 42
rise to victims. The classic human rights document-the human rights report–embodies these two mutually reinforcing strategies. An INGO human rights report is usually a catalogue of horrible catastrophes visited on
individuals. As a rule, each report also carries a diagnostic epilogue and rec12
ommended therapies and remedies.
The third dimension of the prism is the savior or the redeemer, the good
angel who protects, vindicates, civilizes, restrains, and safeguards. The savior
is the victim’s bulwark against tyranny. The simple, yet complex promise of
the savior is freedom: freedom from the tyrannies of the state, tradition, and
culture. But it is also the freedom to create a better society based on particular values. In the human rights story, the savior is the human rights corpus itself, with the United Nations, Western governments, INGOs, and
Western charities as the actual rescuers, redeemers ofa benighted world. 13 In
reality, however, these institutions are merely fronts. The savior is ultimately
a set of culturally based norms and practices that inhere in liberal thought
and philosophy.
The human rights corpus, though well-meaning, is fundamentally Eurocentric,’ 4 and suffers from several basic and interdependent flaws captured in
the SVS metaphor. First, the corpus falls within the historical continuum of
the Eurocentric colonial project, in which actors are cast into superior and
subordinate positions. Precisely because of this cultural and historical context, the human rights movement’s basic claim of universality is underrights over economic, social, and cultural rights).
12. The art and science of human rights reporting was pioneered and perfected by Amnesty International (AI), the International Commission ofJurists (ICJ), and Human Rights Watch (HRW), the three
oldest and most influential INGOs. Other INGOs as well as domestic human rights groups have nimicked this reporting. On the character, work, and mandate of NGOs and INGOs, see generally Nigel
Rodley, The Work of Non-Governmental Organizationsin the World-Wide Promotion and Protection of Human
Rights, 90/1 U.N. BULL. HUM. RTs. 84, 85 (1991), excerpted in STEINER & ALLSTON, supra note 1, at
476-79; Peter R. Baehr, Amnesty InternationalandIts Self-Imposed Limited Mandate, 12 NETH. Q. Hum.
RTs. 5 (1994); Jerome Shestack, Sisyphus Endures: The InternationalHuman Rights NGO, 24 N.Y.L. SH. L.
REv. 89 (1978-79); Theo van Boven, The Role of Non-GovernmentalOrganizationsin InternationalHuman
Rights Standard-Setting:A Prerequisiteof Democracy, 20 CAL. W. INT’L L.J. 207 (1989-90).
13. Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of HRW, underscored the savior metaphor when he powerfully defended the human rights movement against attacks that it had failed to move the international
community to stop the 1994 mass killings in Rwanda. He dismissed those attacks as misguided, arguing
that they amounted to a call to close “the fire brigade because a building burned down, even if it was a
big building.” Kenneth Roth, Letter to the Editor, Human-rightsabuses in Rwanda, TIMES LITERARY
SUPP., Mar. 14, 1997, at 15. Turning to various countries in Africa as examples, he pointed to the gratitude of Africans, who with the help of the human rights movement, threw off dictatorial regimes and
inaugurated political freedom. Id. He argued, further, that in some countries, “like Nigeria, Kenya,
Liberia, Zambia, and Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo], the human-rights movement has
helped numerous Africans avoid arbitrary detention, violent abuse and other violations.” Id.
14. This Article contends that the participation of non-European states and societies in the enforcement of human rights cannot in itself universalize those rights. It is important to note that the terms
“European” or “Eurocentric” are used descriptively and do not necessarily connote evil or undesirability.
They do, however, point to notions of cultural specificity and historical exclusivity. The simple point is
that Eurocentric norms and cultures, such as human rights, have either been imposed on, or assimilated
by, non-European societies. Thus the current human rights discourse is an important currency of crosscultural exchange, domination, and valuation.
2001 / Savages, Victims, andSaviors
mined. Instead, a historical understanding of the struggle for human dignity
should locate the impetus of a universal conception of human rights in those
societies subjected to European tyranny and imperialism. Unfortunately, this
is not part of the official human rights narrative. Some of the most important events preceding the post-1945, United Nations-led human rights
movement include the anti-slavery campaigns in both Africa and the United
States, the anti-colonial struggles in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and
the struggles for women’s suffrage and equal rights throughout the world. 15
But the pioneering work of many non-Western activists 16 and other human
rights heroes are not acknowledged by the contemporary human rights
movement. These historically important struggles, together with the norms
anchored in non-Western cultures and societies, have either been overlooked
or rejected in the construction of the current understanding of human
Second, the SVS metaphor and narrative rejects the cross-contamination
of cultures and instead promotes a Eurocentric ideal. The metaphor is
premised on the transformation by Western cultures of non-Western cultures into a Eurocentric prototype and not the fashioning of a multicultural
mosaic.”‘ The SVS metaphor results in an “othering” process that imagines
the creation of inferior clones, in effect dumb copies of the original. For example, Western political democracy is in effect an organic element of human
rights.1 9 “Savage” cultures and peoples are seen as lying outside the human
rights orbit, and by implication, outside the regime of political democracy.
It is this distance from human rights that allows certain cultures to create
victims. Political democracy is then viewed as a panacea. Other textual examples anchored in the treatment of cultural phenomena, such as “traditional” practices that appear to negate the equal protection for women, also
illustrate the gulf between human rights and non-liberal, non-European
17. The author uses the term “cross-contamination” facetiously here to refer to the idea of “crossfertilization.” Many Western human rights actors see the process of multiculturalization in human rights
as contaminating as opposed to cross-fertilizing in an enriching way. For example, Louis Henkin has
accused those who advocate cultural pluralism or diversity of seeking to make human rights vague and
ambiguous. Louis HENKIN, THE AGE OF RIGHTS, at x (1990). In other words, he casts cross-fertilization
as a negative process, one that is contaminating and harmful to the clarity of human rights.
18. Slater argues that the “Western will to expand was rooted in the desire to colonize, civilize and
possess the non-Western society; to convert what was different and enframed as inferior and backward
into a subordinated same.” Slater, supra note 2, at 101.
19. For a discussion on the relationship among human rights, political democracy, and constitutionalism, see STEINER & .ALSTON,supra note 1, at 710-25.
HarvardInternationalLawJournal / Vol 42
Third, the language and rhetoric of the human rights corpus present
significant theoretical problems. The arrogant and biased rhetoric of the
human rights movement prevents the movement from gaining cross-cultural
legitimacy.20 This curse of the SVS rhetoric has no bearing on the substance
of the normative judgment being rendered. A particular leader, for example,
could be labeled a war criminal, but such a label may carry no validity locally because of the curse of the SVS rhetoric. 21 In other words, the SVS
rhetoric may undermine the universalist warrant that it claims and thus engender resistance to the apprehension and punishment of real violators.
The subtext of human rights is a grand narrative hidden in the seemingly
neutral and universal language of the corpus. For example, the U.N. Charter
describes its mandate to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the
dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and
women and of nations large and small.” 22 This is certainly a noble ideal. But
what exactly does that terminology mean here? This phraseology conceals
more than it reveals. What, for example, are fundamental human rights, and
how are they determined? Do such rights have cultural, religious, ethical,
moral, political, or other biases? What exactly is meant by the “dignity and
worth” of the human person? Is there an essentialized human being that the
corpus imagines? Is the individual found in the streets of Nairobi, the slums
of Boston, the deserts of Iraq, or the rainforests of Brazil? In addition to the
Herculean task of defining the prototypical human being, the U.N. Charter
puts forward another pretense-that all nations “large and small” enjoy
some equality. Even as it ratified power imbalances between the Third
World 23 and the dominant American and European powers, the United Nations gave the latter the primary power to define and determine “world
peace” and “stability.”24 These fictions of neutrality and universality, like so
much else in a lopsided world, undergird the human rights corpus and belie
its true identity and purposes. This international rhetoric of goodwill re20. Since the rhetoric is flawed, those who create and promote it wonder whether it will resonate “out
there” in the Third World. The use of the SVS rhetoric is in itself insulting and unjust because it draws
from supremacist First World/Third World hierarchies and the attendant domination and subordination
which are essential for those constructions.
21. For example, Serbs sympathized with former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milogevi6 possibly because they felt he had been stigmatized by the West. Milogevk played to locals’ fears of the West and
used the arrogance of the discourse to blunt the fact
that he is an indicted war criminal. See e.g,, Niles
Lathem, DefiantM’lotevi. Hell, No, I won’tgo!, N.Y. POST,Aug. 7, 1999, at 10.
22. U.N. CHARTER pmbl.
23. The term “Third World” here refers to a geographic, political, historical, developmental, and racial paradigm. Itis a term that is commonly used to refer to non-European, largely non-industrial, capital-importing countries, most of which were colonial possessions of European powers. As a political force,
the Third World traces its origins to the Bandung Conference of 1955 in which the first independent
African and Asian states sought to launch a political movement to counter Western hegemony over
also Makau Mutua, What is TWAIL?,in PROC. 94TH ANN.MEETING-AM. SOC’Y INT’L L. (forthcoming
24. Dianne Otto, Subalternity and InternationalLaw: The Problems of GlobalCommunity and the IncommensurabilityofDifference, 5 Soc. &LEGAL STUD. 337, 339-40 (1996).
2001 / Savages, Victims, andSaviors
veals, just beneath the surface, intentions and reality that stand in great tension and contradiction with it.
This Article is not merely about the language of human rights or the
manner in which the human rights movement describes its goals, subjects,
and intended outcomes. It is not a plea for the human rights movement to
be more sensitive to non-Western cultures. Nor is it a wholesale rejection of
the idea of human rights.25 Instead, the Article is fundamentally an attempt
at locating-philosophically, culturally, and historically-the normative
edifice of the human rights corpus. If the human rights movement is driven
by a totalitarian or totalizing impulse, that is, the mission to require that all
human societies transform themselves to fita particular blueprint, then
there is an acute shortage of deep reflection and a troubling abundance of
zealotry in the human rights community. This vision of the “good society”
must be vigorously questioned and contested.
Fourth, the issue of power is largely ignored in the human rights corpus.
There is an urgent need for a human rights movement that is multicultural,
inclusive, and deeply political. Thus, while it is essential that a new human
rights movement overcome Eurocentrism, it is equally important that it also
address deeply lopsided power relations among and within cultures, national
economies, states, genders, religions, races and ethnic groups, and other societal cleavages. Such a movement cannot treat Eurocentrism as the starting
point and other cultures as peripheral. The point of departure for the movement must be a basic assumption about the moral equivalency of all cultures. Francis Deng has correctly pointed out that to “arrogate the concept
[of human rights] to only certain groups, cultures, or civilizations is to aggravate divisiveness on the issue, to encourage defensiveness or unwarranted
self-justification on the part of the excluded, and to impede progress toward
a universal consensus on human rights.”
The fifth flaw concerns the role of race in the development of the human
rights narrative. The SVS metaphor of human rights carries racial connotations in which the international hierarchy of race and color is reintrenched
and revitalized. The metaphor is in fact necessary for the continuation of the
global racial hierarchy. In the human rights narrative, savages and victims
are generally non-white and non-Western, while the saviors are white. This
old truism has found new life in the metaphor of human rights. But there is
also a sense in which human rights can be seen as a project for the redemp-
25 I have argued elsewhere that all human cultures have norms and practices that both violate and
protect human rights. Fundamental to this idea is the notion that all cultures construct their view of
human dignity. What is needed is not the imposition of a single culture’s template of human dignity but
rather the mining of all cultures to craft a truly universal human rights corpus. See generally Makau wa
Mutua, The BanjulCharterandthe African CulturalFingerprint:An Evaluationof the Language ofDuties, 35
VA. J. INT’L L. 339 (1995).
26. Francis M. Deng, A CulturalApproach to Human Rights Among the Dinka, in HuMN RIGHTS IN
AFRICA: CROSS-CULTURAL PERSPECTIVES 261, 261 (Abdullahi A. An-Na’im & Francis M. Deng eds.,
HarvardInternationalLawJournal / Vol. 42
tion of the redeemers, in which whites who are privileged globally as a people-who have historically visited untold suffering and savage atrocities
against non-whites-redeem themselves by “defending” and “civilizing”
“lower,” “unfortunate,” and “inferior” peoples. The metaphor is thus laced
with the pathology of self-redemption.
As currently constituted and deployed, the human rights movement will
ultimately fail because it is perceived as an alien ideology in non-Western
societies. The movement does not deeply resonate in the cultural fabrics of
non-Wester states, except among hypocritical elites steeped in Western
ideas. In order ultimately to prevail, the human rights movement must be
moored in the cultures of all peoples.
The project of reconsidering rights, with claims to their supremacy, is not
new. The culture of rights in the present milieu stretches back at least to the
rise of the modern state in Europe. It is that state’s monopoly of violence and
the instruments of coercion that gave rise to the culture of rights to counterbalance the abusive state. 28 Robert Cover refers to this construction as the
myth of the jurisprudence of rights that allows society to both legitimize
and control the state.29 Human rights, however, renew the meaning and
scope of rights in a radical way. Human rights bestow naturalness, transhistoricity, and universality to rights. But this Article lodges a counterclaim
against such a leap. This Article is certainly informed by the works of critical legal scholars, 30 feminist critics of rights discourse, 31 and critical race
theorists. 32 Still, the approach of this Article differs from all three because it
27. But genuine reconstructionisrs must not be mistaken with cynical cultural manipulators who will
stop at nothing to justify repressive rule and inhuman practices in the name of culture. Yash Ghai powerfully exposed the distortions by several states of Asian conceptions of community, religion, and culture
to justify the use of coercive state apparatuses to crush dissent, protect particular models of economic
development, and retain political power within the hands of a narrow, largely unaccountable political and
bureaucratic elite. Yash Ghai, Human Rights andGovernance: The Asia Debate, 15 AusTL. YB. INT’L L. 1
Such cultural demagoguery is clearly as unacceptable as is the insistence by some Western academics
and leaders of the human rights movement that the non-West has nothing to contribute to the human
rights corpus and should accept the human rights corpus as a gift of civilization from the West. Sce Aryeh
Neier, Asia’s UnacceptableStandard,92 FOREIGN POL’Y 42 (1993). Henkin has written that the United
States viewed human rights “as designed to improve the condition of human rights in countries other
than the United States (and a very few like-minded liberal states).” HENKIN, supra note 17, at 74. Elsewhere, Henkin has charged advocates of multiculturalism and ideological diversity in the reconstruction
of human rights with desiring a vague, broad, ambiguous, and general text of human rights, one that
would be easily manipulated by regimes and cultures bent on violating human rights. Id. at x.
28. See Robert M. Cover, Obligation:A Jewish Jurisprudenceof the Social Order, 5 J.L. & RELIGION 65
29. Id. at 69. See also JOHN LOcKE, Two ‘ThEAnsEs OF GOVERNMENT (Peter Laslett ed., Cambridge
Univ. Press 1988) (1690).
30. For examples of critical legal scholarship, see generally Karl E. Klare, The Publc/PrivateDistinction
in Labor Law, 130 U. PA. L. REv. 1358 (1982); Mark Tushnet, An Essay on Rights, 62 TEX. L. REv. 1363
31. For examples of feminist critiques of the law, see generally Frances Olsen, Statutory Rape: A Fednist Critiqueof Rights Analysis, 63 TEx. L. REv. 387 (1984); Elizabeth M. Schneider, The Dialectic ofRights
andPolitics:PerspectivesFrom the Women’s Movement, 61 N.Y.U. L. REV. 589 (1986).
32. For examples of critical race theory scholarship, see generally CRITICAL RACE THEORY: THE KEY
2001 / Savages, Victims, and Saviors
seeks to address an international phenomenon and not a municipal, distinctly American question. The critique of human rights should be based
not just on American or European legal traditions but also on other cultural
milieus. The indigenous, non-European traditions of Asia, Africa, the
Pacific, and the Americas must be central to this critique. The idea of human rights-the quest to craft a universal bundle of attributes with which
all societies must endow all human beings-is a noble one. The problem
with the current bundle of attributes lies in their inadequacy, incompleteness, and wrong-headedness. There is little doubt that there is much to celebrate in the present human rights corpus just as there is much to quarrel
with. In this exercise, a sober evaluation of the current human rights corpus
and its language is not an option-it is required.
The Article continues to build on this theoretical background. Part II relates human rights to the emergence of European and American senses of
global predestination and the mission to civilize by universalizing Eurocentric norms. Part III focuses on the metaphor of the savage and looks at human rights norms, work, and scholarship to underscore the theme of the
Article. Parts IV and V use the same methodology and approach to explain
the victim and the savior metaphors, respectively. Part VI concludes by contending that since an international discourse on human dignity is desirable
and inevitable, it is imperative that the grand metaphor be abandoned and
the mask of the false consensus lifted so that a new genuine consensus can be
The Charter of the United Nations, which is the constitutional basis for
all U.N. human rights texts, captures the before-and-after, backwardprogressive view of history. It declares human rights an indispensable element for the survival of humankind. It does so by undertaking as one of its
principal aims the promotion of “universal respect for, and observance of,
human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to
race, sex, language, or religion.” 34 This self-representation of human rights
requires moral and historical certainty and a belief in particular inflexible
truths. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the grandest
WRITINGS THAT FORMED THE MOVEMENT (Kimberl6 Crenshaw et al. eds., 1995); Kimberl6 Williams
Crenshaw, Race, Reform, and Retrenchmnent: Transformation and Legitimation in Antidiscrimination Law, 101
HARv. L. REv. 1331 (1988). For examples of critical race feminism, an offshoot of critical race theory, see
generally CRITICAL RACE FEMINISM: A READER (Adrien Katherine Wing ed., 1997); Leila Hilal, What is
CriticalRace Feminism?, 4 BUFF. HUM. RTS. L.REv. 367 (1997) (reviewing CRITICAL RACE FEMINISM: A
READER (Adrien Katherine Wing ed., 1997)).
33. For other probing critiques of the human rights movement, see Raimundo Panikkar, Is the Notion
of Human Rights a Western Concept?, 120 DIOGENES 75 (1982); Bilahari Kausikan, Asia’s Different Standard,92 FOREIGN POL’Y 24 (1993); Josiah A.M. Cobbah, African Values andthe Human Rights Debate: An
African Pespective, 9 HuM. RTS. Q. 309 (1987).
34. U.N. CHARTER art. 55(c). See also id. pmbl.
HarvardInternationalLawJournal / Vol. 42
of all human rights documents, endows the struggle between good and evil
with historicity in which the defeat of the latter is only possible through
human rights. 35 This is now popularly accepted as the normal script of human rights. 36 In fact, there is today an orgy of celebration of this script by
prominent scholars who see in it the key to the redemption of humanity.
But this grand script of human rights raises a multitude of normative and
cultural questions and problems, especially in light of the historical roots of
the human rights movement.
Any valid critique must first acknowledge that the human rights movement, like earlier crusades, is a bundle of contradictions. It does not have,
therefore, a monopoly on virtue that its most vociferous advocates claim.
This Article argues that human rights, and the relentless campaign to universalize them, present a historical continuum in an unbroken chain of
Western conceptual and cultural dominance over the past several centuries.
At the heart of this continuum is a seemingly incurable virus: the impulse to
universalize Eurocentric norms and values by repudiating, demonizing, and
“othering” that which is different and non-European. By this argument, the
Article does not mean to suggest that human rights are bad per se or that
the human rights corpus is irredeemable. Rather, it suggests that the globalization of human rights fits a historical pattern in which all high morality
comes from the West as a civilizing agent against lower forms of civilization
in the rest of the world.
Although the human rights movement is located within the historical
continuum of Eurocentrism as a civilizing mis…
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