The Usefulness of Human Rights

Reading the odd, short book Things That Can and Cannot Be Said, I was reminded of the gripping 1979 study by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky on “the political economy of human rights.” The date of publication is significant. The Carter administration had been in power over two years. It was Carter’s task, after the U.S. generated bloodbaths in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in the 1960s and 70s, to restore faith in the American Way, by assuring the world that “human rights” was the heart and soul of American policy. You could see how true this was by considering the close, cozy relations between the Carter presidency and dictators like Somoza, Duvalier, Suharto, the South American generals, and the Shah of Iran.

Actor John Cusack invited writer Arundhati Roy to rendezvous with whistle blower Edward Snowden and Pentagon Papers whistle-blower Dan Ellsberg. Things That Can and Cannot Be Said has short essays and conversations about issues pertaining to state power and surveillance. Most interesting for me, though, are Roy’s remarks on human rights scattered over a few pages:

The idea of “human rights,” for example—sometimes it bothers me. Not in itself, but because the concept of human rights has replaced the much grander idea of justice. Human rights are fundamental rights, they are the minimum, the very least we demand. Too often, they become the goal itself. What should be the minimum becomes the maximum—all we are supposed to expect—but human rights aren’t enough. The goal is, and must always be, justice. [55]

Look at the Israel-Palestine conflict, for example. If you look at a map from 1947 to now, you’ll see that Israel has gobbled up almost all of Palestinian land with its illegal settlements. To talk about justice in that battle, you have to talk about those settlements. But, if you just talk about human rights, then you can say, “oh, Hamas violates human rights,” “Israel violates human rights.” Ergo, both are bad. [56]

Human rights takes history out of justice. [57]

The language of human rights tends to accept status quo that is intrinsically unjust—and then tries to make it more accountable. But then, of course, the catch-22 is that violating human rights is integral to the project of neoliberalism and global hegemony. [57]

[T]alk loud enough about human rights and it gives the impression of democracy at work, justice at work. [58]

Outside the U.S. many people would laugh at the claim that support for human rights is intrinsic to American statecraft. This is because they are aware of their own—and other people’s—history at the hands of the U.S. or its allies. The neoliberal agendas at home and abroad are about demolishing human rights, particularly economic and social ones.

On the accountability issue that Roy mentions, the work of James Peck is instructive. In Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-Opted Human Rights, he reviews the work of human rights groups and their focus on some state malefactors and not others: “Human rights groups argue that they cannot address all crimes, that their resources are limited. They do what they can; justice is selective. Yet when justice is consistently inconsistent rather than merely inadequate, other issues arise. Justice that increasingly fails to confront the powerful is not only selective, it has become a weapon of the powerful. Immunity for the prominent is a deeply corrupt basis for an international criminal court, and it points to one of the major challenges confronting the human rights movement.”

Last, Roy poses two questions to spur us on to  gain greater clarity about our history: “Isn’t the greatness of great nations directly proportional to their ability to be ruthless, genocidal? Doesn’t the height of a country’s ‘success’ usually also mark the depths of its moral failure?”


Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, The Political Economy of Human RightsThe Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, v.1; After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology, v.2 (South End Press, 1979).

James Peck, Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights (American Empire Project, 2011).

Arundhati Roy and John Cusack, Things That Can and Cannot Be Said: Essays and Conversations (Haymarket, 2016)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *