In 1946, mostly due to the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt, the spouse of the late President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a committee was convened to draft what would become the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As Mary Ann Glendon and Johann Morsink, individual authors of separate books on the UDHR, point out, the context for this document was hardly ideal: It was being developed in the midst of the increasing tensions of the Cold War, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the British handoff of Palestine to form the new Jewish state, and in the midst of an emerging insistence on self-rule in South Asia, among other places.
Passed in 1948, ratified by 48 nations initially, the UDHR is heralded as a guidebook for human rights, presumably obligating all 192 U.N. member nations to acknowledge, if not observe it. It is, by most accounts a “Western” document, crafted by philosophers among others. It evokes the ideals of liberalism and the sacrosanct rights thought to be afforded to the individual, as well as the Kantian notion of human dignity (as something that is beyond value, that does not have a market price). It expresses the unconditional protection that individuals are thought to have with regard to their lives, their health, their ability to marry who they wish (an idea that has taken on a new light in the last few years), to form community with whomever one chooses, to have the ability to determine oneself as one pleases.
The UDHR is a breathtaking document, a mix of unadulterated optimism and seductive naiveté. It is impossible to read without asking how such a framework would ever be enforced. Indeed, this is exactly what students in my courses ask (or more cynically, scoff at). Hannah Arendt, writing in the aftermath of the Holocaust, criticized a human rights framework because of this paradoxical nature:
The Rights of Man, supposedly inalienable, proved to be unenforceable—even in countries whose constitutions were based upon them—whenever people appeared who were no longer citizens of any sovereign state.
The question of enforceability ironically reveals the point of the UDHR: These protections should be assumed to be universal, unconditional, unanimously observed. And yet, as Arendt implies, the loss of human rights is predicated on the increasing dehumanization and vulnerability of those same human beings. The loss of human rights is preceded by the loss of one’s home, the loss of recognition of one’s “distinct” and precious existence.
The question of human rights arises when a people is inexorably moved toward dehumanization: displaced, violated, removed from their land. But the removal of people from their community, their home, already signals “the loss of government protection,” as Arendt says, and the loss of status as beings worth protecting: political beings, legal human beings. This loss is succinctly clinched by philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s phrase “bare life” — the unique, sacred existence of a people rendered into a barely distinguished mass of existence.
The long-standing paradox of human rights is that the declaration to observe them is a hollow scream that follows their loss, which is the consequence of the loss (if there ever was) of government interest in valuing a people.
We see this loss in U.S. government policies since 9/11, most recently inaugurated by the Bush administration but continued and enhanced under the Obama administration: solitary confinement in Supermax and Guantánamo Bay; the torturous force-feeding of Guantánamo hunger strikers; the aggressive detention of undocumented migrants in the U.S.; the aggressive deportation attempts of child refugees from Central America; the rendition of suspected terrorists in CIA black sites (and eventually to U.S. prisons); the entrapment of black and South Asian Muslim men in FBI stings.
Today’s most vivid example is the continued support of Israel’s assault on Gaza, and the U.S.’s support of that assault. Even as pictures of severely injured and dismembered children proliferate online, the Washington Post publishes team editorials and Op-Eds insisting that Israel must “crush Hamas.” Israel justifies carpet-bombing Gaza and the death of hundreds of children by insisting that Hamas uses “human shields.” Even while confessing to being traumatized by pictures of dead civilians, Sen. John Kerry repeated the White House line that Israel “has the right to defend itself.”
The latter is a stale and hollow canard, reiterated by American newspapers and politicians alike. It is especially hollow in the face of an obviously one-sided genocidal pummeling of a tiny region. Gaza is, let’s remember, one of the most densely populated regions in the world, where there are no exits or escape from the relentless bombing except into the sea.
As of last week, the sixth U.N. school was bombed by Israel despite 17 warnings as to the shelter’s location. The U.N. schools were supposed to be protected shelters — intended as refuges for Palestinians who feared their homes would be targeted by Israeli missiles, Yet, despite reports of massive numbers of injuries and casualties, no one in the Israeli government has seen fit to issue an apology. “Self-defense.”
Let us assume for even a moment that despite many firsthand accounts to the contrary, Israel is correct that Hamas is using “human shields.” Shouldn’t this very possibility give Israel pause? If it were indeed a brinkmanship game, given that Israel has been — will be — barely scathed by Hamas’ rockets, shouldn’t it refrain from blanketing Gaza with missiles that are seen to be annihilating hospitals, children, doctors — all unanimously agreed to be innocent targets? (Never mind that Palestinian men, too, are innocent targets, even as few acknowledge that.) It may be relevant to mention here that Israel is familiar with practice of using Palestinians as human shields. Despite a 2005 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that banned the Israeli government from doing so, it was accused of the same practice as recently as last year.
Yet, the constant Israeli retort of “self-defense” obscures Palestinians’ entitlement to human rights as channeled into the UDHR, prioritizing a selective amnesia in the aftermath of the genocide of European Jews. This robotic line is hardly unique to Israel. It has been echoed in justifying the U.S.’s “war on terror.” Remember President George W. Bush’s insistence, in the aftermath of 9/11: “You’re with us or against us”? This is what the assemblage of a “national security” apparatus is — the totalizing, synchronized governmental rhetoric that surrounds us whichever way we turn: From the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to the expansion of the National Security Agency, to the shift in name from INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) to ICE (Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement), the modern Western discourse reminds us that “national security” takes priority above any other consideration.
The message emanates from its paid lackeys and chicken hawks alike, from Sen. Dianne Feinstein to NSA Director Keith Alexander and to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to politicians looking forward to their next campaign (witness Elizabeth Warren’s page and the votes of “progressive politicians from Bernie Sanders to Patrick Leahy) to mercenaries looking for their next million. But “any other consideration” includes not just cost, labor, energy, but also the Lives of Other People (Just Not Ours).
In effect, this is the current post 9/11 global paradigm: F*ck the Lives of Other People (FLOP) in the name of national security. Pundits have called it the New Imperialism, but I think it’s much more apt and succinct to label it as National Security FLOP. This is not to say that NatSec FLOP is original, unique or singular, but it heralds in a (relatively) new epoch, in which human rights have no currency (except when convenient to a government’s rhetorical ethos). Herein lies the brilliant rhetoric of “self-defense,” used all too often to launch an overwhelming, disproportionate attack on an already vulnerable group, invoking the human rights of those who are not in danger: Kill, but always insist that it’s in order to protect “our own” — even when the facts say otherwise.
The seduction of NatSec FLOP is contagious, especially when consumed in conjunction with the self-aggrandizing allure of hunting “TERRORISTS.” Indeed, both of these positions were enthusiastically adopted by nations whose agendas were conveniently enhanced and justified by riding the coattails of American muscularity: the U.K., India, Turkey, Pakistan, to name a few.
This is the paradox of human rights that seems to be in play in the current moment: the rights of certain individuals can only be secured through the promise to kill others in the name of human rights. This is the supposed trade-off promulgated by the United States, borrowed and appropriated by other nations as convenient: national security vs. rights. For the U.S., the trade-off promises, at the domestic level, to be deceptively effective: freedom vs. security (if you want to be safe, then agree to give up (“some of”) your rights — to privacy, to your public dissent, to your conscience, to the violation of your home, your person, your speech, your freedom. Except that most of us – especially blacks, Latinos, Muslims, the poor – residing in the U.S. were never offered that choice.
Internationally, national security has become the defense, the Maginot line against which cries of human rights evaporate.
We see this with regard both to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to condemnations of Israel’s bombing of Gaza hospitals, U.N. schools, private residences and the massive number of children dead: Israel has the “right to defend itself.”
Here’s the thing about self-defense: Self-defense means the deployment of sufficient force to block attacks or injury on one’s property, home or person. It does not mean initiating and sustaining attacks that are disproportionately larger than any imaginable provocation. Self-defense does not mean continuously bombing innocent bystanders — not even accidentally — not one, not two, and certainly not thousands of them — children, women, men, doctors, safety personnel.
According to Norman Finkelstein, who recently wrote a piece on Human Rights Watch’s artful evasion in blaming Israel for its large-scale killings:
International law prohibits an occupying power from using force to suppress a struggle for self-determination, whereas it does not prohibit a people struggling for self-determination from using force.[…]The International Court of Justice (ICJ) stated in its 2004 advisory opinion that the Palestinian people’s “rights include the right to self-determination,” and that “Israel is bound to comply with its obligation to respect the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.” Israel consequently has no legal right to use force to suppress the Palestinian self-determination struggle. Israel also cannot contend that, because this self-determination struggle unfolds within the framework of an occupation, it has the legal right, as the occupying power, to enforce the occupation so long as it endures.
It is difficult to reconcile Israel’s actions with its claims to self-defense, when it has complete control over Gaza’s borders. Self-defense is usually accepted as reasonable when one (person, community, region, nation) is unable to leave the region under attack. Self-defense does not mean blockading all possible openings to a densely packed region that has no other exits nor avenues to get out of the way of these rockets.
In the U.S., it is easy to be habituated to corporate media’s spin and ideology surrounding Israel’s actions toward Palestine, Gaza and the West Bank: It is a fairly standard position that has had long-standing, even when contradicted by opposite realities. And certainly, it is no secret that the U.S. and Israel share the close intimacy, from providing Israel’s funding, weaponry and moral support, even in the face of heinous crimes.
Here is Arendt again:
What is unprecedented is not the loss of a home but the impossibility of finding a new one. Suddenly, there was no place on earth where migrants could go without the severest restrictions, no country where they would be assimilated, no territory where they could found a new community of their own…this moreoever had nothing to do with any material problem of overpopulation; it was a problem not of space but of political organization. Nobody had been aware that mankind, for so long a time considered under the image of a family of nation, had reached the stage where whoever was thrown out of one of these tightly organized closed communities found himself thrown out of the family of nations altogether.” (Arendt, 1951, 293–4)
Arendt here is referring to European minorities who had been displaced, survived the camps, been relocated into refugee camps. But it doesn’t take much to extend this discussion to Palestinians today.
Man, it turns out, can lose all so-called Rights of Man without losing his essential quality as man, his human dignity. Only the loss of a polity expels him from humanity. (Arendt 1951, 297)
How does one go about resurrecting the humanity of a people that has been completely, politically, legally, internationally, abandoned? The answer is obvious, but the solution can only occur when Israel, the U.S. and the rest of the West drop their convenient, selective amnesia.