by Emily Chai and Jekaterina Saveljeva

“Women’s rights are human rights.” We see these words on banners at protests and demonstrations, on signs at Women’s Marches, on T-shirts and stickers. It’s common sense – women are humans, and therefore their rights are human rights. But when we say that women’s rights are human rights, what exactly are we calling for? Back in 1948, the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Paris defined which fundamental rights were to be protected globally, and it was seen as one of the great moral achievements of human history. But over 70 years later, is the context in which this declaration was made still relevant and applicable in today’s world? And how has that context affected the way human rights are seen and protected? More importantly, has this concept of human rights distracted society from fighting not only for other rights such as constitutional rights, civil and political rights, or natural and legal rights, but for the equal rights of vulnerable populations including women and refugees? Is the real state of human rights different from what we’ve come to believe about it?

The conception of human rights based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships – except that they were still human. The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human. – Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

As much as the world has clung to the human rights rhetoric established in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains a product of history. When we look at the era in which this declaration was drafted, it becomes clear that the codification of human rights is inseparable from the power dynamics of the time. As early as 1965, Louis Henkin – widely considered one of the most influential contemporary scholars of international law and US foreign policy – noted, “with the end of war, observance of human rights was required of defeated nation in the peace treaties. The victors were not subject to similar obligations. That these provisions were imposed on the vanquished gave them the character of punishment, of ‘reparations.’ They were not the responsibility of free nations generally.” In this light, the concept of human rights is cast as post-World War II victor’s justice and becomes the chosen weapon of powerful states to be wielded over other nations. This political and historical context in which human rights were drafted inevitably prioritises state interests over the rights of individuals.

While human rights, as defined by the UN, are “rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status”, they have long been politicised to the advantage of powerful states and to the detriment of individuals. Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman point out in their 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent, that there exist two types of victims – worthy and unworthy. While worthy victims can usually be described as “our own” – or those who stand for the same ideals as the dominant discourse – unworthy victims are the tens of thousands of unknown and unnamed victims who were in the wrong place at the wrong time as the dominant power waged its just wars. The value of a victim is therefore judged by which side of the stage of international relations s/he happens to stand on. Just as “worthy” victims are entitled to human rights, if one finds themselves in the position of an “unworthy” victim, so do their human rights become irrelevant.

Human rights institutions and treaties also allow for nations to prioritise certain fundamental rights over others, which is demonstrated by the separation of civil/political and social/cultural human rights into two separate UN Covenants, with either or both to be acknowledged or dismissed on a state-by-state basis. What is politically beneficial for the international system greatly influences what determines and defines “human rights,” and ultimately the will of the state over the needs of the people results in the lowest common denominator in terms of human rights language.

This dichotomy is evident in the issue of migration and refugees. Granting concrete and specific rights to migrants and refugees would allow them to fight for more than just “basic” rights, which is often not what states want. This is evident in the “open prison” conditions of the Direct Provision system in Ireland, which is set up to deal with asylum seekers (or, as activists claim, to deter asylum seekers). It is also evident in the stateless status of Palestinian refugees, in the thousands of stateless people in Estonia and Latvia, and in many, many more.

Rights of Man turned out to be the rights of the rightless, of the populations hunted out of their homes and land and threatened by ethnic slaughter. They appeared more and more as the rights of the victims, the rights of those who were unable to enact any rights or even any claim in their name, so that eventually their rights had to be upheld by others, at the cost of shattering the edifice of International Rights, in the name of a new right to “humanitarian interference” – which ultimately boiled down to the right to invasion. – Jacques Ranciere, Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?

Since the concept of human rights was designed for states rather than individuals, it can be inferred that, as codified human rights are contingent upon the existence of states, refugees and migrants, or “stateless” people, fall between the cracks and remain unprotected. “Human rights” exist inasmuch as they can be upheld by political powers: refugees, as “stateless” individuals, are therefore deprived of human rights, despite the fact that they are those most in need of protection. This is visible in the present Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (1950), whose activity, according to its statute, does not have a political character but rather only ‘social and humanitarian’ one. Not only does it show nations’ political aversion to refugees, but it also further illustrates the depoliticization of rights for politics’ benefit.

In the currently defined structure of human rights, the rightless are the powerless, and the powerless are the rightless. According to Arendt, “the Rights of Man … were the paradoxical rights of the private, poor, unpoliticized individual”. The paradox is that those who are not at the bottom of society, including those who designed our human rights instruments, already have rights and do not necessarily need to be protected by such tools, while populations such as refugees who would most benefit from human rights protection fall outside of its scope.

This exclusion is not coincidental. Human rights language, created by the powerful, portrays relatively weaker groups as victims and then paints a picture of victimhood that objectifies these populations and strips them of any political or moral value. Of the law, Roland Barthes says, “And this ‘universal’ language comes just at the right time to lend a new strength to the psychology of the masters: it allows it always to take other men as objects, to describe and condemn at one stroke… It knows only how to endow its victims with epithets, it is ignorant of everything about the actions themselves, save the guilty category into which they are forcibly made to fit”. Ironically, the concept of human rights manages to dehumanise vulnerable populations through their perceived victimhood, and it is this dehumanisation that allows society to justify its exclusion of certain groups, such as migrants and refugees, from human rights protection.

So where does this leave women in the 21st century, when the places of power are so well defined? Maybe, at least as an addition to human rights, we can also put “Women’s Rights Are Representation Rights” or “Women’s Rights Are Equal Rights” on our protest banners. Rosa Parks was fighting for more than her human rights when she refused to get off that bus – she was fighting for her civil rights and an equal society: equal opportunity in employment, housing and education, as well as the right to vote, the right of equal access to public facilities, and the right to live free of racial discrimination. Today, women to various degrees still face many of those challenges. So why have we been so distracted by human rights rhetoric designed for a different time and purpose?