Human rights are not perfect, but we should defend them against this onslaught.
Political scientist Wendy Brown, quoting Gayatri Spivak, calls human rights ‘that which we cannot not want’. Spivak’s formulation is reminiscent of the late Lord Bingham’s rhetorical question: ‘Which of these rights, I ask, would we wish to discard? Are any of them trivial, superfluous, unnecessary?’ Or Liberty’s simpler formulation: What’s not to love?
Brown goes on to say that Spivak calls human rights ‘that which we cannot not want’ in the context of knowing their limitations, in the context of knowing what ‘hidden cruelties’ and ‘unemancipatory relations of power’ are concealed within liberalism’s ‘sunny formulations of freedom and equality’. She gives a carefully articulated account of the paradoxes and limitations of human rights law as a tool of emancipation for subjugated groups. Ben Golder also explores the ‘limits and possibilities’ of human rights through the writings of Foucault and others (see, for example, this great lecture or this paper; and I just found another great free paper on this topic by Souter). I hope I’m not butchering their carefully formulated arguments when I summarise them thus: the problem with human rights is that they attenuate, soften, and tinker round the edges of the problems of inequality and oppression in our society, but they do not rupture the status quo to affect the structural background to these concerns.