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BLOG: “The Weaponisation of Human Rights”

last modified Jan 11, 2018 01:17 PM
Read the blog article about our talk with Chase Madar, Friday 1 December 2017, written by Anouk Wear, member of the CGHR Student Group.

The discussion begins with a reminder that the foundations of the human rights campaigns we see today are in the anti-war movements of the 1970s and 80s. However, its direction has changed and we now see human rights used to ‘grease the wheels of war’; Madar highlights and focuses his talk on this problem.

He argues that we have placed too much faith in the law, in the sense that much of human rights discourse is dominated by legal scholars and whether actions or events are legal. The law can be used to make wars clean, by defining how so much is legal; thus a legal framework is not only used to justify going to war, but also to dictate how conflicts are carried out. By doing so, the human rights industry has ‘embraced war in the name of humanity’ by claiming that much of warfare is necessary to protect people, and furthermore that much of warfare is not illegal. There are inherent problems when integrating human rights with the use of military force; perhaps to do so is incoherent.  

This is demonstrated by the role of law in specific military events. For instance, the 2007 video leaked by Chelsea Manning showed US military officers firing at unarmed civilians from a helicopter. They even fired at an ambulance because it had no clearly displayed red cross. They obtained authorisation for each action from their seniors – nothing they did was illegal or a war crime. ‘War crimes’ is a legal term referring to specific and narrow instances, a distinction from popular usage. There are an abundance of specific legal definitions for what can be carried out in a war. Human rights lawyers have become an integral part of the ‘killing chain’ by routinizing the infliction of violence in a ‘nice, lawful way’. They provide the judgment for soldiers to fire, and in doing so help them feel less guilt over their actions. Meanwhile, major human rights groups do not comment; while this is an unfortunate event, none of it is illegal. It is probable that many similar occurrences happen regularly, but we just do not see them as they do not constitute illegal acts.

Madar states that the problem is that human rights laws are insufficient on their own. They are very useful, but we must also learn more about military history and military science, in addition to having broader debates about politics. We must carefully consider the morality of war, the security of war and the consequences of war to resist the current undisciplined rush to go to war.

Some wars have indeed seen the provision of humanitarian relief, but the providers often had additional motives. For example the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978 did relieve the Cambodians of the Khmer Rouge, but as a neighboring country the Vietnamese acted as much for fear of regional destabilization and to prevent a refugee crisis.

This talk does not condemn warfare, nor the human rights industry. However, Madar demands that we ask more first order questions – those that are broader and come before these discussions. He wants us to talk more about politics and morality, that we consider consequences much more strongly, rather than focusing so much on the law. We must have effective alternatives to prevent disasters and future warfare.

Further Readings: Chase Madar. The Passion of Chelsea Manning: The Story of the Suspect Behind the Largest Security Breach in U.S. History. OR Books, 2011.