Duty is in the face of the other

The End of Human Rights
November 9, 2001

This is a postmodern book on human rights. I take postmodernity to be the character that modernity acquires when it no longer believes in itself. Thus human rights, an essentially modern idea, can also enter into a crisis of identity.

This crisis is hard to see. The concept of human rights today denotes a branch of the law, both domestic and international, that is increasingly self-confident. Entrenched in treaties, constitutions and laws, human rights are understood as specific norms that impose limits on the exercise of public power and also allow power to be exercised.

Burke's characterisation of human rights as vague "metaphysical rights", rooted in a divine law or a law of nature, has become obsolete. Human rights are now part of human law.

A human-rights law, by defining the limits of power, also establishes the limits of freedom. But limits are always a cause of controversy. Like the high seas, human rights can be calm or rough, crisscrossed by debates over where their limits should lie. They are used as rhetorical resources, offering both rights and "exceptions" and "clawback" clauses. For example, governments' appeals to national security or public order clash with journalists' calls for freedom of speech, which, in their turn, compete with celebrities' rights to privacy.

The field of human rights is an arena of conflict, and the courts of law that are called on to resolve disagreements of interpretation are themselves split on the issues.

The title of Costas Douzinas's passionate and polemical book, The End of Human Rights , seems to refer to the end of the self-confidence of human rights and the start of their gradual domestication in the late 20th century (there may be also some playing with the concept of an end as a goal).

Douzinas feels that the original, revolutionary idea of human rights has been forgotten or betrayed on the long journey of the idea of a higher or "natural" law, from Plato to the French intellectuals writing in the postmodern mode. Telling the story of the idea is showing the historicity of human rights.

The End of Human Rights offers a strong critique of the dominant liberalism of our time. Ours is an age of self-confident liberalism, which is extending its influence around the globe. Human rights protect some fundamental liberal values, always related to the ideal of personal dignity and autonomy. Douzinas shares the substance of the conservative critique of liberalism and of rights: that they are rooted in the insatiable desire of the modern consumer, who demands more and more rights without responsibility. The system has been overloaded by rights, with no place for duty. Douzinas believes that liberalism has finally found its selfish, immoral truth in Jacques Lacan's imperative: "Never give up on your desire."

Douzinas comments: "If the satisfaction of endlessly proliferating desire is the only morality left in a disenchanted world, rights become the last human value. Human rights are the values of a valueless world." Against desire, Douzinas opposes ethical obligation. As Jean-Francois Lyotard, whom he quotes, writes: "The other is nothing but his or her request and my obligation."

To be fair to Lacan, the recognition of desire is crucial for the clinical practice of psychoanalysis. Unconscious desire is the central concern of psychoanalysis, and its articulation in speech is an indispensable therapeutic objective. Lacan is warning against the (often pious) denial of desire.

But Douzinas is seeking a new foundation for human rights - a foundation that will renew the ethical commitment necessary for the dignity of human beings. For this foundation, he turns to the Hegelian concept of the recognition of the "other". Human rights must be grounded in the "first fundamental ethical duty", the duty to help the helpless. The face of the homeless, the face of political refugees, the face of the victims of injustice, are not faces of "right bearers" - an abstraction - but the face of our ethical duty. It is when the face of the other is invisible that the worst violations of human rights are possible.

Douzinas's case for a return to the revolutionary tradition of human rights fills in the vacuum left by the collapse of revolutionary movements in the 20th century. That was a century that left us surrounded by injustice and complacency. However, the achievements of human rights in that century should not be dismissed. Human rights have created a culture of argument, a frame for public discourse, identifying which justifications may be deemed adequate and which may not. More important, human-rights activism has made the denial of crimes against humanity much more difficult. The trial of Augusto Pinochet is itself less significant than the space it created for the memory of the victims, which had until then been excluded from official history.

But, all in all, this book develops a relevant argument against complacency and triumphalism and it is a great contribution to the radical critique of liberalism in general and human rights in particular. Although it is difficult, it deserves to appear on human-rights reading lists in courses that cover these topics.

Rolando Gaete was reader in socio-legal studies, South Bank University, until 2000. He is now completing a PhD in psychoanalysis at the Universidad Andres Bello, Santiago, Chile.

The End of Human Rights: Critical Legal Thought at the Turn of the Century

Author - Costas Douzinas
ISBN - 1 901362 91 4 and 1 84113 000 1
Publisher - Hart
Price - £33.00 and £16.00
Pages - 410

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