Human Rights in Camera

February 9, 2012

This is an original and timely work, retelling the story of the development of the concept of human rights through the eyes of the "world spectator" and her confrontation with images of the suffering of distant "others". It presents a refreshing angle and a rich historical account, one that departs from the standard "Enlightenment origins" tale of the evolution of human rights. Attractively presented, the book offers pictures and photographs depicting scenes of suffering alongside the author's illuminating commentary and analysis. Sharon Sliwinski's key assertion is that while images depicting the pain of others might ignite feelings of outrage in spectators that have "cemented into the language of human rights", they have not in general translated into political action against such abuse.

Sliwinski's argument might be interpreted as buying into the notion that white Westerners need to save brown "Others" from themselves. The more problematic implications of her argument become apparent in the final chapter, in which she explores the Yugoslav civil war and the Rwandan genocide, suggesting that Nato's intervention in Yugoslavia came late and that despite evidence of widespread massacres in Rwanda, "United Nations military forces and officials looked on, offering food aid and protesting that there was no will in the international community to do more". To "do more" in this context can only mean armed intervention. Quite apart from the omission of discussion of the "humanitarian intervention" in Iraq and its ongoing disastrous consequences for Iraqis, the author's faith in international law is naive in its failure to account for the power politics at play in decisions of the so-called international community on whether or not to act.

Any author embarking on a project such as Sliwinski's is, tragically, spoiled for choice when selecting historical instances of human rights abuse. She chooses to study the pictorial representation of King Leopold of Belgium's colonial domination of the Congo Free State, the Nazi Holocaust, the Yugoslav civil war and the Rwandan genocide. The most striking omissions are, arguably, Israel's atrocities in Palestine and Lebanon, the invasion of Iraq and the Vietnam War. Discussion of Iraq would have conveyed the complexity surrounding the question of "humanitarian intervention" beyond the simplistic notion of its serving to alleviate suffering. While Sliwinski follows the movements of a journalist travelling with Allied forces during the Second World War, nowhere does she note the implication: the public sees only one side of the war in images sent home. It is surely the US' and the UK's recognition of the power of visual images that led them to impose the practice of embedded journalism during the Iraq war, with appalling consequences for its representation back home, as John Pilger shows in his 2010 film The War You Don't See.

Sliwinski rightly raises the concern that confrontation with distressing images can focus our minds on prevention, diverting us from the crucial question of "why war?". Visual footage of the Vietnam War is known to have inspired public protest, hastening the conflict's end, but it receives only a passing reference here. Vietnam necessarily directs our attention to the power-political causes of war, whereas Sliwinski's explanations, for example of genocide as a "tragedy of neighborly love", tend to psychologism. The example of Vietnam moves us away from fire-fighting responses to suffering and towards tackling its systemic causes in suggesting that collective action can thwart powerful interests. This may be the real "political response", rather than the military intervention implied by Sliwinski. Political responses against intervention are also inspired by images of suffering - although politicians may ignore them; the war on Iraq being a case in point.

While this book partially fulfils its promise of telling the story of human rights "from the bottom up", its conflation of "political response" with military action risks turning it into another top-down tale.

Human Rights in Camera

By Sharon Sliwinski. University of Chicago Press. 192pp, £42.00 and £14.50 . ISBN 97802267653 and 60. Published 18 October 2011

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