Global Spaces of Struggle – Human Rights

This is my review / summary of Micheline Ishay’s article in Globalizations , "Promoting Human Rights in the Era of Globalization and Interventions: The Changing Spaces of Struggle," December 2004, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 181-193.

A lot of discussions on globalization have revolved around the question of space. What spatial dimensions are relevant in the global era? What becomes of the local, communal, national, regional and global spaces? What are the mechanisms of power involved at each level… and no, the world is not flat. For Micheline Ishay, the question of space is not settled and this poses a specific problem when it comes to fighting for human rights. She starts with an observation made repeatedly when it comes to the Westphalian order and the national space:

"As globalization progresses, the state seems less able to ensure a fair diffusion of information and to secure the social environment necessary for real democratic debate. Forced out of the piazza popolare by corporate behemoths, progressives are either calling for the rebirth of local politics and communautarian solidarity, or for global action – both virtual and institutional. Whether progressive activities are now local or global, however,  civil society is in danger of being left at the mercy of tycoons. Movements animated by universal human rights principles (or democratic social forces) – as opposed to social forces animated by nationalist and religious fervor or exclusionary agenda – have been weakened as a traditional buffer to state authority. Left increasingly paralyzed by market imperatives and post-September 11 security concerns, human rights activism has been gradually superseded by new authoritarian trends." (181-2)

This fragmentation of activism and dilution of resistance are themselves a product of globalization and information technologies. Indeed, as Ishay indicates, new technologies tend to do two things: carve new spaces of resistance AND create new means of surveillance and power (state and corporate). Information technologies are no exception. Ishay sees this as an opportunity for new forms of human rights activism (the capacity to show case human rights violations on a global scale), but also as a threat as globalization reshapes the state, the civil society (the public sphere) and the private domain (the domestic sphere). The question becomes then that of implication for human rights activism.

Starting with the state, Ishay reiterates the main observation regarding the state: the nation-state has not disappeared under global conditions. What has happened is the weakening of the state’s capacity to promote and sustain public policies aimed at social welfare and redistribution. Moreover, even though we have seen the emergence of powerful global institutions, the transfer of power could only be done by states themselves, agreeing to de-state or de-nationalize (to use Saskia Sassen’s concept) their capacities.

Nevertheless, these global institutions still very much reflect the current distribution of power among states. Similarly, the capacity to project military power very much remains with the core countries (add China to the mix), except that military interventions now need some moral justification rather than the expression of raw  economic interest.

What remains though is the state’s capacity to exercise power and violence against its own citizens. And yet, according to Ishay, the human rights movement might have bought into the argument that the state was finished and that there are more productive spaces of struggle.

"The fact that the state is so porous to global market pressures should not imply that human rights activists should abandon in toto the state’s legislative and enforcement capacity to promote democracy and human rights. To do so would be to accept a reshaping of state power in which the strengthening of the coercive machinery to crush domestic and foreign opponents proceed in tandem with a weakening of welfare, workers’ rights, and democratic governance – a world designed to offer ‘carte blanche’ to corporate and geopolitical interests." (184)

What of the civil society then? That is, these non-state groups who participate in the public sphere of society. How has the civil society been reshaped by globalization? Because there has also been a lot of ink spent on a supposedly democratic civil society to be a counter-balance to corporate and transnational  institutional power. When it comes to human rights and the (global) civil society, Ishay identifies two trends:

A negative trajectory in the form of extreme nationalism and religious fundamentalism at the expenses of social-democratic movements. Ishay also places in that category the demise of the unified redistributive agenda of organized labor and its replacement with fragmented identity agenda of a variety of movements, such as feminist, environmentalist, LGBT and all the ethnic movements.

A positive trajectory through the proliferation of human rights organizations at multiple levels as well as institutions as part of, or along with, the so-called anti-globalization movement.

What these two trends have in common is a rejection of the state and an embrace of the communautarian ideals as well as a rejection of economic globalization perceived not just as a redistributive issue (the movements are relatively insensitive to that) but as an cultural identity issue. However, fighting for human rights (as in the positive trajectory, not the negative one) in such a fashion leaves the space of the state fully open for corporate colonization and state human rights violations without much resistance.

Correlated to this, focusing on the local or the communal as the truly democratic space is an illusion as the local can be just as much a space of oppression as the national or the global. Indeed, religious fundamentalist groups’ emphasis on the "traditional" family structure always turns out to be implemented as horrendously sexist and patriarchal systems when implemented. Finally, the local or communal have no magic mechanisms that will defend them from corporate colonization and consumption culture.

The positive trend though, on the other hand, is visible through the emergence of a global human rights regime with a proliferation of human rights organization working on multiple spaces. As frustrating as this seems to activists, there is no doubt that the establishment of the International Criminal Court along with a stronger body of laws on war crimes and crimes against humanity, along with alternative mechanisms of conflict resolutions such as Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are positive development for the promotion of human rights.

For Ishay, this transnational institutionalism along with better and greater diffusion of information are a clear positive trend but how much power this will weigh against the influence of global institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank as well as the global civil society remains to be seen. One only needs to look at the impact of the War on Terror to see the ambiguities here and complexities here. This is especially true of the human rights community.

"Critical of the unchallenged economic and military hegemony of the United States and at the same time revolted by the inaction of other states in particular instances of gross human rights violations, the human rights community has been struggling to develop a more coherent position. In their simultaneous fights against the United States (or NATO) as self-proclaimed enforcer of human rights and against human rights violators, many welcomed (at least tacitly) the humanitarian interventions in Somalia and Haiti, deplored the indifference of the world, and particularly the paralysis of the United States during the massacres in Bosnia and the genocide in Rwanda, and criticized military interventions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq – despite the fact that targets of intervention were among the world’s worst abusers of human rights." (187-8)

The anti-globalization movement is also plagued with the same ambivalence over a progressive, coherent and unified socio-economic agenda. Indeed, identity issues can be more divisive and than uniting and any whiff of unified politics has a tendency to be trashed as neo-colonialist. In both cases, abandoning the space of the state might be a mistake.

Then, this leaves the domestic / private sphere. Ishay identifies several trends here:

"Social stability is challenged when both the family and civil society are in disarray. In the absence of democratic forces in the public space, should we be surprised that patriarchal control over women in Middle Eastern societies, a replica of authoritarian power on the domestic level, appeases and empowers Muslim men while diverting them from unleashing their frustration against the repressive state? Should we be surprised that in the absence of a vibrant civil society in the West, political interest, as in the United States, often takes the form of fascination with sexual politics? (…) Should we be surprised when the media mirror household concerns in the political realm, or when the affairs of the state are reduced to the politics of domesticity?" (189)

At the same time, the domestic sphere itself is being colonized by commercialism and commodification. in a way very reminiscent of Habermas’s colonization of the lifeworld by the system. The Western family is more than ever a consumption unit. In addition, the reach of the surveillance society has increased both from the corporate and the state and has penetrated deeper into individuals and households’ lives. The question of right to privacy in the context of the transparent society is very much a crucial one. Is there indeed a private sphere anymore? Paging Michel Foucault for a discussion on Bentham’s Panopticon.

"Protecting the space for critical thinking and privacy, as well as reallocating individual roles within the family in the direction of greater fairness, are important preconditions or revitalizing democratic participation in an increasingly consumer-oriented society. In general, new participatory arenas must be sought to enable citizens to resist the increasingly unregulated intrusion of the state and commercial interests into various arenas of social and personal activities." (190)

As Ishay concludes then

"The struggles for spatial interaction in the face of an atomized and repressed civil society have never been more important." (191)

And in this struggle, no spatial dimension (such as the national state) can be simply abandoned and left to commercial interests. At the same time, this struggle also needs a clearer and more coherent agenda.

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