Human Rights as Fetish

In the world of American politics, we rarely expect our leaders to take on the sufferings of others in distant corners of the map. After all, the state of the economy, foreign policy, and beyond are often much more immediate, concretely relevant matters. Perhaps we just don’t have faith, perhaps it is what history has taught us, perhaps we simply don’t care. Whichever way, it came as a surprise when the current president of the United States and his then-contender decided to do just that during last fall’s presidential debates — privilege the fate of a people in a little known region in western Sudan called Darfur, for whom fate had dealt an undeniably tough hand. There he was on primetime television, casually offering up the term “genocide” in the manner that one would talk about the arrest of Martha Stewart (tragic) or scold your girlfriend for breaking her Atkins routine. What had changed to bring about such a reversal in norms?

Samantha Power, in her Pulitzer Prize–winning A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, chronicles the historic American allergy to uttering the word genocide — to acknowledge that the systematic extermination of human life is taking place — particularly when it does not happen to coincide with the strategic interests of America or its allies. From the Armenian genocide (in which, Power writes, America had the ability to intervene) to the Holocaust to Iraq and Rwanda, the American government as well as assorted others have consistently tiptoed around the term, more often than not, avoiding its necessary implications, legal and moral.

Doubtless many activists and concerned citizens at large walked away from the television that evening feeling vindicated; the historic mention on such a stage was surely a victory. Right, high-fives all around at the local chapter of Amnesty International. Finally, the suffering of a people far away, on a dark continent no less, had managed to penetrate the power halls of Washington politics. But was it a victory?

That fated fall evening serves as an indication of a remarkably novel trend in American foreign policy. Whatever one thinks of the current American administration, it happens to privilege the language of human rights to an extent that no other administration has in history. Suddenly, what had once been footnotes in the political lexicon — mere afterthoughts to history — have been afforded a platform. Foreign (always foreign) locales and names like Darfur, Chemical Ali, and Nobel-winner Shirin Ebadi have entered the collective vocabulary as this administration has increasingly put the potent mix of democracy, human dignity, and finally, human rights, at the top of its foreign policy agenda. Never mind the business of making distinctions between them all. Mere details.

But before we proclaim the End of History, the glib appropriation of what is often referred to as “rights talk” raises several questions, particularly because what has happened in Darfur since the presidential debate (read precious little) arguably exists as manifestation of a perhaps more alarming trend: Putting a premium on rhetoric without associated action, using a language that smacks of fetishism.

The Bush administration is not the first to use the language of rights. It was during the end of the Vietnam War that human rights most visibly entered the American foreign policy calculus (by now the comparisons between the recent Iraqi elections and the irrational exuberance surrounding 1967’s South Vietnamese elections have been recounted to death). Former president Jimmy Carter elevated the status of human rights, however unsuccessfully, introducing a cabinet level post in its name and revealing a warm and fuzzy side to American politics. And this is to say nothing of the marriage of Cold War interests and human rights; the tune of “I am the friend of my enemy’s enemy” reverberated throughout the African continent and beyond as countries coming to terms with independence were branded either freedom fighters (hence the human-rights references) or red terrorists with what seemed the arbitrariness of a flip of a coin.

Perhaps what is so remarkable about the current brand of human-rights talk, at this particular time in history, is its categorical nature. This is not human-rights lite. Instead, it’s heavy-handed speak that resides at the top of political agendas — at national security briefings, cabinet meetings, and the like. But what ramifications will this appropriation of rights as language have for the field, much less the populations for whom America purports to speak.

9/11 marked the crucial turning point in giving form to the ideological nature of the current American administration, one that presents itself as diabolically opposed to the forces of Evil and, in equally Manichean manner, assumes the task of the modern-day mission civilisatrice. Suddenly, the world is marked by a “dark threat,” with “no place for human dignity” and characterized by “joyless conformity.” In the speech from which these quotations emanated, an address to graduates of West Point, President Bush went on to use the words “freedom” and “free” as if he owned the rights to them — no less than thirty times in the span of a single speech. Finally, someone had taken former President Carter’s soft-on-rights approach and armed it with teeth, sugarcoating militaristic tendencies with the language of the contemporary crusade.

In Iraq, human rights have evolved into a clutch legitimizing factor in dethroning Saddam. Following the missing WMD debacle, rights jumped to the fore as a reference point in dismissing Saddam as a maniacal fraud who terrorized his own population. Again, the irony of seizing upon this après le fait is not lost on all, and likely brought to us by those very verbal acrobats who likened the defense of Kuwait in 1991 to a fight for democracy.

The Bush administration’s position on human rights is perhaps best evidenced in the thirty-one-page National Security Strategy report that President Bush submitted to the US Congress at the end of September of 2002. The document’s emphasis on pre-emptive military action and its disdain for the rule of international law have made it the object of much interest (understatement). But also noteworthy is the language used to articulate the notion of rights. Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth has noted the document’s emphasis on a vague notion of “human dignity,” rather than direct reference to the concrete language of “rights.” Roth has argued that the verbal slippage, which seems innocent enough, creates loopholes from which the US may evade international obligations linked to the legal conception of rights. But isn’t “human dignity” enough? No, say Roth and others, not only does it sidestep international law, but it also smells of paternalism, rendering disempowered “victims” those it applies to.

So why the language of ambiguity? This is likely where the well-documented double standards begin. Suddenly, America’s marriage of convenience to a number of states with sub-par human rights records merits scrutiny. With Pakistan’s post-9/11 strategic partnership with the US in its war on terror came the easing of diplomatic and economic sanctions, the resumption of arms sales and the promise of massive financial bounties. The same treatment applied to Saudi Arabia, from which the US receives upwards of twenty percent of its oil imports. Egypt, which famously receives aid only second in line to Israel, is called upon to “show the way toward democracy in the Middle East” — so says the President during his second inaugural address. Forget the fact that activists continue to be held in Egyptian prisons without trial, that the country remains under emergency law, and that President Hosni Mubarak has been ruling uncontested for two decades and a half. His February announcement that he would amend the constitution to allow for direct, multiparty elections seemed to excite western analysts and the New York Times more than it did most Egyptians — a people accustomed to pomp with little delivery.

In a recent New Yorker piece, Jane Mayer further chronicled the unholy relationship between America and some of its allies, extraditing terrorist suspects to foreign states for brutal interrogation. This “extraordinary rendition” policy allows the US to put the onus of abuse on its “strategic partners,” as if to say, We don’t carry out torture, but you can, thank you very much. Egypt sits on top of the list of recipients, while Morocco, Syria, and Jordan also figure heavily. Other strategic partners are notorious human-rights abusers; Uzbekistan, Russia, China, and Venezuela merit the raise of an eyebrow when President Bush speaks of the import of human dignity, what have you. But perhaps these are just details amidst a state of never-ending code oranges, occasional code reds.

And all of this is to say nothing of the ironies of suspending international law at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and Afghanistan’s Bagram. Alberto Gonzales, the man who has taken over former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s coveted job, was central in laying the legal foundation of the Bush Administration’s infamous detention and interrogation policies. Fetishism is about the cult of worship. But worship does not necessarily imply actualization. The appearance of it all, its monumental iconography, is often quite enough.

But what of keeping up appearances? Having decided that the democracy deficit was the root of all terrorism, and that democracy = human rights, the unequivocal target of the bulk of the administration’s liberalizing rhetoric has been the Arab world — making it particularly revealing to look at as a case study. The release of the United Nations Arab Human Development Report in 2003 has served as a center point in the crafting of a discourse surrounding reform in the Arab world. Compiled by leading Arab thinkers, the report pinpoints poor governance as the primary source of the region’s woes. Since its release, it has famously received over a million hits on the Internet.

Particularly since the onset of the occupation of Iraq, Washington has begun to elbow its friends in the Middle East. An elbow and a wink, as if to say, Hey, we can’t be talking about the need for democracy in this part of the world when you let your political opposition waste away in maximum security prisons. Lighten up a bit, will you? The Millennium Challenge Account, the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), and the White House’s Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative make up an all-star entourage of prodding tools.

At times the prodding is more unambiguous than not. When Tunisian president Zine el Abidine ben Ali visited the White House in February of 2004, he was met with explicit reference to his country’s human-rights policies. “I look forward to talking to you about the need to have a press corps that is vibrant and free, as well as an open political process. There’s a lot we can talk about,” Bush told a stunned ben Ali in front of reporters.

Do such rapprochements yield results? Cut to elections in historically election-less Saudi, the birth of National Human Rights Council as well as cabinet restructuring in Egypt, electoral reform in Algeria, Jordan, Morocco and Yemen, the drafting of a new constitution (by committee) in Qatar, and a new parliament in Bahrain. In the meantime, from the March 2004 gathering on Arab reform in Alexandria to the Arab League or the Doha Conference on Democracy and Reform in the Arab World, there has been no dearth of conferences and hyperbolic declarations on the sufficiently vague notion of reform. What’s next? Clerics and Co. in Iran dissolve the Islamic Republic and call for teary-eyed reconciliation on the White House lawn, Amrika zende bash as their anthem? Not likely. This may be democracy, but it is democracy at gunpoint after all.

Indeed, while talk has been high on the agenda, some are quick to point out that the constitution of the aforementioned reform get-togethers are marked by tightly controlled participant lists, while final declarations and goals remain lofty — high on ambitious ideas and low on creating a space for concrete change. Others point to the token nature of such initiatives. In Saudi Arabia, for example, many offer that the recent elections were for largely ceremonial municipal councils and, in practice, won’t yield much authority at all to elected representatives.

And while populations push given little openings, their governments push back, as if to say, We will only go so far. American gesture arguably begets reciprocal Arab gesture. The arrest of Ayman Nour earlier this year, an opposition member of the Egyptian parliament and the head of a new political party called El Ghad, or Tomorrow, serves as case in point. Perhaps it was the draft constitution that Nour presented to the People’s Assembly that rubbed state security the wrong way; the draft called for fully democratic presidential elections within a parliamentary republic, thereby curtailing the president’s substantial powers and destabilizing the very basis of President Mubarak’s tenure. Meanwhile, say its detractors, Egypt’s National Human Rights Council has yet to do anything substantive in nature. Its annual report, scheduled to come out in December of 2004, has been delayed again and again.

The question remains, how token is token? However cosmetic these top-down gestures have been, it’s hard to deny that some space has been created for critical discussion and dialogue where there previously was none. Countless western commentators have fixated on the protests last February in which Egyptians gathered downtown, many wearing yellow stickers with the Arabic word for “enough” pasted over their mouths. Their beef? Mubarak’s plan to run for a record fifth term. And at the start of this year, the newly formed independent Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper openly asked readers what they thought of Mubarak in a two-page “man on the street” spread. Seems harmless enough, but in the context of Egypt, it’s no small feat. In January, on King Abdullah’s order, a group of senior Saudi officials met with a visiting delegation from Human Rights Watch, the first time a western human rights group was granted entry to the country. And then there is Lebanon’s Quiet Revolution following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on the Beirut corniche in February. Pundits like Thomas Friedman, whose utterings on the region are read in Biblical fashion in some circles, have gone as far as to proclaim a “Baghdad Spring,” referring to a succession of auspicious reforms in the region. These movements are “very unusual,” notes Friedman in a February 20, 2005, editorial, “like watching camels fly.”

Camels aside, are said reforms wholly attributable to President Bush’s heavy hand in the region, is democracy his gift to mankind? Friedman, Bush, and others run the risk of silencing history, labeling historic elections in Iraq point zero and ignoring the homegrown grassroots movements that have been working in these countries over the course of the last two decades. What of important reforms in Morocco initiated under King Mohammed VI — from alterations in family law to holding competitive multiparty parliamentary elections (deemed free and fair by the US government and the National Democratic Institute) and beyond? What of internal pushes for change (at great cost to the pushers) in Saudi and Bahrain going on since the mid-1990s, or most recently, the organic movement for sovereignty in Lebanon? The latter may have been a case in which Lebanese interests coincided with those of the Bush administration hoping to deprive Syria of its Lebanese/Hizbullah card in the negotiations over Golan with Israel. But hey, does the coincidence make it okay to take all the credit?

It is precisely the fact that the message of reform is marked by the gaffes of its bearer that the human-rights rubric has encountered incredulous masses. In more than one circle, human rights has become synonymous with neo-imperialistic scheming. In Iraq, Iran, and beyond, human rights have been pinpointed as tools of western interest, while many activists have gone as far as to distance themselves from the human rights field, disowning it completely. In Egypt, in the aftermath of the Queen Boat affair (in which gay men were systematically targeted by the state), many local human-rights activists were reluctant to associate with what they viewed as a western-centric notion of sexual rights. Meanwhile, supporters of the aforementioned imprisoned opposition member, Ayman Nour, practically begged the Americans to refrain from rendering him a martyr — realizing that to do so would kill their credibility completely. Needless to say, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s eventual championing of Nour’s cause by boycotting a trip to the region may have caused more harm than good.

Suddenly, human rights has become a term on the order of an expletive, while local human-rights movements have suffered from association with an allegedly American worldview, a top-down imposition that uses the language of rights in order to, say its detractors, impose narrow interests, or alternatively, impose its own views on freedom and such with little awareness of the particular cultural context onto which it is thrusting itself. How does one address the death penalty in a country in which sharia law is administered, or teach AIDS prevention strategies in a country in which abstinence is the rule of thumb?

Webster’s dictionary defines “fetish” in three ways. Though seemingly different enough, all three definitions capture the framework of the flirtation with the human-rights language that has been elaborated above:

1a: an object (as a small stone carving of an animal) believed to have magical power to protect or aid its owner; broadly: a material object regarded with superstitious or extravagant trust or reverence
1b: an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion : PREPOSSESSION
1c: an object or bodily part whose real or fantasized presence is psychologically necessary for sexual gratification and that is an object of fixation to the extent that it may interfere with complete sexual expression
2: a rite or cult of fetish worshipers

While Marx’s vision of fetishism was one in which citizens of the world worshipped commodities, bestowing supernatural value upon them in arbitrary manner, it takes on new resonance in this context: Rather than creating value where it did not exist in the Marxist sense, the current use of human rights language as championed by President Bush et al. has managed to suck all value out. This is Marx’s commodity fetishism in reverse. And on steroids, at that.

For Freud, the fetish is born of the male child’s horror at female castration. Confronted with the mother’s lack of a penis, the child represses this lack and finds an object to serve as substitute. The act involves not only finding the substitute object, but also a subsequent act of forgetting the act of substitution. The fetish is a creative denial, a sort of magical thinking that helps the fetishist ward off anxiety and restore a sense of well-being, all the while producing a kind of amnesia.

So is this a creative denial of the double standards or an ardent belief in freedom’s ring? Whatever it is that moves him to use the language of human rights, President Bush seems utterly intoxicated by it, sliced-bread style. But that’s the danger of falling in love. Love blinds us all. At this rate, the entire human-rights field may soon be rendered a limp stick — hijacked by political convenience and ideology, finally emptied of credibility, weight. As Michael Ignatieff has elaborated at length, human rights are rarely above politics. Nevertheless, here the field runs the risk of becoming an outright slave to it.

But then perhaps Bush’s better half, First Lady Laura Bush, summed it up best in the aftermath of Iraq’s debut elections, post-Saddam, capturing the upside of it all. “It was so moving for the President and me to watch people come out with purple fingers,” she beamed. If that’s not poetic justice, I’m not sure what is.