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  • A Question of Narration: The Voice in International Human Rights Law
  • Joseph Slaughter (bio)

The question of identification is never the affirmation of a pregiven identity, never a self-fulfilling prophecy—it is always the production of an image of identity and the transformation of the subject in assuming that image. 1

International human rights law codifies the rights of the individual in increasingly concrete and justiciable form, and reflects international consensus on the inviolability of the individual and on the urgency of enforcement of human rights that flow from that consensus. 2

I. Introduction: The “Subject” of this Paper

The two epigraphs that preface this article (the first taken from the field of contemporary literary and philosophical theory and the second from that of the international human rights law community) point to a central, but often underexamined, conception of human rights in contemporary society. Where Homi Bhabha identifies the production of human subjectivity as a psycho-metaphysical process of “assuming” an image of identity, 3 Rita Maran suggests that international consensus, as codified in international human rights law, constructs a juridical subjectivity based on the premise of [End Page 406] human dignity, “the inviolability of the individual.” 4 Examining the nature of the conflict between these two points of view, this paper will attempt to demonstrate the fruitfulness of a cross-disciplinary approach to understanding and formulating contemporary human rights policy and law. From its inception, human rights law has relied on both philosophical inquiry into, and sociological understanding of, the nature of human subjectivity, whether explicitly expressed or implicitly referenced. The nature of our understanding of human subjectivity is central to any thorough discussion of human rights. 5

This article will treat these competing conceptions of human subjectivity—a subjectivity based in inherent human traits and one that resides in a determinative process—as they influence, reflect, and respond to international consensus in the development of human rights law. Specifically, this article undertakes to analyze a particularly troublesome, yet resonant, historical event in order to contribute to the ongoing discussion of international human rights conceptions. A rough sketch of contemporary legal theorizations as they construct and reflect current conceptions of subjectivity will introduce a number of arguments about human rights, and how they should be understood in a post Cold War, post-colonial era. This discussion will lead to the proposition that human rights in general, and human rights law in particular, can be productively formulated in terms of narrative genres and narrative voices.

Offering a detailed example of how human rights function as narrative constructions, this article will analyze the specific human rights violation of torture as practiced by the French in the historical context of the Algerian Revolution (1954–1962). 6 The decision to examine torture is not completely arbitrary. As a human rights violation, torture is paradigmatic in its implementation as a tool to destroy a speaking subject. Human rights violations target the voice, and therefore, the voice should be the focus of international human rights instruments. This can be accomplished by examining the details of other violations: the repression against Rigoberta Menchú by the Guatemalan Army in the late 1980s; the illegal detention of Jacobo Timerman in Argentina during the late 1970s; or the recent execution of Kenule Saro-Wiwa by the Nigerian government. However, the [End Page 407] details of the torture of civilians in Algeria by the French military and the colonial administration allow for a particularly dynamic investigation of the narrative of human rights because the torture occurred concurrently with UN General Assembly calls to end colonialism. Additionally, the state that was practicing torture was influential in the codification of international human rights norms and publicly prided itself on its dedication to those norms.

II. Narratability and Rubrics of Human Rights

In contemporary human rights discussions, many individuals in the international community have offered rubrics of rights that attempt to account for the evolving nature of international norms protecting human rights. These rubrications evidence the desire of the international community to develop a coherent, consistent justification for and definition of the “rights of man.” The recent works of three theorists have been influential in this endeavor: Burns Weston, 7 Richard Falk...

Additional Information

ISSN
1085-794X
Print ISSN
0275-0392
Pages
pp. 406-430
Launched on MUSE
1997-05-01
Open Access
No
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