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The South Atlantic Quarterly 103.2/3 (2004) 523-581

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Righting Wrongs

The primary nominative sense of rights cited by the Oxford English Dictionary is "justifiable claim, on legal or moral grounds, to have or obtain something, or to act in a certain way." There is no parallel usage of wrongs, connected to an agent in the possessive case—"my wrongs"—or given to it as an object of the verb to have—"she has wrongs."

Rights entail an individual or collective. Wrongs, however, cannot be used as a noun, except insofar as an other, as agent of injustice, is involved. The verb to wrong is more common than the noun, and indeed the noun probably gets its enclitic meaning by back-formation from the verb.

The word rights in "Human Rights, Human Wrongs," the title of the 2001 Oxford Amnesty Lectures series in which this essay was first presented, acquires verbal meaning by its contiguity with the word wrongs.1 The verb to right cannot be used intransitively on this level of abstraction. It can only be used with the unusual noun wrong: "to right a wrong," or "to right wrongs." Thus "Human Rights" is not only about having or claiming a right or a set of rights; it is also about righting wrongs, about being the dispenser of [End Page 523] these rights. The idea of human rights, in other words, may carry within itself the agenda of a kind of social Darwinism—the fittest must shoulder the burden of righting the wrongs of the unfit—and the possibility of an alibi.2 Only a "kind of" Social Darwinism, of course. Just as "the white man's burden," undertaking to civilize and develop, was only "a kind of" oppression. It would be silly to footnote the scholarship that has been written to show that the latter may have been an alibi for economic, military, and political intervention. It is on that model that I am using the concept-metaphor of the alibi in these introductory paragraphs.

Having arrived here, the usual thing is to complain about the Eurocentrism of human rights. I have no such intention. I am of course troubled by the use of human rights as an alibi for interventions of various sorts. But its so-called European provenance is for me in the same category as the "enabling violation" of the production of the colonial subject.3 One cannot write off the righting of wrongs. The enablement must be used even as the violation is renegotiated.

Colonialism was committed to the education of a certain class. It was interested in the seemingly permanent operation of an altered normality. Paradoxically, human rights and "development" work today cannot claim this self-empowerment that high colonialism could. Yet, some of the best products of high colonialism, descendants of the colonial middle class, become human rights advocates in the countries of the South. I will explain through an analogy.

Doctors without Frontiers—I find this translation more accurate than the received Doctors without Borders—dispense healing all over the world, traveling to solve health problems as they arise. They cannot be involved in the repetitive work of primary health care, which requires changes in the habit of what seems normal living: permanent operation of an altered normality. This group cannot learn all the local languages, dialects, and idioms of the places where they provide help. They use local interpreters. It is as if, in the field of class formation through education, colonialism, and the attendant territorial imperialism had combined these two imperatives—clinic and primary health care—by training the interpreters themselves into imperfect yet creative imitations of the doctors. The class thus formed—both (pseudo)doctor and interpreter, as it were—was the colonial subject.

The end of the Second World War inaugurated the postcolonial dispensation. [End Page 524]

It was the U.N. Special Committee on Decolonization . . . that in 1965 asked the Commission [on Human Rights, created in 1946] to process the petitions that the Committee was receiving about human rights violations in southern Africa. . . . [Until the mid...