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  • Human Rights and the Collateral Damage of Neoliberalism
  • Jessica Whyte (bio)
A commentary on “What do Human Rights Do? An Anthropological Inquiry” by Talal Asad, Theory & Event, Vol. 4, No. 4 (2000)

Talal Asad’s essay “What do Human Rights Do?” was published in the year 2000 in the immediate aftermath of the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia. That same year, Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) both released reports that documented and evaluated the civilian deaths during “Operation Allied Force”. Both reports sought to determine whether these deaths complied with international humanitarian law and could therefore be regarded as “collateral damage”, which HRW, following US military usage, defined as “damage to civilian objects and civilian casualties that are incidental to lawful attacks on military objectives.”1 One answer to Asad’s question, ‘What Do Human Rights Do?” is suggested by the title of Amnesty International’s report on the NATO military campaign, “‘Collateral Damage’ or Unlawful Killing”: human rights has become one language used to define certain forms of killing as ‘mere’ “collateral damage”.2

Military action however, as Asad notes, is not the only form of intervention by powerful states into the affairs of others—and nor, he suggests, is it the most important form. “Financial pressures,” he writes, “can have effects that are more far-reaching than many military adventures” yet the ensuing devastation cannot be viewed as an abuse of human rights.3 This reminds us that Asad’s essay was published not only in the wake of a “humanitarian” bombing campaign but also in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, which led to mass bankruptcy, steep increases in unemployment and forced twenty million people back into poverty.4 To recall, after following US and IMF dictates to liberalize capital markets, countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia were flooded by speculative capital determined to bet against national currencies. These deliberate attacks severely compromised the ability of targeted countries to provide their citizens with basic welfare provisions. In a context of rising unemployment [End Page 137] and poverty, this has been identified as one explanation for the marked increase in suicide rates in the period across the most affected countries, most prominently amongst working aged men.5 Like military bombardments, economic pressures have their “collateral damage” and this “incidental” harm is not easily viewed through the lens of the human rights violation.

If we wish to understand what human rights do, both as legal rules deployed by sovereign states and as a moralizing discourse, Asad suggests that we should attend to the limits of human rights language. What cannot be seen—indeed, what is rendered invisible—through a human rights lens? In asking about the forms of violence that cannot be viewed as violations of human rights, he breaks with a tendency to view the language of human rights as infinitely malleable—or “tactically polyvalent” to cite Michel Foucault.6 Human rights may be a universal discourse and it may be possible to reframe numerous political commitments in the language of human rights, but, as Asad’s work reminds us, this language is not simply a tool to be utilized by sovereign subjects who can use it to mean anything they would like it to mean. To frame questions of justice in the language of human rights implies certain assumptions about what constitutes injustice—and how to vanquish it.

In the decade and a half since the publication of this essay, Asad has made a major contribution to tracing the development of moral sensibilities and norms that distinguish between acceptable and ‘horrifying’ forms of violence. In doing so, he has sought to unsettle the clear distinctions that constitute the self-image of the citizens of liberal states—distinctions between humane and inhumane warfare, between terrorism and war or, in the older language that still shadows the discourse of human rights, between civilized and uncivilized violence.7 In asking what human rights do, Asad resists the assumption that the newer universalizing language simply marks a renunciation of the older languages of barbarism, savagery, and backwardness that were central to the constitution of international law.

Today human rights, as Asad notes, are indeed universal...


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