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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, in the sense that they have been endorsed by almost all states and many citizens and are monitored globally by human rights organizations. Yet he notes that the language of human rights emerges from a lineage for which the extension of European law was explicitly viewed as a project of cultural transformation or “conversion”. In a more recent essay, Asad traces this work of conversion to the sixteenth-century Spanish colonization of the Americas, and to the contention of a figure like Bartolomé de Las Casas that convertibility was a universal attribute of the human. This “sympathetic” position may have implied certain limits on colonial violence but it simultaneously legitimized European expansion and expressed a desire to bring outsiders in to a single moral [End Page 138] universe.8 Today, Asad suggests, most human rights theorists “don’t address seriously enough the thought that human rights is part of a great work of conversion.”9

His own work has served to reveal the destructive side of this process of conversion: destruction that is not limited to the death and rubble that follows “humanitarian” military bombardments, but extends to the undermining of styles of life in the face of the universalization of human rights law and the culture that sustains it. For all its universality and capaciousness, the discourse of human rights implies, and produces, a prescriptive form of human subjectivity. The point is not simply the familiar one according to which the abstract universal subject of human rights disguises the particularly of the white, European male. Rather, as Asad notes elsewhere, “difference is built in to the concept of the human” such that its borders have constantly shifted and its content appears indefinite.10 Yet, even if we accept that the form of subject implied by the ‘human’ of rights can ultimately be claimed by anyone, and can encompass numerous contents, this form is nonetheless highly specific. Lynn Hunt’s historical recounting of the cascading of rights claims, for instance, depicts the very possibility of claiming universal human rights as underpinned by a set of assumptions about individual autonomy and empathetic subjectivity whose cultivation she attributes to the romantic novel. Human rights, in Hunt’s telling, arose from the pulling away of the “webs of community” which enabled us to recognize our selves as possessions and others as similarly self-possessed.11 It may be that this figure of the human has unstable borders and can continue to internalize those who were once self-evidently excluded from it. Yet, Asad’s work prompts us to examine the costs of the universalization of this autonomous, empathetic self-possessed subject.

My own recent work has suggested that one of those costs is the deep implication of the human rights subject with the subject of contemporary neoliberalism. While classical liberalism presupposed an atomized, self-possessed “natural man” as the subject of rights, the “Austro-American” neoliberal thinkers recognized that there was nothing natural about the form of subjectivity most conducive to capital accumulation. Rather, they saw that the constitution of competitive, entrepreneurial subjects required an institutional order capable of overcoming what Friedrich Hayek, for instance, saw as suppressed “primordial instincts” that generated egalitarianism and social solidarity.12 Like the early human rights NGOs, these neoliberal thinkers were deeply suspicious of collective welfarist projects, and their more radical revolutionary counter-parts, and sought to subject political action to rules that would achieve what Hayek called “the dethronement of politics.”13 [End Page 139]

In what follows, I examine Asad’s essay on human rights in the context of an account of the transformation of human rights discourses in the period since its publication—a period marked by the hegemony of neoliberalism. Asad gestures to the historical coincidence between human rights and neoliberalism in Formations of the Secular, in the context of a chapter that builds on his original Theory & Event essay. Noting that both came to prominence in the late 1970s, he suggests this “may not be purely accidental”.14 In beginning to scrutinize this relationship, he prefigured a more recent debate about how best to understand the simultaneous rise of neoliberal political rationalities and the international human rights movement.15 In the remainder of the essay, I wish to take up Asad’s intuition that this simultaneity is not merely accidental.

Nonetheless, I also want to question his own account of this simultaneity, which relies on Richard Tuck’s historical account of the natural rights tradition. If there is more than coincidence to the shared historical fortunes of human rights and neoliberalism, Asad suggests, this may be because “as Tuck has pointed out, while self-ownership and self-preservation are regarded as basic to a natural morality they are also justifications for realpolitik.”16 Asad’s reference to realpolitik situates the relation between human rights and neoliberalism in a framework that is still fundamentally one of Hobbesian power relations between states—even if human rights law becomes a mode for converting people in this world, and neoliberal cost-benefit language defines freedom in quantitative terms.17

I do not want to diminish the place of the state either in the imposition of neoliberal austerity programs or in contemporary “humanitarian” interventions. I do, however, wish to suggest that contemporary forms of transnational humanitarian governance have transformed the relation between the individual human being and the state in ways that render the Arendtian problematic of the relation between the rights of man and the rights of citizens, which Asad uses to argue that human rights still rely on national rights, insufficient for understanding our current conjuncture. Much has changed since 1951, when Arendt first published her account of the “decline of the nation state and the end of the rights of man” less than three years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.18 Since then, the nature of that “intimate and necessary connection” between the nation-state and the rights of man—which Giorgio Agamben notes is implied by Arendt’s formulation19—has shifted as a consequence of both the neo-liberal restructuring of the state and the rise of the global human rights movement.

In contrast to the rights of man tradition, which founded the sovereignty of the state on natural rights, the human rights movement has oriented itself to challenging the state’s prerogative—even as it [End Page 140] has also served to legitimize massive state violence. Today, Arendt’s recognition that one who lacks the protection of a nation-state is also deprived of human rights has become the justification for new forms of intervention like the “responsibility to protect” that aim to extend the protection of human rights to the populations of states that are themselves “unwilling or unable” to provide it. The recognition that human rights cannot be secured without an institutional order (or organized violence) to uphold them, has served to rationalize the projection of military might beyond the borders of sovereign territories. It is to Asad’s credit to have focused attention on such emerging dynamics in the immediate wake of Operation Allied Force in Serbia, which stands out as an early instance of the new “humanitarian intervention.”

In The Rights of War and Peace, Tuck sounds a note of caution about the future of both the sovereign state and the sovereign subject. In the context of a striking argument that the free and autonomous modern subject is modelled on the sovereign state as articulated by the reason of state tradition, Tuck notes that this tradition’s absolute commitment to the autonomy of the sovereign state was profoundly challenged in the course of the twentieth century. This challenge has only intensified since the publication of Tuck’s book, which was initially given as lectures during the first Gulf War, and was published in 1999, just before Asad’s Theory & Event essay. If the sovereign state is under attack; if its autonomy is subjected to increasing pressures; and if, at the limit, it is subjected to forms of military intervention, what are the consequences for its double: the sovereign subject? In taking this homology between individual and state as the basis of her own account of noliberal reason, Wendy Brown provides us with one answer: for Brown, neoliberalism recasts both the state and the subject on the model of the contemporary firm.20 Both states and subjects, she argues, are expected to maximize their own “value” through entrepreneurial processes of investment. The consequent paradigm, Brown argues, is economic rather than political—a paradigm of management rather than one of rule.

What then, do human rights do in a context in which both state and subject are being transformed by neoliberal governmental rationalities? The problem with human rights today is not so much that they conceal their own reliance on national rights, I suggest, but that they have become a discourse that is used to justify both state violence and forms of conversion, including economic conversion, on a global scale.

A Twin ‘Coincidence’: Human Rights and Neoliberalism

To this point, the debate about the relationship between the rise of human rights and the entrenchment of neoliberalism has largely focused on the 1970s, ignoring another historical “coincidence”: in 1947, [End Page 141] when a group of career diplomats gathered in upstate New York to draft an international statement of human rights, assorted economists, philosophers and statesman were meeting across the Atlantic in Mont Pèlerin, Switzerland, with the goal of preserving “the central values of civilization.”21 As was true of human rights, it would be decades before the neoliberalism promulgated by the Mont Pèlerin society would really begin to influence public debate. When the language of human rights became prominent in the 1970s, in a context marked by the rise of neoliberalism, it may have emerged “seemingly from nowhere”, as Sam Moyn argues. However, organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Médecins sans Frontières drew (explicitly in some cases and implicitly in others) on an account of rights that had been central to the project of the Mont Pèlerin neoliberals since the 1940s. Liberalism, the sociey’s elder statesman Ludwig von Mises wrote in 1951, “demands not grace but rights.”22 The rights it demanded were not those of the rights of man tradition, which were intimately tied to the founding of sovereign states, but an individualistic account of rights that sought to secure what Mises termed “freedom from the state.”23

This helps us to understand why, although these NGOs came to prominence in the context of the evisceration of social welfare protections and public services, these concerns rarely entered the frame of their early advocacy. Amnesty International’s 1974/1975 report is remarkable for the way it tracks the paradigm shift away from the post-colonial concern with social and economic inequality that found expression that same year in the United Nation’s General Assembly’s Declaration of a New International Economic Order. Noting what it terms “the varying economic and social difficulties in the Third World” the report suggests that these difficulties have hampered Amnesty’s attempts to “become more culturally diverse”, and “correct the imbalance in its present membership by growth outside Europe and North America”.24 What matters about these economic and social problems, the report states, is that they impact on the attempt to harness opposition to torture and “sympathy for prisoners of conscience” in the non-Western world. “The challenge”, the report reads, “is to find ways and means of harnessing our support despite the political, social, financial and other problems which exist”.25 In striking contrast to the attempt by anti-colonialists to hold former colonial powers responsible for what Frantz Fanon called “a world inhuman in its poverty”, for Amnesty International post-colonial poverty was no longer of concern in its own right.26 Rather, it entered the frame only insofar as it impacted on advocacy against torture and on the cultivation of those sympathetic moral subjects that Hunt argues the rise of human rights presupposed. [End Page 142]

Human Rights Watch has been more active and explicit in its attempt to restrict the language of human rights to civil and political rights. Aryeh Neier, that organisation’s former Executive Director, explained that while civil and political rights “have to mean exactly the same thing every place in the world”, social and economic rights will be applied differently by “one country with extensive resources and one that is very poor” and therefore cannot truly be considered “rights.”27 The founders of Médecins sans Frontières relied heavily on Raymond Aron’s account of civil and political rights as categorical imperatives, believing, in the words of former MSF France head Claude Malhuret that “economic and social advances and progress are very well but they are not rights.”28 These approaches have much in common with the bracing attack on the UDHR launched by Hayek, who argued that to speak of rights in a socio-economic context “debases the word ‘right’, the strict meaning of which it is very important to preserve if we are to maintain a free society.”29 Hayek identified a fundamental incompatibility between the old civil and political rights and the newer social and economic rights, which he argued could not be enforced without destroying the liberal order and transforming society into a totalitarian organization.30 The view that anyone has a right to a particular share of material resources is fundamentally incompatible with the idea of equality before the law, he argued; impersonal rules can never determine the allocation of property, and redistribution is therefore a threat to the rule of law.

Social and Economic Rights and ‘International Cooperation’

Where did these social and economic rights come from, and how did they find expression in the UDHR? Asad argues that it was T.H. Marshall’s tri-partite classification of civil, political and social rights, coming out of the “Anglo-American legal tradition”, which “makes its way in 1948 into The Declaration of Human Rights.” Hayek, in contrast, takes the UDHR’s social and economic rights as evidence that the document reflects an incoherent attempt “to fuse the rights of the Western liberal tradition with the altogether different conception derived from the Marxist Russian Revolution.”31 Neither position adequately captures the conflictual politics of social welfare that found expression during the drafting of the declaration. While the late 1940s is often viewed as a time in which a broad commitment to national welfarism made social and economic rights relatively uncontroversial, these rights were resisted by the UK and US delegations, and entered the declaration largely through the persistent advocacy of the Latin American delegates, aided by the Soviets and the Chinese delegate. Eleanor Roosevelt was under instructions from US Under Secretary of State Lovett, [End Page 143] who was reportedly “confused” by the UN’s work on human rights and “particularly concerned with social and economic rights”.32 She therefore fought to reframe social and economic questions in the less absolute language of ‘standards of living’. The UK delegate Charles Dukeston defended his own country’s draft declaration, which contained no social and economic rights, by characterizing “elemental freedoms” like freedom of speech as the pre-condition for all other freedoms. The “world needed freedom and not well-fed slaves”, he told the assembled delegates.33

All of these conflicts are reflected in the UDHR’s Article 25, which declares: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” Leaving aside the highly contentious debates about social security that preoccupied delegates throughout the drafting process, the conflicts over article 25 revolved around whether the language of an adequate “standard of living”, taken from a draft article proposed by the International Labour Organization, should be augmented by specific rights to food, clothing, housing and medical care. The Soviet delegates led the charge against expressing rights in the more flexible language of ‘standards’, and sought to amend the ILO text to read: “the State and community should take all necessary measures, including legislative ones, to insure for every person real possibilities of enjoying all these rights.”34 Although this amendment was unsuccessful, the Soviets were largely responsible for ensuring that the declaration made specific mention of housing and medical care, while it was the Chinese delegate, P.C. Chang who championed the rights to food and clothing. When the U.K. delegate Wilson called for a separate vote on these rights, Chang responded that he “did not see what possible objection there could be to that phrase when millions of people throughout the world were deprived of food and clothing.”35

Asad cites Article 25 to support the claim that sole responsibility for securing these rights is assigned to national governments, meaning that deliberate damage done to an economy through outside intervention cannot be seen as a human rights violation. Yet it was the recognition that securing social and economic rights called for international responsibility, even international redistribution, that prompted much of the opposition from Anglo-European states. The attempt to extend the responsibility for the provision of social and economic rights is reflected in Article 22, which states that the entitlement to social and economic rights should be realized through “national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each state.” The relative balance between national effort [End Page 144] and international co-operation in securing social and economic rights is left unspecified in the declaration, and has therefore always been a source of deep conflict.

In 1948, the question of the form and limits of the responsibility of wealthy states to secure social and economic rights outside their own borders was inseparable from the question of the colonies (or ‘non-self governing territories’, in the euphemistic language of the UDHR). With half of the world’s population still living under colonial rule, colonial powers had no interest in allowing an international body to stipulate their responsibilities to their colonial subjects. In the UK, the Colonial Office watched the drafting of the UDHR with deep trepidation, and the UK delegate was instructed to avoid any special mention of the colonies and refuse any suggestion that human rights were “colonial problems”.36

While the Colonial Office sought to portray colonies as no different to other states from a human rights perspective, its officials were also concerned not to allow an account of human rights that would imply standards too stringent to apply to the colonies. Political rights posed a special problem for the Colonial Office, which advised in 1947 that the inclusion of such rights in the declaration would be “particularly dangerous from the Colonial point of view and highly prejudicial to the political development of Africa.”37 “I’m not sure I understand what human rights are if they do not include political rights,” Minister of State Hector McNeill noted in response.38 If it was absolutely necessary to include political rights, the UK delegate was instructed, he should ensure they were as innocuous as possible.

The tension Asad identifies between the invocation of a universal humanity and the continuing power and responsibility of states to maintain the law finds its roots here. The UK delegate, a 1947 Colonial Office memo warned, “should not commit himself to conceptions of ‘human rights’ which are based too rigidly on social and political conditions in advanced Europeanized countries; otherwise (attractive as this might be for having a go at the totalitarians) we shall expose our colonial flank.”39 It was this fear of exposing its “colonial flank”, even more than the Cold War, which prompted a colonial power like the UK to hold fast to the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of sovereign states. As long as the colonies were deprived of sovereignty, and so susceptible to profound and transformative interventions, the colonial powers had nothing to be gained from accepting a right of intervention into their own affairs in the name of human rights.

Decolonization, along with the end of the Cold War, would change this order profoundly. The achievement of sovereignty by former colonies transformed the rules of the game, prompting former colonial powers to reverse their opposition to intervention in the affairs of sovereign states. Yet, while former colonial powers began to proclaim [End Page 145] their right to intervene in (now sovereign) former colonies in the name of human rights, they simultaneously resisted any attempt to hold them responsible for social and economic conditions in the countries they once ruled over and exploited. With decolonization, the ambiguity in the UDHR’s account of the locus of responsibility for social and economic rights once again became a site for a conflict.

It was the attempt to force former colonial powers to live up to their own responsibility for post-colonial poverty and inequality that would later find expression in Third Worldist proposals for economic redistribution, most notably the New International Economic Order, which aimed to “correct inequalities and redress existing injustices” inherited from colonialism.40 The defeat of these demands, has led to the ever-increasing responsibilization of post-colonial states, which are held responsible for the poverty of their people, along with the evasion of responsibility on the part of the international financial institutions and the wealthy states that exert such influence over them. Today, post-independence states are expected to take responsibility for economic dynamics that patently exceed their control.

Human Rights and Extreme Inequality

Today, we read Asad’s essay in the wake of another financial crisis, which has been met with familiar recipes of austerity and privatization. In 2015, human rights lawyer Philip Alston used his new position as the UN Special Rapporteur for Extreme Inequality to issue a “clarion call” to the human rights movement. Extreme inequality should be seen as “a cause of shame on the part of the international human rights movement,” Alston argued.41 Major human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been deeply reluctant to factor questions of distribution and resources into their advocacy, he charged, and consequently, the deep structures that perpetuate such inequalities have been left untouched. While reprimanding the human rights NGOs for their failure to address social and economic rights, Alston nonetheless argued against conflating what he termed these “lop-sided and counter-productive institutional choices” with the structure of human rights law. Economic and social rights are a key part of that structure, he argued, even if they are often treated as “minor league”, and the United States has spent several decades trying to undermine them.42

Does the embrace of social and economic rights by the UN’s Human Rights Council and the decision to appoint an influential human rights lawyer like Alston to challenge “extreme inequality” mean that the human rights movement is overcoming the limits Asad identifies? Has human rights become a language that could contest the imposition of neoliberalism and the inequality it generates? Alston’s appeal [End Page 146] to Hayek to argue for an emphasis of equality of opportunity suggests grounds for caution. “Perfect equality is not achievable and arguably not desirable” Alston argues, as there is no objection to inequalities that reflect differences in talent and effort.43 Not only does Alston seek to define equality in a way that would be acceptable to a figure like Hayek, who was “known for his aversion to government intervention to achieve more equality.”44 Also, he campaigns for the international financial institutions, particularly the World Bank, to develop a consistent policy to “promote respect for human rights” and minimize its own “reputational costs”.45

The principle of non-intervention, Alston notes, found expression not only in the UN Charter and the UDHR, but also in the Articles of Agreement of the World Bank, which stipulate that “the Bank and its officers shall not interfere in the political affairs of any member…”46 In a recent report to the UN Human Rights Council, Alston declared the Bank a “human rights free zone” and called on it to “remove the roadblock that has been erected by its anachronistic, artificial and unjustifiable interpretation of the political prohibition”47 Alston is no doubt correct that the Bank’s reluctance to embrace human rights is based on a “double standard”, given its willingness to intervene on issues as diverse (and as political) as counter-terrorism, corruption and the rule of law. Yet, his suggestion that the principle of non-intervention in domestic affairs is an anachronism left over from the Cold War does not account for the extent to which this principle was embraced by newly independent states as a bulwark against neocolonial interventions. Moreover, in counseling the World Bank to become a force for the dissemination of human rights norms, Alston allows the Bank to evade responsibility for its own role in the poverty and inequality it is then called upon to rectify.

In reality, it has been World Bank intervention, rather than non-intervention, that has undermined social and economic rights and generated the forms of “collateral damage” that Asad suggests are not easily viewed as abuses of human rights. In the wake of the Asian economic crisis, for instance, Bank director James Wolfensohn outlined a new approach that went beyond financial stabilization to address “social issues” and promote “institutional and structural changes” conducive to long-term growth.48 With this interventionist focus, the bank exceeded its traditional recipe of breaking up state monopolies, pushing privatization of public assets and reducing state subsidies, to an agenda that Wolfensohn referred to as “building the roads, empowering the people, writing the laws, recognizing the women, eliminating the corruption, educating the girls, building the banking systems, protecting the environment, inoculating the children.”49 Far from being wedded to an outdated norm of non-intervention in domestic affairs, bolstered by a commitment to cultural relativism (as Alston argues) the Bank is [End Page 147] a central agent of a dramatic process of conversion that seeks to constitute the world’s population as enterprising neoliberal subjects.

What is at stake, then, in what Alston terms the Bank’s aversion to the language of human rights? In his Theory & Event essay, Asad notes that the universalizing language of human rights overlaps with a prophetic language, drawn from the Old Testament and rooted in the specific experience of the founding of the United States and the establishment of class of humans who were defined in opposition not only to English tyrants but also to “Amerindian pagans” and African slaves. This prophetic language prompts an interventionist concern with redeeming injustice, and it also demands “the conversion of subjects if they are to vindicate their human status.”50 Asad finds the first approach epitomized by Malcolm X’s argument that, in contrast to civil rights which rely on “Uncle Sam”, “human rights are something you were born with.” According to Asad, the failure of Malcolm X’s approach lay in his unwillingness to counter the Arendtian point that birth itself provides no protection to a bare humanity without political status. To be born black in the United States — such is Asad’s claim — was to be born into a context of institutionalized discrimination in which mere birth could not ground rights or grant a fully “human” status.

In contrast, Asad argues that the redemptive language was mobilized to great effect by Martin Luther King Jnr., for whom justice implied a religious restoration of “the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage.”51 Asad sees this distinctly American language as more successful in engaging people in the United States than the universalist language of human rights, but he notes that these distinct languages are deeply intertwined. In opposition to tired debates about universalism and cultural relativism, Asad notes that the (culturally specific) “prophetic language of America, for all its particularity, works as a force in the field of foreign relations to globalize human rights,” while the (universal) language of human rights serves the distinctly American project of redeeming the world.52

It is through this lens that we should view current World Bank President Jim Yong Kim’s repeated reference to King, who he describes as one of his childhood heroes. In a recent speech, Obama nominee Kim praised King’s commitment to challenging poverty and proclaimed that the World Bank stands “in lockstep with the agenda Dr. King laid out in those days before his death.”53 In articulating King’s message, the World Bank head drew on prophetic language to redeem both America and the accumulation of wealth in a context of deepening concern about economic inequality. King taught us “wealth was not wrong but part of the solution” Kim told his audience, and that “America’s capacity as ‘the richest nation in the world’ gave it the [End Page 148] ‘opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots.’”54 The absence of human rights language has not prevented the Word Bank from engaging in a process of conversion.

Nor does the supposed secularity of human rights discourse prevent it occupying the place of religion. Alston, for instance, recommends that the World Bank should “set up a forum in which it could engage human rights leaders on a regular basis, just as it has done with religious and faith leaders.” Here, human rights works as another faith, but as one whose aspirations are universal. Today, like in the year 2000, there is no single answer to the question: what do human rights do? Any answer, however, must grapple with the collateral damage of four decades in which the discourses of human rights and neoliberalism have been tightly entwined. Asad’s commitment to tracing the effects of universalizing discourses, and the religious sediments in supposedly secular discourses offers the possibility of grasping, and perhaps dislodging, the faith that underpins a set of liberal practices that aim to convert “the human” on a global scale.

Jessica Whyte

Jessica Whyte is Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Social Analysis at the University of Western Sydney, Australia and an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow. Her research interests include theories of sovereignty and biopolitics, critical accounts of human rights and humanitarianism, and contemporary European philosophy, particularly Agamben and Foucault. Her first monograph, Catastrophe and Redemption: The Political Thought of Giorgio Agamben, was published by SUNY in 2013. Her forthcoming book, Governing Homo Economicus: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism will be published by Verso in 2017. She is also working on the three-year Australian Research Council-funded project: “Inventing Collateral Damage: The Changing Moral Economy of War.” Jessica’s email address is


Many thanks to Ihab Shalbak and to Julia Dehm for astute comments on an earlier draft of this essay.


1. Human Rights Watch, “Civilian Deaths in the NATO Air Campaign - The Crisis in Kosovo”, 2000,

2. Amnesty International, “NATO/Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. ‘Collateral Damage’ or Unlawful Killing? Violations of the Laws of War by NATO during Operation Allied Force,” June 2000,

3. Talal Asad, “What Do Human Rights Do?

4. James D. Wolfensohn, “Address to the Board of Governors of the World Bank Group”, October 1998,

5. S.-S. Chang, D. Gunnell, J.A.C. Sterne, T.-H. Lu, A.T.A. Cheng, “Was the economic crisis 1997–1998 responsible for rising suicide rates in East/Southeast Asia? A time-trend analysis for Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand” Social Science and Medicine, 68 (7) (2009), 1322–1331.

6. Michel Foucault, 1990. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (New York: Vintage, 1990), 100–101.

7. Lydia H. Liu, “Shadows of Universalism: The Untold Story of Human Rights Around 1948,” Critical Inquiry 40, no. 4 (June 2014), doi:10.1086/676413.

8. Talal Asad, “Reflections on Law, Violence and Humanitarianism”, Critical Inquiry, 41 (Winter 2015), 398.

9. Asad, “What Do Human Rights Do?”. [End Page 149]

10. Asad, “Reflections on Law, Violence and Humanitarianism, 402.

11. Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007), 29

12. Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty: A New Statement of the Liberal Principles of Justice and Political Economy: V.1-3 in 1v, Vol. III, (London: Routledge, 1982), 169.

13. Ibid., 128.

14. Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 157.

15. See for instance Samuel Moyn, “A Powerless Companion: Human Rights in the Age of Neoliberalism”, Law and Contemporary Problems 77:147 (2014).

16. Asad, Formations of the Secular, 157 .

17. Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular, 157.

18. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Orlando: Harcourt, 1977) (Originally published 1951).

19. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 126.

20. Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, New York, Zone, 2015, 22.

21. The Mont Pèlerin Society, “Statement of Aims,” accessed December 1, 2015,

22. Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951), 194.

23. Ibid., 194.

24. Amnesty International, “Annual Report”, 1974/1975 (London: Amnesty International Publications, 1975), 12,

25. Amnesty International, “Annual Report”, 1974/1975, 10. My emphasis.

26. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1968) 96.

27. Arieh Neier, “Social and Economic Rights: A Critique”, Human Rights Brief 13, no. 2 (2006): 2

28. Jessica Whyte, “Interview with Claude Malhuret”, Sénat - Palais du Luxembourg, Paris, 7th October, 2015.

29. Friedrich Hayek, “Justice and Individual Rights”, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Vol. II (London: Routledge, 1998), 106.

30. Friedrich Hayek, “Justice and Individual Rights”, 103. I discuss Hayek’s critique of the UDHR in detail in my forthcoming book Governing Homo Economicus: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism (London: Verso).

31. Friedrich Hayek, “Justice and Individual Rights”, 103.

32. Allida Black (ed.) “On Lovett and Social and Economic Rights: Memorandum of Conversation with Eleanor Roosevelt”, 4th March 1948, The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers: Vol. I: The Human Rights Years 1945–1948 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010), 754. [End Page 150]

33. Cited in Johannes Morsink, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 234.

34. Commission on Human Rights, Third Session, Summary Record of the Seventy-First Meeting, June 28th 1948, UDHR E/CN.4/SR.71, 5.

35. Ibid., 13.

36. Brian W Simpson, Human Rights and the End of Empire: Britain and the Genesis of the European Convention (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 341.

37. Archibald Campbell, cited in Simpson, Human Rights and the End of Empire, 374.

38. Cited in Simpson, Human Rights and the End of Empire, 374.

39. J.S. Bennett, cited in Simpson, Human Rights and the End of Empire, 341.

40. Preamble, Resolution adopted by the General Assembly, “3201 (S-VI). Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order”,

41. Philip Alston, “Extreme Inequality as the Antithesis of Human Rights”, Open Democracy, 27th October, 2015,

42. Ibid.

43. Philip Alston, Alston, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights,” 27th May, 2015, United Nations Document A/HRC/29/31, 6

44. Ibid., 6.

45. Philip Alston, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights”, 4th August 2015, United Nations Documents A/70/274, 4/23, 15.

46. Alston, “Extreme Poverty and Human Rights”, 4/23.

47. Ibid., 21/23.

48. Wolfensohn, “Address to the Board of Governors of the World Bank Group”.

49. Ibid.

50. Asad, “What Do Human Rights Do?”

51. Ibid.

52. Ibid.

53. Jim Yong Kim, ‘Speech by World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim at Howard University: “Boosting Shared Prosperity”, October 1st, 2014,

54. Ibid. [End Page 151]

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