Rhetoric and Practice

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Review of 'The Politics of Human Rights', Tony Evans, Pluto Press £14.99

This book aims to explain 'the disjuncture between the rhetoric and practice of universal human rights'. It is a radical critique of how the sorts of rights which dominate human rights discourse have, in effect, become the rights of the rich to steal from the poor. Whereas most experts on human rights focus on the abstract philosophy of rights or human rights law, Tony Evans's concern is to address the principles behind mainstream ideas on human rights.

The first chapter demonstrates how these principles were shaped as part of the struggle by the US to secure its position as the world's dominant superpower after the Second World War. They were 'the outcome of a political struggle aimed at achieving moral legitimacy'. Not only did the US refuse to sign up to any human rights treaties that were actually legally binding, but at the discussions of the newly created United Nations it led a massive effort by western governments to entrench the individualistic values of economic liberalism into the heart of human rights doctrine.

The outcome of this struggle was a heavy prioritising of civil and political rights over economic and social rights. Civil and political rights treat people as little more than atomised individuals competing with one another. In practice, under capitalism, they are understood as 'the freedom of the individual from interference in the pursuit of economic interests'. Providing the ideal legal framework for free market principles, human rights understood in this sense necessarily exclude any consideration of people's right to economic and social security - the right to work and eat. Evans therefore concludes that the only way to address the conditions which lead to human rights abuses is to challenge neo-liberalism. Unwilling to do this, most human rights experts are led into a striking contradiction.

Alongside global capitalism denying millions their most basic human rights, there exists an obsession in 'human rights talk' with the creation of an ever more sophisticated body of international human rights law. These laws are then held up as proof of the great progress that has been made towards the achievement of universal human rights. Confronted with such an absurdity, Evans proposes that 'international law might be seen as a "mask" that conceals the true causes of many human rights violations'. Because these true causes are structured into the everyday workings of the capitalist economy, they cannot possibly be addressed through legal means: 'Structures cannot be judicial persons with intentions and capabilities, nor can they be arrested, put before a court, punished for their crimes or subjected to sanctions.'

These are powerful insights. The idea that all human rights abuses are a result of 'evil individuals' plays a profoundly important ideological role under capitalism - legitimating, or at least deflecting attention away from, the mass violations of human rights committed every day by governments and corporations.

In a very strong chapter, Evans shows how whenever people actually exercise their civil and political rights to defend themselves, these rights are briskly removed. But this is also where some criticism of Evans is necessary. What is it that ultimately holds the power to remove people's civil and political rights? It is, of course, the police and military machine of the state. Evans himself gives several examples of this. To take just one of these, he describes how, when Ogoni Nigerians demonstrated peacefully to protect their land from Shell, the police came and killed 80 people and ruined 495 homes. But instead of recognising this crucial role of the state, Evans accepts the common idea that globalisation has led to a qualitative transformation in the role of the state 'from being an active policy maker to a passive unit of administration'. This is ironic. First published in 2001, this second edition of the book comes after four years of the most 'active' interventions by the US state. Without such deployment of the military force of the state as we have seen under the guise of the 'war on terror', the globalisation of capital could not take place.

Evans's uncritical acceptance of the globalisation consensus leads him to pessimistic conclusions. Thankfully though, it rarely distorts the many radical insights of what is a stimulating critique.