Human rights activism and the culture of helplessness

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ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

THE origins of the discourse of human rights goes way back to the time when citizens of a state needed protection from a rapacious government. It is an outcome of a liberal political philosophy that privileged individual rights, and saw the formation of the state as a necessary evil whose power needs to be limited and confined to that which only furthers the common good of all its citizens.

Classical social contract theory builds on the premise that citizens surrender themselves to the power of the state only as long as the latter protects their individual rights. Every constitution of modern democratic states includes a bill of rights that enumerates the basic freedoms of citizens which must be guarded against an abusive state. The only justification for violating rights is when it would protect other citizens, and would on the balance promote the greater good.

But the age of tyranny as a monopoly of kings, emperors and presidents has slowly unraveled to reveal a more complex map for political violence. While states can still potentially inflict suffering upon their citizen subjects, modernity has led to a pluralism of agents of terror and abuses. Women are raped by men. Gays and lesbians are subjected to homophobic hate crimes not by the state but by other citizens. Ethnic minorities are discriminated against by ethnic majorities. And the weak are bullied by the strong.

As part of its social contract with its citizens, the state is obliged to protect the rights of those that are targeted for abuse and persecution by passing laws penalizing rape, hate crimes, ethnic and racial discrimination and bullying.


And this is where the problem emerges in the context of the human rights discourse. Many human rights advocates, particularly in the Philippines, are still trapped in the classical liberal imagination that only the state can violate citizens’ rights. We have a Commission on Human Rights (CHR) that tells us that it can only act on rape when the perpetrator is a soldier, but not when it is a neighbor, or even a boss. By institutional design, CHR has bureaucratically truncated human rights within the confines of state-perpetrated violations.

As a result, human rights advocacy becomes an active agenda for elite to middle-class activists who work for the protection of the rights of the weak, the oppressed and the marginalized from state-sponsored violence. Armed with a mission to protect citizens against state abuses, they propagate a kind of mythology that emphasizes the powerlessness of citizens as victims.

This is in stark contrast to the more identity-based advocacy espoused by feminist, gay and indigenous community activists who emphasize the empowerment of women, the LGBTI communities and the indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities. These forms of activism do not bear the discourse of human rights as merely a state-centric construct, but one that is more systemic and found not only in state structures and processes, but in the everyday and the ordinary, between and among citizens. Furthermore, the platform for political action is one where the focus is on the building of an organizational base from where a social movement can find realization, and where the ideologies of women, gay and indigenous people’s liberation are enabled and find expression.

Workers and peasants also bear the discourse of rights not in the context of people who need protection from the state through activists or the CHR, but as active agents for their own empowerment. Workers form unions and peasants organize into groups to fight for their rights.

This is where the discourse of human rights finds itself deeply out of sync with the realities of political struggle in the age of modernity, where the key to empowerment is the ability of human subjects to assert their own power, not as mere wards of some elite activist who, while possessed of a bleeding heart, may not necessarily share the experience of being victimized. As structured, human rights activism ends up being a third-party, externalist discourse whose logic is different from those that are borne by feminists, gay activists, indigenous people, labor unions and peasant organizations.

Devoid of a radical political ideology that can be associated with each of these movements, human rights activism becomes the province of the elite and the professional human rights workers in civil society, in agencies like the CHR, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

The danger of this kind of political activity is that it ends up with a tendency to reproduce a culture of helplessness. Victims of abuses are painted as passive objects, to be handled with extreme sensitivity, care and “malasakit,” or empathy.

What is bred by this is a culture that admonishes people to respect human rights, even as the discourse on human rights does not consider abuses by ordinary peoples as under its purview.

And worse, in being devoid of any ideological anchor, and with victims being conditioned to think that they are wards under the social protection of human rights advocates or by the CHR, there is very little potential or incentive for victims of state abuses to self-organize and structurally address the roots of their oppression in the same way that women, the LGBTI, indigenous people, workers and peasants do. Human rights advocacy ends up as a bureaucratizedsocial and legal support mechanism for victims who remain as clients, and not as active agents of their own empowerment.

It’s about time that human rights activism take a leaf from the feminist mantra that women’s rights are human rights, regardless of who the agent of violence is.

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