The Rise and Fall of Human Rights: Cynicism and Politics in Occupied Palestine

Though this ethnography of the putative human rights industry focuses on Palestine, it could be told wherever people in the world today make claims for empowerment in the face of oppression. It is a story of how NGOs have spent millions of international aid dollars to do what they consider teaching local peoples the meaning of human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and so on, with the expectation that this will promote civil society and in the end lead to positive political transformation. Though in the initial stages of this effort (sometime in the 1980s) the enthusiasm for this work and the belief in its efficacy ran high, over the decades it has become plain to see that it has failed, and its participants have grown cynical toward it. As Allen puts it with regard to Palestine, their invocation of human rights has become a performance with no conviction that it does any good. Why, then, she asks, does it persist?

Yet the situation in Palestine is crucially different from other corners of the world because its people have no state. What Lori Allen’s book argues is that rights discourse was a way for practitioners to perform sovereignty, or at least the legitimacy of Palestinian claims to sovereignty. As cynicism grew toward the discourse, so did skepticism about its efficacy to effect any real changes in Palestinian statehood.

Others have looked at the question of cynicism in political life, but Allen does so dialectically, suggesting that cynicism can foster a critical consciousness towards state-making processes that can have positive political effects.  “In Palestine . . . cynicism can be a form of awareness and a motor of action by which subjection and subjectification are self-consciously resisted or at least creatively engaged – even though for others it does engender inaction or feed into structures of domination” (p. 16).

The ethnography begins with Al-Haq, the first Palestinian rights organization, whose aim was to document human rights abuses committed by Israelis in the occupied territories in as objective a manner as possible. The rhetorical effect of this claim to objectivity was to render Al-Haq rational in its methodical pursuit of the truth that combated colonial concepts of the natives as impulsive, undisciplined, and illogical. This tactic broadened international awareness of human rights violations Israel had committed, and began to change the then dominant narrative that Israel was both a victim and underdog. In retrospect Al-Haq was the golden age of Palestinian rights discourse.

Al-Haq’s success ironically marked the beginning of the fall of human rights discourse that Allen traces in chapter 2.  Donor aid for human rights NGOs in the Oslo period began to be tied to certain conditions that blunted criticism of Israel. As one of Allen’s informants told her, “People can say that Palestinians are suffering, but not the reasons.” (p. 80) As she lays out the brief biographies of three Palestinians, each of whom was involved with various NGOs of the time, she reveals the cynicism of their outlooks. Although they were dependent on their NGO jobs to support themselves and their families, they nonetheless were skeptical about their NGO’s political goals and the efficacy of its work. And the Palestinian Authority was seen by many as an apparatus less for advancing Palestinian sovereignty than for safeguarding Israel’s security in the Occupied Territories. This is the subject of Chapter 3, which in many ways is the most original one in the book. The security men who were part of that apparatus were taught human rights. Allen attended their training courses, but these officers found human rights to be an abstraction, far removed from their hard-bitten, head-butting lives on the ground. In their eyes, it was a performance of how the modern state should behave rather than something citizens should be dedicated to out of fundamental ethical convictions.

The Palestinian Authority depended for its legitimacy on its capacity to maintain security in the occupied territories, yet it also demonstrated its quasi-statehood by respecting human rights. In chapter 4, Allen discusses the Independent Commission of Human Rights (ICHR) that was set up by the Palestinian Authority to monitor itself and investigate reports of its own human rights abuses. The ethnography is both an institutional one of ICHR and event-based. She uses the 2007 Red Tuesday–when violence broke out between members of two rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fateh, that led to the death of a student–as the lens through which she traces the complex and often contradictory relationship between the Palestinian Authority and the ICHR that further eroded trust in rights discourse generally.

Allen turns to the appeal of Hamas as the focus of the fifth and final chapter, an appeal which Allen argues at its core is not really about religion. Hamas’ rise to power has been attributed to many factors, not the least being its capacity to provide badly needed public goods and services to a civilian population. Allen provides a more symbolic interpretation. It demonstrated Hamas’ “political ethics,” (p. 10) especially the values of sincerity and honesty that were so starkly wanting in the behavior of its competitors. Far from turning its back on rights discourse, Hamas made it fit with an Islamic frame (thereby making it seem more authentic to some). It also wielded a rights discourse to challenge Israel on a number of fronts, especially its brutal Gaza blockade. In other words, Allen argues, human rights was re-politicized, with the result that Hamas came across as acting more like a sovereign state than the Palestinian Authority. In the process, people began to feel more hopeful about the future of Palestinian nationalism.

Allen’s engagement with political categories of cynicism on the one hand and sincerity on the other is fresh and contributes importantly to anthropological theorizing of morality or the ethical within the space of the political. Her subtle, insightful ethnography is a must read for anyone interested in Palestine, humanitarian rights organizations, and the working of security apparatuses.

Steven C. Caton, Harvard University

Allen, Lori. The Rise and Fall of Human Rights: Cynicism and Politics in Occupied Palestine. Stanford University Press, 2013. Read more at Stanford University Press.

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