Human Rights as War By Other Means

When studying those who employ the language of human rights, many scholars often initially assume that these are groups seeking peace or justice, or that they are tethering themselves to some universal human ideal. But in Jennifer Curtis’s Human Rights as War by Other Means, activists on both sides of the decades long conflict in Northern Ireland make use of human rights discourse in ways that further entrench the perspectives and practices that have long divided them.

Curtis’ work may be difficult to enter at first for readers unfamiliar with the specific history of the Troubles, the decades-long conflict between the Irish Republican Army on the one hand and the British Army, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and loyalist paramilitary groups on the other. She chooses to weave archival and factual data into her ethnographic accounts, collected over fourteen years of research (1996-2010), and offers readers relevant history piecemeal, rather than in one introductory background chapter. Curtis worked with individuals from all sides of the complex conflict, and this may help explain her decision—a wise one, as it turns out.

The central argument that Curtis presents is that while some instances of human rights discourse in Northern Ireland did establish a sense of peacemaking between two deeply divided groups—the Irish Republicans who sought independence from the British state, and the Loyalists, who wanted to remain part of the UK—human rights discourse often served to wedge the divide even further between the two sides.  Curtis views the reliance as so problematic that she refers to these efforts as a way of prolonging the ethno-religious war, which is often described as having ended with The Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

It is clear in Curtis’ telling that the peace deal, which brought an end to the overt violence and turned Northern Ireland into a model for peacemaking, in fact covered over the low-grade conflict that continued, manifesting as human rights activism on both sides. Curtis is, perhaps intentionally, vague when it comes to when the “Troubles” began, because the history of this conflict is itself a site of strenuous disagreement. While the rest of Ireland won independence in 1921, Northern Ireland remained part of the U.K. Despite the ceasefire, (mostly Catholic) republicans and (mostly Protestant) loyalists continued to commit acts of violence against both the other side’s combatants, as well as civilians, who were collateral damage.

Even when activists on both sides of the conflict were targeting their protests against the same enemy—the British welfare state—Curtis masterfully demonstrates how these different actors interpreted rights discourse in ways that reinforced their divisions. The campaigns for affordable housing in the 1960s could have brought the sides together—as Catholics and Protestants alike lived in sub-standard housing.  Instead, demands for adequate housing became fights between the groups over claims to certain neighborhoods and were perceived as threats to each one’s social identity. “Campaigners asserted the housing rights of local people in terms of their traditional places of residence,” Curtis writes, “at a time of increasing communal division, those claims were inflected with ethnopolitical territoriality” (p. 66). So unlike the civil rights rhetoric in the U.S., which built a powerful social movement of a unified oppressed group against the state, in Northern Ireland, Curtis observes: “Everyday appropriations of rights talk incorporated the logic and language of the local conflict, rather than resituating local understandings of the conflict in terms of international laws and norms” (p. 67).  In this way, human rights as a moral discourse failed to close the deep chasm between the republicans and loyalists.

Tracing rights discourse among grassroots activists in the late 1970s and 1980s, Curtis discusses how activists’ claims to economic rights, when poverty soared in Northern Ireland, failed to connect their situations with large scale macro factors, and instead remained focused on ethnopolitical tensions.  Unemployment and economic deprivation in Belfast was attributed to the Troubles, even as Thatcher’s government reduced welfare benefits in favor of job training programs in promoting its ideology of individual responsibility. As Curtis writes, “…people more readily understood their circumstances in terms of discrimination than in terms of the state’s economic interventions, in support of capitalists and workers” (p. 86).

Curtis incorporates into her study an analysis of LGBT activists in Northern Ireland, to show how human rights discourse was adopted by another entirely different group of activists who succeeded at claiming rights that went beyond local politics—and in effect used that discourse as a tool to resituate local conflicts within international campaigns. “Postconflict gay rights mobilizations provide a clear—and rare—example of rights discourse that is focused on practical outcomes and choice, rather than ascription, regarding collective identity.” (p. 169).  She writes: “In contrast to dominant discourses of collective rights, their advocacy concerns the practical ramifications of equality in law for individual queer people at work, in school, in housing, and everyday safety—not equality claims for their community’s ethos or aspirations” (p. 193). The strategy behind the gay rights movement dislodged the local communal element as a fundamental basis for activism.

Curtis does not advocate doing away with human rights discourse as a tool for peacemaking but rather illustrates how the discourse cannot be controlled in terms of who adopts it and how. The solution is not to police the use of rights discourse, but rather to draw attention to when and how human rights is used to sustain conflict. As Curtis points out, war continues with grassroots human rights activism, and human rights does not automatically lead to liberty. This book raises questions around whether culture change is necessary for conflict resolution. Does the pressure to prove one’s allegiance through actions and speech actively create or reproduce cultures opposed to peace? What would have been appreciated is further discussion on the role that the culture of silence and suspicion, as well as religion, played in furthering the divide between the two warring groups. In general, this book is superbly constructed and well-argued, and is an important contribution to understanding human rights.

Rebekah Park, Center for the Study of Women, UCLA

Curtis, Jennifer. Human Rights as War By Other Means. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Read more at University of Pennsylvania Press.


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