Summary of Keynote Address at the conference, The Social Practice of Human Rights: Charting the frontiers of research and advocacy, University of Dayton, Ohio, October 4, 2013.

In this presentation I trace the genealogy of the practice of activism on civil and political rights, first of all in western nation-states, and then in political formations that today occupy the spaces in which we would prefer to see states, and pretend to see them, either actually or in formation.

The first part of the presentation is concerned with the relationship between social movements, including most importantly activism for civil and political rights—intertwined with labor rights—and the formation of nation states in western Europe and North America. This culminates in a spectacularly effective model for activism in the last decade of the Cold War.

Immediately thereafter, I suggest, the human rights movement made a mis-step. Although the leaders of human rights organizations correctly acknowledged the need to broaden their scope and engage with a range of other issues and organizations, including the issue of famine and the activities of humanitarian agencies, western civil and political rights advocates also had a fleeting romance with some humanitarians who were advocating armed intervention. Although both mainstream human rights organizations and humanitarian agencies have since adopted cautious approaches to the issue of intervention, this encounter spawned a mutual offspring, in the form of genocide exceptionalism and militant liberal interventionism. And this offspring is now dangerously out of control.

The third part of the presentation focuses on how political orders have recently been reconfigured in large parts of the world that are marginal to western power and institutions, and in particularly Africa and the Greater Middle East. In these regions, I contend, the historic circumstances under which nation state formation was possible, have not existed over the last thirty years. On the contrary, the current configuration of three key factors—governmental resources, control over the means of violence, and power of communication and convening—is now leading towards the erosion of institutions of state government in favor of what I call a “rentier political marketplace.”

The final section brings us back to the U.S. A central facet of this emergent system of governance is that it is embedded within a globalizing patronage system, fuelled in particular by security cooperation rents. The world’s main source of these rents is the U.S. global security apparatus. And part of the legitimation of that military establishment is provided by the liberal hawks’ militant interventionism. This combination of militant liberal interventionism and massively funded counter-terror security exceptionalism, I argue, is the sorcerer’s apprentice that the human rights movement must challenge. Human rights activists in the U.S. have a particular responsibility to lead this confrontation, if they are to play a role in the vanguard of a new civic globalization.

I.                    Social Movements, Civil and Political Rights, and the State

The nation state emerged in its identifiable modern form in the second half of the 18th century. Historians, political scientists and economists have identified it as a pact between a ruler, who dominated the provision of security, and landed and commercial elites, who controlled the resources required by the ruler. As a byproduct of this historic bargain, personal rule became institutional rule.

At the same time, the first social movements developed their repertoire of protest and pressure. This was organized around meetings, demonstrations and use of the emergent print media. The state and the social movements contesting against the state shared the same space for communication and convening, and among the first human rights struggles were for freedom of conscience, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press. We should not forget this foundational struggle today.

Modern humanitarianism also emerged, in both its national and transnational forms, at this time, located in the tension between the impersonality of the market and the universalization of human solidarity. Three intertwined genealogies of humanitarian and human rights sentiment emerged. One was philanthropy as personal salvation or fulfillment. A second was charity to sustain the social order, as a protection against revolution. A third was seeking socio-political change through challenging the state to use its instruments for emancipatory purposes, or taking control of the state in order to do so. Social movements, political protest and revolution overlapped.

One of the rhetorical tricks of human rights advocacy is to pretend that it is apolitical. It is, of course, not so: it is an intrinsically political activity. Britain’s Anti-Slavery Society financed gunboats and enlisted the assistance of the Royal Navy in suppressing the slave trade. Anti-colonial movements sought political independence as their goal. A practitioner of Gandhian non-violent resistance, comrade in unarmed struggle with the American civil liberties movement, Kwame Nkrumah insisted that his aim was “win the political kingdom first.” The career of the Soviet bloc’s most famous dissenter, Vaclav Havel, culminated when he entered the castle, victorious.

The civil and political rights campaign is best symbolized by Amnesty International’s “prisoner of conscience.” But the states of the 20th century, founded on Enlightenment precepts, were also constrained by their institutional conscience. The tribute that the Cold War governments, whether authoritarian or totalitarian, paid to their foundational ideals, was that they were vulnerable to shame. From the Helsinki Accords to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Human Rights Watch was the most skilled proponent of exposing the gap between ideals and realities, and calling governments of both East and West to account. This protracted exercise in shaming played no small part in the end of Communism, and thereby marked the greatest triumph of the practice of liberal human rights advocacy.

II.                  Human Rights Advocacy, Humanitarianism and Intervention

Growing in numbers and influence, western human rights organizations thereafter took on a raft of new issues, including challenging armed rebel groups and transnational corporations, and embracing social, economic and cultural rights. Although concerned by wars, they maintained a critical distance from peace processes and peace agreements, focusing their attention on their core areas of concern, such as insisting that an end to conflict should not entail amnesty for war crimes.

In contrast, while western human rights advocates also took an interest in humanitarian crises and humanitarian action, they did not establish a comparable critical stance vis-à-vis relief activities, although the logic of humanitarian relief is very different to that of human rights. Humanitarian appeals are based on eliciting sympathy and funds, not outrage at a violation of rights and shaming leading to legal or political action. Humanitarians are concerned with utilitarian outcomes first and make their principles subordinate to their access and operations, while civil and political rights activists advocate for principle above outcome.

In the 1970s and 1980s, human rights advocates and relief workers worked in parallel, with little interaction. Today, they interact a great deal, share evidence and analysis, and have established a division of labor based on their respective principles and working methods. But in the early 1990s, a series of events—in Iraqi Kurdistan, Somalia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Rwanda—brought the two together in a passionate embrace. Initially, humanitarians campaigned for military intervention in order to make their activities safe, so they could reach desperate populations. Human rights organizations followed. Ten years later, in Darfur, the call for intervention was made on human rights grounds, seeking to shame western countries into acting, while the humanitarians on the ground were at most muted in their support, and more often discreetly opposed.

This brief encounter between the two dominant forms of transnational activism produced a vibrant offspring, in the form of a narrative built around genocide and liberal intervention. This is, at root, a salvation fantasy: the idea that western military power can put the world to rights, specifically in saving a stricken populace with no other recourse. The concept of “genocide” used in this discourse is an odd amalgam of law and popular sentiment, stripped of the historicity of each particular occasion on which mass atrocities have been committed, and instead whittled down to an ideal type which has not in fact occurred since the Holocaust, but which nonetheless admits of no counterargument.

This encounter also produced a method that fuses mobilizing shame in western capitals (a derivative of human rights practice) and pity and resources for helpless victims (a derivative of charitable fundraising). It also became the preferred genre for celebrity activism, perhaps because it puts the foreign savior as the protagonist, a role that is well suited to Hollywood actors.

The function of crying “genocide!” is to invoke exceptionalism, to legitimize military intervention, and insofar as that intervention may be contrary to international law, to appeal to a higher concept of “legitimacy,” discrediting the institutions and procedures of international law (such as the UN Security Council), and implicitly discarding law itself. Genocide exceptionalism is not only an invocation of the insufficiency of law in the face of helpless victims, but also an appeal to the one power in the world, theoretically willing and able to act accordingly—that exceptional nation, the United States.

This latter-day philanthropic interventionism represents the opposite of the universal human solidarity of that infused the emancipatory tradition of human rights. It took an extraordinary lack of empathetic imagination for the U.S. administration to fail to recognize that countries such as Russia and Iran—the latter still with tens of thousands of victims of poison gas under hospital treatment, dying a slow death—might be joint leaders in an act of moral condemnation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Militant liberal interventionism is the sorcerer’s apprentice of human rights and humanitarianism. It has thus far proved extraordinarily hard for its progenitors to recognize and disavow this mutant offspring.

III.                New Frameworks for Governance in Africa and the Greater Middle East

Let me return to where we started, with the historical configuration of factors that enabled the emergence of the institutionalized state. Mancur Olson has described the first states as “protection rackets” in which the ruler provided security in return for a steady stream of income. The assumption of the state-building literature of the last twenty years is that the same transition can be accomplished by design, and in an orderly and peaceable manner—without inviting the comparison with organized crime. This is also implicit in the mode of action of the human rights community, which assumes that governments, however much they resemble warlords, are in a transition to statehood, and that international action can contribute to the domestication of human rights norms in developing countries.

This transition is not happen and is not likely to happen, for good reason. Across Africa and the Greater Middle East, states went through extremely severe economic crises in the 1980s, that tested the limits of the basic variables that underpin state authority. They have emerged from those crises, but constituted differently, in several respects.
First, their chief sources of incomes are rents: from minerals, aid, security cooperation, and crime, or the political rent that derives from doing the bidding of a more powerful patron. These rents mostly accrue to the ruler, by virtue of his sovereign stature in the world order who then possesses the key resources, and the intermediate elites clamor for access to them. This makes for a patronage hierarchy.

Second, in some states—especially those experiencing armed conflict—the ruler has lost predominance in control over the means of violence. Violence is organized by militia commanders, rebels, businessmen, gangsters, tribal leaders, party bosses who control youth wings, and military commanders and intelligence chiefs who are ostensibly part of a centralized hierarchy but actually have autonomous control over the resources they need to run their units. These men use violence or the threat of violence to extort resources from the ruler. We can call this a “rentier political marketplace system.”

In other states, where violence remained centralized, politics took the form of competitive clientelism—clients competing for position in the patronage hierarchy, with only the weakest of instruments at hand. These are classic rentier states, or to be precise, rentier centralized patronage governments. In others, where the population had few weapons, forms of weak patrimonial democracy emerged.

The key point here is that the grand bargain that forged European states cannot take place because its preconditions do not exist. Where the extortion demands on the ruler are strong (rentier political marketplaces), government revenues are chiefly expended on the “political budget” of securing loyalty, and on the ruler’s own military units. Little is left for public goods such as state institutions or services. Where the clients’ demands are weak—as in rentier states—there is plentiful money for public goods, but public institutions remain subordinate to political patronage, not vice versa.

Third, almost of all of the countries in Africa and the Greater Middle East are ethnically diverse, and therefore face clear obstacles in becoming nation states. The means of managing diversity in these countries is by the center bargaining separately with the diverse units, to co-opt leaders into the central system, in return for some leeway or autonomy in managing their own affairs. The model of political bargaining resembles a hub and spokes with no rim. The ruler’s concern is primarily with maintaining power, and secondarily—if at all—with pursuing a transformational or state-building project.

Which brings us to the fourth main factor in political authority, which is power over convening and communication.  In the hub-and-spokes model, the ruler has a dominant position in terms of access to information and can set the terms of communication and convening, allowing him to bargain on favorable terms. But with the advent of cellphones and satellite phones, politically active individuals in the peripheries can communicate with one another, and with external patrons and powerbrokers. Social media may further facilitate this, but the key element is facility of elite communication, which changes the balance of access to information, and allows for tactical coordination by provincial elites against the center.

A striking consequence of this is that the old style of peace negotiation is increasingly difficult. Diplomats like to bring political leaders together to a secluded location, such as an air force base in Dayton, Ohio, to hammer out a document that resembles a constitution, to be solemnly signed in a once-in-a-generation ceremony. That is possible only when there is regulated communication, a slow pace of political bargaining, and a controlled feedback to and from constituencies back home. But when the members of the negotiating teams have instant communication with anyone, and there is an instant echo chamber of popular sentiment, then political agreements become no more than momentary bargains, open for renegotiation the following day. The political system becomes turbulent, in the sense that it changes unpredictably from day to day, but retains its overall structure over a long period of time.

Another consequence is that, when a centralized political authority breaks down—as has happened in the Arab Spring countries—it is extraordinarily hard to put it back together again. Without robust and pre-existing institutional governance (as opposed to centralized patrimonialism or military dictatorship), political competition leads countries in the direction of the rentier political marketplace. Today’s historical processes are not towards state building, but away from it.

And finally, these systems are globally integrated. The main sources of rent mentioned—minerals, aid, security cooperation, transnational crime, and political rent—are all reliant on external sponsors or markets. One of the under-recognized facets of globalization is the growth of a global patronage system, intermeshed with all of these streams of rent. Globalization is popularly associated with the international mobility of private capital and the growth of multilateral organizations and international institutions, but is equally an informal process of political patronage and payoff. The world order far more resembles what Douglass North calls a “limited access order” run on patronage and bargaining over security, than an “open access order” based on the rule of law and impartial institutions.

Where do organizations that advocate for civil and political rights find their handholds in such systems? The mode of operation, based on information, shame, and legal recourse, does not work well in such a patronage marketplace. The kinds of popular mobilization that took place in the Arab Spring did not, as with the Velvet Revolution, lead to a new liberal and democratic order, but rather into a contest between fragmentation and dictatorship. Public intellectuals in political leadership are a rare breed in these countries (in interesting contrast to Latin America). Indices for good governance or state fragility fail to provide a useful guide for which states will fail and when—as dramatically demonstrated by the fact that the Foreign Policy/Fund for Peace Failed States Index ranked Mali at 79 out of 191 in 2012, even as the state was disintegrating before our eyes. Mali had been playing the game of good governance, while its core institutions had rotted away, and the conventional measures of state performance simply failed to catch that.

IV.               The Fount of Security Rentierism and the Challenge for the U.S. Human Rights Movement

There are many centers of global patronage, but one stands head and shoulders above the others: the U.S. government and in particular its intelligence, security and military institutions and budgets. This apparatus, part open, part concealed, is the world’s biggest renter of loyalty, in charge of the world’s biggest political budget.

U.S. security assistance is a significant, even dominant, form of rent in many countries across Africa and the Greater Middle East. It is also the case in many parts of Latin America, where it fuses with counter-narcotics policing rent, and in south-east Asia. This rent consists in official military and counter-intelligence assistance and cooperation, the “black budget” payments that are provided to clients, especially in places where the U.S. has active military operations, and the multiple associated forms of assistance, contracting and payment, ranging from the operations of private military corporations to development assistance that is tied into U.S. strategic interests. It also increasingly consists of the off-budget payments associated with arms sales—with the U.S., in 2011, accounting for 79% of international arms transfer agreements with developing nations by value, double the proportion of just a few years ago.

The U.S. likes to see those foreign governments, governmental units (such as intelligence agencies), and individuals that receive its funds, as willing partners or clients. But these clients are also pursuing their own interests, and will manipulate the patron when they can. This manipulation may include misrepresenting or exaggerating security threats so as to solicit more assistance, or even sustaining or regenerating security threats, for fear of losing the rental income. Fine examples include the Yemeni strategy of maintaining protracted crisis, including al Qaida, so as to elicit U.S. funds, and the Ugandan strategy of using an inflated defense budget as the source of a political budget, and justifying military spending by the pursuit of a tiny force carefully depicted as uniquely threatening.

The global war on terror was portrayed by its architects as a struggle against evil, a “long war” against an enemy that eluded definition, and which demanded extraordinary mobilization. That “war” has not only produced the largest military and intelligence budgets in history, but also the most ambitious surveillance program in history, with the National Security Agency aiming to collect every piece of digital communication, without exception. This logic converges with that of a global responsibility to protect—that is, protect innocent civilians against the evils of genocide, mass atrocity and weapons of mass destruction—enforceable only through U.S. military capacity.

If there is to be a global policeman, there are arguments in favor of it being a constitutional government committed to the rule of law, transparency and accountability, rather than some of the other variants of political authority that exist in the world. However, these would be political and utilitarian arguments, and not a human rights argument. Indeed, human rights advocates should be in the lead in challenging such arguments, in the name of law and principle.

If it is even partly correct that today’s global governance resembles a patrimonial system of allocating rent in return for loyalty, then it is incumbent upon those concerned with civil and political rights around the world to engage with the problem at its source, namely the U.S. military-security-intelligence apparatus, and its baleful influence on democracy, integrity and human rights around the world, and also in the U.S. itself. This entails not only exposing and confronting the abuses of power, but also the ideological justifications for such excessive power and for using it outside or above international law. In speaking truth to power, human rights advocates in the U.S. must also confront their own colleagues and friends who have become militant liberal interventionists—those sorcerers’ apprentices who have made common cause with the world’s biggest ever exercise in intelligence and military domination. By doing so, the U.S. human rights movement has the opportunity to take its place in the vanguard of civic globalization.

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