Does it matter if the subject of mass atrocities is named as: an ethnic, national, racial or religious group; civilian; population; perpetrator, victim, bystander or rescuer; or something else? These are some of the “names” that are currently in use in the broad field that works on large-scale, systematic atrocities under a range of rubrics: genocide, crimes against humanity, R2P crimes, atrocity crimes, civilian protection, etc. From a distance, all of these categories seem related, but if we move in closer, are there meaningful differences?

Language choice reflects sometimes subtle (sometimes significant) variations in focus, agency and narrative development. The “who” directs our gaze. The description suggests something about the subject’s social and political standing, and how they relate to others, including “us.” Finally, in casting about for our subject, we also hint at how the story will unravel—who the heroes and villains will be. I have preferences in which language choices I make, but understand that each choice has its own logic–to define is, necessarily, to make decisions about what is included and excluded.

The question posed in my title borrows from Jacques Ranciere, whose instructive 2004 essay questions: “Who is the subject of the rights of man?” While my reflections on this blog series are not primarily theoretical, but attempt to capture the practices implicit in how we name the subjects of atrocities, it is worth a brief foray into Ranciere’s argument. More than merely borrowing a rhetorical device for a title, I want to suggest that the strategy and even some of the very same terms that Ranciere provokes with his writing are instructive for a critical inquiry into the subject of atrocities.

Building on work by Hannah Arendt and Giorgio Agamben, Ranciere notes that both of these thinkers end up calling for a complete revision of rights discourse, as the “subject” of rights is most vulnerable precisely when the protections rights should have offered are most needed. As Arendt writes: “the conception of human rights based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships–except that they were still human” (Origins of Totalitarianism, 299). Agamben posits that these populations exist as “bare life,” life without political meaning, deemed outside the law, and thereby outside all protections.

But perhaps this dead-end is a result of asking the wrong question? The critical work, Ranciere asserts, is not to define the subject, but to understand the work of claiming rights. The political subject, named “man,” “human” or “citizen,” does not describe a finalized condition, but rather the grounds of contestation: “Political subjects […] put to test the power of political names, their extension and comprehension. They not only confront the inscriptions of rights to situations of denial; they put together the world where those rights are valid and the world where they are not. They put together a relation of inclusion and a relation of exclusion” (Who is, 305).  The identity of a benefits seeking individual, be it named man, citizen, or other, fails to help us understand how rights claims destabilize the status quo. It is not a subject we should seek, but rather moments when rights are asserted. In sum, rights are the act of demanding rights–political contestation—which best describes the nature of rights.

How does this model of shifting from study of a particular subject to study of a dynamic process relate to the goal of protection from atrocities? This is the underlying question prompting this series of reflections, which are simple efforts to trace the discursive borders that define subjects of violence and hint at the political consequences of these choices.  I’ll end with a brief consideration of why finalizing subject positions vis-à-vis violence is particularly unhelpful for prevention work, arguing that what is needed, akin to the move that Rancière makes, is an understanding of how power dynamics operate within political and social communities—both how members of communities are interconnected and how their vulnerabilities vary.

Some of the subjects I’ll address in subsequent essays include:

  • Ethnic, national, racial or religious groups (under the rubric of “genocide”);
  • Civilian (as in crimes against humanity and “civilian protection”);
  • Population (such as Responsibility to Protect posits)
  • Victim: in legal terms, but also along with Bystander and Rescuer as narrative archetypes;
  • Communities.
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