Who is the Subject of Atrocities Prevention?

Below is an excerpt from my recently published essay, “Who is the Subject of Atrocities Prevention?” in Global Responsibility to Protect, 6 (2014), 430 – 452. Full essay available here.

In 2004, political philosopher Jacques Rancière asked: ‘Who is the subject of the Rights of Man?’(1).  A question at least as old as the French Revolution, it is implicitly posed in the title of that period’s central document, the ‘Declarations des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen’(1789), ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen’. Provocatively, the subject of rights is addressed as both ‘man and citizen,’ with ample space for theoretical query about the status of the conjunction. Does it connect or separate the two potential subjects of rights? Nativity, the mere of fact of existing, is implied as the foundation of rights in ‘man’ or more appropriately ‘human’ (2), while inscription in a political community forms the basis of ‘citizen’ as subject.

However, neither ‘human’ nor ‘citizen’ provides a satisfying answer. If rights only belong to ‘citizens’, they appear as a tautology: political rights belonging to those who have that status of rights-holder within a political community. However, if rights belong to ‘human’ based on mere existence, as Hannah Arendt argued in the wake of the Holocaust and the post-World War II refugee crisis, they are revealed as rights that cannot be claimed. In Arendt’s words:

The conception of human rights based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down the very moment when those who pro- fessed 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. (3)

In short, human rights are meaningless. Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben develops this position further, positing that these ‘human’ populations exist as ‘bare life’ (4), that is, life without political meaning, deemed outside the law, and thereby outside all protections. And so the question of the subject arrives at a dead-end: rights are either a tautology or void.

Unless, Rancière continues, we have asked the wrong question. The critical work 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 forms the grounds of contestation, what he calls ‘dissensus’:

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.(5)

The identity of a rights-seeking individual, 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 in an attempt to stabilize the discourse of rights, but rather dynamic contexts of how and when rights are asserted. Rights claims do not restore a proper state of existence by reifying the position of citizen or human, but rather disrupt the given order. This disruption is political contestation. It marks the uncertain space of the conjunction, the ‘man and citizen’, as an opening into which 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. (6)

This tale of how asking the wrong question lands one in seemingly impossible quandaries also applies to how we theorize the subject of mass atrocities, particularly in terms of prevention. The primary conceptual frameworks for the ‘subject’ of mass atrocities include terms that describe a person or group relative to acts of violence, as in victim or perpetrator; terms that attempt to characterize the group of people targeted for violence, as in ethnic, racial, religious or national group; or more broadly conceived and open ended terms like ‘population’ or ‘civilian’. The first category is least relevant to a prevention framework because its most accurate and helpful deployment situates subjects in relation to a specific act of violence—in a preventive context this act has not occurred and ideally will not occur. The second category, which I will short- hand as ‘groupness’, can be helpful to the extent that it addresses social and political stratification that renders some people more vulnerable than others. The challenge, however, is that these terms tend to naturalize and homogenize groups, while crafting a static picture of power relations that fluctuate significantly. The third subjects, defined as ‘population’ (as developed in relation to a ‘Responsibility to Protect’) or ‘civilian’, simultaneously benefit from and are limited by the broad, unspecified nature of the terms.

So within the current vocabularies, we, too, arrive at a dead-end. The subject of atrocities prevention cannot be defined by acts that have not occurred. It must prove analytically relevant to disaggregated analysis of risk and vulnerability, but not substitute description of groups as wholesale identifiers of stable, fixed and unitary actors. It must have a broad enough lens to scan the social horizon for unexpected vulnerability, and yet retain enough analytical specificity to be relevant to the work of prevention. The challenge of defining the subject of atrocities prevention thereby arrives at an impasse: the conceptual frameworks for prevention alternatively veer too far into a discourse of inevitability or describe such general conditions as to be meaningless to a specific atrocities prevention agenda. Overdetermined or ill-specified—is there a way out of this impasse?

Here, as with rights, the impasse may be the result of asking the wrong question. The work of prevention cannot be adequately conceived as simply pushing a conceptual framework upstream, as it were. Even the basic vocabularies to describe on-going violence may be ill-suited for contexts where violence has not occurred. Worse yet, these vocabularies may obscure the very relationships and social structures that are best suited to protection. Some of the most compelling work on atrocities prevention today begins precisely at this impasse by challenging the assumptions of what factors are relevant to the work of prevention, adding new concepts to the analytical framework, and diversifying the cases that inform the work of atrocity prevention. Foremost among these efforts are the work of Scott Straus on ‘factors of restraint’ and Deborah Mayerson and Stephen McLoughlin’s adaptation of ‘resilience’ to atrocities prevention. I argue that in parallel to these efforts, we must re-examine our ‘subjects’ of atrocity prevention. The ‘subject’ is not merely one among many concepts that need to be revised, but is a crucial starting point for how prevention is conceptualized.

Like Rancière, I do not argue that there is a more appropriate subject who could power its way through the impasse. Nor do I think atrocities prevention is a lost cause. Rather, I suggest that we can learn from the existing vocabularies, from work on restraint and resilience, and from the discourse of rights— and Rancière’s discussion is relevant not merely as a rhetorical device but in its substance as well—to devise new strategies for prevention.


Complete essay available here.


(1) Jacques Ranciere, ‘Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?’ South Atlantic Quarterly, 103/2– 3: 297–310 (2004).

(2) Rancière is acutely attuned to the exclusion enacted by the term “man” as a substitute for “human.” The example he develops in his article is of a woman, Olympe de Gouge, rallying for women’s rights during the French Revolution and demanding equal treatment as a political subject. De Gouge, as she mounted the guillotine, proclaimed that if a woman could be publicly killed for her political actions then she deserved the full rights of citizenship as well. The state had already acknowledged her as a political being with punishment; logic dictated that political life be acknowledged in its positive manifestations as well.

(3) Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: The World Publishing Co., 1951), p. 299.

(4) Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, tr. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, ca: Stanford University Press, 1998).

(5) Rancière, “Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?”, p. 305.

(6) Rancière, “Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?”, p. 304.

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