Human Rights as an Imperial Corporate Responsibility

Human Rights as an Imperial Corporate Responsibility It has been argued, time and again, that human rights have the potential to function as the new tool of civilization – that they are motivated by international political and economic aims. I attempt to synthesize and visualize these critiques in the context of the human rights industry – an institutionalized market that seeks to capitalize on the plight of the suffering. The rhetoric of corporate social responsibility campaigns bears a striking resemblance, both in conception and language, to the burden of the civilizing imperial. That far from serving as a real emancipatory tool, these campaigns (the ‘responsibility of corporates’) have become a standard part of the justification of the neo-liberal project. They deviate attention from the evident harms of the market economy to pose the hegemonic framework as a saviour of the downtrodden. With such an understanding, I conclude that the hegemony of the neo-liberal system has firmly established itself as the inevitable and the saviour, serving numerous concealed objectives at the same time. In this sense, the human rights campaign, driven by the glamour of sympathy evoking rhetoric, will march on. The word ‘campaign’ has an interesting etymology. It comes from an early French usage campagne used to describe “a tract of open country”. Stretches of bucolic terrain were often used by armies to prepare, manoeuvre and fight. Gradually, this practice became semantically synonymous with the topology it referred to. The space became no different from the purpose for which it was occupied: military operation. Further in time, the militaristic connotation of the word takes the meaning of establishing a set of political goals with a system. From ‘taking the field’, it set its sights on a normative shaping of the field it has taken. Closer to today, the word is most closely associated with the ubiquitous ‘ad campaign’, the corporate-controlled, media-propelled vehicle of presenting particularistic desires as emancipatory wants, predicates of happiness. In many ways, the military occupation, political configuration and consolidation through consumptive desire that is implicit in the history of the word ‘campaign’ is also implicit in the history of campaigns within the human rights industry. The human rights campaign is the tainted smile of the Empire. The desire to ‘make the world a better place’ through the diversionary mission of corporate social responsibility, has proven to be a lucrative space to be occupied, configured and consolidated. In the paper I argue, albeit rhetorically, that the emancipatory countenance of human rights campaigns are avatars of transnational economic hegemony. Costas Douzinas argued that the sovereign was established on the basis of unlimited individual desire but by assuming the function of the party, the class or nation, it could turn its desire into a murderous rage and a denial of all right.[1] He further argued that when the sovereign is devised according to the characteristics of the desiring self, it had the ability, to empirically deny individuals and frustrate all human desire and surrender people to the horrors it was made to protect them from. In this paper, sovereign will be construed to mean an ‘industry´ whose desire is to promote certain rights for its own propaganda, thereby systematically denying access to all rights, except the ones this industry promulgates. This paper will be broadly divided into three parts. First, I will ground the premise of a human rights industry in theory. Second, I attempt to explain the necessity of that industry to capitalize on emancipatory desire, and the role of the human rights campaign and neo-liberalization therein. Third, I explore how the ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ campaign, by selectively invoking images of suffering and calling for intercession converts ‘voicelessness’ into a discursive space to be occupied, configured and consolidated. The Human Rights Industry Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states, “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized”, is the quintessential ambition that the human rights campaign in the 21st century strives to achieve, i.e. to be acultural and ahistorical. But despite its totalizing claims of universality, this system did not always exist as undisturbed, unchallenged as it seems today. The geopolitical history of how western liberal capitalism was won is rooted in the invasion of territory through bloody conquest, colonial dehumanization, forced religious conversion, destruction of indigenous economies, and so on in a list longer than one of all the rights one can possibly compile. In other words, “to argue that human rights has a standing which is universal in character is to contradict historical reality…”[2] Given this track record, it becomes imperative for the neoliberal economic system to obscure the history and consolidate the future. The neoliberal corporate order, as Pierre Bourdieu puts it, devotes “as much time to concealing the reality of economic acts as it spends in carrying them out”.[3] The system of corporate social responsibility is thus preoccupied with appearances to cover up its own rapacity, to cover up the impossible irony of declaring everyone equal when it feasts on inequality. Within this paradoxical space, the marketization of human rights becomes a venture that is not merely useful, but integral to keeping appearances while maintaining profits: the human right industry.[4] The idea of a market, in Anthony Carty’s threefold legal phenomena, becomes pertinent here.[5] He claims that western language about human rights favours a voluntarist understanding of these rights, i.e. rights are a matter of statements of personal preference. The market is then the legitimacy of personal preference and the satisfaction of desire, confirmed through the institution of contract. Anthony Carty affirms that this contradiction between moral claim and economic reality is the discursive space from whence the modern human rights project becomes the face of the neoliberal order.[6] The language and symbolism of human rights, presumed to be universal, becomes an immensely valuable commodity in the perpetuation of “the materialist-hedonist culture that requires a militarized control of the planet to ensure its continued expansion.”[7] Public opinion itself becomes a commodity. Opinion polls exist somewhere beyond any social production of opinion. They rebound incessantly in their own images: the representation of the masses is merely a simulation, as the response to a referendum. In this Janus-faced order, it becomes a primary impulse to contract away the responsibility for human life by declaring allegiance to the ‘human rights campaign’. Similarly, Baudrillard speaks of human rights campaign as commodity par excellence- its circulation has become all but indistinguishable from the circulation of capital.[8] In this context, it may not be difficult to reimagine the semantic economy of the human rights campaign through the “messianic ethos” of the transnational human rights industry.[9] The appearance of saviour is necessary for hegemonic stability which is in turn contingent on there being a victim to save: but save cost-effectively i.e. profitably. Of course, as discussed, the neoliberal propensity to conquer, configure and consolidate is the only way to maintain profits. This situation presents a macabre, but ingenious opportunity: proactively use the neoliberal vehicle to spread the good emancipatory news of human rights. This potential to disaggregate and recombine the semiotics of universal human rights becomes a perfect space for the fusion of modern hegemonic corporate interests with emancipatory desire. An infamous example of this effortless synthesis is Lucky Strike’s ‘Torches of Freedom’ campaign of 1929. Looking to expand its clientele for Lucky Strike cigarettes to include women, for whom smoking in public was a social taboo, the American Tobacco Company sought the help of Edward Bernays, the so-called ‘father of public relations’. Bernays, in turn was advised to advertise the act of smoking as symbolic of women’s equality and emancipation.[10] He paid young debutants to walk down the streets of New York smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes by then dubbed ‘torches of freedom’. The campaign was met with instant adulation from notable feminists such as Ruth Haley who encouraged American women to “Light another torch of freedom! Fight another sex taboo!”[11] This is exemplary of how consumption and emancipation merge under corporate commission to form the modern human rights campaign. The post-Cold War consolidation phase, if we go by Vasuki Nesiah’s idea of intervention, it can be interpreted as the outcome of the grotesque fusion of imperial hegemonic power and human rights activism. She speaks of an almost physical transfusion of humanitarian NGOs with wealthy, hegemonic donors in this period.[12] The NGO’s openly engaged with the political fervour involved in their activism, although within the terms of liberal internationalism. “Humanitarian work in the field was shaped by an intricate interplay of changes in how human rights and humanitarian institutions were funded and how their projects were defined.”[13] This phase, I argue sees the emergence of a renewed human rights campaign: impossibly powerful, swathed in the garb of human emancipation, drunk on neoliberal idealism and of course, swimming in profit. Neo-Liberalization & Human Rights: Capitalizing on Emancipatory Desires The human rights campaign speaks self-referentially and articulates its mission as temporally different from geopolitical history, for example, military intervention in Afghanistan becomes a campaign for the rights of women – as Laura Bush told the American people, “Because of our recent military gains in Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes.”[14] The contemporary human rights campaign has evolved into a dealer in the world of ‘emancipation is human rights’. By relying on the symbolic value of emancipation, the human rights campaign decides to apply its own standards of right and wrong to benefit hegemonic expansion. In other words, “save the girl-child, save the world” becomes the call to arms of an economically-propelled endgame. Naomi Klein orients a different thought process on the interrelation of human rights, morality and politics.[15] The problem, as she assesses, is depoliticisation – the transformation into moral panics of phenomena that are rooted in the political economy of contemporary capitalism. She argues that governments, financial institutions and other powerful economic agents are ‘looting with the lights on, as if there were nothing at all to hide’.[16] Klein characterizes neoliberalism as a holy trinity – privatization, deregulation and cuts to social spending – in which governments dismantle trade barriers, abandon public ownership, reduce taxes, eliminate minimum wage, cut health and welfare spending and privatize education. She calls the means of achieving this goal “disaster capitalism” and describes how it has resulted in a worldwide redistribution of income and wealth to the already rich at the expense of economic solvency for the middle and lower classes. While Moyn advances the claim that human rights is a relatively new phenomenon than is generally assumed. For Moyn, the revolutionary charters following the Universal Declaration of Human Rights bear little relation to human rights, which are concerned with rights against the State, not popular sovereignty. It was in the 1970’s that human rights became a movement, a mode of activism and a language of claim, aspiration and justification that would be heard throughout the world. On the other hand, Klein believes that part of the context for the consolidation of neo-liberalism itself was the emergence of the human rights movement, with its non-political creed. Moyn contends that in recent years things have begun to change.[17] From alternatives to political utopias, today the agenda for human rights is much larger. They are called upon to address not just repression and violence, but humanitarian concerns about suffering in all forms. But what he omits to mention, is highlighted by Klein who states, that the interrelation between human rights and neo-liberal version is now of private capitalism, with familiar policy prescription of privatization, deregulation and state retreat from social provision.[18] In a presumably similar vein, Stephen Hopgood notes that “as with power and money, the creed now apparently on its deathbed becomes a mean to the end of globalizing neoliberal democracy”.[19] Selective Voices and the idea of Corporate Social Responsibility Lastly, the idea of corporate social responsibility at once invokes the desire to enlist or at least pay homage to the noble venture of the visibly underprivileged yet smiling ‘others’ on the campaign banners. On August 19, 2013, Vedanta, as part of its “Khushi” initiative, launched the ‘Our Girls, Our Pride’ campaign in association with NDTV.[20] Its aim? Alleviate the plight of undernourished, unhealthy, undereducated and vulnerable young girls in India. In NDTV’s press release video[21] of the campaign-launch, images of visibly underprivileged yet smiling young girls embellish a banner that backdrops a choice gathering of members of civil society, NGOs, government and of course, corporations. ‘Our Girls, Our Pride’ by the ’Khushi’ initiative- the semantic barrage of crippling joy in pain, vicarious ownership, personal responsibility and hope of salvation all at once invokes the desire to enlist or at least pay homage to the noble venture. ‘Stakeholders’, concerned citizens from ‘all walks of life’ have come together in solidarity, all in one place, all for one cause (1:20); surely this has to be democracy if there ever was. The emancipatory appetite is whet and the insignia of unity is drawn as ‘the poor girl child’. Now, the visual celebration of poor-but-happy on the banners start to makes sense. The images now fit perfectly without qualm in the luxurious hall of The Leela, Chanakyapuri, a hotel estimated by Forbes to have cost 391 million USD to build.[22] The violence of the contrast is erased. The spectral presence of the subaltern is ritualistically invoked. And then begins the ventriloquism of the human rights © campaign: A video-clip is projected on screen. More poor-but-happy girls are presented, statistical information is brought to notice, ‘Nirbhaya’, the infamously anonymized Delhi gang-rape victim, is mentioned (3:05), and the video ends with poor-but-happy girls singing a vernacular rendition of “We Shall Overcome” (3:33). Celebrity, Priyanka Chopra, then addresses the gathering in her capacity as UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador for India and newly appointed ‘brand ambassador’ of the campaign. The delegates then exchange views and reaffirm the decision that the campaign will make a change, bring happiness. The assimilative tendency of the human rights campaign is showcased here. Not only are images of structural disenfranchisement displayed as objects of consumption, the recent outrage against violence fresh in memory, the Nirbhaya protests, is captured in a few moments, stripped of voice and repackaged as an ‘event’. As the song of emancipation is sung, the images on screen are replaced with the image of the celebrity on stage. Revealing her ‘human side’, she speaks of colonial discovery. She speaks of how she, at a young age, came to notice “the mind-set that people have towards the girl-child” (05:07). She determines that it is ‘us’ who must change it. The invocation of the self-other paradigm is especially apt here as the camera focuses on the impeccably dressed, visibly wealthy audience (5:45). Coincidentally, it is clear who ‘us’ refers to here- those who have the social capital to be aggrandized from the hegemonic power structure. Only they have the power to ‘bring a change’ to the pitiable, alien world the ‘other’ inhabits. Recall here the propulsion of emancipatory desire of the French mission civilisatrice in West Africa through the hegemonic colonial vehicle. The occupied space must be consecrated in the language of changing a savage culture by setting it to human rights. The pretext of this ‘mega-event’ of change serves to simultaneously exonerate and justify any traces of irony that may be associated with a vicious mining corporation backed by media-conglomerate and UNICEF and government and local activists initiating a mission in the name of human rights. Even as the video plays and right now, Vedanta’s crimes, its attempted siege of the Niyamgiri hills in Orissa, its record of displacing hundreds of Dongria Kondh, its destruction of forests, poisoning of water and pollution of air, are being erased.[23] Appearances and hegemonic power are consolidated simultaneously through the semantic force of the human rights campaign. On November 25, 2013, Vedanta announced its plans to invest 3 billion USD into its oil and gas campaign in India and acquire bauxite in Orissa.[24] The newspaper article relates Vedanta’s statement that the denial of their mining project in the Niyamgiri hills in 2012 is “no setback to the group”. Plans to expand operations to Punjab are disclosed. The article ends with the announcement that Vedanta plans to start the ‘Khushi’ initiative in Punjab soon.[25] The campaign marches on.


[1] Costas Douzinas, The End of Human Rights: Critical Legal Thought at the Turn of the Century 374 (Hart Publishing Oxford 2000) [2] Peter Schwab, Human Rights: A Western Construct with Limited Applicability in Human Rights: Cultural and Ideological Perspectives (1980) [3] As explained in: Vanessa Smith, Intimate Strangers: Friendship, Exchange and Pacific Encounters 112 (2010) [4] Anthony Carty, The Philosophy of International Law 193-197 (2007) [5] Anthony Carty, Legalisation of Human Rights Discourse in a Coercive Legal Order 1 [6] Ibid. [7] Id at 196. [8] Jean Baudrillard, Power Inferno 63-83 (2002). [9] Makau Mutua, Human Rights: A Political and Cultural Critique 215 (2001). [10] Larry Tye,The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations(1998). [11] Allan Brandt, The Cigarette Century 84-85 (2007). [12] Vasuki Nesiah, From Berlin to Bonn to Baghdad: A Space for Infinite Justice, 17HHRJ (2004). [13] Id. [14] Id. [15] Susan Marks, Four Human Right Myths, London School of Economics Working Papers 10/2012 [16] Naomi Klein, ‘Looting with the lights on’, The Guardian, (August 2011). [17] This debate was discussed in: Samuel Moyn, Human Rights and “Neoliberalism” (Nov. 29, 2014, 7:00 PM), https://hhr.hypotheses.org/215 [18] Ronnie Steinberg, The Shock Doctrine Review (Nov. 29, 2014, 7:00 PM), https://www.naomiklein.org/reviews/ms-magazine-review-shock-doctrine [19] Stephen Hopgood, The Endtimes of Human Rights, (Cornell University Press 2013) [20] Priyanka Chopra names Campaign Ambassador for ‘NDTV-Vedanta Our Girls Our Pride’, NDTV, Aug. 19, 2013, https://www.ndtv.com/article/india/priyanka-chopra-named-campaign-ambassador-for-ndtv-vedanta-our-girls-our-pride-407688. [21] Video available on the top-left side of the webpage at: https://www.ndtv.com/article/india/priyanka-chopra-named-campaign-ambassador-for-ndtv-vedanta-our-girls-our-pride-407688. [22] Modern Day Splendor in New Delhi: The Leela Palace Hotel, Forbes, Jan. 10, 2012, https://www.forbes.com/sites/annabel/2012/10/01/modern-day-indian-splendor-in-new-delhi-the-leela-palace-hotel/. [23] Survival International provides a consolidated list of government documents relating to Vedanta’s activities at: https://www.survivalinternational.org/behindthelies/vedanta. [24] Newspaper article available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/business/india-business/Vedanta-Plc-to-invest-3-billion-in-India-in-3-years/articleshow/26374817.cms. [25] Id.

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