The notion of universal human rights is a fairly new concept, coming into existence only after the Second World War as enshrined in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The system of rights was premised on the main assumption that since no one could control his or her birth, it should then follow that everyone should have a birthright to be protected from certain ills, or guaranteed certain liberties.
Scholars have read the development of rights as a response to several features of modernity. For instance, the deinstitutionalisation of social life has been noted to be a contributing factor to the development of rights. As contemporary culture places less emphasis on traditional sense-making social institutions (such as religious, familial, and so on), this creates an unprecedented feeling of precariousness and vulnerability in the human condition, which is then alleviated by the shared humanity found in the human rights discourse (Turner 2006). Or, another feature that has been said to contribute to the development of human rights is the modern emphasis on a ‘care for the self’, which ties the significance of one’s existence to the extent to which one is able to shape one’s destiny through wilful decisions and actions (Rose 1996). The development of rights dovetails with this emphasis on self-enterprise because it guarantees certain freedoms that allow its exercise. Such perspectives are largely characteristic of work on modernity and human rights, which has often centred on either relating the development of rights to certain characteristics of modernity, or considering how they reflect its fundamental tensions (e.g., Parekh 2008). In this essay, I wish to approach this issue from a different tack; instead of considering how modern understandings of the human condition give rise to the development of human rights, I invert this relationship to ask: how does the development of human rights affect our understanding of humanity?
Previously, studies that have examined this relation have explored areas such as the applicability of rights principles to the global ‘human’, considering issues of cultural relativism, moral universalism and so forth (Ignatieff 2003; Symonides 1998), and by extension, the adequacy of rights in serving as a basis for a shared understanding of humanity, in comparison with theories such as cosmopolitanism (e.g., Appiah 2006). Yet the common assumption in such work is still that individuals take ontological precedence to rights, which then simply attach in a way that changes their existence for the better. This presupposition is often left unexamined.
This essay seeks to critically examine human rights discourse by considering the very constitution of the ‘human’ in human rights. I draw on Costas Douzinas’s argument that it is not so much that ‘humans have rights’ but that ‘human rights [also] construct humans…’ (Douzinas 2000: 371). Douzinas will primarily be read as calling for a genealogical...