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Representations of Human Rights: law, drama, documentation

Crossing the Boundaries: the place of human rights in contemporary scholarship
Afternoon panel session:

Chair: Mr Matthew Zagor
Dr Joshua Castellino Human rights law and cul-de-sacs: confronting limitations to legal approaches
Dr Harry Derbyshire and Dr Loveday Hodson Human rights and contemporary British theatre
Dr Stener Ekern Genocide in Central America: the challenge of reporting about human rights across cultural boundaries
Ms Gina Heathcote Human rights law as narrative: dichotomies of the legal and non-legal

Dr Joshua Castellino
Human rights law and cul-de-sacs: confronting limitations to legal approaches

The central tenet of the Asian Values debate was that the human rights discourse was purely western and of limited applicability to Asia. The critique centered around a manifestation of human rights that was believed to be focused on individually ascribed rights, of a civil or political nature, that were potentially gleaned through an adversarial legalistic struggle, from the reluctant clutches of state power. In other theatres, the language of human rights law is critiqued by indigenous peoples who see their right of self-determination denied through principles of international law such as uti possidetis and the inter-temporal rule of law. When faced with alternate conceptions of ownership or occupation, international human rights law fails to find viable answers to the question of indigenous rights. Finally the growing trend of human rights law to preach secular standards despite positing respect for religious rights is evidence of a fundamental contradiction.

This paper seeks to highlight inherent problems in the discourse of human rights such as these, and suggests that they can partly be attributed to the dominance of human rights by legalistic approaches. It will seek to illuminate this discussion through the lens of three specific instances alluded to above:

  1. the East-West conflict over the salience of human rights;
  2. the specific instance of indigenous claims to land rights and the barriers that these come up against and,
  3. attempts made whereby the secularist human rights agenda seeks to posit legal protection of religious rights.

These three examples are drawn from work that has underpinned research towards two books, both framed within the legal context: Title to Territory in International Law (Dartmouth: Ashgate 2002) and Minority Rights in Asia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). In both instances it would seem that human rights law has come up against particular circumstances where it has found that a legalistic approach has failed to provide suitable solutions to existing intricacies; but rather than deferring to other disciplines to seek resolution, has insisted on application of legal principles, with unsatisfactory and uncertain results. Thus the fundamental objective of the paper is to highlight the need for a 'crossing of boundaries', as a general principle but more specifically in the three contexts discussed.

Dr Harry Derbyshire and Dr Loveday Hodson
Human rights and contemporary British theatre

Law has been a central discipline in the development of human rights discourse, with the capacity to give concrete form and status to the principles that that discourse embodies. Recently, however, some legal scholars have expressed scepticism about the effectiveness of law, working in isolation, as a means of addressing the challenges presented by contemporary human rights. In the light of concern that established legal rights may simply not be observed by states in a climate dominated by the threat of terrorism, it seems pertinent to explore the contribution other disciplines may make to our understanding of the situation. One such discipline, we would argue, is theatre, a medium which is playing an increasingly vital role in the exploration of human rights issues and the furtherance of human rights causes.

Our paper explores a particular strand of contemporary British theatre which is drawing attention to fundamental human rights violations. We consider the extent to which theatre's capacity to raise awareness, advance arguments and encourage empathy make it a productive forum for debate and an effective campaigning tool. As well as evaluating theatre's potential to give an accessible voice to human rights, the paper considers ways in which the form might help restore to that discourse the capacity to influence and direct national and global policy.

The specific productions considered include Guantanamo, seen in 2004 at Kilburn's Tricycle Theatre, in the West End and off-Broadway; and the Royal Court's 2005 production My Name is Rachel Corrie, which dramatises occupation and protest in Palestine. Both are pieces which invite audiences to consider the gross and systematic violations of human rights that can take place in a legal vacuum. Each play is designed not only to educate, but also to encourage informed dissent, transforming human rights issues into matters of public concern. We consider both the significance of this aim and the degree to which it has been achieved.

Dr Stener Ekern
Genocide in Central America: the challenge of reporting about human rights across cultural boundaries

The paper focuses on the uses of legal categories such as 'genocide' and 'gross human rights violation' in documents that have become standard texts about what happened during the civil wars of El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1970s and 1980s, and compares these authoritative and 'international' narratives with locally told stories. It discusses the contrasts between these two sets of narratives and argues that the observed differences are systematic and due to differing conceptions about the events themselves, as regards agency and causality as well as the inferences that can be drawn. The latter point has important consequences for how to promote 'human rights' in the societies in question. It is also argued that ethnographic investigation is well suited to carry out deconstructive and reconstructive exercises of this kind.

Thus, what in human rights reports from e.g. Americas Watch and the national truth commissions of El Salvador and Guatemala comes across as stories about government inaction and brutal over-reaction does so because their readers in general are citizens of modern state-structured societies. In 'naked' human rights reports readers from such societies tend to fill in apparently context-free spaces with pictures generated from their own background-and reconstruct distant conflicts accordingly. For locals in the two societies that are reported from, the events might form another tale of how distant powers disregard the ways of the ancients and wreak havoc on the present generation. The net result is mutual misunderstandings and misguided action on part of the 'international community'. However, by deconstructing human rights reports and oral testimonies the anthropologically trained human rights communicator can argue the case of human rights in contexts where human rights ideas are considered alien or even subversive.

The discussion uses material collected and edited by the truth commissions in El Salvador and Guatemala during the 1990s. In El Salvador, the case at hand was communicated to the author when he worked as a consultant to the truth commission of that country. In the case of Guatemala conclusions drawn by that country's truth commission is discussed in the light of a long-term fieldwork.

Ms Gina Heathcote
Human rights law as narrative: dichotomies of the legal and non-legal

Human rights law places itself at the apex of the human rights hierarchy; acting to exclude non-legal accounts. This is despite the enormous range of human rights scholarship existing outside of law. For legal scholars the perception of human rights laws as a narrative - situated, fluid and multiple - exposes the limits of law's closure and disrupts the distinction between the legal and non-legal. Consequently, the interdisciplinary aspect of human rights scholarship gains a stronger voice within legal scholarship.

The role of narrative within human rights discourse is a re-occurring feature which is less often identified in jurisprudential accounts. From the role of witness and victim accounts in human rights courts and tribunals, to the increased social narratives the term 'human rights' offers through the changing legal narratives implicit in the promotion of human rights, there are multiple and diverse narratives that form to create human rights scholarship. This paper takes two of these narrative sites, law's narrative and social narratives, on human rights and suggests these are collapsible rather than distinct categories.

The paper considers what 'narrative' might mean to legal or non-legal accounts. The paper uses the example of humanitarian interventions to explore the roles of different narratives of human rights and the implications of this approach for legal narratives on human rights. When humanitarian interventions (on a military scale) occur, human rights laws provide international laws on the use of force with a narrative. However humanitarian intervention narratives also have strong social meanings and repercussions. This paper considers the boundary between social and legal narratives of using force to halt human rights abuses. As a consequence diverse sources of scholarship can be accessed and utilised within a legal framework and a methodology for interdisciplinary approaches to human rights laws is envisaged.