Toward a multicultural conception of human rights
Boaventura de Sousa Santos
Isa, Felipe Gómez and Feyter, Koen (Eds.), International Human Rights Law in a Global Context, Bilbao: University of Deusto, 97-121.

For the past few years I have been puzzled by the extent to which human rights have become the language of progressive politics. Indeed, for many years after the Second World War human rights were very much part and parcel of cold war politics, and were so regarded by the Left. Double standards, complacency towards friendly dictators, the defense of tradeoffs between human rights and development—all this made human rights suspect as an emancipatory script. Whether in core countries or throughout the developing world, the progressive forces preferred the language of revolution and socialism to formulate an emancipatory politics. However, with the seemly irreversible crisis of these blueprints of emancipation, those same progressive forces find themselves today resorting to human rights to reconstitute the language of emancipation. It is as if human rights were called upon to fill the void left by socialist politics. Can in fact the concept of human rights fill such a void? My answer is a qualified yes. Accordingly, my analytical objective here is to specify the conditions under which human rights can be put at the service of a progressive, emancipatory politics.

The specification of such conditions leads us to unravel some of the dialectical tensions that lie at the core of Western modernity. The crisis now affecting these tensions signals better than anything else does the problems facing Western modernity today. In my view, human rights politics at the end of the century is a key factor to understand such crisis.

I identify three such tensions. The first one occurs between social regulation and social emancipation. I have been claiming that the paradigm of modernity is based on the idea of a creative dialectical tension between social regulation and social emancipation, which can still be heard, even if but dimly, in the positivist motto of “order and progress”. At the end of this century this tension has ceased to be a creative tension. Emancipation has ceased to be the other of regulation to become the double of regulation. While until the late sixties the crisis of social regulation was met by the strengthening of emancipatory politics, today we witness a double social crisis: the crisis of social regulation, symbolized by the crisis of the regulatory state and the welfare state, and the crisis of social emancipation, symbolized by the crisis of the social revolution and socialism as a paradigm of radical social transformation. Human rights politics, which has been both a regulatory and an emancipatory politics, is trapped in this double crisis, while attempting, at the same time, to overcome it.

The second dialectical tension occurs between the state and civil society. The modern state, though a minimalist state, is potentially a maximalist state, to the extent that civil society, as the other of the state, reproduces itself through laws and regulations which emanate from the state and for which there seems to be no limit, as long as the democratic rules of law making are respected. Human rights are at the core of this tension: while the first generation of human rights was designed as a struggle of civil society against the state, considered to be the sole violator of human rights, the second and third generations of human rights resort to the state as the guarantor of human rights.

Finally, the third tension occurs between the nation state and what we call globalization. The political model of Western modernity is one of sovereign nation states coexisting in an international system of equally sovereign states, the interstate system. The privileged unit and scale both of social regulation and social emancipation is the nation state. On the one hand, the interstate system has always been conceived of as a more or less anarchic society, run by a very soft legality; on the other, the internationalist emancipatory struggles, namely, working class internationalism, have always been more an aspiration than a reality. Today, the selective erosion of the nation state due to the intensification of globalization raises the question whether both social regulation and social emancipation are to be displaced to the global level. We have started to speak of global civil society, global governance, global equity, transnational public spheres. Worldwide recognition of human rights politics is at the forefront of this process. The tension, however, lies in the fact that in very crucial aspects human rights politics is a cultural politics. So much so that we can even think of human rights as symbolizing the return of the cultural and even of the religious at the end of the century. But to speak of culture and religion is to speak of difference, boundaries, particularity. How can human rights be both a cultural and a global politics?

My purpose here is, therefore, to develop an analytical framework to highlight and support the emancipatory potential of human rights politics in the double context of globalization, on the one hand, and cultural fragmentation and identity politics, on the other. My aim is to establish both global competence and local legitimacy for a progressive politics of human rights: human rights as both the driving force and the language of evermore inclusive local, national, and transnational public spheres. >READ FULL CHAPTER