Clifford Bob on Rights as Weapons

Bob_Rights as WeaponsRights are usually viewed as defensive concepts representing mankind’s highest aspirations to protect the vulnerable and uplift the downtrodden. But since the Enlightenment, political combatants have also used rights belligerently, to batter despised communities, demolish existing institutions, and smash opposing ideas. Delving into a range of historical and contemporary conflicts from all areas of the globe, Rights as Weapons focuses on the underexamined ways in which the powerful wield rights as aggressive weapons against the weak. Clifford Bob looks at how political forces use rights as rallying cries: naturalizing novel claims as rights inherent in humanity, absolutizing them as trumps over rival interests or community concerns, universalizing them as transcultural and transhistorical, and depoliticizing them as concepts beyond debate.

How exactly are rights weaponized?

Rights become weapons when political forces use them aggressively to advance their goals and attack other groups, institutions, and customs. Of course, rights do not literally become material weapons, but politically they have similar effects. For instance, powerful or majority groups often claim their own cultural rights as a way of attacking minority and immigrant groups by forcing them to assimilate or by keeping them out of the society completely. This use of majority rights seems to be increasingly common, and I analogize it to the use of dynamite because it is often intended to undermine or destroy the minority culture itself (at least in its adopted home). In other chapters, I show how rights are used in other weapon-like ways, as rallying cries to mobilize political forces and as camouflage to cover up sometimes questionable political goals.

Overall, one of the key points I make in the book is that rights are tools or weapons that political groups of any ideology can pick up and use to advance their goals. Why can rights be used on multiple sides of conflicts? It is chiefly because they are a means of achieving political or economic goals, rather than ends in themselves. A right, even a human right, is a right to something. It is that thing, whether abstract such as privacy or concrete such as food, rather than the right to the thing, that is the ultimate focus of conflict. It is true that the right and its underlying content are often discussed interchangeably, but analyzing them in isolation from one another, as I do, makes it possible to see how rights can be used in multiple ways, as various types of political tools or weapons.

What are some historical examples of the biggest culprits in the use of rights to further nefarious ends?

As I’ve said, my view of rights as weapons does not apply only to what we might call the misuses of rights by the nefarious. But let’s talk about them first! One of the most important examples in the U.S. has been states’ rights, in effect a form of majority rights used by powerful interests along with outright violence to block the political advance of African Americans. That sordid story is well known. Less known, at least to me  as a political scientist before I began this book, was the way in which major voting rights movements in nineteenth-century America competed against one another. There were three major suffrage movements, among those without property, African-Americans, and women. Although there was no necessary bar to their working together for universal suffrage, and although some forward thinking activists proposed such unity, for the most part the three movements sought suffrage for their own group alone. Even more interesting, at times each movement used its own rights claims as a blockade against the similar claims of the other groups. White men without property urged that a grant of the vote for them would help ensure the continuing power of white males. For their part, although women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony began their careers in the abolitionist movement, they frequently argued against the vote for freed slaves or argued that women should receive the vote first. When the opposite happened after the Civil War, suffrage leaders continually proposed that women should receive the vote as a way of blocking black power, because white women would vote with white men against African-Americans. I used this and other cases to develop a systematic conceptual account of when and how rights are used as blockades.

Is this phenomenon of rights as weapons an inevitable aspect of democracy, or are there strategies that can be employed to prevent it?

I do see the use of rights as weapons as an inevitable part of modern politics—and not necessarily a bad part. For one thing, it is usually better than the use of real weapons to achieve political goals, although at times political forces combine the two sets of tactics, with rights arguments serving to legitimate violence. Trying to prevent political groups from using rights aggressively would be futile. What I hope to have contributed, however, is a way that observers can cut through the righteous rhetoric in which most conflicts are clouded—to uncover what is truly driving the rivals and to understand the tactics they are using to promote themselves and attack their foes. Recent American wars have frequently been draped in rights talk. The war in Afghanistan, for instance, began as a response to 9/11, but within weeks the Bush administration justified it as a means of improving women’s rights. Clearly, women were treated terribly by the Taliban, and some Afghan women welcomed the invasion as a means of advancing their rights. But others, even Afghan women who fought for their rights before 2001, opposed the invasion and saw it as a greater threat to the lives of Afghan women than the Taliban’s laws. They also argued that women’s rights could never succeed in Afghanistan if they were imposed by foreigners at the tip of a drone, rather than growing indigenously through the efforts of Afghan women themselves. In the U.S., however, this complex reality was obscured by the appealing nature of women’s rights (which I of course fully support). This may be one reason we are still fighting there, whatever the Afghan people really want.

When rights are used in this way, is it always a negative? Are there examples of groups weaponizing rights for positive aims?

Many! For centuries, political movements have used rights to advance human progress, as in the abolitionist, suffrage, and civil rights movements in the U.S. and similar movements worldwide. In the book, I discuss the American Revolution and the reasons that in the 1770s the colonists transformed their prior claims to the rights of British subjects into demands for their “natural right” to independence. I would call that a positive example of using rights as a rallying cry, with the express purpose of advancing the revolt and attracting foreign fighters and support. But of course the British saw things rather differently—as illegitimate claims put forth, in Samuel Johnson’s words, by “dictators of sedition” who had strategically “put in motion the engine of political electricity, to attract, by the sounds of liberty and property.”

In the modern era, we have many examples of minority groups in democratic countries using rights as what I call spears. Because of such groups’ political weakness, majoritarian political institutions may not offer promising fields for their operation. One way they can achieve their goals of equality and nondiscrimination is to mount narrowly targeted attacks on a single key law, with the hope that a court will support their cause as a matter of right. There are many such cases, including Brown v. Board of Education and the recent Obergefell v. Hodges same-sex marriage decision. In the book, I examine a more ambiguous and less successful case in Italy. In the mid-2000s, a small group of atheists unhappy at the power of the Catholic Church in Italian society brought a lawsuit challenging one small but important policy, mandating crucifixes in public school classrooms. The group had no chance of ejecting the crucifix through legislation. So instead they opted for a spear-like thrust in the courts, based on Italian and European human rights law. And they won at the European Court of Human Rights! But only for a brief time, because a transnational coalition of religiously conservative countries fought back and reversed the judgment on appeal. In the end the court found that the crucifix symbolized Italian culture and history, as much as Catholicism, and held that the majority had a right to maintain its culture, even if in other countries with other traditions, a crucifix would be illegal in a public school classroom.

What should vulnerable groups know about the use of rights as weapons as they work to further their goal of equality?

Vulnerable and minority groups have often used rights claims to advance their agendas and improve their lives. Many have been experts at using rights to mobilize their constituencies and appeal for outside support. In many cases, they have succeeded in establishing their rights claims as laws and have been able to move toward achievement of the underlying social, economic, and political goals they seek.

But what the vulnerable may not always be prepared for is the way in which contrary rights claims may be used by their opponents to mobilize their constituencies and counter-attack. Moreover, they may be caught by surprise that opponents they thought they had defeated long ago have risen again, in new guises promoting novel rights. This has been the case with the radical feminists discussed previously, many of whom say that they have been shocked by the possibility that the advances for women they thought they had won long ago may now be threatened by people they consider to be men. Long-running conflicts over voting rights in the U.S. take the same form, with current voter suppression efforts in many ways an echo of rights-based battles fought in decades and centuries past. Vulnerable groups need to remain constantly on guard and adept at defending what they have previously achieved—as in fact most of them are.

Was there anything that surprised you as you were researching for this book?

Lots of things! One of the most interesting parts of the research focused on the use of rights as camouflage for ulterior goals. This is hard to study because political forces that use rights in this way typically cover up their real purposes. I examined the use of animal rights to mask nationalist aims in Spain, specifically how Catalan nationalists implemented a ban on bullfighting in the region, ostensibly to protect the bulls but in fact as a means of attacking a key symbol of Castilian nationalism. The bullfighting ban was the brainchild of a transnational animal rights movement that interacted strategically with the Catalan nationalists—and fought against Spanish nationalists and the bullfighting lobby. I learned a great deal about how multiple social movements make use of one another in complex political struggles (and far more than I intended about bullfighting). In the end, I was able to find very good proof of camouflaging in this case, and on that basis I developed a framework for understanding how rights are used as camouflage in many other conflicts.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

In addition to reading about fascinating rights conflicts from around the world and learning how to analyze them systematically, I hope that readers take away a fuller idea of how political groups view and use rights. Rights are not only shields to protect the powerless or hoists to uplift the downtrodden. Although that is one aspect of rights, they can also be offensive weapons, that the powerful can use to oppress the weak. Ultimately, this means that although rights claims can be helpful to political movements, it is political power, amassed through any number of means, including the use of righteous rallying cries to galvanize support for one’s cause, that is crucial to allowing a movement to achieve and maintain its goals.

Clifford Bob is professor and chair of political science at Duquesne University. His previous books include The Marketing of Rebellion, The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics, and The International Struggle for New Human Rights. Twitter @cliffordbob