Ian Hurd: Everything I know about International Human Rights I Learned from The Clash

In the constellation of fake holidays, International Clash Day is a new star that burns a little brighter every year. Invented in 2013, February 7th is a celebration of the British band who in the late 1970s added sharp politics to the energetic, polyglot music of punk rock. Their message embraced human rights but with a twist: they saw the rule of law as the enemy of human rights rather than its savior, and they mocked both liberals and conservatives while charting a third way.

In contrast to the nihilism of the Sex Pistols and the cartoonism of the Ramones, The Clash offered a rock ’n roll course in political philosophy. It begins with seeing where the sharp end of the state is felt by regular people. Their songs speak of people’s daily lives in the face of police, the military, courts, and laws that all carry the possibility of violence.

Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were the principal songwriters. Their song Know Your Rights amounts to a primer on the difference between rights in theory and in practice. Billed as “a public service announcement… with guitars” it tells the audience to

Know your rights

All three of them

 

Number one: you have the right not to be killed

Murder is a crime

Unless it was done by a policeman – or an aristocrat

 

Number two: you have the right to free money

As long as you don’t mind a little investigation, humiliation, and

if you cross your fingers… rehabilitation!

 

Number three: you have the right to free speech

As long as are you aren’t dumb enough to actually try it

The song comes from knowing that legal rights are interpreted and applied by the state itself. For regular people the value of these rights depends mainly on how this interpretation and application are done. To be shot a person dead on the sidewalk is presumably a wrong. But whether it’s a legal wrong depends on who did it, why, where, and to whom. The legal and political meaning of killing depends on how the state draws lines around accountability. Police badges, stand your ground laws, citizenship status, declarations of war, and skin color are formal and informal features that affect legal accountability.

The pragmatic realism of The Clash could come across as mere cynicism – that law promises one thing but delivers another – but it’s is also a foundation for a political worldview that challenges the liberal common-sense.

At the heart of the liberal view is the belief that what’s most important is following the rules. These might be rule of law or rules of global governance. The Clash remind us to ask why these rules are the rules and who do they benefit. Once we do that, the political content of the rules becomes clearer and the injunction to just ‘follow the rules’ seems less like a universal good and more like a partisan intervention in a long-running social conflict.

In Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad they tell of their friends caught in punitive jail sentences for casual drug offenses. The bureaucratic function of judges – to impose penalties upon rule breakers – feels indistinguishable from the politics of race, class, and power that went into making the law in the first place.

And then there came the night of the greatest ever raid

They arrested every drug that had ever been made

They took eighty-two laws

Through eighty-two doors

And they didn’t halt the pull

Till the cells were all full

‘Cause Julie’s been working for the Drug Squad

 

They put him in a cell, they said ‘you wait here’

You got the time to count all of your hair

You got fifteen years

That’s a mighty long time

The liberal faith in law believes that it protects the individual against the state. The Clash point to something else: that law serves some interests at the expense of others. Moreover, in practice it’s likely to serve the strong rather than the weak. Instead of a neutral framework that benefits everyone it is better seen as a political structure that allocates power and privilege.

If we were talking about tax law all of this would make for an uncontroversial point. It is easy to see that while tax law imposes its obligations on everyone equally it also favors some people, some kinds of income, some kinds of wealth, at the expense of others. It produces winners in society and also losers, and political fights over tax law are about who will sit in which category.

But the idea that law creates both winners and losers becomes much less popular when it moves to the world of international human rights. It is common among human rights activists to take an enchanted view of law that sees it as making only winners. It is assumed that the rules are good for everyone and so there are no losers.

On the grandest scale, good governance in world order is often seen as requiring faithful adherence to international law by all parties. If only governments were more committed to international human rights treaties then then we could be rid of torture, repression and all the rest. This is what Stephen Hopgood has called ‘Human Rights’ in the uppercase sense – the collection of treaties, states, courts, and activists who have been granted formal power to oversee, criticize, and perhaps even prosecute violations.

The Clash look instead for what Hopgood calls ‘human rights’ in the lowercase. This is the lived experience of people in relation to state violence. From this perspective, the state is likely felt as the main danger rather than a source of protection. It sees human rights as a struggle between the person and the government – it exists when you want to do something that the state wants to prevent. By persisting, you risk a baton to the back of the head, or pepper-spray to the face, or jail or death.

What is at stake here are two different views of the relationship between law and politics. On the one side, ‘Human Rights’ seeks to create centralized political and legal institutions to govern the world, on the theory that these will constrain governments violence against people. On the other, ‘human rights’ sees these as tools in the hands of the state, which are likely to create a legal framework that favors the state rather individuals. Since the state makes and interprets the law, adding more laws and legal institutions may not be regress rather than progress.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees your right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. This is a cornerstone of uppercase Human Rights. In practice, however, it is likely that you need to acquire a permit to hold a public rally. The personal experience of this right – that is, its lowercase version – depends on the terms that the state places on these permit. In the US, local authorities regulate protests in the interests of traffic flow, pedestrian access, safety, and fairness. They may also require organizers to purchase insurance and perhaps reimburse for security. The terms of the permit, and thus whether an assembly is lawful or not, are decided by the government.

The language of law and lawfulness is seductive. It promises a well-ordered world in which formal rights are defended by formal institutions. But The Clash knew well that the law comes from the state and its most natural application is by the agents of the state in pursuit of the goals of the state. It is not about protecting the little guy.

The allure of law is strong in liberal internationalism and faithful compliance with international law is often seen as a path to good governance. Senator Cory Booker and law scholar Oona Hathaway recently criticized Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for suggesting that US troops might remain in Syria after its fight with ISIS is over. Military occupation violates international law when it is not justified as self-defense and if the US violates the UN Charter in this way it would “undermine America’s hard-earned global leadership as a champion of law-bound international action, perhaps irreparably.”[1]

The Clash tell a little of what this law-bound global leadership looks like to people in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Chile. In Washington Bullets Joe Strummer sings

Oh! mama, mama look there!

Your children are playing in that street again

Don’t you know what happened down there?

A youth of fourteen got shot down there

The kokane guns of jamdown town

The killing clowns, the blood money men

Are shooting those Washington bullets again

In the lowercase version, the lived-experience of human rights is undermined rather than protected by American military activities. Personal safety requires that people find a way to avoid getting hit by all those Washington bullets. Chinese, British, and Russian bullets are no better. Human welfare – and human rights – are threatened by the military adventures of powerful governments, regardless of whether they aim to prop up or topple local authority.

To be sure, the official institutions of Human Rights can be useful to people engaged in struggles against their state. Law and legal institutions are welcome tools for victims looking for a way to fight back or get redress for wrongs. Prisoners at Guantanamo, Evin, Wormwood Scrubs, and elsewhere search for legal paths to improve their conditions and they are sometimes successful.

But we should be honest about which way the law is looking. It encodes the interests of the state and is interpreted and applied in a manner that reflects them. This is not a novel idea – Hannah Arendt wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem to explore what happens when bad policies are legalized by the state and Judith Shklar wrote Legalism on courts’ power to decide political questions.

Today, Trump’s indifference to international human rights provokes a liberal backlash premised on nostalgia for a past that never was. The Clash might say bollocks to both of camps. Their songs offer a third way on human rights. Neither the legalism of international treaties nor the laissez faire of global capital. It is a view that they learned through experience in London in the 1970s, as squatters, buskers, and Carnivale-goers, in the face of racist gangs, police violence, and the bureaucracy of the dole.

There may be a tradeoff between Human Rights and human rights. The first empowers governments to define what people can and can’t do. The second sees state power as the source of the problem itself. To resolve the tension, The Clash offer a practical suggestion in the song Working for the Clampdown.

Kick over the walls

Cause governments to fall

How can you refuse it?

Let fury have the hour, anger can be power

Do you know that you can use it?

 

And in White Riot, they follow up to ask “Are you taking over or are you taking orders?”

For The Clash, human rights exists in the fight between the state and a person. It is personal and it is political – it comes alive in the desire of a person to do what the government does not want them do to. In that fight, the laws are likely on the side of the state and investing more power in the state and its institutions may be a backward step.

The Clash tells stories from below, of regular people who find themselves targeted by powerful institutions, and remind us to listen. Their objective – and the central premise of punk rock as a political movement – is to create space in which people can live outside the lines that are drawn for them by others and not be beaten up, jailed, disappeared or killed for it. To get there, they chart a refreshingly clear philosophy on the relationship between law and politics. On International Clash Day, turn up the volume and remember to let fury have the hour.

[1] NYT Jan 23 2018.

Ian Hurd is associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. He is the author of After Anarchy (Princeton) and International Organizations and How to Do things with International Law.

An interview with Kathryn Sikkink on human rights in the 21st century

SikkinkEvidence for Hope makes the case that, yes, human rights work. Critics may counter that the movement is in serious jeopardy or even a questionable byproduct of Western imperialism. But respected human rights expert Kathryn Sikkink draws on decades of research and fieldwork to provide a rigorous rebuttal to pessimistic doubts about human rights laws and institutions. Sikkink shows that activists and scholars disagree about the efficacy of human rights because they use different yardsticks to measure progress. Comparing the present to the past, she shows that genocide and violence against civilians have declined over time, while access to healthcare and education has increased dramatically. Exploring the strategies that have led to real humanitarian gains since the middle of the twentieth century, Evidence for Hope looks at how these essential advances can be supported and sustained for decades to come.

 

 

Kathryn Sikkink is the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Her books include The Justice Cascade (Norton) and Activists beyond Borders. She lives in Cambridge, MA.

Colin Dayan: White Dogs on Track in Trump’s America

“Prejudice sets all logic at defiance.”
—Frederick Douglass

Since Donald Trump has brought Frederick Douglass back among the living—“an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more”—I begin with this epigraph. Trump is illogical. Yes. Trump is prejudiced. Yes. But more than that, he might just be our consummate white supremacist. “Bad logic makes good racism,” as I wrote in The Law is a White Dog.

Trump creates a reality that flies in the face of logic. The most fantastic fictions are put forth as the most natural, the most reasonable thing in the world. These fictions endure today in a lexicon of degradation well honed and reiterated by Trump. They create the stigma that adheres to radical states of non-belonging, summoned by him in names such as “thugs” or “criminals,” “rapists” or “terrorists.” Old inequalities and racial discrimination are repackaged in unexpected forms. But these inventions succeed only because they reflect the visceral approval of Trump’s constituency.

Shock and awe: Trump’s extravagant performance of cruelty, outright racism, and rule by executive decree in apparent defiance of law has been called a “constitutional crisis,” described with such adjectives as “unprecedented,” “un-American,” or “unpatriotic.” But we should not forget that his relentless generalizing operates under cover of excessive legalism. Perhaps excess is key to his success. America has always been excessive—not least in its institutionalization of slavery and its subsequent practices of incarceration, unique in the so-called civilized world.

So let’s take a few steps back. Is his touted ban on Muslims unusual? Not at all. Is his specious argument for torture out of the ordinary? Not at all.

Trump’s ban is brutal, but let’s face it, this country boasts a long, sordid history of evacuation. Blood as menacing taint was used during the forced repatriations of Haitians described as “boat people,” “the new migrants,” the “Haitian stampede.” The forced repatriations of Haitians in 1991–92 and the effects of arguments heard by the Supreme Court in March 1993 concerning those placed in custody at Guantanamo (and later on concerning forced removals, in 1994) were not the first nor would they be the last time the US banned “refugees” from our shores. Let’s not forget that as early as 1824, when Thomas Jefferson reflected on emancipation, he asked how “the getting rid” of “people of color” could best be done? He reckoned that in Haiti one might find fit “receptacles for that race of men.”

We have a heritage in America of torture and exclusion. These practices hide behind a veneer of legitimacy just as an idealized federal Constitution long ago abetted both discrimination and inequality. And though we deplore Trump’s wayward antics as a lapse from our normally high standards of respect for human rights, we need to consider the harm that a broad consensus of this country’s citizens has time and again meted out to those considered disposable, dangerous, or unfit. Again, when we hear that Trump’s executive orders are illegal or beyond the rule of law, we need to look hard and long at this country’s history of abusive treatment and discriminatory actions, especially in its prisons and detention centers.

Trump believes that torture—specifically banned interrogation methods such as waterboarding—works. But can it ever be legal? Let’s recall how George W. Bush attempted through White House lawyers to legalize torture. The infamous “torture memos” redefined the meaning of torture and extended the limits of permissible pain. Yet, and this matters, unprecedented as they appeared at the time, they relied—in their often ingenious legal maneuvers—upon at least 30 years of court decisions which gradually eviscerated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.”

Bush needed the so-called “torture memos” (sounds so quaint now) to skirt the rule of law, but this new dispensation needs none of it, since Trump and his cronies have already summoned the sometimes amorphous, always definitive moralistic standards that circumvent the basic tenets of constitutional law. Depending on vague and undefined legal provisos proclaimed by the executive, this regime depends on arbitrary willfulness backed up by police power, or in the case of what Trump calls the “carnage” in Chicago, his tweeted resolve to “send in the Feds.”

Police power is state power, ostensibly activated whenever there is any supposed threat to the health, safety, or welfare of citizens. Since 9/11, the so-called war on terror has widened the net: alleged terrorists, enemy aliens, illegal immigrants, all tarred with the same brush, are easily cast outside the pale of empathy.

Terror and legality go hand in hand. They always have done. Whether we look back to the law of slavery, to the legal fiction of prisoners as slaves of the state, to legalized torture in the “war on terror,” or to the discriminatory profiling and preventive detentions that we characterize as “homeland security,” we see how our society continues to invent the phantasm of criminality, creating a new class of condemned.

The ban and the wall are not exactly new stories. “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”—unless they’re Mexicans, Central Americans, Haitians, blacks, or other undesirables. As I said, we have a long tradition in this country of excluding people of color. But more recently, we have moved on from mass deportations of illegal immigrants. As a “consequence” (in the parlance of border patrol agents) of entering the United States illegally, many tens of thousands of Latinos are regularly subjected to brutal treatment by US Customs and Border Patrol. Trump’s executive order on January 27th barring immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, supported by nearly 50% of American adults, invites bigotry and its attendant techniques of violence and repression.

Legal rituals give flesh and new life to the remains of lethal codes and penal sanctions. The stigma of slavery—and its legal machinations—has never left us. Its ghosts still haunt our law and hold us in its thrall. The difference now is that Trump incarnates in his person and his words not just prejudice, but bad logic and maleficent law. He is wanton. There’s a lot of history in this word, in its hints of depravity, effeminacy, frivolity, and excess. The term also refers to pitilessness. Glee and malice work together in the abuse of those targeted for humiliation. Trump boasts, blusters, struts, and lies. This lethal affectation is his power.

Colin Dayan is the author of The Law is a White Dog.Dayan

Ai Weiwei exhibition at Blenheim Palace: Our UK publicity assistant investigates!

Visitors can expect to experience something different this autumn at Blenheim Palace. Tradition meets modernity as the 18th century baroque architecture of Blenheim, the birthplace of wartime British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, is host to an exhibition of the artwork of Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei.Ai weiwei sign

This exciting exhibition is especially relevant to Princeton University Press for two reasons: not only is Blenheim Palace a stone’s throw from Princeton University Press’s European office in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, but Princeton University Press published Ai Weiwei’s ‘Little Black Book’, Weiwei-isms, last year.

Weiwei-isms is a collection of quotes demonstrating Ai Weiwei’s thoughts on key aspects of his art, politics and life, carefully selected by Larry Warsh from articles, tweets and interviews.

“Everything is art. Everything is politics.” — Weiwei-isms

Like Weiwei-isms, the exhibition at Blenheim Palace clearly demonstrates Ai Weiwei’s commitment to art as a powerful political statement, as a means of reacting against injustice, and inspiring others to do the same.

Blenheim chandelier“I want people to see their own power.” — Weiwei-isms

This certainly becomes clear as you enter the exhibition. You are given a leaflet which serves as a guide to Ai’s artwork, dispersed throughout the rooms of the palace. Despite this, none of the artwork is signposted and it becomes the visitor’s responsibility to seek it out and take meaning and inspiration from what they see.

The collection brings together pieces created by the artist over the past 30 years. It is especially impressive given that it was curated remotely, Ai Weiwei having been under house arrest since 2011. The old and new are often brought together, with artefacts from the past being reimagined in novel ways. Take, for example, the Han Dynasty vases transformed beyond recognition by car paint or by being ‘rebranded’ with the Coca Cola logo.

Blenheim zodiacHis ‘Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads’ (2010), previously displayed at a year-long exhibition at Princeton University, is also at Blenheim. This work is an ironic interpretation of the bronze zodiac head statues that were looted from the Emperor’s summer palace (Yuan Ming Yuan) in Beijing in 1860.

Other highlights include ‘He Xie’ (2012), a work comprised of 2,300 porcelain crabs on the floor of the Red Drawing Room (‘He Xie’, meaning ‘river crabs’, puns on the Chinese phrase for ‘harmony’).

While some pieces are the first thing you see when you walk into a room, other pieces are integrated more subtly into the sumptuous interiors of Blenheim Palace. The Wave Plate (2014) is seamlessly integrated into the lavish table decoration as the centrepiece in the Salon, and a pair of handcuffs made of Huali wood (2012) – a reminder of Ai Weiwei’s current situation – placed suggestively on the bed in Churchill’s birth room might escape your attention due to the large number of visitors moving from room to room, all engrossed in the same treasure hunt as you.

Blenheim crabsAll in all, the collaboration between Blenheim Palace and Ai Weiwei really does merit a visit. Ai Weiwei’s work is all the more interesting and thought-provoking for being situated in the context of Blenheim Palace and its grounds.

The exhibition at Blenheim Palace highlights the ‘clash’ of the old and new, which is indeed something that is key to much of Ai Weiwei’s work.

“If a nation cannot face its past, it has no future.” — Weiwei-isms

In years to come, the Ai Weiwei exhibition at Blenheim Palace is sure to become part of the artist’s legacy and a poignant reminder of his struggle for justice and truth.

“The art always wins. Anything can happen to me, but the art will stay.” — Weiwei-isms

The exhibition runs until 14th December.

Jacqueline Bhaba on Child Migration and Human Rights in a Global Age [VIDEO]

Why have our governments and societies been unable to effectively address the human rights and legal problems around the growing number of children who cross borders alone every year? How do we (and how should we) apply laws and policies designed for adult migrants to children and adolescents?

Distinguished human rights and legal scholar Jacqueline Bhabha has been studying complex ethical and legal questions such as these around immigration and children’s rights for over a decade and the results of her research may surprise you. Faculti Media recently posted this video of Bhabha discussing her work and her new book Child Migration and Human Rights in a Global Age: