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borders of suffering Arrow vol 2 no 3 contents
About borderlands Volume 2 Number 3, 2003



Writing the borders of suffering

M. Anne Brown, Human Rights and the borders of suffering: The promotion of human rights in international politics, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Anthony J. Langlois
Flinders University

1. The question which this book addresses is that of how the promotion of human rights should be undertaken in international life. The promotion of human rights has, of course, become one of the major dimensions of international politics over the last 60 years. This promotion of rights is usually understood in, advanced on the basis of, or justified by, certain given conceptions of human rights. This book is one of a number of recent studies which suggest that many of the limitations on our capacity to promote human rights in international life have links to the ways in which we think about or conceptualise human rights, links which direct us toward broader conceptions of political community, of inclusion and exclusion. One of the fundamental suggestions of the book is that the models we have of how to promote human rights – indeed, the models we have of human rights themselves – may not, in all circumstances and among all peoples, be "invariably beneficial or emancipatory" (2). Thus, the author writes from a point of view which is committed, not to human rights per se (whatever that might mean), but "to human rights, and its crucial category of abuse, as an available language and tool for articulating suffering in a political voice, for asserting the value and the vulnerability of people, and for grappling with the on-going question of how we value each other in the complex circumstances of our different and interwoven lives" (1).

2. The book’s argument is presented in two parts, divided into six chapters and a conclusion. The first part of the book is a series of critical reflections on dominant understandings of human rights at the theoretical level, and on some recent re-constructions of human rights. The second part of the book is a set of case studies which seek to embody and demonstrate various aspects of the foregoing critiques. These case studies take us to Tiananmen Square in China, to East Timor as it gained its independence from Indonesia, and to the present status and experience of indigenous Australian peoples.

3. The first chapter is very much an introduction, a scene setting, in which certain points of departure are made clear. This book is not to be an end of history sermon in which a human rights liberalism is promulgated as the optimum norm for societal arrangement; nor is it to be that traditional international relations human rights text in which human rights are derided as utopian and unrealisable. Both of these options have strong and certain convictions about the nature and place of human rights in international life. By contrast, Brown chooses to step aside from the pursuit of certainty in her exploration of human rights. Indeed, she argues that this is part of the point of invoking the language of suffering in her title: rights and rights-abuse, claim and obligation, these terms all too often set up in the mind a political spreadsheet which can be used to measure and account for these forms of behaviour. A spreadsheet provides an exact reference for what has happened, and for how claims might be met, for what is owed.

4. Suffering, by contrast, is messy; suffering continues despite reparations, the payment of dues, the meeting of obligations. Brown argues that our dominant constructions of human rights, both at the theoretical and practical level, all too often fail to be aware of these "remainders" that don’t make it onto the spreadsheet model, but which are a part of our shared political life. Brown wants us to consider and to meditate upon the extent to which our constructions of human rights are myopic, exclusionary, and carry with them forms of damage. Part of the agenda of the book, then, is to reconfigure human rights as a set of questions addressed to those of us who champion human rights, questions about ‘power and participation, respect and the ways we construct the boundaries of exclusion and inclusion by which our identities and our communities take shape" (10).

5. In order to help us with the generation of these questions, Brown takes us, in chapter two, through two dominant constructions of human rights. First Brown walks us through Lockean Social Contract Theory, understood as the myth or beginning story which underlies most contemporary liberal formulations of human rights. Along the way we cover much territory made familiar by the debate of the last two decades between liberals and communitarians about such matters as the nature of the person, the state, political community, identity formation and so on. Brown’s conclusion is that the Lockean mythos, for all its virtues (Brown does not want to completely ditch liberalism) is an inadequate tool for the alleviation of the suffering she wishes to address. And this is principally because the bearer of rights which emerges out of this story is a very narrowly construed person, an idealised subject or universal man – one, which we may say, is often not to be found in those places where we would today most like to see human rights practiced.

6. For most of us reading the book (perhaps), "those places" where we want to see human rights practiced are most immediately conceived as being in the international domain (although Brown helps us to subvert this assumption by making her third case study that of indigenous peoples in a liberal democracy). The second part of this chapter deals with the way in which the dominant realist tradition of international relations has conceptualised human rights. As with the previous section, much of this chapter is an application of a range of familiar critiques of IR realism and idealism, applied specifically (and skilfully) to the human rights issue. This chapter may be judged the most successful chapter in the book. It has the added virtue of being an excellent stand alone teaching resource, bringing together as it does themes from liberal political theory, international relations theory, and various critical approaches, all focused on the human rights issue.

7. The third chapter is interesting, but its trajectory is less clear and the linkages made between its sections less satisfying. The major section is titled "Some Theorists", and is followed by a sections on the Asian Values debate and "Dialogue". The theorists include Richard Rorty, Chris Brown, Andrew Linklater and Ashis Nandy. Linklater gets the longest and perhaps most interesting treatment, and the contrast with the Indian writer Ashis Nandy is helpful: too often in this genre, where dialogue, concern for otherness and difference is the headline – all in the context of international relations or global politics - all the writers are Western academics. (I am as guilty of this as anyone else!) This issue is present in Brown’s brief and concise treatment of the Asian values debate. But because it is brief and concise, there is not the exploration that could take the debate to another level – although, to be fair, this is in part achieved in the section on case studies.

8. Before we reach these, however, we are enjoined to reflect that a key component of the approach of the theorists engaged has been dialogue. Rather than maintaining the arid confrontation between relativisms and universalisms based on "classical epistemology" (which Brown agrees with Rorty in rejecting, though not necessarily on how then to proceed post-rejection), Brown suggests that we take up the challenge posed by the critiques rehearsed in the book and engage in a conversation – one in which there is recognition of real harm, a listening to stories of violence and suffering, and attention paid to the faces of those that suffer. This advocacy of dialogue as an alternative approach is the climax to which all the theoretical work has been heading.

9. However, Brown says that "Dialogue is put forward here not as the basis for an integrated theory but as a trajectory for reflection – a metaphor that may offer some practical as well as theoretical insights and possibilities" (82). This may partly be because "The problem of responding to suffering brings us up against the limits as well as the strengths of the available mechanisms and presumptions regarding rights and ethics – whether liberal or other models" (85). This is undoubtedly true; nonetheless, it seems that dialogue requires some theoretical apprehension along with existential reflection if it is to be defended at all against the models Brown has been critiquing. Brown talks about rights not as certain dogmatic affirmations but as prompts to help us answer the question, "how can we live well together" – here I agree completely. However, in order to get to that living well itself, rather than just dialogue about it, I suspect we must have more than just reflections to guide us. For one thing, we need some way of discriminating between these reflections – a point which is implicit when Brown is quoted in full "How can we live well together, how can we build and sustain non-injurious relationships at all levels?" The normative grounding here is clear, and points us back to the liberalism which Brown affirms we should not discard (18).

10. The second section of the book is comprised of the case studies: Tiananmen Square, East Timor, and Australia’s indigenous peoples. Brown proposes to bring out two themes through her case studies. The first is that human rights is one way of dealing with the complex issues of political community, among which are those of harm, suffering and abuse. Second, is the theme of dialogue, conversation; of engaging with people, listening and responding. The chapter on East Timor is the weakest of the case studies, from the point of view of exemplifying the critiques in the foregoing chapters. The particular theme highlighted is the polarisation of pragmatics and principle, or the separation – as it is often put – of ethics and international affairs. The story of East Timor is well told, with many salient points being noted; but this case study is not as comprehensive as the other two in bringing out the relationships to the theoretical critique elaborated earlier.

11. The Tiananmen Square massacre case study is very effective at bring out the ways in which human rights are not understood everywhere in the same way, and the consequences this can have. In addition, the chapter also highlights the way in which this tends to be ignored because of the reflexive way in which "we" respond to the massacre - a response generated because when looked at through Western eyes it reinforces many of our political cosmologies – whereas the traction they found in the political imagination of those involved in Tiananmen may be remarkably different. In the case study, the themes of social contract liberalism are interwoven with the events of the massacre in a way which strongly illustrates the thesis elaborated at the outset of the book.

12. Much the same may be said of the final case study, where the status of Australia’s indigenous population is explored. As with the other case studies, background and context are given through a narrative complied from secondary sources. The critical theoretics of the earlier chapters are engaged with that part of the story whereby considerations of differential understandings of land and property are analysed. Brown says, " the assertion of Australia as a state drew not on a slow process of accommodation with Aboriginal society but on classifying Aboriginal people as not rational, or incapable of political community or of the consent that, for liberal models of political community, underpins participation" (191). These concerns also arise in discussions of citizenship, of well being, of self determination, and so on. Brown finds that the language of rights and the processes involved with citizenship and so forth are ambiguous because they have often given rise to either policing or charity, and not to the fulfilment of the promise that the rights language articulates.

13. As Brown argues in her conclusion, "the liberal construction of rights is repeatedly put forward as the definitive word on complex values such as freedom, justice or equality. There is little acknowledgment that this model of human rights, which claims so much, can produce systemic myopia as well as its own forms of abuse, or that the actual history of rights practices has been experienced in sharply different ways by people who at any given time were included or occluded by its terms. Stepping back from these architectures of rights, without negating them in blanket fashion, can allow us to weigh our purposes and our methods in pursuing rights enhancement" (204).

14. Anne Brown has given us a sophisticated and subtle exploration of some of the most critical issues surrounding the theorisation and practice of human rights. It emerges out of her own experiences of cross cultural life, her study of key cases and reflection on theory. Moreover, it manifests a deeply felt conviction that the suffering of real persons must be addressed. Brown’s book is worthy of a wide audience.

© borderlands ejournal 2003


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