The Particular, the Universal, and Human Rights

Photo by flickr user ActionAid India is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In July of 2017, a month and a half before I started the John Gardner Fellowship with a placement at Human Rights Watch, I went to a teach-in held by Dalit rights activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan. I attended as part of the group Alliance of South Asians Taking Action (ASATA), a community group I deeply love that organizes and advocates for South Asian Americans. As Thenmozhi spoke about the violence Dalit women face in India, and the Hindu nationalist forces that encourage it, she told us, “this is the fight for Dalit human rights.” She told us, a room full of diasporic South Asians, that Dalit activists were interested in international advocacy.

As she pushed on, I meditated on the statement: “Dalit human rights.” As with other, parallel phrases—disability rights, women’s human rights, LGBT human rights—the phrase has a demand hidden in it. It calls for the framework of law and discourse that constitutes Human Rights to recognize the specificities of Dalit struggle, of untouchability and inherited discrimination. Thenmozhi’s point illustrated what is, in my time as a fellow in Human Rights Watch, a central tension of Human Rights as a methodology. Human Rights are both universal and particular.

Human Rights institute a state obligation to all people within their borders, of all genders, ethnicities, and abilities, including a right to live free from discrimination. But in order to reach the needs of different and marginalized people, international law and human rights bodies must constantly adapt to new particularities, and learn newly imagined rights. In incorporating movements for specific communities, the movement for Human Rights becomes more vibrant, precise, and effective.

In the broader system of Human Rights bodies and UN frameworks, that incorporation might look like treaties that institute new protections. The Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are examples of redefining the scope of human rights to bring overlooked people into the fold.

And within my organization, colleagues analyze how policies that account for menstrual hygiene and reproductive rights are crucial to effective exercise of human rights. They add to the global conversation on how to best implement legal gender recognition for trans- and gender- non conforming people, and how patriarchy and homophobia create violent, repressive environments for queer women. And in the case of Dalit Human Rights, researchers work to document discriminatory practices of forced manual scavenging and hidden apartheid against Dalits and define the right to sanitation. Interview by interview, report by report, the work underscores that institution of Human Rights are impossible without sustained and rigorous attention to complex social marginalization.

As a Gardner Fellow coming to Human Rights Watch from an idealistic, committed, but deeply jaded social justice community at UC Berkeley, I found myself with a tendency to dismiss whole systems as outdated and discriminatory under the guise of “critique.” And Human Rights institutions have absolutely been historically unresponsive to certain forms of social and economic marginalization. But from my new corner of this world, with my “LGBT Rights are Human Rights” and “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” posters hanging on my wall, I am inspired by the diligence and precision of my colleagues, by their dedication to inclusion. And I am inspired by the activists, thinkers, and organizers who take up the methodology of Human Rights to build new and crucial space for their communities, a shared language and movement, and a world in which their Human Rights are universally relevant and recognized.

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Photo by flickr user ActionAid India is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0