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Human Rights and Neoliberalism:
Universal Standards, Local Practices, and the Role of Culture


Friday, March 2 - Saturday, March 3, 2007

UC Santa Barbara’s Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, HSSB 6020

Free and Open to the Public

Keynote Address:

"Rights and Needs: Neoliberalism, Democracy and Military Humanism"

by Tariq Ali

Novelist, Historian, Activist, and Co-Editor of New Left Review

Friday, March 2, 2007; 4:00PM; Campbell Hall, UCSB

Many of the most controversial foreign policy decisions pursued by the United States government in recent years have been defended as means of spreading democracy and of realizing basic human rights. In this regard, the U.S. has been explicit in its attempt to reshape international governance, and to achieve human rights by conjoining these to neoliberal economic policies. Taking up these dynamics, the Human Rights and Neoliberalism Conference will analyze the cultural dimensions of human rights policies, activism and scholarship, and examine closely the ways in which these human rights efforts challenge, extend or otherwise engage the ideals of neoliberalism. Most often associated with free market economies, minimal governmental regulations regarding production, and the dismantling of tariffs and related international trade controls, neoliberalism is also a cultural system, one that claims priority for the individual. Often times echoing the rhetoric of Social Darwinism, advocates of neoliberal policies value individual freedoms and the notion of meritocracy, while arguing against a variety of welfare programs and the recognition of social groups. Both the international human rights movement and the neoliberal economic imperative (coming of age with Reagan and Thatcher), carry strong cultural assumptions interacting in complex ways that call out for further analysis.

It is an unfortunate fact that the cultural implications of human rights policies, activism and scholarship are insufficiently analyzed, particularly as these areas of inquiry are explored within the humanities. A cursory examination of some of the United States’s leading centers for the study of human rights (Human Rights Center, UC Berkeley; Human Rights Program, University of Chicago; Schell Center, Yale University; the Carr Center for Human Rights, Harvard University) reveals a significant and consistent lack of engagement with the humanities. Inroads have certainly been made to promote this sort of interdisciplinary work, but ultimately insufficient attention has been paid to the role that cultural assumptions have played, and will continue to play, as people attempt to understand U.S. influences on global justice and institutions mandating international human rights reforms. Organizations including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund require nation states throughout the world to adopt human rights imperatives--which are presented as universal in structure, form and purpose--if they wish to receive monetary aid. Such assistance also frequently stipulates the adoption of neoliberal economic practices, and in this manner, human rights and economic goals are yoked in processes with complex consequences. As Kamari Maxine Clarke has noted, “though human rights work continues to be an important ideal in the achievement of global rights and protections, we not only need to do it better, but we need to understand how universalism might challenge other forms of cultural diversity and innovation.” Cultural practices vary greatly as regards how different societies understand the individual’s role vis a vis his or her obligations and responsibilities to groups (family, religious, cultural, ethnic). Human rights efforts that do not engage a critical dialogue with these cultural differences risk becoming part of a long line of imperial actions, rather than a means of building agreement about appropriate living conditions and proscribed behavior.

As such, the stakes of the conference go far beyond questions of inclusion: i.e., making a place for humanists at the human rights table. As the prominence of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis--and the attendant debates--makes clear, deep-rooted cultural assumptions have played a decisive role as analysts, decision makers and the general public alike have struggled to evaluate U.S. foreign policy in the context of evolving ideas about global justice and governance. For those many scholars who find the “clash of civilizations” thesis a dull and otherwise problematic tool, the drive to imagine a more useful “transcultural” conception of human rights remains a compelling endeavor, an endeavor that has a long history interwoven with related notions, including cosmopolitanism. Much remains to be done in terms of imagining approaches to human rights issues that might more effectively translate among cultures, whether these approaches build upon notions of cosmopolitanism, international abolitionist efforts, transnational women’s movements, or a wide variety of alterative conceptions, many grounded in distinct epistemologies and belief systems.

While a number of faculty at UCSB have offered compelling arguments for analyzing human rights issues in light of the cultural dimensions noted, the fact remains that human rights study in the U.S. is dominated by social science and science specialists who could do much more to build on the arguments presented by investigators working with critically rigorous cultural texts, including literature, film, performance and art. A sophisticated and largely untapped analysis of human rights issues and institutions exists in the humanities--in humanistic objects of study as well as in humanistic methodologies--and this resource has much to contribute to future scholarship, activism and policy making. There are complex reasons why this interaction has not been robust to date, and these reasons cannot be more than a subtext for the discussions made possible by the conference. That said, it does appear that the institutional structure of academic fields has worsened the problem. In an effort to address yet another crucial institutional tension, the conference will provide a venue for exploring the ways that U.S. race studies might extend analyses of the cultural dimensions of human rights. Given the importance of international law and human rights in a variety of race conflicts in the U.S. (including struggles for autonomy by Native American nations, international abolition movements, international women of color movements, fights over treaties, the defense of language rights, immigration debates, international imprisonment and execution protests), the conference organizers see significant shared concerns that might be developed in an effort to seed further collaborations among global, race and American studies.

The conference will take place Friday, March 2nd, and Saturday, March 3rd, 2007, at UC Santa Barbara’s Interdisciplinary Humanities Center. With a total of twenty-two presenters, this event is being structured to maximize rich and on-going exchanges among the full set of participants. Invitees are encouraged to present research on any aspect of the conference topic. Some of the questions that might inform presentations include:

· What do cultural texts reveal about the local construction of human rights “universals”?

· When cultural texts stage conflicts between competing notions of human rights, what strategies govern these performances? What insights are gained?

· Do different versions of human rights convey different notions of what it means to be human? In what ways is this concept of the “human” within human rights a response to the ideals of neoliberalism?

· What insights do cultural texts provide regarding the workings of human rights institutions? Do such institutional explorations offer alternative constructions of human rights?

· How might cultural texts offer insights regarding dynamics of power in “human rights regimes” (borrowing Sally Engle Merry’s phrase)?

· How might culture help solidify links between human rights efforts and other projects for social justice?

· What are the limitations and advantages of reading cultural texts as analyses of human rights ideology?

· In exploring negotiations between universal and local conceptions of human rights, do cultural texts develop a notion of “practical universality”? How do human rights efforts draw on the cultural capital of universalism? To what extent does the presumed universality of human rights imbue these efforts with a unique power vis a vis other culturally-situated means of resolving conflicts or establishing social responsibilities?

· In what ways do human rights and neoliberal policies alter local cultures of justice-making? Or, how do human rights efforts that build on local means of justice-making negotiate neoliberal ideals and practices when institutions like the World Bank yoke human rights interventions and economic policies together?

· Do culturally-imbedded forms of human rights norms provide new languages that can be used to defend persecuted people, languages not previously available in a given society?

· How do the cultures of international human rights organizations interact with local human rights movements? What cultural factors contribute to the displacement of local forms of justice-making? What cultural factors contribute to the strategic engagement and innovative reworking of local justice-making?