We're starting a new series here on the Penn Press Log. As our Fall 2014 season of books is released, we'll be posting Q&As with many of the books' authors, giving readers a better idea of what the books are about and what the authors think. On Tuesday, we had Cathy Lisa Schneider, author of Police Power and Race Riots. Today is Jennifer Curtis, author of Human Rights as War by Other Means, which traces the use of rights discourse in Northern Ireland's politics from the local civil rights campaigns of the 1960s to present-day activism for truth recovery and LGBT equality, and has already been called "excellent, original, and significant" and "one of the most sustained, persuasive, and comprehensive analyses of the progress of the Northern Ireland peace process since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998."
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Penn Press: Much has been written about “lawfare” in contexts other than Northern Ireland (e.g. Israel/Palestine). To what extent does your critique of human rights discourse apply particularly to the politics of Northern Ireland and/or more broadly and universally to the application of human rights discourse to any conflict?
Jennifer Curtis: The Northern Ireland situation is unique in several respects, most notably the fact that non-state actors caused so many casualties. However, some issues are not unique to Northern Ireland. Whether and how people use the language of human rights to legitimate violence is a political question that is debated around the world, on a daily basis, especially regarding humanitarian interventions. I don’t think that human rights are the only kind of politics being debated anywhere, but the way rights discourse has subsumed other political debates is a global issue. I think historical analysis of these broad processes in specific settings like Northern Ireland helps us think more concretely about the ramifications of legal or abstract principles.
Northern Irish history is a caution against uncritically accepting discursive claims. Yet it is also a caution against purism about human rights politics. Rights discourse in Northern Ireland is part of a global expansion of human rights advocacy and law since the end of the twentieth century. Since this expansion, international and scholarly elites have begun to question the proliferation or politicization of human rights. We are right to be suspicious of rights talk. However, warnings about “third generation” or “invented” rights also ignore the political origins and consequences of the human rights project over time. Furthermore, it is disingenuous to defend “principles” as though that argument itself is devoid of political content and consequences—the charge of politicization usually discredits the claims of groups who only recently gained access to the promises of human rights. These dismissals also often re-assert political, economic, and legal inequalities. In this way, dismissing, rather than critically assessing, human rights discourse restricts access to both rhetorical power and legal authority.