'Shooting into the Dark': towards a pragmatic theory of human rights (activism)
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After the seeming triumph of human rights discourse in the 1990s, when the unprecedented expansion of international human rights instruments and national Bills of Rights, and the apparent emergence of a global cosmopolitan superculture seemed to augur in a new world order of universally shared values, the vogue of human rights has come, off late, under considerable pressure. It is tempting to attribute that pressure solely to an external cause, namely to the very real competition now faced by human rights from an ever wider-ranging (human) security discourse that has constantly been expanding since the September 11 attacks. The danger of this particular competition does not so much consist of the deliberate curtailment of the enjoyment of various human rights in the name of counter-terrorism, but rather in the gradual and somewhat concealed replacement of human rights as the defining concept of late modern societies by that of (human) security. For terrorism and counter-terrorism, by cruelly manifesting the practical limits of multicultural cosmopolitanism and intercultural understanding, seem to put into question the very foundations upon which the idea of universal human rights is premised. The human rights community has certainly had difficulties in finding an appropriate response to an ever more abrasive security discourse that appears better attuned to the current mood of fear and loathing. Indeed, it has largely confined itself to documenting whatever limitations of constitutionally or internationally protected (human) rights have occurred, and to legalistically pointing to the breach of governmental or state obligations in that respect. It has, in other words, largely treated the threat of (counter)terrorism as a standard human rights violation issue, almost as if nothing has happened and as if an overarching consensus over human rights could still be readily assumed. It has, thus, not taken up the real challenge of the (counter-)terrorist predicament, namely its exposition of the inherent precariousness of the underlying assumptions on rationality and inter-cultural translatability upon which human rights (activism) have/has been constructed. Indeed, contemporary human rights discourse is, arguably, premised on the fact that its foundations are only hazily assumed, rather than clearly articulated. Only by concealing the fact that the basic questions underlying the concept of human rights have never been answered could the international human rights ‘movement’ acquire and maintain its self-righteous aura of untouchable ‘do-goodness’ upon which it has thriven. It is this shakiness of the ground of human rights which the (counter-)terrorist challenge has brought to the fore, and which anyone pretending to come to the rescue of human rights (activism) must address.