Depoliticizing and Deconstructing Human Rights: Changing the Lens Through Which We View Universal Human Rights

By Uday V. Garg
2016, Vol. 8 No. 09 | pg. 1/1

This paper is an attempt to navigate through existing theories of universalisation of human rights and existing justifications thereof. It is premised on several cultural and political notions that it takes as starting points, not as truisms, but through ideological deconstruction, which enable positively directing the aforementioned navigation, with the object of illustrating fundamental flaws in the current regimes, both political and discursive, of the human rights movement. The paper derives this idea from Mutua’s (2001) article, and takes it forward to proposing an alternative regime or the possibilities of several alternative regimes governing human rights and civilisation from Chimni’s (2012) attempt at transplanting Gandhi’s ideas of Swaraj and satyagrah to international law and human rights.

At various points throughout the essay, references are also made to theories of universalism and multiculturalism – two notions we take for granted to be apolitical and to have transcended political boundaries and therefore ideal to govern human rights – to enable further illustration of the flaws on which the human rights corpus is premised. Juxtaposed with this will be deconstruction down to individualism – which allows for ethics and work on the self as standards for judgment and logical cogency in trying to harmoniously construct a world around true multiculturalism – for the purposes establishing some sort of a unitary standard as an alternative to the nation state within human rights.

In its conclusion, this paper proposes a particularly identifiable or explicable human rights regime or civilizational structure within which it could operate, but it begs us to ask certain questions that render it necessary for us to think effectively about drastically changing how we think about rights, civilisation, and universal humanisation of the same without being subconsciously totalitarian and dictatorial in our description of and demand for rights. Is a singular language of human rights redundant? Are alternative modernities and civilisations the answer to the dangerous linearity of the language of human rights? Does it make more sense to view human rights through the prototype of an ideal individual than an ideal regime or universal institutional structure? Is it possible to depoliticise the human rights regime by understanding the idea of the spiritual and ethical self as a microcosm of the mechanics of nations and democracies?

Asking Questions and Finding Logical Faultlines

The current human rights regime presumes certain principles and ideas as infallible, universal, and essential for the implementation of its language of rights. It also presumes that this language of rights is as universal as it gets, an inherent characteristic of modern liberal civilisation (incidentally also presumed to be the most ideal civilisation, the predestined and inevitable culmination of all human endeavours and progress), and the only way of allowing the world to be ordered in a way that allows harmonious multiculturalism to exist and thrive.

Here we can begin to identify faultlines as identified by Mutua. Mutua (2001) argues that the human rights movement is shaped by a troubling history and rhetoric. The history that constitutes the human rights movement is essentially a colonial civilising project, of which the human rights movement is an extension, and into which it fits clearly and comfortably. The rhetoric that he refers to, he frames as the “SVS metaphor”, namely, the savage-victim-saviour metaphor, within which the state is both the savage that infringes on human rights, and the saviour the is the guarantor of human rights, and the individual citizen becomes the victim, whose rights have been taken away.

This supposed truth of the human rights corpus also presupposes an ideal and ultimate form of state and governance – that of the liberal democracy as idealised in the West. This again represents the skewed evaluation of civilizational structures against the backdrop of a colonial hangover. The political-ideological elitism so intrinsic to this system flows in from the colonial white man’s burden, a belief that others the non-West as savage, as implicit in the fact that human rights in fact became a global concern only in the aftermath of horrifying violations by whites against whites, and remained practically non-existent when the same horrors were inflicted on the colonial populations. (Mutua, 2001)

The presupposition of Western liberal democracy as the prototypical unit of the human rights regime is problematic on another fundamental level. The human rights regime presumes that this model of governance is the “most equal,” which in the current age of global connectivity and civil and political rights would mean most accommodative of cultures, peoples and identities. It would be safe to conclude that the presupposition of the Western liberal democracy as the ideal form of governance and most efficient tool of delivering human rights reflects more than an inclination to believe that this setup is the most desirable to preserve multiculturalism.

Mutua (2001) argues that this does not allow for an environment in which different nation-states and cultures can thrive and be empowered to deliver human rights to their populations. He believes that intra-cultural dialogue and introspection are required and that the SVS metaphor and imposition of the liberal democracy are essentially zealotry contexts within which the former cannot take place.

Moreover, this presents to us our first fundamental problems with the human rights regime – both political and ideological. It must first be noted that human rights necessarily operate to be delivered in and by an international legal-political setup that is constituted by independent nation-states. If, then, liberal democracy is a sine qua non for the deliverance of human rights, human rights being inalienable, then a foundational contradiction within the politics of international relations undermines the presupposed value of the liberal democracy when Western powers openly support dictatorships and other regimes friendly to them. At this point I consider Slavoj Žižek’s (2015) idea of political correctness, which is helpful in explaining why and how the requirement of the liberal democracy, which is seemingly essential to the human rights model, inheres a paradox, which in turn undermines the foundation that the entire corpus is based on.

As per this idea, the international legal order forces states that are in the process of becoming democracies or struggling with institutions of the same into political correctness, which in fact creates a global space of nations which is just a space for different ways of life to compete. That is antithetical to a democracy and is in fact quite totalitarian, as it does not allow for multiculturalism to thrive in the sense of “social trust and organic values.” Therefore, the only pre-requisite for human rights is undermined by the system that purports to protect it. This makes the current regime of human rights a sham on two levels, i.e., the micro level – individualistic paternalism and colonial ideological invasion – and the macro level – the paradox of systems and civilizational hierarchy, i.e., inducing democracy through the whims and fancies of totalitarianism.

On an ideological level, the hegemony of democracy as a political principle poses a logical problem. For this, understanding Žižek’s (1997) multiculturalism helps. According to Žižek (1997), the actual ideological debate takes place in the space where we contend what best typifies a particular intellectual notion. The notion in this case must be governance and deliverance of human rights, and the debate takes place before we make liberal democracy the ideal, making or typification illusory. While talking about how hegemonic typical accounts of some thing are formed, Žižek (1997) says,

Ridiculous as this notion may sound, its grain of truth resides in the fact that each universal ideological notion is always hegemonized by some particular content which colours its very universality and accounts for its efficiency… The struggle for ideological and political hegemony is thus always the struggle for the appropriation of the terms which are ‘spontaneously’ experienced as ‘apolitical’, as transcending political boundaries. (Žižek, 1997)

Applying this idea of illusory universality to democracy, it can be fairly concluded that democracy in the colonial hangover won the ideological battle, since it was born in an atmosphere that allowed it to paint as typical the content for this particular intellectual notion, that is, rule of law and political representation. Therefore, the premise of universality itself remains an illusion, and given that the prototype for universality in this case was also merely inserted, it remains problematic to rely on that prototype (liberal democracy) as the ideal mechanism to deliver human rights. Moreover, the idea of multiculturalism that this universality rests on is also problematic on two levels. First, the definition of multiculturalism is misleading, and this is where we need to understand Gandhi’s Swaraj and ethical and spiritual self in order to create a truly multicultural world. Second, multiculturalism as we know it is very heavily coloured by a colonial hangover – the entire human rights corpus, as Mutua (2001) argues, acts as an extension of a Western civilising mission.

Understanding Gandhi and Proposing Alternatives

To truly understand the value of Gandhi’s self as an ethical and spiritual being as the unit for a civilisation governed by human rights and to create a truly multicultural and tolerant world, we need to first appreciate the practicalities and mechanics of modern day politics. The illusion of democracy in a space that is actually totalitarian as reflected through political correctness and human rights acting as a source of coercion in foreign policy (Mutua, 2001) make for a reality of human rights marked by inherent inequality and over-reliance on institutional structures without actual or sufficient knowledge of the base.

To begin with, we should think about the Socratic idea of inherent good and evil as a starting point. Socrates believed that human beings are inherently good, and that they do no mischief of their own will. Therefore, for human beings to do good things it is required that another individual corrupt that individual. That however, would make no sense to the corrupting individual, since as a rational thinker he would have the idea that society would be better and so would the collective state if the individual is surrounded by good individuals. Therefore, why would anyone willingly and knowingly corrupt another individual?

This prompts us to think about the very idea of a good society and what constitutes it. It must mean that a good society must be constituted of good individuals, not corrupted (senselessly so) by other individuals. This leads us further to construct the prototype of the ideal human being, for it would be in the interest of the world at large to know what the good individual is, and what we must do to let that individual by the prototype, the kind that every other individual should aspire to be. Moreover, it would be a lot easier to construct a just society, where rights are protected, through the ideal individual than through a totalising idea of a good society, i.e. liberal democracy.

As Chimni (2012) argues, this is where understanding Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj helps. According to Chimni (2012), it would make more sense to remove contingencies by human factors and instate organic change and control over destiny in search of emancipation. This is only possible if humankind is involved in an endless pursuit of truth through constant work on the ethical and spiritual self, i.e., satyagrah.

The idea of the self is important because if humankind devotes itself to working on its ethical and spiritual self, it becomes more in control of its destiny, and political setups (ideally on the village level, as per Gandhi), can work and be shaped organically. Moreover, this would also enable and at the same time beg us to confront questions about the composition of society such as whether there could be human beings who are inherently bad, as opposed to the Socratic belief. Instead of reactionary institutional measures, human resources and knowledge could then be focussed on creating a truly good society, one which is inherently free of human rights violations.

Given Gandhi’s belief in alternative modernities and civilisations, it would also beg us to ask whether it is impossible to have a just and free society outside the scope of a free-market driven democratic setup that it has become synonymous with. It is interesting to note at this point that the basic foundation of key institutional legal principles can also be traced back to ethics – honouring contractual obligations, perjury, corporate responsibility, to name a few.

We can again use Žižek’s (1997) idea of multiculturalism to answer some of these questions. Žižek (1997) says that the idea of tolerance that we continue to use as a foundation for multiculturalism is problematic. He says that tolerance assumes the civilizational validity of the tolerating culture; it de facto means “stay far away enough from me.” This is also reflected in the cultural appropriation and evaluation that takes place within the SVS metaphor and the Western civilising mission. The real problem of multiculturalism, Žižek (1997) argues, is understanding how to be decent to each other without having to need to understand it. This perfectly fits the ideal Gandhian society, in which each individual and each political setup is in charge of its own destiny, and is not patronising to any other identity. It is this patronising behaviour that we need to avoid for multiculturalism to truly thrive, according to Žižek (1997).


The questions at the beginning of this paper, through the course of this debate culminate into the following question – Do we need to redefine or consider streamlining human rights with the self and development of decency in mind? In order to truly value human rights and the multiculturalism that it promises, we do. The current regime of international law and politics presents a series of paradoxes that human rights and its institutions within this order are incapable of dealing with. In order to truly deliver the promise of human rights, it is necessary that we reconsider our evaluation of rights and civilisation and redirect the focus of human political endeavours completely inward – towards the self, the only unit the knowledge of which equips us to create a truly just society.

To quote Shiv Visvanathan, "The Gandhian experiment never ceases and that is the Gandhian idea of citizenship — not a bundle of rights but a process of constant invention with the community as a commons of ideas." (Visvanathan, 2015)


Chimni B.S. (2012). The self, modern civilization, and international law: Learning from Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s hind swaraj or Indian home rule. The European Journal of International Law, 23 (4)

Mutua M. (2001). Savages, victims, and saviors: The metaphor of human rights. Harvard International Law Journal, 42 (1), 201-245

Visvanathan S. (2015, September 30). Reimagining Gandhi, The Asian Age. Retrieved from

Žižek, S. (1997). Multiculturalism or the cultural logic of multinational capitalism?. New Left Review,I/225. Retrieved from

Žižek, S. (2015). Political correctness is a more dangerous form of totalitarianism. Big Think. Retrieved from

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