Above photo: Yuki Iwamura/AP/Shutterstock.
Reasserting the black radical human rights tradition.
The global economic crisis of neoliberal capitalism—exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic—has exposed the ethical, moral and political contradictions of the liberal interpretation of human rights that contends these rights can be viewed separately from the political economy, global structures and power relationships. Operating from the false premise that human rights are objective and politically neutral, neoliberals began weaponizing the framework in the 1990s as an instrument that rationalized naked imperialist interventions. Humanitarian interventionism and the “responsibility to protect” became the contemporary white-supremacist expression of the “white man’s burden” that involved “saving” natives in the global South from their autocratic rulers.
It had escaped most people that the rulers to be deposed usually were in nations that attempted to resist U.S. domination with the help of European allies. From Cuba, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Iran to North Korea and Venezuela, subversion, direct military interventions, proxy wars, and sanctions were all deployed to “save” the people from their oppressive rulers. It did not matter that hundreds of thousands would die in the process, even being denied medicine amid COVID-19. The white West had determined in capitals thousands of miles away that these losses were acceptable collateral damage to preserve “democracy” and “human rights.”
This cynical ideological manipulation of human rights is the reason why so many around the world have turned away from using the liberal framework. Yet, from W.E.B. Dubois and Claudia Jones through to Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights, African Americans still frame the struggle being waged using the vocabulary of human rights. Are African Americans mistaken or are we operating from a different framework?
The African American radical human-rights tradition systematized by BAP National Organizer Ajamu Baraka as the “People(s)-Centered Human Rights (PCHRs)” framework is strikingly different from the liberal, individualistic, state-centric and legalistic framework of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. This contrast was the topic of analysis and discussion during a number of webinars—including one BAP hosted—held in commemoration of Human Rights Day (December 10). The assumption of the PCHRs framework is simple and clear: Only when human rights are “de-colonized” and the oppressed determine what human rights look like for them will human rights be relevant for the oppressed.