Dehumanising the dehumanisers: reversal in human rights discourse

Journal of Global Ethics 6 (2):179-190 (2010)
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If the legitimacy of international humanitarian and human rights law lies, in part at least, in its capacity to confront dehumanising actions in the modern world, we may speak of the limits of this achievement. It is well known that people who commit genocide or crimes against humanity typically dehumanise those against whom their crimes are committed and that the humanitarian and human rights dimensions of international law were developed in response to the radicalisation of this phenomenon. The expanded scope of international criminal justice caught a cosmopolitan imagination because it seemed to restore an idea of humanity in the face of organised attempts to eradicate the very idea of universal humanity. It also caught a cosmopolitan imagination because it seemed to restore the humanity of the perpetrators as well. They were no longer to be treated as beasts liable to the 'punishment' of the victors but to be brought to trial, held accountable for their deeds and converted back into responsible human beings. Today, however, I suggest that we face a double temptation: in confronting those who commit crimes against humanity to represent them as inhuman monsters rather than responsible human beings; in our compassion for victims of crimes against humanity, it is to represent them merely as victims and not as moral and political subjects. In either case, there can arise a reversal of the problem we are trying to address. I do not suggest this tendency is inevitable but where it is present it indicates an insufficiently reflective relation to international law. I address the problem of reversal through a discussion of three authors (Rawls, Habermas and Arendt) and three issues ('pariah peoples', 'criminal states' and 'monstrous perpetrators')



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