Monday, December 05, 2005

Human Rights Superheroes

Last month at our discussion of Ken Saro-Wiwa we talked about our need for human rights heroes to embody our concerns and motivate our activism and this month our protagonist is a little girl in quest of heroes who embody truth and justice. Naturally, reading a comic book this month ones mind drifts to other pop culture heroes and their crusades for justice. I have a vague recollection that during the 40th anniversary campaign for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, some Amnesty section was planning to produce a comic book with a human rights superhero. Now I find the United Nations University of Peace (in Costa Rica) describes a 2004 Human Rights Day lecture, "Human Rights - The Language of Superheroes: Transforming the Foundations of Human Rights from Universalism to Superheroism," where a faculty member, Hassan El Menyawi, made the following observations,

Professor El Menyawi exposed the major problematic of human rights: that it depends on the compliance of the nation-state, and more fundamentally, by relying on the nation-state to comply, it effectively produces complacency on the part of individuals who do not see human rights as something they should be applying, or attempting to establish on their own. After all, the state should be the one doing the complying. It is the state that decided to become a signatory?.
Professor El Menyawi describes this construction of the state as the single source of human rights compliance as problematic. Such state-centrism is difficult to understand. It is often argued that human rights are too individualistic, but maybe human rights are not individualistic enough? How could we depend on a state to actualize human rights, and totally forget about everyday individuals?.
Indeed, it is the individual which interests Professor El Menyawi, who uses the example of the superhero to draw insights about the role of activism and its importance in human rights theory and practice. He claims that scholarly literature has not yet integrated the role of activism into the theory human rights, but that there is plenty of discussion about how the state is the center of human rights agreement and compliance.
He reminds us of the superhero, superheroes like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Spider-Man, and Angel, and Batman, and Daredevil. They all rely on their will, on their reputation, and on their courage to create a world based on human rights. It is these superheroes who become the very vehicles of human rights compliance, says El Menyawi.
He wonders if the focus on the nation-state might have made us forget about the obvious: that if we want it [i.e., human rights], let s go out there and get it, construct it, make it happen. El Menyawi continues, saying that superheroes deploy their courage, sense of sacrifice to establish human rights. This is an important source of international law, and international human rights compliance. It is the source of the great accomplishment of Wangari Maathai, who, with her courage and self-determination, re-constructed the world, transforming it, once without forests, now with forests.
Wangari is a superhero, with qualities no different from Buffy, Spider-Man, Batman, or Daredevil.
We should study the psychology, the identity of superheroes, to come closer to understanding activism. We should study the superhero to launch and develop a theory of activism in the human rights scholarship.

This is exactly the kind of peptalk we activists could all use going into this year's Human Rights Day Global Write-a-thon. We are all superheroes, capable of amazing letter-writing feats of daring-do!
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