The human wrongs in “human rights”

New book from independent Montreal publisher criticizes the social justice status quo

Daniel Fischlin and Martha Nandorfy’s book The Community of Rights – The Rights of Community begins by introducing a phenomenon that is rarely explored in human rights discourse: the tendency to overemphasize the importance of the individual. Not only is this concept rarely mentioned in discussions of ethics and rights, but it seems, at first glance, to be counterproductive to the pursuit of human equality. After all, human rights activists tend to emphasize the worth of every individual, of every life – a sentiment that this concept seems to undermine. But, in this third volume of their trilogy, Fischlin and Nandorfy address the necessity of moving away from addressing the worth of every individual life, and moving toward considering the worth of individuals in relation to one another, the worth of community.

This trilogy, which began with Eduardo Galeano: Through the Looking Glass and The Concise Guide to Global Human Rights, has its roots in South American human rights issues and social justice. Convinced to widen their scope after the first book to global issues, the writers now tackle the paradigm through which we view human rights. In their view, the community is the basic unit of society rather than the individual. A community is not defined by the shared characteristics of the individuals that belong to it, but, rather, each individual “exists as the function of a community of relations.” We are, in other words, only as strong as our communities. And the concept of community, say Fischlin and Nandorfy, has much to be desired.

In their book, Fischlin and Nandorfy discuss at length the meaning  of community as it pertains to global human rights. They propose that the legal instruments and public consciousness currently involved in the effort to uphold human rights fail to do so. These forces fail not only in their inability to account for the community, but also in their failure to incorporate storytelling as a means of conveying human interest.

In an email interview with The Daily, Fischlin and Nandorfy said, “We always suspected that the knowledges of the South [held] more hope of any real change than all the theorizing and legal instruments.” This book is an attempt to compel human rights activists to turn away from government and market rights as the assumed authorities in dealing with these issues. Holding knowledge as the key to inspire personal agency, the authors seek to inform and influence, to change our  interpretation of human rights, creating solutions that have not yet been explored.

In this book, it is not only the way in which we approach human rights problems that is under attack, but also the term “human rights” itself. “‘Human rights’ always felt too narrow and self-centred, and this led us to think about how maybe community is the missing link,” said Fischlin and Nandorfy. This criticism has arisen through the authors’ own literary journeys, they loosely used the term in their first book on Galeano, and now challenge what exactly constitutes a right.

Fischlin and Nandorfy’s voices ring clearly throughout the book – their assertiveness is what lends otherwise slightly esoteric and philosophical work its momentum. But, this assertiveness is not, according to the authors, widely accepted in our society: “Few presses publish such a wide array of books on colossal social problems and equally colossal visions of how to overcome them.” They allude to this covert censorship, and the importance of independent publishers, such as Black Rose Books, in enabling the open criticism present in The Community of Rights – The Rights of Community. This expression is particularly urgent now, in what Fischlin and Nandorfy refer to as “a time of disinformation and manipulation…[with] unparalleled greed and violence.” Now is the time to reevaluate our perception of human rights and our methods of upholding them. Now is the time to challenge the structures that are not working – these are the messages of this book.

In the introduction, Fischlin and Nandorfy offer the basic criterion that they feel should determine the effectiveness of any perspective on human rights: “The baseline measure for success of rights instruments globally is the degree to which they protect the interests of the poorest, the most disadvantaged, the most fragile.” What remains to be seen is whether their discussion, as comprehensive and forward-thinking as it may be, will fulfill this self-imposed criterion.