Frank Busch

World News


Women’s Rights, Human Rights

As I was trawling through the archives of the International Policy Digest recently, I came across an article titled “India’s Dowry Culture,” by Leigh Seeger. A picture above the title depicts a protest by a countless number of Indian nationals against instances of dowry violence in India. The irony of this juxtaposition struck me immediately. ‘Culture’ is a set of norms accepted by members of a specific society. Yet, while proclaiming dowry as an aspect of India’s culture, the author provides evidence of numerous members of Indian society condemning this very practice.

As a person of Indian heritage, I interpreted the picture differently. In the eyes of the protesting women I see the steely no-nonsense look my mother sported when she confronted a classmate of mine in middle school for scratching my right eye because I was “brown and ugly.” In between their weary and huddled forms I recognize ties of strength and support Indian women have used to protect and uplift each other through centuries of oppression. These women are not victims in need of a white savior to shame the culture they own and seek to advance.

Alas, Seeger’s thesis disappoints: “Violence against women has a long history in the world, but especially in India.” She proceeds to list the many violations committed against Indian women but fails to provide in-depth comparative analysis to support her claim that sexism is a practice more inherent to Indian culture than any other.

The one-sided perspective provided by Ms. Seeger’s article is emblematic of the dominance and hypocrisy of first world countries in the human rights field. This Eurocentric construction of human rights is a widely-accepted argument today, and methods such as membership quotas have already been introduced to mitigate the dominance of the Global North in human rights institutions, from offices of the UN to prominent NGOs. However, specific enforcement mechanisms born of this biased construction, the magnum opus of which is the ‘name and shame’ technique, remain a pertinent subject of debate. This technique is executed through public condemnation of states for alleged violations, usually in the form of human rights reports which single out specific states with details about their abuses. This is currently the primary enforcement tool of international bodies, who are hindered from taking more intrusive action by the supreme principle of state sovereignty in international law.

The problem arises when we consider that it is states from the Global South who bear the brunt of ‘naming and shaming,’ while the ones doing the ‘naming and shaming’ are those of the Global North. This promotes the idea that “third world” countries are the main perpetrators of human rights violations while the “first world” is named their liberator, thus feeding such cultural misunderstandings as demonstrated by Seeger’s article.

A body of criticism has emerged in response to the ‘name and shame’ technique, but I propose such attempts to mediate Eurocentric impositions in human rights are often heterosexist. When scholars preach preservation of the cultural values of a third-world society, they disregard the fact that some of these values may be sexist and oppressive for certain members of that society. Thus, human rights discourse demands not just a postcolonial view, but a more complex intersectional approach.

Critiques against the name and shame technique can be sorted into two overarching arguments: first, that the technique is ineffective, and second, that it is unethical. With regards to the ineffectiveness of the use of naming and shaming in human rights, global policy scholar Emilie Hafner-Burton’s article “Sticks and Stones: Naming and Shaming the Human Rights Enforcement Problem” provides the only prominent empirical study of the efficacy of this technique on governments’ human rights practices, whereas the majority of similar articles rely on anecdotal speculation. She studied the correlation between international publicity (propagated by NGOs, the media, and the UN) and government reductions of human rights abuses (such as murder, torture, kidnappings, etc.) Her study revealed that not only did the name and shame technique fail to curtail abuses, but it may have even allowed violating governments to increase their acts of terror. Hafner-Burton explains that this surprising effect is due to governments’ constrained ability to address abuses outside of their direct control, and the practice of certain governments which take steps to rectify the specific violation highlighted by the international community, while continuing with other violations under the radar.

Makau Mutua, a prominent scholar of international development law, spearheads the ethical opposition to ‘name and shame’ techniques. In his article “Savages, Victims, and Saviors,” he describes the first world’s approach to international issues of human rights as “the impulse to universalize Eurocentric norms and values by repudiating, demonizing, and ‘othering’ that which is different and non-European.” Mutua writes that human rights discourse tends to “shame the Third World state by pointing out the gulf between the state’s conduct and internationally sanctioned civilized behavior.” Thus he claims that it is not violators themselves who are under attack from human rights norms, but rather the freedom of all societies to forge their own view of human dignity, based on values specific to their culture.

While Mutua does address gender issues specifically, he does so briefly and in a manner that supports his argument for the insulation of cultures from changing human rights norms. He argues that human rights reporting on women’s issues employs sensationalizing language which constructs a stereotypical view of third world cultures as particularly barbaric in their treatment of women, ultimately entrenching the third world’s characterization as ‘savages.’

Mutua, in arguing for greater recognition and preservation of cultural values from non-Western countries in the shaping of human rights, overlooks the objective fact that many cultures from these regions are still inherently patriarchal. One-time Under-Secretary-General of the UN, Radhika Coomaraswamy, espouses this truth in her article “A Third World View of Human Rights.” She asserts that “though women’s rights have received much attention in the Western world…the problem of women’s rights in developing societies has enormous social and psychological dimensions,” and “there is an important and fundamental need to extricate women’s rights from the constraint of traditional ideas and institutions” (Coomaraswamy. While Mutua’s argument is valid to an extent (as it applies to specific cultural values), the way he presents it in his article is somewhat reckless, as it empowers oppressors belonging to these cultures to use anti-Western sentiment as an excuse to deny women their rights.

At best, Mutua callously overlooks a perspective critical to the observation of human rights, and at worst, by deeming the plight of women a necessary casualty, he strategically prioritizes compromise over efficiency in human rights norms development. A truly efficient restructuring of human rights norms would take an intersectional approach and thoroughly mitigate the gendered construction and enforcement of human rights.

Does the naming and shaming technique, then, have a concrete effect on governments’ observation of women’s rights? We cannot say, because the most prominent empirical study on the efficacy of this technique, conducted by Hafner-Burton, demonstrates a lack of consideration for women’s issues, since her parametrics do not specifically account for this significant portion of the state population.

Legal professor Kimberlé Crenshaw provides further nuance to the analysis of Hafner-Burton’s article, in her revolutionary publication Mapping the Margins, which initiated the term ‘intersectionality’ to the world of social science. Crenshaw suggests that “the social power in delineating difference need not be the power of domination; it can instead be the source of political empowerment and social reconstruction.” This implies that Hafner-Burton’s article (had it accounted for the effect of name and shame techniques on women’s rights specifically), may have revealed that this human rights mechanism is probably the best, non-intrusive method of supporting feminist women of patriarchal cultures, even if it fails to deliver in a general political context. Crenshaw also endorses identity politics as a tool for overcoming the marginalization of peoples, indicating that in an international human rights context, the necessary intersectional approach is exercised most intuitively by those facing oppression themselves. Empowering the victims’ voice decreases the likelihood of their plight being mobilized by a questionable ally like Mutua as part of a broader sociopolitical agenda, and increases the chance that their precise needs will be addressed.

A Eurocentric approach to women’s rights issues in the third world runs the serious risk of intervening on behalf of women against paternalism (ironically, in a paternalistic manner), while attempting to install a western culture that itself is not free of sexist tradition. However, the mitigation of Eurocentrism in foreign intervention cannot serve as an excuse for passive acceptance of maltreatment endured by disadvantaged members of any community. Moving forwards, a possible method of achieving the new intersectional standard for human rights without reproducing Eurocentrism, is not by eradicating or tempering practices such as ‘naming and shaming,’ but by enforcing them in consultation with female contributors from the cultures which must be shamed for some of their traditions.