Human rights, as popularly conceived, have a troubling genealogy.
There is no question today about the global hegemony of human rights as a discourse of human dignity. Nonetheless, such hegemony faces a disturbing reality. A large majority of the world’s inhabitants are not the subjects of human rights. They are rather the objects of human rights discourses. The question is, then, whether human rights are efficacious in helping the struggles of the excluded, the exploited, and the discriminated against, or whether, on the contrary, they make those struggles more difficult. In other words, is the hegemony claimed by human rights today the outcome of a historical victory, or rather of a historical defeat?
Human rights were historically meant to prevail only in the metropolitan societies—not in the colonies.
We must begin by acknowledging that law and rights have a double genealogy in western modernity. I understand the dominant versions of western modernity as having been constructed on the basis of an abyssal thinking that divided the world sharply between metropolitan and colonial societies. This division was such that the realities and practices existing on the other side of the line—in the colonies—could not possibly challenge the universality of the theories and practices in force on this side of the line. As such, they were made invisible. As a discourse of emancipation, human rights were historically meant to prevail only on this side of the abyssal line, i.e., in the metropolitan societies. It has been my contention that this abyssal line, which produces radical exclusions, far from being eliminated with the end of historical colonialism, continues to exist and that its exclusions are carried out by other means (neocolonialism, racism, xenophobia, and the permanent state of exception in dealing with alleged terrorists, undocumented migrant workers, and asylum seekers). International law and mainstream human rights doctrines have been used to guarantee such continuity.