How human rights — generally conceived as a counter-hegemonic instrument for righting historical injustices — are being deployed to subjugate the weak and reinforce their domination. The book analyzes the inversions that can take place when emancipatory discourses are appropriated by the dominant group in contexts of political asymmetry



by Jadaliyya 



Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon (NP & NG): There were two concrete developments that prompted the writing of this book. The first was the recent appearance of Israeli settler human rights NGOs, which is a new type of actor that, in spite of its local specificities, aligns ideologically with conservative organizations around the globe. The settler NGOs are a manifestation of institutional transformations within the culture of human rights in the colonial situation of Israel/Palestine. Moreover, these organizations came into being by adopting a threefold strategy. First, they have appropriated the language of human rights, translating it into a specific Zionist dialect. Second, they have been mirroring the techniques and strategies of liberal human rights NGOs. Finally, they have been trying to invert the asymmetry of power on the ground by transforming the settler into the native and the indigenous into the invader. In the book we show, for example, how these settler organizations take petitions submitted by left leaning cause-lawyers who fight for Palestinian rights, cut and paste numerous passages from these petitions, and simply replace basic terms like Jewish settlements with Palestinian settlements in order to advance dispossession. This was a fascinating change, and we were convinced that it pointed to something profound about human rights and their deployment in the current global context. The second development was the emergence and proliferation of the term “lawfare” within the framework of the so-called “war on terror” and “asymmetric conflicts.” Lawfare combines the words law and warfare and is increasingly defined by government officials, think-tanks, conservative NGOs, and scholars dealing with the various international war fronts as the use of law for realizing a military objective. The attempt of different NGOs to file suits in European courts against Israeli government and military officials for committing war crimes is one example of this development. Lawfare is, however, not only used to describe attempts by liberal human rights groups to submit warfare and conflict to legal oversight. We show that lawfare is also used as a speech act that aims to reconstitute the human rights field as a national security threat, and in this way, implement policies that attempt restrict the work of liberal human rights NGOs and to arrest the deployment of a human rights discourse deemed threatening to the state. The fact that settler organizations are using human rights to lay claim to the colony, while their conservative allies are claiming that certain human rights NGOs are a national security threat by attacking what they call the politicization of human rights, is intriguing. These phenomena underscore that we are witnessing the rise of a new political paradigm that in our counterintuitive title we have called the human right to dominate.


J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NP & NG: We think that anyone interested in human rights and social change will gain from reading the book. Activists and scholars from different disciplines have, for some time, recognized and even critiqued the top-down approach of human rights organizations, their frequent lack of accountability to the people they purportedly represent, their alienating professionalism, and their complete subordination to legal fiats, which political theorist Bonnie Honig once called “jurocratic rule.” We show that all of these characteristics have helped to consolidate the paradigm of the human right to dominate. Rights can advance domination when those who believe in their emancipatory potential end up—wittingly or not—enhancing subjugation. In addition to human rights practitioners, legal scholars, political theorists, and social scientists, we hope that other audiences will find the book compelling: for instance, activists working for social change and people concerned about current affairs in Middle East. Having spoken with numerous activists over the years, we know that many are dissatisfied with the human rights discourse and what it can achieve. We believe that the book registers this discontent–which sometimes translates into frustration–as well as manages to articulate and explain the current crisis in the political language employed by progressives around the globe. Our hope is that our book will have an impact on the language people use in their struggles, on how they construct and shape the political meaning of their struggles, and on how human rights are taught in universities. Finally, we hope that all those who have been involved in the so-called peace process in Israel/Palestine over the past decades might gain a better understanding of how slippery the political field of human rights has become in the wake of the transformation of human rights into the new global moral lingua franca.


J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

NP & NG: When we met during a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, we were both reading critical literature on human rights and humanitarianism, and more broadly on the paradoxes of liberal politics—authors such as Samuel Moyn, Mahmood Mamdani, Didier Fassin, Lila Abu Lughod, Laleh Khalili, Wendy Brown, Lori Allen, Ilana Feldman, Lisa Hajjar, Achille Mebmbe, Samera Esmeir, Gregoire Chamayou, and Costas Douzinas, but also many others. We were also both familiar with the internal debates among human rights activists who struggle for justice in Israel/Palestine. We spent a lot of time discussing together the critical literature produced on the paradoxes of human rights and humanitarian aid in Israel/Palestine, and we felt the urgency of trying to connect the dots between the problematic hydraulic model that practitioners, experts, and many human rights scholars have adopted, whereby more human rights equals more emancipation, and the rapprochement between conservative/colonial formations and liberal human rights discourses. There are many parallels to be drawn between the way the Bush administration invoked women’s rights to help justify the war in Afghanistan and the way the French nationalist Marine Le Pen has been advocating women’s rights as part of her campaign against migrant Muslims. Her ideological counterparts in Denmark have become the most outspoken champions of the basic right of freedom of expression as they support the publication of vilifying caricatures of the Muslim prophet Muhammad in local newspapers. Geert Wilders, the founder and leader of the conservative Freedom Party in Holland, compared the Qu’ran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, invoking the discourse of gay and women’s rights to attack and undermine religious freedoms in his country and elsewhere. In the book, we show the convergences between these conservatives and liberal human rights NGOs, and expose how the latter also use human rights to reinforce domination. We decided to call this deployment “the human right to dominate” not as a cheap provocation, but as a phrase that captures the emergence of a new paradigm in contemporary politics—one that deserves a sophisticated interpretation that explains how and why human rights lend themselves to such appropriations.


J: Why is Israel/Palestine so central to this paradigm?

NP & NG: Because of everything we have said above, but also because Israel/Palestine occupies a special place in many of the narratives on human rights. Chapter One shows how following World War II, the allies—who shaped the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—conceived Israel’s creation as a reparation for the extermination of European Jews and their plight as refugees. Thus, the book is an invitation to reconsider this “paradox of reparation,” the idea that reparation for egregious human rights violations resulted in the creation of a settler state that carries out violations of human rights. Scholars have noted that human rights are bound by the state, but the conversation has to be shifted from a formal analysis of this connection to its empirical manifestations and consequences. Moreover, our analysis suggests that there cannot be reparation for Palestinians—unless reparation is conceived as a form of condoning and ignoring historical experiences of injustice, no matter how complicated and intricate these experiences are—that does not tackle the issue of what Mahmud Darwish called the relationship between “dominant victim” and “dominated victim.” This is true for Palestine as well as for all those contexts in which previous victims face the risk of doing injustice by demanding justice.


J: How do you see this book as different from other critiques of human rights?

NP & NG: When we began writing this book, we constantly resisted cynicism, to borrow Lori Allen’s expression in her important book The Rise and Fall of Human Rights. Our point of departure in the book was, on the one hand, the widespread failure of human rights activism to challenge domination; and, on the other hand, the disorienting appropriation of human rights by political actors that openly advocate for dispossession, subjugation, and discrimination. We aspired to steer away from certain simplifications that flatten the relationship between human rights and domination while also resisting an essentialist interpretation of this relationship that—to put it bluntly—reduces the human right to dominate to an intrinsic Western characteristic. The book builds on existing critiques by looking at new human rights phenomena and practices and by developing, as much as possible, a nuanced theorization. Nuanced does not mean renouncing a radical critique; rather, we assume that a radical critique is a never-ending process that implies an ongoing reconsideration of reality. As we point out in the conclusion, even after powerful political forces have appropriated human rights and have used them to advance domination, it is still possible to re-appropriate human rights. “Lesson learnt,” to use a terminology familiar to human rights organizations and the NGO world.


J: What other projects are you working on now?

NP & NG: We are working on a new book, On Human Shielding. The idea, which began while we were still writing The Human Right to Dominate, is to recompose a genealogy of human shielding that analyzes how this phenomenon relates to the politics of vulnerability, as well as to racial politics. We use the phrase “human shielding” to denote situations in which civilian bodies are transformed, voluntarily or involuntary, into a necro-technology of warfare. The human shield is predicated upon a value ascribed to a living human being who is defined as a civilian and, as such, is protected according to international humanitarian law. A human body thus becomes a shield by virtue of that body’s prior definition as a civilian. Consequently—and as opposed to inanimate shields, which are ultimately conceived and produced in order to protect human vulnerability in war—in the case of human shields vulnerability itself becomes the means of protection. In other words, the human shield defends a vulnerable body, an object, or an area that has become part of the military hostilities, but it does so through its own vulnerability. In this sense, the politics of human shielding is fundamentally a politics of vulnerability. This is what our new project deals with, and we are trying to untangle the intersection between human shielding, vulnerability, and the history of race. We assume that—in spite of the normative and political transformations of the last decades, especially after the decolonization process and what Pier Paolo Pasolini has called “the [revolutionary] irruption of color in the world”—a solid trace of this racial politics still exists within current discussions on human shielding, and that by mapping out the historical relationship between human shielding, vulnerability, and race, we can gain a better understanding of our contemporary moment.

Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon,

The Human Right to Dominate. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Print Friendly

  1. Pingback: Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon, The Human Right to Dominate - VoxPopuli.org

Leave a Reply


8 + = sedici

captcha *