RECOM Reconciliation Network

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Critical Assessment of Human Rights: A Road Back to Nationalism

Lea David for RECOM


Should Serbia`s Prime Minister Vučić go to the Srebrenica 20th Anniversary to honour the victims? Should Serbia and/or the Republic of Srpska accept the UN Security Council Resolution on the Srebrenica genocide?

Well, obviously, it depends on who we ask. Opinions are firmly divided. Those who are either believers in human rights or at least anticipate that their nominal acceptance is beneficial in some way, support and promote public acknowledgement of past human rights abuses. For the true believers, the justifications for the necessity of the acknowledgement of past atrocities are well embedded in the universalist, moral grounds of human rights. Others (seemingly the vast majority of the population in Serbia and the Republic of Srpska), those whose understanding of the self is rooted in nationalist ideology and the promotion of the eternity of their own ethnic group, firmly oppose such propositions. To them, accepting the resolution on the Srebrenica genocide means humiliation and harm, as it overlooks other historical injustices they themselves have suffered in the past.

I wish here to provide a brief critical assessment of current human rights discourse, suggesting that the insistence on a forced adoption of human rights norms may well be counter-productive. I suggest here that even though certain norms of behaviour are being adopted across different political settings, this does not mean that any human rights values are being embedded on the ground. On the contrary – it is through the human rights discourse that ethnic lines of division are being re-claimed and nationalism reinforced.


Human Rights as an Ideology

Due to the enormous efforts made and resources dispensed by the EU and the States in the past decades, human rights have become a meta-ideology of our times, with a globally accessible moral and legal language for expressing universal claims and measuring development. The impact of the human rights regime is evident in numerous areas across the globe: it has promoted the rights of women, children, ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples, gays and lesbians, the elderly, the disabled, the imprisoned and many others. The rationale underlying many of these human rights claims is an appeal to a common humanity or personhood status. A conceptual and legal framework for a human rights ideology is deeply embedded in the normative ideal of globalism, which promotes a universalist view in favour of moralities in which individual freedom has priority over authorities, collective identities and nation-states. Globalism as an ideology, just like nationalism or any other ideology, aims to monopolize knowledge about reality, in order to establish its hegemony by presenting its normative framework as the only right way to look at and understand social realities (Malešević 1999). It is precisely these hegemonic tendencies of globalism in general and of human rights in particular that should be addressed and discussed critically.

Anthropology as a discipline may well be of use here, as precisely those bottom-up questions regarding the production of cultural practices and knowledge are in the focus of its inquiry. However, anthropologists have started researching intensively the subject of human rights theory and practice only in the last two decades. Actually, the American Anthropological Association (founded in 1902) was one of the few to reject in 1948 the validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on both empirical end ethical grounds, proclaiming the richness of a diversity of moral systems. The AAA claimed that “the cross-cultural data do not support the assertion of a universal set of substantive rights” (Goodale 2006 : 486). It is the imposition of hegemonic moral values on less powerful groups of people that has bothered anthropologists, as it “stinks” very much of imperialism. Chomsky and Herman (1979) have named it a “political economy of human rights”, while speaking about “justice” and “human rights” as an ideological mask behind which the United States has exercised its often brutal policies designed to expand and protect foreign markets for private corporate interests. Similarly, Žižek (2005) has pointed out that the human rights regime seems to be a justification for Western imperialist countries to try to expand their domination over the developing world.


Human rights in the Balkans


The power relationship between the core and the periphery countries is of the utmost importance for understanding the effects of forced human rights implementation on the ground, and it is particularly relevant for the Balkan states. These standardized schemes of human rights have been developed mostly by the EU for other states to follow, while it has simultaneously maintaining its own nationalist ideologies. For example, according to the 1993 Copenhagen policy, the EU is supposed to educate, discipline and punish – while offering EU membership as the prize. In other words, EU superiority is built into this process, with the EU being at the top of the hierarchical pyramid and thus dictating the conditions, tempo and changing logic of the human rights values to be adopted. In reality, even when the EU conditions and goals were finally met, promises were not fully kept. Horvat and Stiks (2012) have rightly pointed out that the EU has developed a variety of approaches to different countries: disciplining and punishing (Romania and Bulgaria), bilaterally negotiating membership (Croatia and Montenegro), punishing and rewarding (Serbia and Albania), managing (Bosnia), governing (Kosovo) and finally, ignoring (Macedonia was blocked on account of its dispute with Greece). Consequently, the whole future of the Balkans is ultimately determined not only by multiple legacies (post-war, post-Yugoslav and post-communist), but also by its uneven power-relationship with the EU. This is of course “common knowledge” to anyone who lives in the Balkans.

However, for the assessment of human rights in the Balkans, this framework is absolutely necessary when discussing how a set of moral principles based on human rights is being accepted, transformed or neglected. In particular, it is crucial to understand what happens within post-conflict states once their nationalist realities are driven to adopt the historically and geographically de-contextualized globalizing discourses of human rights. The post-conflict states in the Balkan provide certain evidence that suggests that the coupling of EU candidacy acceptance with human rights values on the ground arguably make for more harm than good.


Genocide discourse and the politics of regret


Now, back to my opening questions. Whether Prime Mister Vučić will participate the 20th Anniversary of the Srebrenica commemorations or not, will change little if any thing in the value system of the Serbs who are, in his public gesture of regret, supposed thereby to have internalized the universal dimensions of human suffering. The truth seems to be even worse than that. Forcing nominal acceptance of the human rights set of norms and values, is not only ineffective but produces instruments on the ground for abusing those rights. We can see, for example that governments often adopt human rights norms of behaviours as a matter of window dressing, radically decoupling policy from practice and at times exacerbating negative human rights practices (Hafner-Burton and Tsutsui 2005).

It is precisely the adoption of the genocide discourse for Srebrenica that has created plenty of room for its politicizing and instrumentalization, and, in my opinion, it serves only for the promotion of “war policies” and not for reconciliation of any kind. Let us briefly take a look at the sides involved. For the EU, the Resolution on the Srebrenica Genocide (the third in a row[1]), serves to clean their own conscience and to white-wash their own (dis)involvement. Ironically, for the Bosniak government it is still the most precious symbol of their national identity and victimhood, with no expiry date. About such pretences in the politics of regret we may well learn from the Israeli-German case. Just days ago, the spokeswoman of the Israeli Embassy in Germany, while giving a briefing to an Israeli journalist before the press conference for celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany, said that Israel has no interest in normalizing relations with Germany regarding the Holocaust, because their guilt serves Israeli interests perfectly. For Serbia, the discourse on genocide and the politics of regret has had a triple effect. Firstly, it has strengthened the legitimacy of Vučić government. It actually does not presage the decline of the nation state and of nationalist sentiments (Olick 2007), but serves as a form of self-legitimization and identification, as historical narratives of guilt play a vital role in the development and perpetuation of a nation (Toth 2015). The guilt narrative is actually very powerful instrument for defining “us” vs. “others” communities – not as a common understanding that “we” as a community need to be ashamed, but exactly the opposite – it strengthens “we” as a community of people that have in common denominator of who is making them guilty. Secondly, in Serbia it brings to the fore discourses regarding the necessity to address the legacy of the injustices perpetrated during WWII, and the right to be acknowledged internationally as victims. As human rights moral values are not truly embedded, understood or appreciated anywhere in the Balkans, the Bosniak victims in Serbia or the Republic of Srpska do not provide a reference for empathy based on universal human suffering, but rather a framework for the drawing up of ethnic lines of division. Thirdly, paying respect to victims outside their national milieu (in Serbia and the Republic of Srpska, the understanding of the necessity for accepting responsibility for those victims barely exists) further marginalizes the already marginalized and weakened social groups in Serbia such as refugees, war veterans and their families, internally displaced people, and other social groups who have been waiting for the past two decades to be acknowledged and respected by their own state. For example, one can often hear remarks such as, “Why speak about the Jewish/Bosniak/other victims when nobody is taking care of us (war veterans)? We sacrificed our lives – and what do we get in return?! Just humiliation and disrespect.”[2] Thus, the forceful implementation of human rights is actually enforcing inequalities and further societal fragmentation. For the Republic of Srpska, just as for Serbia and the Federation, the discourse on genocide reinforces the previous divisions based on ethnic lines and deepens the already existing hostilities. All of the above implies that by the forced implementation of the human rights regime, on the ground the ethnic and nationalist discourses are being strengthened rather than dissolved.

All of this would seem to be minor or at least collateral damage, if the victims were gaining some relief from it. But unfortunately this seems not to be the case. The Srebrenica victims are rather annoyed by the politicizing and instrumentalization of their personal pain and sufferings by all sides. It is true, however, that transforming their suffering into a grand national symbol which enabling them to forge their national identity has been in many ways beneficial for them – but it has also made them hostages to domestic politics. What is more, the empowerment of the Srebrenica victims, has made other Bosniak victims across Bosnia seem less worthy – second-class victims. It has also further marginalized other ethnic victims, both Serbs and Croats, pushing them into oblivion and away from international (and at times domestic) recognition.


Genocide – a new currency?

The availability of the “genocide” discourse is counter-productive. Both Herman and Peterson (2010) and Hayden (1996) have pointed out the menace of constructing hierarchies out of and politicizing genocide. The politics of genocide has brought to the fore a new currency – the victim as hero! The endless competition for the status of ultimate victim as a means of bringing back purity to the nation has taken its toll – the forgetting that atrocities actually did happen to real people. Or, in the words of George Orwell, “a mass of words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details.”[3] In this sense, victimhood seems to be the most convenient position to choose, as it deconstructs the categories of justice and responsibility. In human rights discourse, victims and perpetrators are usually referred to as two completely separate and homogenous sets of people, while in reality not all victims are the same, nor are all perpetrators the same, and some victims are also perpetrators (Borer 2003). Thus, it seems beneficial for nations with compromising pasts to choose precisely the motif of victimization, since it promotes sympathy instead of a sense of responsibility. It has a “politically neutering effect” (Bell 2006: 9), where national criminal pasts remain just the simple consequence of the previous sufferings of the nation.

We have been witnessing this competition for victimhood for quite some time. Just recently Hashim Tachi, current Kosovo Minister of Foreign Affairs, proclaimed that he will be suing Serbia for genocide in Kosovo. The Palestinians often make claims that Israel committed genocide in the Gaza strip; Armenians for the genocide in 1915; Roma for WWII; Tamils against the Sri Lankan government in 2009. The list is too long. But once we start making hierarchies of genocides, we empty “genocide” of meaning, leaving no room for empathy. No room for human rights. Just new wars over definitions embedded across ethnic lines. And instead of becoming an example of the ultimate moral decadence, genocide becomes a tool for claiming, in the name of victims, certain concrete and symbolic benefits. It fuels, promotes and reestablishes the hard-core nationalist ideologies embedded in the ethos of the interconnectedness of group members, rather than the universal notion of human suffering across the globe.

In the end, we have to ask some hard questions. It is predictable that perpetrators rarely seek to claim the responsibility for their past misconduct (Gordy 2013) – but what about the victims? Have the Bosniaks, or for that matter any other victims, by gaining the status of victim, became more appreciative of   human rights? Can we claim that their value-systems have changed? Have the Jews internalized the human rights values profoundly because they went through the hell of the Holocaust?

I am afraid that it is not the case.




Risse and Sikkink (1999), in their very valuable comparative study, developed an explanatory model arguing that the first stage to the full adoption of the human rights regime consists of the “processes of instrumental adaptation and strategic bargaining” in which political elite accepts the human rights regime only nominally. They are firm believers that the policy of “fake it, fake it until you make it” brings a change in the norms of behaviours in the end. Although there is not much supporting evidence to back up this claim, even if the norms were to be adopted to their fullest, unfortunately it does not generate or promise an adoption of human rights values. The insistence on a forced adoption of human rights norms does, however, significantly strengthen ethnic nationalism and intolerance.


[1] The first was in 2005 and the second in 2009.

[2] Those phrases were often repeated during my field work with war veterans in Belgrade between 2009-2012.

[3] Orwell George (1946 [1974]) “Politics and the English Language” in Inside the World and Other Essays. Harmondsworth:Penguin



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Borer AT (2003) “A Taxonomy of Victims and Perpetrators: Human Right and Reconciliation in South Africa.” Human Rights Quarterly 25(4): 1088-1116.

Goodale M (2006) “Toward a Critical Anthropology of Human Rights.” Current Anthropology 47(3): 485-511.

Gordy E (2013) Guilt, Responsibility and Denial: The Past at Stake in Post-Milošević Serbia. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia.

Hafner‐Burton EM and Tsutsui K (2005) “Human Rights in a Globalizing World: The Paradox of Empty Promises.” American Journal of Sociology 110(5): 1373-1411.

Hayden MR (1996) “Schindler’s Fate: Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing, and Population Transfers.” Slavic Review 55 (4): 727-748.

Herman E and Peterson D (2010) The Politics of Genocide. Monthly Review Press: New York.

Horvat S and Štiks I (2012) “Welcome to the Desert of Transition! Post-Socialism, the European Union, and a New Left in the Balkans.” Monthly Review – An Independent Socialist Magazine 63(10) e-journal.

Malešević S (1999) “Globalism and nationalism : Which one is bad?” Development in Practice 9(5): 579-583.

Olick J (2007) The Politics of Regret: On Collective Memory and Historical Responsibility. New York: Routledge

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Toth M (2015) “The Myth of the Politics of Regret.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 43(2): 551–566

Žižek S (2005) “Against Human Rights.” New Left Review 34: 115-131.


Author is a teaching fellow in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Haifa. She received Fulbright scholarship for post-doctoral study for 2015-16.


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