EDITOR’S NOTE: In their new book, The Human Right to Dominate, Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon trace the way human rights—generally conceived as a counter-hegemonic instrument for righting historical injustices—are being deployed to further subjugate the weak and legitimize domination. What follows is a short adaptation of the first and third chapters.
On a cool spring day in May 2012, the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) met in McCormick Place, Chicago. The 28 heads of state comprising the military alliance had come to the Windy City to discuss the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan, among other strategic matters. Nearly a decade before, in August 2003, NATO had assumed control of the International Security Assistance Force, a coalition of more than 30 countries that had sent soldiers to occupy the most troubled regions in Afghanistan. Not long before the Chicago summit, President Barack Obama had publicly declared that the United States would begin pulling out its troops from Afghanistan and that a complete withdrawal would be achieved by 2014. NATO was therefore set to decide on the details of a potential exit strategy.
A few days before the summit, placards appeared in bus stops around downtown Chicago urging NATO not to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. “NATO: Keep the progress going!” read the posters. The caption was spread over a photograph of two Afghan women wearing burkas that covered their entire body, including head and face. Walking between them is a girl who seems surprised by the voyeuristic photographer; hers is the only visible face, which looks neither frightened nor happy, but is nonetheless alert. The photograph’s subtext seems clear: The burka is this child’s future. Connecting the caption with the image, one understands that, according to the logic of the placard, NATO needs to continue its mission in Afghanistan in order to emancipate Afghan women, particularly Afghan girls.
The poster was part of a public campaign against President Obama’s declared intention of withdrawing US and NATO troops from Afghanistan. Under the banner “NATO: Keep the progress going!” there was notification about a “Shadow Summit for Afghan Women” that was to take place alongside the NATO summit. Sponsoring the event was not a Republican think tank or a defense corporation, such as Lockheed Martin, but Amnesty International, the first and one of the most renowned human-rights organizations across the globe.
Amnesty also prepared a letter that emphasized the importance of NATO’s continued intervention in Afghanistan and managed to secure the signature of former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, among others. During the shadow summit itself, participants made remarks that dovetailed nicely with the US State Department’s “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, otherwise known as “humanitarian intervention.”
The idea that the most prominent international human rights NGO was campaigning against the withdrawal of US and NATO military forces from a country halfway around the globe is something worth dwelling on. The assumption underlying Amnesty’s campaign that the deployment of violence is necessary to protect human rights suggests that violence and human rights are not necessarily antithetical. Violence protects human rights from the violence that violates human rights. Violence is not only the source of abuse but, as Amnesty’s placard clearly implies, can also be the source of women’s liberation. Yet if violence is traditionally associated with domination and human rights with emancipation, then the connection between the two seems odd. Are human rights unavoidably connected to domination, or is this campaign just an exceptional case?