By Hilary Charlesworth,
Centre for International Governance and Justice, ANU
The Australian Human Rights Teachers’ Workshop, now in its sixth year, has become an important gathering for academics working in the field. It was the brainchild of Professor John Tobin (Melbourne Law School) and has been co-organised each year by MLS, CIGJ and UNSW. This year’s workshop at UNSW Law School on 17 February attracted over 100 university teachers from all around Australia and New Zealand. It covered a range of topics, from higher degree research in human rights from the perspective of students (including former CIGJ visiting PhD student Rosemary Grey) and supervisors, to clinical teaching in human rights. Sarah Holcombe (ANU) gave a fascinating account of the project of translating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into the central-Australian language of Pintupi-Luritja.
The opening session of the Workshop was particularly engaging. It dealt with Stephen Hopgood’s recent book, The Endtimes of Human Rights, and how such a thoroughgoing critique of human rights might be used in the classroom. An interesting review of the book and interview with Hopgood by the LSE’s Conor Gearty is here.
Panellists for this session were Ben Golder (UNSW), Dany Celermejer (Sydney) and Sarah Joseph (Monash) and the nimble chair was Andrew Byrnes (UNSW). Ben Golder gave an overview of the book’s contents including its central distinction between human rights (as a language of resistance) and Human Rights (the human rights system or industry). Ben then considered how one can best teach from a text that one doesn’t admire. He discussed the book’s datedness (its focus on authoritarian humanism that is often dispensed with in reality), reductiveness (its clear view of good and bad practices) and polemical style. Ben recommended a recent article by Duke University sociologist Kieran Healy which bucks the academic attachment to nuance and context and praises the virtues of reductiveness in scholarship: ‘Fuck Nuance’.
Dany Celermejer was equally sceptical of what she termed Hopgood’s ‘generic critique’ of human rights and invited the workshop to consider what we are doing when teaching the subject of human rights. Possibilities include training human rights advocates (human rights as a special craft), and developing critical thinking to toughen human rights language. Dany pointed out that a hermeneutics of suspicion is privileged in the academy and that use of critique elevates the author. This goes some way to explaining the plethora of works not dissimilar to Hopgood’s in the human rights field – for example, Costas Douzinas’ The End of Human Rights and David Kennedy’s The Dark Sides of Virtue. Dany called for investigation of what is going on in the critical enterprise, and for consideration of its politics.
Sarah Joseph in turn noted the pressures on designing human rights courses and the amount of material to get through. She observed that Hopgood is rather obsessed with the question of enforcement of human rights standards. She challenged this as a useful focus for human rights pedogogy. Sarah also raised the complex issue of the overlap between the Hopgood style of critique and the views of states and groups opposed to human rights standards.
All these questions deserve fuller discussion, but the Workshop usefully allowed a lively and illuminating airing of the issues.