The bare knuckled fight for rights

The past year has been the bleakest of years. At least, for those of us, who believe we are stronger together. And in invoking that particular slogan, I speak more broadly than the US election.  Today many of those acts of international and regional solidarity born and crystallised by war are under threat, or seem so. Under threat by seeming disregard for their ‘founding impulse’ and the laws they constituted. Therein, I invoke, the micro aggressions unleashed by transatlantic  electoral processes, and the macro aggressions enacted in the town lands of constituent members of the UN, most luminously Syria, but not exclusively. Held there are acts of international lawlessness: violations of the laws international human rights and armed conflict, as documented by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, among others. Those acts, then, have laid bare the omnipresent forces of regression, and in doing so, exposed previously supposed certitudes about international law and its protective capacity as tenuous.

Yet the phoenix will rise, is already rising. Engagement and re-engagement with law has already begun. And this will be as Gina Miller  and Sally Yates both know to their cost, ‘a bare knuckled fight’.  And there I quote Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.  It may seem a paradoxical metaphor for High Commissioner for Human Rights. And yet it has always been so: rights have seldom been gifted; they have always been fought for. Still this is a twenty-first century fight few imagined; a battle seemingly to safeguard rather than demand more from the laws of international human rights and armed conflict.  And, if it is to prevail, the fight must be broader and deeper than ever before. It was after all, born, at least in part of a failure of those circles of solidarity, and their constituent members, to embody the precious pledges of their foremothers and forefathers, intra and inter state.

And yet as the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross has opined the protective potentiality of the law has never been stronger. The challenge then is to cascade engagement with the laws of international human rights and armed conflict: illumine their ‘founding impulses’, the myriad untold ways in which they protect, and divine new ways to conduce compliance to ensure they are responsive to the most vulnerable. And for this we need a deep wellspring of  legal and political imagination like never before. The diviner is, as always, fearless-thought expressed and deepened through broad association with others.  Admittedly, deepening and broadening engagement with international law and its domestic legal embodiment, in a world where walls have been conjured, bridges drawn up is a complex process. After all, it is through cherishing our diversity, and strengthening the circles of solidarity (within and) between peoples that our full  collective creativity is unleashed, and our individual and collective progressive potential made possible.

Ultimately to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, such engagement may be the crack where the light gets through; simply domestic embodiment of international human rights may be stronger for this darkness. Though I have faith in this, for one cohort of the people, I remain circumspect: children.  And, though we disagree on much, we almost all view this cohort as particularly vulnerable.  Selected harms frequently eclipse others, however: in particular, those associated with bodily vulnerability; violations of their rights to life, bodily integrity and security of the person. Prima facie this may seem irrefutable. Except as Hannah Arendt has powerfully argued those rights, specifically their effective protection is contingent on the fundamental right to have rights, in particular, rights that are expressive of  belonging to a political community and performative in lawmaking, determining and enforcing processes. It and children’s right for their broader rights to be performative in such processes, among others, is repeatedly understated. Or viewed another way, if there is no designated structural mechanism or representative to ensure children’s rights are seized, shaped and expressed in decision-making affecting them, they remain effectively rightsless.  And this, as a probe of peacemaking from a juristic, human rights and child rights perspective exemplifies, may have ‘stark vulnerability creating effects’.

It is, therefore, an imperative that this ‘bare knuckled fight for rights’ affirms children’s fundamental right to have rights, and divines new (and deepens existing) ways to ensure those rights — general and child-specific — are performative in decision-making affecting them.


‘All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. […]’ Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN Picture, YAK). See UDHR Book here.

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