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The Human Right to Dominate: A STATUS/الوضع Conversation with Nicola Perugini

In this interview for STATUS/الوضع, host Noura Erakat interviews Nicola Perugini about his newly co-authored book The Human Right to Dominate

Nicola Perugini is Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Brown University. He has been assistant Professor at and Director of the Human Rights Program at the Al Quds Bard College (Jerusalem, Palestine), and taught at the Department of International Relations of the American University of Rome. He is the author (with Neve Gordon) of The Human Right to Dominate (Oxford University Press, 2015). He has published articles on embedded anthropology, asylum seekers, humanitarianism, politics of the gaze, law and spatial practices, human shields and the history of violence, settler colonialism and trauma. Perugini collaborates with DAAR (Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency, Beit Sahour, Palestine) and has collaborated with the research project "Forensic Architecture" (Goldsmiths, University of London, project funded by the European Research Council). From 2010 to 2012 he has worked as a consultant for UNESCO in Palestine and he is the co-recipient of the 2011 Meila Mercouri International Prize the Safeguarding and Management of Cultural Landscapes. 

The interview is divided into three parts which you can click on separately. Please find a transcript of the interview below the player. 



Interview Transcript

Transcribed by Nisreen Zaqout

Noura Erakat (NE): Hello, and welcome to Status Hour. I’m Noura Erakat and today on the program I have with me Nicola Perugini who will be discussing his new co-authored book with Neve Gordon, The Human Right to Dominate. Nicola is a Mellon post-doctoral fellow at Brown University. He has been the assistant professor and the director of the Human Rights program at Al-Quds University-Bard College in Jerusalem, Palestine. He has taught at the department of International Relations of the American University of Rome. And as I mentioned, he is here to discuss his newly co-authored book The Human Right to Dominate published by Oxford University Press. Welcome to the program Nicola. 

Nicola Perugini (NP): Hi Noura, thanks for having me.

NE: So, I read an earlier draft, or an advanced draft of the book. As I read it, it was one of those moments where I thought, “Wow, I really did wish that I was able to write this or I had written it.” Because all of the ideas and critique on human rights are things that have been percolating, you know, in my own head in thinking about human rights advocacy, and its limitations and what it does and what it does not do. So, congratulations on a fantastic manuscript. 

NP: Thanks Noura.

NE: One of the things that you do is pivot away from what I think is a standard critique of human rights as a derivative of colonial order. It enshrines the rights of states and disenfranchises the rights of weak states as well as individuals in order to maintain a particular status quo. And I think that we have heard that a lot. What you do in this book is you take this a step further and say it is not just about the status quo that human rights enshrines. But rather it is in and of itself so devoid of meaning that it becomes a very political tool that can be used in every direction without a particular meaning, without any kind of content which is reliable, and something that we could use without considerable risk. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

NP: Sure. Basically, we do not disagree with the idea that the genealogy of human rights is inscribed within dynamics of power. And the way which human rights were produced, and designed historically is surely connected to relationships of power. We were unsatisfied with these linear narratives in which there is a presumption and an assumption that there is something such as an original. And this idea of the original was particularly problematic for us, this idea of the fact that there are founding moments and definitions of human rights. We wanted to [inaudible audio] a bit more the ambivalence of human rights both legally and discursively. So, what we tried to do, especially when we analyzed practices in the book, is to try to see what happens when there is what we call a translation [inaudible audio] into practice. What happens when a political actor sees something which is there, which is defined and seems to be extremely clear, and takes it and assume the shape of something like a practice in the concrete context of a signatory of power and domination? What was striking for us was something recent, which is this recent appropriation—what we call appropriation of human rights by conservative actors in mainstream political analysis and theory. What you have is a clear dichotomy between conservatives against human rights and progressives for human rights. I think there was a problem with that narrative and we tried to see what happened in the last two decades, especially when conservative political actors and reactionary, or even fascist, political actors started to appropriate the language of human rights. We were interested in seeing how this original was vernacularized, as we say, in specific contexts. What was striking for us was what was going on in Europe, where extreme right wing politics are appropriating the human rights language, and mobilizing the human rights discourse, to advance Islamophobic agendas. Or, in Russia where human rights and the protection of families are mobilized to advance homophobic agendas. And of course, Israel and Palestine where some sections of the settler movement are constituting themselves into human rights organizations and mobilizing human rights in order to legitimize disposition. Whether this mobilization is effective or not, this is something we as scholars need to analyze place-by-place and situation-by-situation. To go back to your initial question, our idea was to focus on something which [inaudible audio] called translation of a possibility, a constant transformation of something which is presumed and assumed to be original but at the end it is not.

NE: Let me push back a little bit on this, not because I disagree with you, but there is something that you mention in the text where you actually challenge the notion that conservatives—and maybe I’m reading this incorrectly—are appropriating anything. Actually, you say the fact that liberal institutions put on as if they own, so-to-speak, human rights, or that the original intent of human rights is more proximate to their mission is incorrect, and in fact whether they are illiberal or liberal institution they reinforce domination rather than destabilize it. How does that work in the way that you are thinking about it? Because it is really intriguing to think that it is not just to be used by liberals, it could be used by illiberals in the way that it is laid out. And in fact when liberals or radicals, or whomever, use human rights there might be this risk of reinforcing these problematic norms. 

NP: This is a fascinating question. There is something we call convergence; I think it is under our eyes; this convergence between conservatives and liberals on particular issues, certain topics of particular issues, and certain interpretations of particular situations of domination. I think that what is going on is also something similar, on one hand there is convergence and on the other hand there is something else. And this is what we focus on especially in the conclusion. I think there is a liberal mistake, and the liberal mistake consists of abandoning certain kinds of potentialities of the organization of human rights and human rights discourse and it is something similar—and this is a weird comparison— similar to Winton, Italy with fascism, in which fascism advanced because there was a withdrawal by progressive and non-fascist forces from certain kinds of spaces. So, I think that there is a side of the story that is also a passive appropriation by conservatives of human rights’ language. A passive appropriation by which I mean an appropriation that happens through withdrawal by other forces. I think we have to understand the human rights field as a force field. Meaning that, a field of forces in which there is almost a military-station dynamic going on, in which convergence is relevant and problematic. It is not simply about abandoning certain kind of spaces, it is also about, and this is for instance where we attack Amnesty International in the book or other liberal human rights’ organizations, there is a problem of erasing certain kind of traditions of human rights mobilization and human rights education.

NE: So, can you talk a little bit about that? Because I just want flesh out the provocative statement that you and Neve are pointing out, which is that liberals re-enshrine power and the imbalance of power when they use human rights as well. And it is not just these illiberal forces like the Russian state and its homophobic agenda, but that even liberals with the best of intentions are reinforcing power imbalances. So, maybe you can tell us about those examples?

NP: Yeah. There are a couple of examples that we give: the opening example of Amnesty International and the campaign against the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan in order to protect women’s rights. That was the result of a really clear manifestation of the liberal conversions on imperial agendas. And then there was a constellation of events and facts in which liberal human rights’ NGOs are not putting into discussion the basic foundations of violence and domination in the context that they intervene. We mentioned an instance in Human Rights Watch’s drone record, where the question is not about questioning the use of drones, but it is about using drones proportionally. And then maybe somebody from Human Rights Watch would tell you, that this is not our mandate and this is not what we do. But then the question remains: why don’t you do that? Why do you limit the sphere of human rights advocacy and organization in such a way that you are unable to question the roots of the problems?

NE: Absolutely. So, do you feel that these organizations, for example, purposefully put themselves in these binds? Or is there a possibility they could in fact do both: highlight the disproportionate nature of the use of drones while simultaneously condemn their use all together?

NP: Well, I think there are many factors that produce this kind of problematic position and this way of acting by human rights organizations. I think that there is a chance, of course, to condemn the two, the way in which war is waged, and at the same time to condemn the asymmetric conditions in which war is waged and the reason behind these wars. I do not see the two realms as separate, I mean you cannot embrace international human rights law in order to condemn disproportionate destruction, but then you have to do something else with it. That could be an immediate intervention in the field, but that cannot be your positioning. That could be a way of intervening tactically into a situation, but then when it becomes your whole strategy, that becomes problematic. There are episodes, instances, and situations in which human rights organizations intervene effectively and produce documentation about the problems related to the [inaudible audio]. But then the door remains open for something more that could be the beginning of something. I do not understand why they stop there. And when the debate becomes heated they withdraw. So, that is the problem. Think about the Goldstone Report and what happened with Gaza. I mean, the war and the attacks, there is extremely detailed documentation produced about war crimes. And then the actors basically abandoned the field and did not push the critique where it needed to be pushed.

NE: So, what I am hearing is this very meticulous nuance that distinguished the human rights regime from the human rights themselves. The regime includes the institutions, the norms and the state expectations, and the reproduction of human rights as a regime. Whereas the laws themselves enshrine the principles that one can still use tactically, as you say. 

NP: Yes.

NE: So, just moving on and since you mentioned the Goldstone report, let us pivot to Palestine because the book The Human Right to Dominate does this theoretical work to provoke our thinking about the human rights regime and the framework and its current manifestation, but with a specific focus on Palestine and Israel. To pivot to that, you start by describing the beginning of this. This is not something recent with the settler movement in vacation that they have human rights too as settlers not to be removed from Gaza, for example. But this begins even in the lead up to the establishment of Israel, which you describe as Gordian knot in the post WWII human rights order, where you have three elements of human rights, the rise of the nation state, and the element of domination coming together that reinforced that establishment of Israel. Can you speak a little bit about that and how you see this as the beginning of what would become a legacy? 

NP: Yes. Basically, as we said at the beginning, in the book we were trying to challenge mainstream genealogies of human rights. And in the mainstream genealogies of human rights, Israel in 1914, occupies a special position. In many mainstream narratives what you have is this idea that Israel is a [inaudible audio] for human rights violations that happened in Europe. Even if you go and take documents of the UN debates around the establishment of Israel you will find members of the Zionist movement like Weizmann framing the question of the creation of Israel as a reparation for human rights violations. Now, of course, those human rights violations happened and the genocide happened. But the question is to understand what happens again when these reparations are translated into practice, what happened when human rights are vernacularized within a specific context?  And the Gordian knot is precisely that. In the same moment in which reparations were institutionalized and the same moment the state was created, those reparations where translated into a practice of human rights violations and dispositions against more than seven hundred and fifty thousand Palestinians, at least. So first of all, we were interested in all debunking this mainstream narrative that Israel occupies a special position. Israel occupies a special position, but we have to understand how and why. And second of all, we also wanted to highlight the historical continuities between human rights and settler-colonialism. So, on the one hand, genocide that happened in Europe was, in a way, the result of a broader history in which settler-colonialism occupies central space and place. Settler-colonial situations were a special place, a special laboratory for what then migrated back to Europe with the genocide. And then what happens is that settler-colonialism is not genocidal form, but settler-colonialism becomes part of the reparation in a way. Weizmann is clear, we want reparations for what happened and we want to colonize Palestine, he is explicit in the UN discussions, so explicit and so fascinating that we need to disentangle the Gordian knot.

NE: So, we are saying that maybe describes how one would say that Israel has the right to colonize so, when it says, it has the right to self-defense, it basically says it has the right to defend its colonial holdings.

NP: Yeah, it is something that is not an exception. If you think about Locke and protecting the rights’ of the settlers, you will find something very close to that. I think that this human right to dominate is not completely new. Of course, what is new is the shape and the form that it recently took. You will not have in other forms of colonialism, and settler-colonialism, settlers organizing themselves into human rights NGOs. So, the kinds of principles and ideological frameworks of the human right to dominate were already there. What was extremely fascinating in the last fifteen years in Israel and Palestine is precisely this strong and clear constitution of the settler polity into NGOs, because what is going on is a form of mimicking. As we describe in the book, the new settler-colonial organizations for human rights make the settlers act in a total mimicry of liberal NGOs. What changes our names? What changes the names of Palestinians, substituted with Israeli Jews? But then the petitions are almost the same, and the techniques are almost the same. They use the same technological tools to produce evidence of human rights violations, they use the same courts, they use the same spaces and mainstream media as they are starting to publish op-eds. I think that there is something specific to the last fifteen years in Palestine and Israel, but these is also something that is connected to a broader history of colonialism and settler-colonialism.

NE: What makes it so, maybe, interesting and unique in this case, is that it is not just the state that is deploying this language on an international scale, it is in fact the settlers—not just the settlers in the West Bank – but Israelis at large feel very entitled to a discourse of human rights vis-a-vis Palestinians that’s facilitated by a larger framework of the legitimacy of different forms of violence and what was later subsumed into the global war on terror. You have the state, but also the people themselves, who are not mimicking in irony in order to undermine Palestinian claims, but are in fact mimicking from a place of entitlement, from a place of a very, very acute victimization; unabashed victimization. And at the same time, as you described, simultaneously not only are they deploying this language, but they are also waging an attack on human rights in the form of what they call legal terrorism or law-fare. So there is this simultaneous invocation of “human rights is ours” and when you are using human rights, you are the ones that are using it cynically and poorly, and in fact they are the appropriators of this language. 

NP: Yes, definitely [inaudible audio] the legitimate definition of human rights. And it is something that is becoming extremely interesting because it is taking place in a way—I mean think about all the traditional divisions between the state and civil society and then human rights against the state—I mean, I think that all these distinctions are becoming blurred in the context in which we describe human rights appropriations. It is becoming extremely blurred because the state is funding these NGOs and these NGOs call themselves NGOs, but they are not completely NGOs. So, I think that we should get back to certain kinds of critiques of these distinctions between state and civil society. And the settler-colonial contexts are particularly fascinating contexts in which the blurring of this division could be analyzed. And then, of course, it is a dual movement: it is an appropriation and an attack.

NE: A very effective dual movement because, as we have seen very recently, in efforts by the ironically-titled Justice Minister [inaudible audio] now laws that aim to not only demonize but to prosecute and criminalize human rights advocates, if they are human rights advocates on behalf of Palestinians. In those instances they become infiltrators and they become foreign saboteurs rather than citizens. So, human rights begin to have only one particular meaning. 

NP: This is something very interesting, what is going on now, it is interesting because human rights organizations became a threat without really posing a threat in a way. It is fascinating because, at the end of the day, human rights organizations, especially in Israel, used human rights constantly within the framework of the Israeli legal system. So, the [inaudible audio] regulations are not really related to a change of strategy around these NGOs. I think what is happening now, all the information, all these kind of huge, immense archive of human rights violations that they have produced—and even the Palestinians had produced, is exceeding the space that is manageable by the state. The state is nervous because the state and the extreme [inaudible audio] proto-fascist NGOs, and some of the other organizations that were mentioned in the book, were not able to manage this volume and this amount of information that has been produced with the aim of remaining within the system. But then, contemporary human rights activism is not something new. Human rights activism is becoming more and more multi-faceted; information produced is circulating, and new campaigns are being created. Sometimes this information creates diplomatic embarrassment, sometimes scholars like us can use the information produced within that specific framework and within the boundaries of the state to criticize the state. So, I think that there is a broad international transformation going on and that is why Israel is nervous. I do not want to sound too optimistic, but I’m not.

NE: I think that you are right. I think that is predominantly why they are engaging in this type of work of appropriation and attack, but simultaneously on the international level, the state is delegitimizing human rights bases as too politicized. And so the moment they become effective, Israel then deploys, “Well, you’re picking us too much,” and that attention is not commensurate with our violations but rather is reflective of hypocrisy and desire to single Israel out. So, they are basically unwilling and unable to undermine these international systems, as they did recently when they set a precedent in 2013 by withdrawing from the Universal Periodic Review. When a state is going to withdraw all together in protest, the create this new balance of power where other states had to coerce Israel—not to coerce, I wish it was coercion—but had to bring Israel back into the fold, and Israel made certain demands that it wanted met, if it was going to return to this human rights framework. It wanted to remove permanent agenda item seven on the occupied territories in the agenda, and it wanted it to not be pointed out. Here we see the human rights regime at work, in order to maintain its integrity, the human rights regime needs to remain whole, even if it loses substance in the process. And so, I think the nervousness is right and that is where extra-legal efforts—beyond the actual legal institutions—becomes ever more effective. 

NP: I think they are nervous because it is [inaudible audio] common sense and they are aware that international common sense can be influenced extra-legally by the materials, the evidence, and the documentation, which is produced mainly for the legal sphere.

NE: So can we shift to something else now? The book is comprised of four chapters, which is very interesting, because each is very rich. We have been discussing mostly chapters one and two. I want to shift to a significant part of the book, which is on human shields--which is also the subject of a new book that you and Neve are working on and co-authoring. So, on human shields, here you demonstrate the ironies of how the human rights framework is used in order to facilitate Israel’s sovereign right to kill, or the expansion of what Israel would consider its sovereign right to kill. Can you walk us through that a little bit?

NP: Sure. Well, it is about a certain kind of use of the law. Human shields is a problematic topic not just because of the use, if we look at international law, it is problematic because of how it is framed in international law. Basically, to go back to what happened in Gaza, in the book we focus on Gaza in 2014 and how human shields and human shielding became a prominent topic of debate. Basically what happened is that the Israeli government framed almost an entire population as a human-shielding population. That was very striking for us, because there is a huge risk behind that. There is a huge risk precisely because international law lends itself to certain forms of appropriation, which risk legitimizing the wide killing of civilians. The international law prohibits the use of human shields, but once a civilian is trained as a human shield, international law does not say that that civilian who became a shield is not killable. That civilian can be killed. That is where the question becomes extremely tricky and again the struggle is a struggle in the realm of common sense because the struggle is about framing, and how you frame a context of military aggression, and how you frame the actors in the battlefield. So, what Israel did in 2014 was to produce a considerable amount of documentation and propaganda which was aimed to frame the entire civilian population of Gaza as human shields. I’m sure you remember Netanyahu going to the General Assembly with a picture of some children around a missile.

NE: I remember a lot of those images Nicola, yes. These insulting images. 

NP: Yes, it was particularly striking for us. So, I think that Gaza 2014 was a crucial moment in this international adoption of the language of human-shielding and it generated some reflections because now, people are writing about that moment and that war. There is a new US manual of war that focuses on human shields, trying to use the same arguments used by the Israeli army and the government after Gaza 2014. But then the roots of the problem are not in Gaza 2014 or the 2015 war manual of the US. The problem is in the history of the emergence of this notion of human shields. It is in how, again, international law has progressively conceived this threshold category, and by threshold category I mean a civilian who is transformed into something else, a human shield, how to define as a very peculiar legal category.

NE: So this is very interesting to me, as you know this is also research that I have been doing for my own project. And just a few comments: so in the DOD manual, one of the things that we often say is how much Israel is exporting to the world in the global war on terror. And yet, new work that Adel Haq, a law professor at Rutgers, has demonstrated is that the US DOD 2014 manual actually has, and it seeds from W. Hayes Parks and several administrations before. So, this is not something that we pick up from Israel, but rather there is a synergy between Israel and the United States that they are sharing with one another other. And the distinctions that are being made, that are very problematic as we would say and very legalistic, are trying to distinguish voluntary from involuntary human shields. So, if a person is forced to be somewhere, then they deserve protection, but if they are there voluntarily, they do not deserve protection. How does one make that distinction on the battlefield? And according to what information provided by which party? So, you know, the legal becomes absolutely devastating on this question. And then the other thing, who is the civilian? And this comes up in Israel’s 2006 High Court of Justice decision on the Public Committee against Torture in Israel vs. the Government of Israel, which is basically its targeted killing case. Here we see a shift of who is a civilian. The High Court says that there are no Palestinian combatants, which basically means there are no Palestinian soldiers. There are no soldiers who have belligerent immunity or belligerent privileges, the right to kill, or the right to be captured as a prisoner of war and to be exchanged. And at the same time, there are no combatants; they are all civilians who directly partake in hostilities. But traditionally in humanitarian law, that participation in hostilities has a temporal quality that says they are only legitimate targets for the time they take up arms. What the High Court of Justice’s decision says is that for Palestinians who are part of a “terrorist organization," the moment between when they take up arms and put them down is only rest, and it is a continuous combat function. We are discussing the synergy by the Red Cross, as to what is a direct participant. All of this is to say—I’m getting too much into the weeds of it—the short of it is that by declaring that Palestinians are neither combatants nor civilians, because they are all continuous-combatants; so it is not that they are direct participants in hostilities, but they are always participating. We get an outcome where almost any Palestinian becomes a legitimate target. This is an interesting expansion of civilians and the reduction of who has civilian immunity. If you want to comment on that, I do not know how much that overlaps with what you are doing as well. 

NP: Well, it overlaps with it a lot. On the one hand there are clearer situations in which human-shielding was adopted as a method of resistance. There are some moments in recent history like the Iraq wars and other situations where human-shielding is deliberately announced as a technique of resistance.  But then, we are interested in that, but we are more interested in talking about the fact that in human rights these categories we are dealing with—the category of civilian, the category of combatant—are constantly rearticulated and constantly re-appropriated and translated into a specific context. It really becomes a question of definitions, case-by-case and war-by-war. And it is a constant process of construction of the definition. You were right when you were pointing to the fact that it has nothing to do with Gaza 2014, and the appropriation by the US of Israeli language. This debate about the status of civilians is the crucial debate. Who is a civilian and who is not? Are we trying to see in which kinds of circumstances, certain kinds of definitions were produced, and what were the effects of the production of those definitions of certain kinds of crucial debates (like Vietnam in the seventies)? It is interesting to see how historically this tension between the civilian and the combatant was articulated, and that is where we are trying to go with the book. To try to dig into history also, in another conflicts, in colonial conflicts, in the American Civil War, how prisoners of war and certain kinds of civilians acquired a threshold position. Through which kinds of [inaudible audio] ways framing this threshold character of the human-shield. I think the issue is so foggy because we do not have a historical and genealogical prospective on that, and we should develop it. That is why we feel the urgency of developing the book. And of course, there is a lot of debate about civilians and combatants. But then, we think this character, this figure of the human shield as this threshold political and legal figure conserves and preserves the traces of something important to understand the present.

NE: Oh, absolutely. I could not agree with you more, especially when there is great research on humanitarian law, and legal historians demonstrate that the category of ‘civilian’ never included non-whites. So even in its genealogy, it has been an expansion to include non-whites into that category of civilians which overlaps with your own discussion about the expansion of who is human. This is something you touch on as well, it sounds like fascinating work. I look forward to the book and the pieces of the book that you continue to share on Jadaliyya, the London Review of BooksHuffington Post and elsewhere, where you are really disseminating this critical knowledge to a broad audience. So, thank you for that as well. 

NP: Thank you Noura.     



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