One not infrequently hears talk today of the “weaponization” of rights–particularly the rights of religious freedom and free speech in the Constitution’s First Amendment. Indeed, as I discuss in this paper, that rhetoric has even made its way into some opinions in the Supreme Court’s most recent term. Whether the rhetoric of weaponry is just that, or represents something more, is a major question. Clifford Bob seems to argue in this new book for something like the latter view. The book is Rights as Weapons: Instruments of Conflict, Tools of Power (Princeton University Press).
Rights are usually viewed as defensive concepts representing mankind’s highest aspirations to protect the vulnerable and uplift the downtrodden. But since the Enlightenment, political combatants have also used rights belligerently, to batter despised communities, demolish existing institutions, and smash opposing ideas. Delving into a range of historical and contemporary conflicts from all areas of the globe, Rights as Weapons focuses on the underexamined ways in which the powerful wield rights as aggressive weapons against the weak.
Clifford Bob looks at how political forces use rights as rallying cries: naturalizing novel claims as rights inherent in humanity, absolutizing them as trumps over rival interests or community concerns, universalizing them as transcultural and transhistorical, and depoliticizing them as concepts beyond debate. He shows how powerful proponents employ rights as camouflage to cover ulterior motives, as crowbars to break rival coalitions, as blockades to suppress subordinate groups, as spears to puncture discrete policies, and as dynamite to explode whole societies. And he demonstrates how the targets of rights campaigns repulse such assaults, using their own rights-like weapons: denying the abuses they are accused of, constructing rival rights to protect themselves, portraying themselves as victims rather than violators, and repudiating authoritative decisions against them. This sophisticated framework is applied to a diverse range of examples, including nineteenth-century voting rights movements; the American civil rights movement; nationalist, populist, and religious movements in today’s Europe; and internationalized conflicts related to Palestinian self-determination, animal rights, gay rights, and transgender rights.
Comparing key episodes in the deployment of rights, Rights as Weapons opens new perspectives on an idea that is central to legal and political conflicts.