Border Studies Keynote Offers New Approaches to Human Rights

By Loren Michael Mortimer - On February 5, 2016, the Mellon Initiative in Comparative Border Studies at UC Davis held its 2015-16 keynote conference. Entitled "Human Rights, Citizenship, and Racialized Belonging," the event featured presentations from, and an informal dialogue with, two eminent scholars—Walter Mignolo and Engin Isin.

According to a recent United Nations report, more than 60 million people—one out of every 122—is now either internally displaced, seeking asylum, or a refugee. At a time when the making, unmaking, crossing, and fortification of borders loom large in global political debates, the issues at the heart of the Comparative Border Studies initiative are perhaps more pressing than ever. Friday’s conference provided a public forum in which some of those issues could be explored.

Building solidarities

Engin Isin, a professor of politics at the Open University, is an expert on the struggles of citizenship. His lecture, Doing Global Justice: How Activists Perform Rights Across Borders, explored the idea of citizenship without frontiers. Social and political movements such as Idle No More and Zapatista—both of which campaign for indigenous self-determination—have, he said, been transgressing boundaries since the 1990s.

These movements reject the idea that human rights derive from centralized authorities such as national governments or western NGOs. Too often, these state-sponsored human rights agencies have reinforced racial hierarchies and exploitive economic regimes, bolstering rather than dismantling colonial boundaries. Isin advocated for a “politics of humanitarianism” that works within the framework of human rights. “There are human rights norms and laws,” he said, “and these laws are distributed and diffused from the center to the peripheries." 

Illustrating the potential to build transnational solidarities across racial and political barriers, he cited examples in which “communities of the governed” found common purpose by framing their identity in terms of global citizenship. According to Isin, human rights theorists and scholars must articulate an alternative model of global human rights—one that enables people to mobilize “creative, autonomous, and inventive ways” across borders, in non-institutional terms.

Decolonializing human rights

In his lecture, What Does It Mean to Be Human in Western Civilization: A Decolonial Take, Walter Mignolo (a professor of literature at Duke University) called for a new epistemological foundation for global human rights—one grounded in the conceptual structure of “decoloniality.” Establishing this structure requires a move to “change the terms” of human rights discussions.

Since World War II, Europe and the United States have imposed a framework of human rights on the developing world that benefits economic and political elites. Like Isin, Mignolo cited examples of human rights interventions reinforcing racial and economic hierarchies. Governments that tout human rights often aid and abet regimes under which rights are violated constantly—“violated in a new way, without any sort of precedence or scale.”

Mignolo argued that inalienable human rights are neither a magnanimous gift from, nor the responsibility of, the world’s strongest states.  Rather, he cited indigenous self-determination movements—organized locally and collectively—that offer alternative paradigms for human rights theory.

Mignolo explained that the theory of human rights based on decoloniality originates in “the energy and creativity of the people who began to organize themselves.” Seeking a global paradigm shift, Mignolo advocated for “a multiplication of organizations of people who realize that the states, corporations, religions will not give you help.” Ultimately, he concluded, “we must rely on ourselves.”

Learn more at the Comparative Border Studies website, or read a feature about the initiative in the ISS Journal.