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Exorcising the Specter of Development: Human Rights in the 21st Century

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With the commodification of rights as private privileges under neoliberal capitalism, movements in the Global South have begun to reinterpret the human rights canon. Cosmopolitan notions of human rights have spread from the Global South only to face parochial resistance from postmodern intellectuals and neoliberal power structures in the Global North. In advancing a vision of “cosmopolitanism from below” as an antidote to neoliberalism, these alliances have articulated their demands in terms of economic and social rights. In the process, they have ruptured the connection – crucial to US hegemony from the late 1940s through the early 1970s – between human rights and development. Supporting these new interpretations of human rights discourse, we argue for an explicit decoupling of human rights from previously existing development projects predicated on “catching up” through programmed industrialization. We contend that proposals for a new global system in the 21st century could be centered not on micronationalist localisms, but rather on a genuinely inclusive universalism. The concept of human rights in our times is rooted in world-historical struggles that must include the universal right to food, health, and prosperity, and social ownership of resources on the one hand and freedom from exploitation, inequality, geographical location, gender and sexual domination, racial control, structural violence, and environmental degradation on the other hand. In this sense, the concept of societies without borders is inextricably linked with a notion of human rights that in its breadth, depth, inclusivity, and universality goes far beyond the limited class-based notion of rights rooted in the advent of bourgeois civil society and inherited by the development project.

Affiliations: 1: Florida Atlantic University, Florida, USA


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