1 3/3 where / the rift is, the break is
Like Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, the darkness in which international human rights law is proved is a persistent and disturbing presence, Ghosts linger, Ghosts walk-again. These are not disembodied or indeed embodied souls whose loneliness cannot be rocked, or whose consciousness will not rest, claiming Justice, urging vigilance.These are the source of this roaming. The bearers of the fabula (where / the rift is, the break is) fleshed and fleshed out that gives this law's proving darkness continued life. More Demons than Ghosts they draw their spectral presence from what Fyodor Dostoevsky might call dead and lifeless ‘ideas that eat us’ . Or as Henrik Ibsen’s Mrs Alving laments:
But I almost think we are all of us ghosts, Pastor Manders. It is not only what we have inherited from our father and mother that ‘walks’ in us. It is all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we cannot shake them off. Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines. There must be ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sands of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light.
‘We can’t see them’, as Mrs Alving intimates and Ursula Le Guin’s Shevek explains:
Sometimes their presence is vestigial, the surviving traces of past injustices, subtly attenuating our quivering ‘electric’ presence before the law. Other times their presence is super-powered, past injustices walking-again, brutally denying the phenomenal: our claim to belong to humanity.
the continuing threats
So in this century, as Hannah Arendt foretold in the last, the threat ‘of not belonging to the world at all’ or of not being fully claimed persists.
the barefaced threat
Even now, as our multiple screens lay bare, the intention to inflict harm can be barefaced: 'If you hate me so much / don’t bother to give me / a name’. Supported by the suggestion of relative worth, nothing is conceded. Standing or status as persons is denied. As a legal act or actual fact. Sometimes, as Rohingya people know, a line is drawn through our names.‘I do not exist for you, you have drawn / a line through my name.’ Other times, as Uyghur people know, a line is drawn under our names.
She had us sign a registry. In addition to our fingerprints, she now said that they would also be taking blood samples, voice samples, and facial images. My wife looked at me anxiously.
Either way, domestic law offers no protection. And individual human beings, as Justice Cançado Trinidade reasons again and again as a member of the International Court, are left ‘defenceless’, wide open to being used as a means and discarded as things (1/3). And the only hope is elemental; that the earth that holds us may tell the world.
the attenuated threat
Mostly the threat is barely perceptible. ‘Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for’, as Toni Morrison limns in Beloved, ‘but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather.’ Supported by recognition of our intrinsic worth, our standing or status as persons is conceded as a legal act and equality pronounced. Everyone is presumed to be equal before the law and protected as equal under the law.So past injustices (those false distinctions reasoned as just and sublimated as acts of charity or common good) are abjured and abrogated, and seemingly divested of their effective power and affective power (2/3). But only seemingly.
Because even in presumptive liberal democracies ‘dead’ and ‘lifeless’ ideas cling ‘as thick as the sands of the sea’. Official strictures on whom is fully claimed as belonging and the exercise of our irradiating volition persist and even walk-again. And invariably domestic law’s rack of implementing rules, policies, procedures and practices are inveigled with Ghosts. Like Mrs Alving’s, they seem to pass through everything that breathes, disturbing how we feel, think and act, so our minds and bodies become like Seamus Heaney’s Bog Queen ‘braille / for the creeping influences’.
What happens for example in the liminal space between us and the one, who is not us, who is the other? Known or unknown? Do we as William Blake entreats open up to the ‘infinite’? Do we lean in with awe and reverence? Or do we back away into our ‘cavern’ — quailed or overruled by elsewhere thoughts? How free are our feelings and thoughts? How much are they filtered by the vaulting world? What arcs our assessment of worth? Is it intrinsic worth? ’Gift of self’? Or relative worth choreographed, planned and controlled by the world’s decreed or accepted ways of thinking, being, acting and living? Now imagine you are an immigration official, a law enforcement officer, a psychiatrist, a judge or a member of a selection panel.
Because these Ghosts, the Ghosts that linger and the Ghosts that walk-again, carry with them the suggestion of relative worth, they leave those they burden, so many of us, wide open to being used and discarded as things.
What arrests our attention as Louise Glück suggests is what's in this story: the violent fallout. The woman who ‘hand cups bloodied sand bits scalp ooze / to the camera' and says 'this is my family'.Or those women everywhere ‘complicated / bitches’ who ‘get beat’ sexualised and killed ‘daily’. And those men and boys shot, gasping for breath or slashed on our world’s northern and southern city-streets. Like those disembodied souls who cannot rest, what creates this story is felt more than seen. Who sees those razed of official recognition cast out on humanity’s wastelands? Or those whose standing or status is attenuated by Demons or Ghosts? And the bare and tense line between this and vulnerability to rights deprivation, in extremity rightlessness and always violence’s implements, humiliating and degrading treatment, coercive control and sexual and physical force?
What happens then — if living in a body the system does not see as, yes, fully human — we weigh in and claim justice? Will we receive procedural justice? Will we be regarded as a person with intrinsic worth? Or like Seamus Heaney’s ‘little adulteress’ will our standing or status be denied or attenuated for being the ‘wrong' colour, a ‘bad’ woman, a ‘deviant’ or ‘aberrant’ being or an ‘indolent’ creature (‘begging for change and only getting coins’)?
her shaved head / like a stubble of black corn, / her blindfold a soiled bandage, / her noose a ring
Who then will risk breaking the silence? ’If what was not said was never seen / if what was never seen could not be known’, how can it be set right and remedied or even transformed?
in closing 1 where / the rift is, the break is
So shake out international human rights law and beat out its meaning and its words become filaments of scar-tissue covering wounds that need not have been and haven’t quite healed (1/3). Bringing up an inventory of suffered injustice and its provenance in the earth’s 'deep violence’. Not just the haunting threshold of Eavan Boland’s love poem (‘their death together of cold, of hunger’) but the darkness in which it was proved (‘the toxins of a whole history’) (2/3). Not just the persistent darkness we barely see, the Ghosts that linger and the Ghosts that walk-again (3/3), but ‘the very opposite’.
— I’m talking about injustice, says Bloom.
—But it's no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That's not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it's the very opposite of that that is really life.
—What? says Alf.
—Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred.
And not a burlesque of 'Universal love’ as suggested by James Joyce’s one-eyed citizen, but more ‘a quivering which opens doors and wings’ claimed and shaped into Universal rights again and again and again. Before turning to this our claim to have rights (4), I step back into the shadows to look more deeply at its beginnings in international law (3) and the source of some of our 21st-century Ghosts (2).
Thank you for reading starring the dark. Join the journey and weigh in.
T Morrison Beloved (1987) 275 [‘There is a loneliness that can be rocked…Then there is a loneliness that roams. No rocking will hold it down.’]; H Arendt The Origins of Totalitarianism (1968) 474-479, 475 [‘totalitarian domination…bases itself on loneliness’.]
H Ibsen Gengangere or Ghosts (1881) [In Norwegian: walk again]; F Dostoevsky Demons (1872) [’it was not you who ate the idea, but the idea that ate you’]
Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar 17 September 2018 UN Doc A/HRC/39/CRP.2 para 491 [‘The Rohingya have gradually been denied birth registration, citizenship and membership of the political community. This lack of legal status and identity is the cornerstone of the oppressive system targeting the Rohingya. It is the consequence of the discriminatory and arbitrary use of laws to target an ethnic group and deprive its members of the legal status they once possessed.’]
L Glück ‘Witchgrass’ and ‘Vespers’ [‘Your voice is gone now; I hardly hear you’] The Wild Iris (1992)
T Tahir Hamut Izgil ‘One by One, My Friends Were Sent to the Camps’ The Atlantic 14 July 2021 cf Office of High Commission for Human Rights Assessment of Human Rights Concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China 31 August 2022
Universal Declaration of Human Rights Art 7; International Covenant on Civil and Political and Rights Art 26
W Blake ‘A Memorable Fancy’ Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790) [‘If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. / For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.’] B Pasternak [‘Fame’s not a pretty sight’] M Harari trans Poems 1955-1959 [’Success is not your aim, Nor noise, but gift of self.’]
I Kant tr T Kingsmill Abbott Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) [‘But a man is not a thing, that is to say, something which can be used merely as means, but must in all his actions be always considered as an end in himself…In the kingdom of ends everything has either value or dignity. Whatever has a value can be replaced by something else which is equivalent; whatever, on the other hand, is above all value, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity…that which constitutes the condition under which alone anything can be an end in itself, this has not merely a relative worth, i.e., value but an intrinsic worth, that is, dignity.’]
S Hammad ‘break’ and ‘break (clustered)’ Breaking Poems (2008) [‘a woman’s hand cups bloodied sand bits scalp ooze / to the camera this is my family’] and [‘we mourn women complicated / bitches get beat daily’]
C McLaughlin and S Wills As Long As I Am Alive Resistance to Police Violence in Rio A Participatory Documentary Film (2022) [On the Ghosts that linger and the Ghosts that walk-again in law and police practice in Rio. ‘In 2021, the Brazilian police killed an average of 17 people per day, the majority of whom were Black. This is one of the highest rates of police killings in the world.’ Tendayi Achiume, UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism (2017-2022), describes its effects on individual human beings as ‘totalising’; and Tlaleng Mofokeng, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, notes the broader prevalence of ‘slavery-era forms of policing’. ]
S Heaney ‘Punishment’ North (1975)
E Boland ‘The Art of Empire’ New Selected Poems (2013)