Posted on 25 April 2024 in human rights, neoliberalism, political economy

Struggles for the Human

ISRF Fellow Lara Montesinos Coleman’s new book draws on the experiences of grassroots organisations in Colombia to expose neoliberalism’s damaging privatisation of human rights.

Matt Warren

Image by War on Want

This article was written by a team member of Universal Impact.

It’s widely understood that neoliberalism supports the privatisation of resources, infrastructure and services. But in her new book, Struggles for the Human, Lara Montesinos Coleman argues that it’s also driving a devastating privatisation of human rights.

An ISRF Fellow, and Director of the Centre for Global Political Economy at the University of Sussex, Coleman spent years in Colombia, working with grassroots organisations. And the country – and critically, its people and their struggles – are at the very heart of her book.

In fact, many of the ideas within Coleman’s book developed out of conversations – often on long car journeys through the mountains or “drinking in the presence of a voice recorder” – with members of a network of peasant, trade union and indigenous organisations who are struggling against corporate and state injustice and imagining new ways of defining what it is to be human.

Neoliberalism swept across Colombia relatively late in global terms. But Coleman notes that the country’s 1990s “economic opening” resulted in an uptick in state- and corporate-sponsored violence. Thousands of activists and trade unionists have been disappeared, tortured and murdered, natural resources plundered, and workers and communities exploited and displaced. It is, writes Coleman, “necro-economics” – “The constant extraction of life from those without capital, ‘the vampire thirst for the living blood of labour’.”

Crucially, however, these injustices don’t take place in the absence of human rights or the rule of law. Instead, argues Coleman, the law is actually “designed to facilitate plunder”, prioritising private property and investment over people, communities and the environment. And this is often justified and rationalised in the name of “development” and economic progress.

“In this context,” she writes, “a series of interventions for ‘corporate social responsibility’ and ‘decent work’ have made human rights entirely contingent on the profitmaking activities of multinational corporations. ‘The market’ – rather than law or citizenship – defines the very subjects of rights, assigning people a value and fixing them in place.”

She argues that those who resist the “progress” espoused by neoliberalism are deemed “subversive” or “irrational” within this moral framework – which in turn becomes a justification for the violence against them.

“Capitalism kills as a matter of routine,” she writes, “especially if you are situated on the wrong side of the colour line or if you are undocumented, a noncitizen, or not quite a citizen; especially if you are female; especially if you are sick or disabled and thus unable to work to sustain your existence.”

Much of this is a legacy of colonialism, says Coleman, which divided a minority which enjoyed full legal recognition and protection from a majority that didn’t. But the consequences aren’t just playing out in the Global South. “Colonial-style relations of extraction and appropriation have now boomeranged back into the former heartlands of empire,” she writes.

Around the world, she says, dispute mechanisms enable companies to sue governments if they try to use human rights arguments against corporate interests; corporations play a role in writing laws; international aid is conditional on legal reform; cases against corporations that harm communities or the environment are desperately difficult to prove and fund. The list is long.

And then there’s access to the law – which is starkly unequal. The reality is that the law – and rights – don’t work in the same way for all.

So what can be done?

Coleman is reluctant to prescribe universal solutions – and is clear that we shouldn’t fall into the trap of deciding “for” or “against” human rights. Instead, “it’s about thinking about how human rights are actually being used, and what they are doing”.

But she also argues that we need to completely rethink the legal architecture of capitalism if we are going to transform capitalism itself.

“I don’t think just holding corporations to account and so on is actually going to do very much,” she says. “There’s been some small tightening up of obligations on corporations and these things are valuable. But ultimately the whole legal framework needs to be changed.

“But human rights are still important for creating space and protection for people, like those in Colombia, to organise for alternatives and continue their struggles.

“A major emphasis of my book, based on my own involvement in alternative justice mechanisms such as the Permanent People’s Tribunal, is that human rights are also used as tools of ‘rupture’, to expose forms of harm and relations of responsibility that are concealed by dominant interpretations of international law. Via innovative use of law on genocide, for example, rulings have denounced the entire neoliberal economic model as genocidal. Human rights can be used in ways that question the very foundations of the legal order that underwrites plunder and exploitation.”

But is there cause for hope?

“I talk in the book about this idea of ‘pernicious optimism’,” says Coleman. “This is very prevalent, I think, amongst a lot of NGOs and campaigners. There’s an attachment to this fantasy that this ethical intervention is going to make a change and be a positive thing, but it rests on denying the violence of the system itself.

“But what the struggles of movements in Colombia reveal is a hope at least that there’s the possibility of a way through,” says Coleman. “Hope doesn’t involve the expectation that things are going to turn out well. It’s just the commitment to the barest possibility that it could do so, if you keep fighting.

“It’s not just wishful thinking… It’s a commitment to trying to make things happen that way.”

As the poet and essayist Álvaro Marín (1958-2021), whose memory the book is dedicated to, wrote: “We sing so that the light may be.”

Struggles for the Human: Violent Legality and the Politics of Rights by Lara Montesinos Coleman is published by Duke University Press.