On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly in Paris passed the Universal Declaration on Human Rights as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all countries. The Declaration has since been translated into over 500 languages – and has paved the way for the adoption of more than 70 human rights treaties.

Has all this talk of human rights brought us any closer to making the world a safer place? No. Instead, human rights are used as a justification for wars. Wars are now called military or humanitarian “interventions”. In other words, human rights discourse has been weaponised.

Human rights discourse was used to justify war from Yugoslavia to Iraq and from Libya to Afghanistan. Some lawyers even speak of a “human rights-based approach to drones” and write about how wars and counter-insurgency operations can be carried out in accordance with the principles of human rights.

Weaponisation of rights

Chase Mader, the author of The Passion of Chelsea Manning, The Story Behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower (2013) has written extensively about the weaponisation of human rights.

He points out:

“Elite factions of the human-rights industry were long ago normalised within the tightly corseted spectrum of American foreign policy. Sarah Sewell, the recent head of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard, has written a slavering introduction to the new Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual: human-rights tools can help the US armed forces run better pacification campaigns in conquered territory…. the influential liberal think tank the Center for American Progress also appeals to human rights in its call for troop escalations in Afghanistan – the better to ‘engage’ the enemy.”  

This weaponisation of human rights is rooted in the history of the notion of rule of law from the beginning. If we look closely at the history of human rights law we can see that the law has always been an instrument for oppression. Writers, poets, philosophers over the ages have been warning us that the law was not a reliable tool in the fight for justice.

Human rights discourse was used to justify war from Yugoslavia to Iraq and from Libya to Afghanistan. Photo credit: Johannes Eisele / AFP

Mathematician Charles Dodgson (1832-1898), better known as Lewis Carroll, has shown the absurdity of pure and applied logic in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Jurists and judges have quoted extensively from the two books. The most popular quote is of course the conversation between Alice and Humpty Dumpty. It has been quoted by judges in the United States, Australia, Britain and beyond.

Alice Through the Looking Glass was first published in 1871 and within 14 years of its publication lawyers were quoting the famous exchange:

“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that is all.’”

Humpty gets to unilaterally determine the meaning of his words – it is the absolute power that comes with being both legislator and judge.

Humpty Dumpty and law

Liversidge versus Anderson (1941) is a landmark United Kingdom administrative law case. It concerns civil liberties and the separation of powers. The court had to decide on the legality of the Emergency powers in a 1939 regulation that permitted UK’s Home Secretary to intern people if he had “reasonable cause” to believe that they had “hostile associations”.

The judges had to decide whether the court could investigate the objective basis for the reasonable cause. In other words, could they evaluate the Home Secretary’s actions on an objective standard, comparing them to that which might be taken by a reasonable man, or were they to measure them against the personal standard of the Secretary?

The majority of the Law Lords held that the legislation should be interpreted so as to effect what Parliament intended, even if that meant adding to the words to give that effect.

The majority of the lords appear to have been greatly concerned with the fact that they were dealing with a matter of national security. In their view, it was not appropriate for a court to deal with matters of national security, especially as they were not privy to classified information that only the executive had.

However, in his dissenting speech, Lord Atkin stated his view the majority had abdicated their responsibility to investigate and control the executive and were being “more executive-minded than the executive”. Atkin protested that theirs was “a strained construction put on words with the effect of giving an uncontrolled power of imprisonment to the minister”, and went on to say:

“In England, amidst the clash of arms, the laws are not silent. They may be changed, but they speak the same language in war as in peace… I know of only one authority which might justify the suggested method of construction.”

“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less’. ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things’. ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be the master, that is all’. After all this long discussion the question is whether the words ‘If a man has’ can mean ‘If a man thinks he has’. I have an opinion that they cannot and the case should be decided accordingly.”

The potential power of this dissenting judgment was clearly recognised even before it was published. The Lord Chancellor wrote to Lord Atkin asking him to amend the proposed terms of the speech. He did not.

The idea of equality before the law, the basis of human rights discourse, is based on the idea that all individuals are equal. However, the social and political reality of the rich and poor has always been very different. Anatole France (1844-1924), a socialist and an outspoken supporter of the 1917 Russian Revolution, wrote in 1920, in his book The Red Lily, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal loaves of bread.”

In one sentence he exposed how the law is a weapon in the hands of the rich against the poor.

But perhaps even these writers would not have imagined that human rights would be used to justify wars and drone attacks in which civilians would be targeted or countries would be bombed out of existence.

Manufacturing consent

The international human rights community is deeply complicit in the weaponisation of human rights discourse. Organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been accused of taking up issues selectively to further the foreign policy agenda of the Western governments. Some foreign-funded NGOs play a role in manufacturing consent for the Western agenda.

Ajit Doval, the Indian Security Advisor, rightly pointed out, “It is the civil society that can be subverted… that can be divided, that can be manipulated to hurt the interest of a nation.” Doval was speaking at the passing out parade of the Police Academy in Hyderabad in November.


Leftists and Communists have been pointing out the dangers of such subversion by foreign-funded NGOs since the 1970s. One of the sharpest critiques of the NGOs was by James Petras when he wrote his seminal piece called “NGOs in the service of Imperialism”. He wrote:

“The NGOs are significant worldwide political and social actors operating in rural and urban sites of Asia, Latin America and Africa and frequently linked in dependent roles with their principle donors in Europe, the US and Japan. It is symptomatic of the pervasiveness of the NGOs and their economic and political power over the so-called ‘progressive world’ that there have been few systematic Left critiques of the negative impact of NGOs. In a large part, this failure is due to the success of the NGOs is displacing and destroying the organised Leftist movements and co-opting their intellectual strategists and organisational leaders.”

Indian civil society is being manipulated by various forces and this is a matter of concern. If India and Indians are to derive lessons from other countries where such manipulation has led to increasing ethnic and religious divisions, we should take heed to Ajit Doval’s warning.

The problem with Ajit Doval’s analysis is not the diagnosis but his cure.

Doval’s way to counter the manipulations of civil society is to build “a strategic culture”. The International Vivekananda Foundation and the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses have been organising a series of lectures on the topic. The strategic culture that they are building is based on the weaponisation of Hinduism as a tool to forge national unity.

Liberals have, for the most part, used the language of human rights to counter the tide of Hindu nationalism without being critical of the way human rights themselves is weaponised. On this anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we need to rethink how the vision behind the declaration can be re-imagined in consonance with the grim reality of today.

Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and author, most recently, of The Flavours of Nationalism.