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Of ‘human rightism’ and the liberal use of words

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One really can’t help but be envious of the ability to summon a monster out of a term so convoluted in its meanings, writes Nicholas Chan.


For the die-hard fans of our Prime Minister, they should be glad that the man made headlines again by saying that “human rightism” is a threat to Islam, using a term so unheard of that a Google search would only come back with results automatically adjusted to another search term “human rights”.

But, scarce as its use may be, to the defence of the Prime Minister, human rightism is a legit term in the scholastic sense, with scholastic origins too! The term was first used, at least in published form, by Professor Alain Pellet, a professor of international law in a 1989 symposium. He first used the word to describe the state of mind of human rights activists.

Although neutral in tone at its debut, the term later caught up its pejorative connotation as it implies a form of absolutism in the legal scholarship. The phenomenon that “human rights protection” is to be made an autonomous, self-sufficient and independent discipline that is separated from international law.

Placing the term in its accurate “formation” context makes one wonder, why pick a fight with a term that is rarely in use, vague in definition, jurisprudence in nature and most importantly, not in any way related to the normative clash of conservative Islamism of the Muslim world and for the lack of a better term, neo-liberal and consumerist Western values.

It would appear that human rightism was made into a demon of itself, being labelled as a school of thought “where the core beliefs are based on humanism and secularism as well as liberalism”, obviously a conjecture without proper references to the word’s origin. 

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In Professor Pellet’s view, human rightism might very well be a threat to international law (which is arguably a Western creation, and anti-Islamic in the eyes of the hardliners). He lectured that human rightism has two lapses of judgements.

One is that it wrongly promotes certain legal techniques as being specifically belonging to human rights, “amounting to unjustifiable claims for special treatment” for human rights in general international law. It is also articulated that human rightism may cause emerging trends in human rights or trends that “solely exist in the form of aspirations” to be wrongly assumed as legal facts.

Trends are of course, not necessarily norms or statues or encoded doctrines, hence such assumptions are themselves prejudicial in nature. Nowhere was it stated or implied that human rightism is in any way, explicitly secular or liberal, other than that it conforms normatively to generally held human rights virtues and beliefs.

By now, a rocket scientist is not needed to see that I am struggling with the term human rightism, on the level of understanding as well as the communication of its concept. This is not surprising as I am not a law graduate, nor am I exposed amply to the profession (hence I stand corrected for any of today’s content).

One really can’t help but be envious of the ability to summon a monster wantonly out of a term so convoluted (at least to me) in its meanings and irrelevant in its application to the matter of discussion.

What more when it involves a fission of the heavily popular term of human rights? It’s like saying I am anti-human rights but I am not anti-human rights. Get it? No? Perhaps this is what Khairy Jamaluddin meant about words being used liberally1.

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p.s. As if one is not confused enough by this article, one must also not confuse anti-human rightism with anti-human rights.

You might want to check out the following books on the subject:

  • Francioni, F. (2010). International human rights in an environmental horizon.European Journal of International Law, 21(1), 41-55.
  • Pellet, A. (2000). ” Human rightism” and international law. Italian Yearbook of International Law, 3-16.
  • Pronto, A. N. (2007). Human-Rightism’and the Development of General International Law. Leiden Journal of International Law, 20(4), 753.
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