Bill Maurer


Richard A. Wilson, The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Legitimizing the Post-Apartheid State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. xii, 271. £47.50 (cloth); £16.99 (paper).

Critical studies of human rights have hit an impasse. On the one hand, the relativist critique of rights is caught in the horns of the dilemmas that have trapped relativism more generally. When relativists declare that rights are not part of a particular cultural world, or that rights can do harm by commodifying relations or things that were once integral to people's lifeways, relativists re-institute cultures as the kind of definable, objectifiable entities that their critique of rights as objectifying "culture" sought to challenge. When relativists seek to discover "local" or "indigenous" conceptions of rights, or to find a least common denominator shared by all the world's cultures that will ground a new conception of rights (such as the lex talionis, or the eye-for-an-eye conception of justice), they undermine their own claims of cultural incommensurability.

On the other hand, the universalist conception of rights has got caught in the dilemmas besetting all universalisms. When universalists proclaim the applicability of rights to all humans, they institute the human as having a particular form, stripping people of all particulars and rendering the human as "bare life," thereby participating in the regime of rights that Hannah Arendt famously compared to the charters of societies for the protection of humans to animals. Humans in the universalist conception of human rights appear to be no more than a mere body, and particular types of humans - one thinks immediately of the figure of the child - get elevated to the status of archetypal victims of human rights abuses. Supposedly divested of the trappings of culture and experience that would make their rights claims always suspect because always already-interested, such figures of bare human existence operate in political discourse only as the raw material from which biopower makes its knowledges and its raison d'être.