What Are Human Rights?

Azoulay argues that human rights discourse is based on a separation between a closed past, in which what was robbed is no longer contested because the violent dispossession has been legalized and naturalized, and an indefinite future in which the rights of “everyman,” as it were—the typical protagonist of a common declarations of rights—would not be violated. This separation is at the basis of the common discourse of human rights and justifies us calling such a discourse a sovereign discourse of rights. For this sovereign discourse, the state of historical inequality as well as people’s coming together in public to perform their rights are neither points of departure nor concrete bids for reparation and compensation. When people perform their rights in concrete situations of harm and deprivation their performance is usually interpreted as a protest, and they are often blamed with the disturbance of public order and are responded to in kind. Based on Azoulay’s work on revolutionary moments, the essay works to reconstruct a civil discourse of human rights from these sites where people perform together.