Ronald Niezen on his book, #HumanRights: The Technologies and Politics of Justice Claims in Practice

Cover of #HumanRights by Ronald Niezen

Interview by Kevin Laddapong

Kevin Laddapong: You have been researching indigenous and postcolonial politics throughout your career, and it is very interesting that your new book shifts towards the positionality of vernacular politics in the digital ecosystem. How did the internet come to engage with your attention? What inspired you to embark on this project? And were there any trajectory changes during the research and writing process?

Ronald Niezen: My first major research project after the PhD was on the international movement of Indigenous Peoples in the 1990s for The Origins of Indigenism (2003). That’s when I encountered the paradox that the people and organizations defending the rights of those with lives based on the simplest technologies were sophisticated users of the most advanced. It became clear to me that the global indigenous movement as we know it would never have existed without the connectivity and communities of the internet. This wasn’t just an outcome of the activist will to use new tools to organize and campaign, and so on; it also came from the organizational demands of the UN. Participants in annual NGO meetings, for example, had to register online, a requirement in stark contradiction with the ideals of participation.

 This basic contradiction must’ve been in the back of my mind when I broadened out and began to think about online activism more broadly. It was impossible for me to think about a cutting-edge tool without at the same time considering the gaps it left, the people left behind, the impact it had on power relations, and so on.

The main trajectory change in #HumanRights came by adding state-sanctioned surveillance, disinformation, and censorship to the mix. Some aspects of online activism do look the same as they did during web 1.0 in the 1990s; but a revolution pretty clearly happened somewhere in the five years from 2005 to 2010, which is when we saw the emergence of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter and the simultaneous invention of smartphones that found their way into the hands of billions of users. Not to mention new machine learning tools and AI being applied to global governance. To understand this (still unfolding) revolution required a pretty sharp change in trajectory toward the digital arms race between activists and oppressive regimes. I think we all feel the whiplash to some extent.

#HumanRights takes us on a survey on the connections between digital technologies and the politics of human rights around the world, crowdsourcing and justice investigation on; Whatsapp and resistances in Taureg communities; and digital archives and contesting politics of memories in postcolonial Namibia. How did you choose your case studies to reveal these connections?

Working with the Tuareg communities was the most straightforward. I’d maintained some contact with the peoples of the Central Sahara since my PhD research in northern Mali—they were present at the UN and I participated in a few of the annual meetings of the Tuareg Diaspora in Europe. It was there that I saw their really active, creative use of media and communication technologies. But I couldn’t go back to northern Mali. It was simply too dangerous, and still is, nearly a decade after the 2012-13 insurgency by Ansar Al-Dine and Al-Qaida (now joined by ISIS). My work in Namibia was a way to return to the field, to see how justice claims in Africa played out in the communities from which they originated. I had the luxury of research funds that allowed me to explore southern Africa inductively, go to the field and see what was happening. Once I encountered the Herero and Nama justice causes, I then did the same thing in Germany, see how the genocide claims were being leveraged there.

 Bellingcat drew my interest a little differently. There was something about this organization that was edgy. Cool. Using new digital investigation methods to take on perpetrator states that were otherwise able to shelter behind the structures of the UN Security Council—that struck me as a compelling development in digital activism worthy of exploring. If I were ever to offer a panoramic view of the uses of digital technologies in activism, I’d be remiss to leave that out.

Kevin Laddapong: Throughout your book, you jump back and forth between old and new, analog and digital practices of justice claims, graffiti to digital writing, investigative journalism to forensic crowdsourcing, museum curation to Facebook page administration. Why are these linkages between traditional and digital important to your analysis?

Ronald Niezen: If we don’t consider the way older technologies are updated and combined with the new—what Marshall McLuhan called the ‘rearview mirror effect’—we get a distorted idea of the way technologies are actually being used and what their consequences are. We get drawn into the ‘shiny new thing’ way of thinking. There’s a tendency to look at the world like crows or magpies, drawn to little trinkets and baubles one can fly away with.  But that isn’t how things work with human actors. People use any means at their disposal to share and leverage opinion. So, in the most extreme example, we see the ancient technology of graffiti used in conjunction with the internet, reaching both passers-by in real life and social media users online. Other aspects of activism and outreach, it seems to me, have this same quality of old and new, even in the midst of a full-blown digital revolution.

Kevin Laddapong: Concerns around fact and truth seem to be the main theme of this book. For example, you analyze how the distinction between the media use between the Malian government, global human rights claimants, and Taureg people themselves ends up creating different sets of facts and methods of truth-seeking; or you discuss how the ideological contest between the memories of Herero and Nama genocide between colonizer and colonized result in echo chambers and disputes.  What would you like readers to pay attention to when they encounter similar phenomena in this post-truth era?

Ronald Niezen: Ah, yes. The question of truth. I had a feeling that was coming. One way or another, we’re all in a situation in which we don’t—can’t possibly—have the specialized expertise to know whether something is true or false or somewhere confusingly in between.  The political anthropologist in me looks for motive: what do people stand to gain when they make a particular truth claim? I do this cynically, knowing that humans everywhere seek power.  Maybe not every individual but humans as a rule. If you can get a handle on the hegemonic motives behind truth claims, you’ll get closer to what those claims actually mean, and what we stand to gain or lose by investing in them.

Kevin Laddapong: At the very end of the book, you discuss the ways that the politics of identities are intimately tied to digital human rights claims, resulting in public sympathy and victimization or naturalization of nationalism. Why is that so, and what are the great challenges regarding this moving forward?

Ronald Niezen: The dynamics of activism, public outreach, and identity follow from the near-total absence of compliance mechanisms in human rights law. Yes, there are sanctions wealthy states can impose on those who egregiously violate human rights and international law. The IMF can leverage its financial clout. In extreme cases, as in Sudan, the International Criminal Court can issue indictments. But on the whole, activist groups and organizations have very little recourse when it comes to human rights violations. The UN will receive information, complaints, and so on; it will review a state’s record of compliance; but when it comes down to it, much depends on public will, the influence on the powerful of the popular politics of shame. This means that activists are in competition with one another for public attention and sympathy. As soon as one enters into that situation, a hierarchy of victimization comes into play.  Narrative plays a central part in justice claims and causes. There’s a tendency to oversimplify perpetrators and victims alike. At the same time, there’s a retreat into the group, the source of affirmation and justice. All of this is accentuated by digital technologies, especially social media platforms, that call for constant streams of collective representation.

The great challenge moving forward is liberating oneself and one’s justice cause from this trap. That involves recognizing the complexities and grey areas of perpetration. It involves being clear-eyed about public constructions of ‘ideal victims’ and who gets left out by them. And it means reaching outside the comforts and consolations of the bubbles in which we willingly enclose ourselves, partly as a buffer against the discomforts of a very quickly changing world.

Omri Grinberg takes the p. 99 test

Sarah Mitchell’s admirable avoidance of “gaming” the pg. 99 test (link) ironically inspired me to not avoid the temptation of doing so, mainly because despite “cheating”, the test’s results are two particularly unspectacular fragments of non-ethnographic, all-too-academic writing. The way I’m “rigging” the test is by presenting together a “fake” and a “real” pg. 99: the fake is pg. 99 of the PDF document, which is actually pg. 88 of the dissertation, and the real one is pg. 99 according to the page count of the dissertation text.

Both pages are part of the first chapter, which is essentially the second part of the Introduction. The chapter combines a historical survey of Israel’s occupation and its violence, the emergence of human rights NGOs and their characteristics, and literature reviews about human rights, NGO-state dynamics, and colonial intermediation. It culminates in the two sub-sections in which the two pages play a significant role: an attempt to think about agency and ethics in bureaucratic structures, while signaling the uniqueness of witnessing and testimony contexts. As I show, this uniqueness persists even as these core aspects of human rights are shaped and disciplined—as an experience (of witnessing) and text document (as testimony)–by the synthesized influence of different types of violence Israel uses (brute-direct, structural, symbolic) and the genres of human rights narration and documentation. These are what I define in the fake pg. 99 (below) as “contexts and considerations”.

The fake pg. 99 bridges between a review of anthropologies of agency and ethics in the Middle East, and the following sub-section, in which I focus on the role of testimony in Israeli NGOs and use the insights from the review to challenge some dominant anthropological perspectives about witnessing and testimony. The real pg. 99 is the final page of this sub-section, and of the whole introductory phase.

If apart and as stand-alone fragments, the two pg. 99s do not say much. Together, I think, they convey some of the main points of the dissertation. Other than place them in sequence and some clarifications [in square brackets], I made no significant changes in the two text fragments.

[FAKE PG. 99]

These contexts and considerations [see above] are fundamental to my effort of avoiding re-producing two common tendencies in studies of human rights (or humanitarianism) and NGOs: (i) overlooking (and hence denial) of the critical valences of the vernacular of human rights practices themselves by deterministically assuming the totalizing appropriation of human rights by colonial actors (cf. Perugini and Gordon 2015; Zigon 2013); (ii) The equally problematic assumption that the political subjectivities of those participating in these practices hinge on the benevolent option of practicing them, which is offered by visiting-experts from the Global North as agents constituting a new “global” ground of political morality (cf. Fassin 2008).

These foundations do not negate the relevance of insights from neither the harshly critical take, nor from the latter approach, that formulates a political philosophy of contemporary ethics based on anthropological studies of humanitarianism. What is at stake here is the important avoidance of assigning conscripting meaning to “testimony” while simultaneously maintaining clarity about what testimony is and does (Dean 2017). The careful framing of agency and ethics in relation to witnessing thus promotes studying and theorizing testimony as a multi-dimensional process and from different perspectives of scale.


[REAL PG. 99]

As I will show, Palestinian witnesses often demand the NGOs document their cases but refuse to let them use it for the NGOs’ own appeals to various state branches. Thus, the witnesses re-shape what the NGOs do and challenge organizations’ positioning vis-à-vis the state, even if the production of the text itself does not change.

For NGOs, testimony does indeed signify political change and an ethical obligation, but it is also—and perhaps, mainly—a system of archiving through disciplinary writing: codes of qualities and quantities, formalized categories and means of documentation, classification, determination, comparison, accounted for and transcribed in certain ways that constitute simultaneously both the power and authority of the documenting actor—NGOs—through the legal-bureaucratic apparatus of writing human rights testimony (cf. Cody 2009; Foucault 1995, 189–90; Messick 1993). These modes of documentation take part in affirming certain models and modes of political subjectivity while marginalizing others (Fassin 2012; Marshall 2014). NGO practices then have apparent and immediate repercussions on contemporary political realities, and in parallel, impose a historiographic authority – frames of in/validation[*] that perform what Michel de Certeau termed as “…a selection between what can be understood and what must be forgotten in order to obtain the representation of a present intelligibility” (1988, 4).



* “Frames of in/validation” is a term I use to theorize NGOs’ procedures of incessant verification and adaptation of Palestinian experiences of violence into simplified narrative structures, that conform to legal-moral discourses and definitions of human rights. As I claim in the dissertation, NGOs rely on frames of in/validation to sustain the paradox of human rights, at least in its Israel/Palestine vernacular: a genre of anti-colonial historiography that is itself based on colonial reason, mainly genealogies of surveying and bureaucratic writing. Thanks to the pg. 99 test, I now realize what I have probably always known on some level: that I do the same, only displaced into the disciplinary confines of academic writing.

Cliched academic self-deprecation aside, this exercise re-highlighted for me one of the main tensions I had to constantly work-through in my research, yet did not truly acknowledge in writing and only rarely discussed otherwise. Namely, between my focus on the bureaucracy of Palestinians’ testimonies in Israeli NGOs, and taking Palestinian witnesses and their testimonies into analytical consideration. That is, making this a study (and an ethnography) of colonial violence, and not (just) an anthropological analysis of representations of violence (whether those representations are themselves colonialist or not).

Omri Grinberg. 2018. Writing Rights, Writing Violence:  The Bureaucracy of Palestinian Testimonies in Israeli Human Rights NGOs – Ph.D. dissertation. Department of Anthropology and Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Toronto.

Works Cited

Cody, Francis. 2009. “Inscribing Subjects to Citizenship: Petitions, Literacy Activism, and the Performativity of Signature in Rural Tamil India.” Cultural Anthropology 24 (3): 347–80.

Certeau, Michel de. 1988. The Writing of History. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Dean, Carolyn J. 2017. “The Politics of Suffering: From the Survivor-Witness to Humanitarian Witnessing.” Continuum 31 (5): 628-36.

Fassin, Didier. 2008. “The Humanitarian Politics of Trauma: Subjectification Through Trauma in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” Cultural Anthropology 23 (3): 531–58.

———. 2012. Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present Times. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Marshall, David Jones. 2014. “Save (Us from) the Children: Trauma, Palestinian Childhood, and the Production of Governable Subjects.” Children’s Geographies 12 (3): 281–96.

Messick, Brinkley. 1993. The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.  

Perugini, Nicola, and Neve Gordon. 2015. The Human Right to Dominate. [S.I.]: Oxford University Press.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2013. “Human Rights as Moral Progress? A Critique.” Cultural Anthropology 28 (4): 716–36.