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Forcing Petrified Relationships to Dance: Intersectionality and the Universality of Human Rights

“Everybody needs to start using the language of universal human rights.” These are the words of Dave Hardy, coordinator of the program “Human Rights in the Netherlands” for Amnesty International. While from a western human rights perspective, this sentiment is commendable, we could not shake a sense of unease at what Mr. Hardy’s words implied. We wondered what this “language of universal human rights” was. Can we really say that ‘human rights,’ even the ones laid down and ratified by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), are in fact universal? And, by extension, is there a ‘universal human’ to whom all these rights can be applied?

In the UDHR “human” is defined as any member of the human family entitled to equal and inalienable rights regardless of  race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. But in reality, we see that human beings are far from equal: as George Orwell put it in Animal Farm: “some are more equal than others.”

Take The Netherlands for instance, a self-proclaimed champion of human rights, and one of the first countries to ratify the UDHR. The country takes pride in protecting many asylum seekers from prosecution, torture, mutilation, forced marriage, rape, and other threats they faced in their home countries. Commendable efforts to be sure, but this tells only half the story: what about the thousands of refugees who are currently in detention centers and are subjected to gross violations of their human rights, including imprisonment, lack of privacy, and humiliation?

This disconnect pinpoints the source of our confusion regarding Mr. Hardy’s earlier statement. One particular problem inevitably presents itself whenever we talk about ‘universal human rights:’ we cannot help but wonder “which humans are we talking about?” By claiming to defend ‘human rights,’ The Netherlands implies that these rights are universal, that all humans are in fact equal and should be treated as such. But clearly The Netherlands cannot be referring to all people, since the very same persons whom the Netherlands boasts to save, and whose rights it boasts to protect, could just as likely have ended up stripped of those rights in one of the Dutch detention camps.

This obvious paradox - recognizing ‘universally valid’ rights but denying those rights to some - arises when we think of human rights as protecting the rights of universal, singular kinds of people: ‘migrants,’ ‘children’, ‘women,’ ‘people of color’. But as philosopher Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991) points out, people do not exist in single categories, but at the intersection of multiple different categories, or axes, of identity: ‘female child,’ ‘white immigrant,’ ‘black woman.’ This idea came to be known as ‘intersectionality.’ Evoking the metaphor of a crossroads, it implies that every individual stands in life at the crossroads of different social positions such as race, class, gender, ethnicity, or nationality.

“The term hails from the U.S,” says Professor Gloria Wekker of Aletta E-Quality, an institute for gender equality in the Netherlands. “The theory first started to take shape in the 19th century, when the freedwoman Sojourner Truth gave a lecture at a convention for white women’s suffrage. In the lecture, which became well-known under the title “And ain’t I a woman?,” Truth shows that the concept ‘woman’ has been monopolized by white women, and that it excludes women of color.” Wekker argues that it is impossible to truly speak about equality unless it involves actively unpacking all those axes of identity on which people may be oppressed. Race, too, is one such axis. Kimberlé Crenshaw relates a personal experience that led her to expand upon Truth’s words in an interview with Perspectives magazine in 2004:

“I have a story I tell a lot. A member of our study group at Harvard was the first African-American member of a previously exclusive white club. He invited the rest of the group—me and another African-American man—to visit him at this club. When we knocked on the door, he opened it, stepped outside, and shut it quickly. He said that he was embarrassed because he had forgotten to tell us something about entering the building. My male friend immediately bristled, saying that if black people couldn’t go through the front door, we weren’t coming in at all. But our friend said, “No, no, no, that’s not it—but women have to go through the back door.” And my friend was totally okay with that."

The story shows that it is impossible to promote ‘equality’ or ‘inclusiveness’ by only looking at one axis of identity; in this example, a group that intends to become more racially inclusive still neglects the axis of gender as a possible basis for exclusion. This, on a larger scale, is what the EU detention centers stand for: using the rhetoric of universal human rights, the EU includes some of these ‘universal humans,’ while excluding others based on immigration status.

An EU-wide survey about discrimination of immigrants conducted in 2010 clearly depicts the multilayered nature of identity and oppression (Fundamental Rights Agency, 2010). The survey found that one fourth of the interviewees had experienced discrimination in the last 12 months on at least two of the following grounds: ethnic or immigrant origin, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion or belief, disability, or for ‘other’ reasons.

Recall how Dave Hardy talked about the “language of universal human rights.” It is this language that defends the rights of women, the rights of immigrants, even the rights of entire races; but this language is incapable of addressing the discrimination that is compounded by intersecting identities. Unfortunately this language seems to dominate not only government policies but also the approaches taken by human rights advocacy organizations.

To explain the importance of an intersectional approach in human rights advocacy, American philosopher Marilyn Frye (1983) uses a cage analogy: if you focus on only one wire making up a cage, you will not be able to see the other wires and understand why the bird would not fly around that wire. Only if you stop looking at the wires seperately and take a macroscopic view, it will be obvious to you that “the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon, ” she writes.

Given the importance of taking an intersectional approach when fighting for human rights, we have this question in mind: in The Netherlands, where a strong rhetoric of universal human rights has historically permeated the social and political spheres, to what extent have human rights advocacy organizations adopted an intersectional approach? By Crenshaw’s logic, injustice can only be fought and human rights promoted when those fighting for them view their mission through an intersectional lens. 

To find an answer, we arranged a meeting with Marc Stolwijk, a policy officer at Amnesty International’s Amsterdam office who has been working on human right issues in the Netherlands.

The Dutch branch of Amnesty was established in 1968 and has around 300.000 members, making it the largest branch in the world. The head office of Amnesty’s Netherlands branch (Amnesty NL) occupies an impressive 17th century canal mansion which was built for Balthazar Coymans, a rich merchant involved in the slave trade. The building’s role in Dutch colonial history has been forgotten and now the building accommodates a branch of one of the largest human rights advocacy organizations in the world. 

Marc Stolwijk has worked for Amnesty for the past seven years as a policy officer. Mr. Stolwijk mentions that during his time at Amnesty, the organization has grown substantially. “Amnesty’s priorities have changed since the organization grew; because Amnesty grew, the priority became to ‘get priorities;’ suddenly we were taking on so many issues that we had to prioritize.” A decade ago, Amnesty decided to broaden its mandate to include not only the defense of prisoners of consciousness, but to champion all political, social and economic human rights worldwide.

Mr. Stolwijk explains that with the rise of right-wing political parties, Amnesty NL has increasingly focused on human rights issues at home. Mr. Stolwijk feels that human rights have lost their prominence in the public sphere: people don’t find them as important as they used to; they are not as ‘established’ anymore. “Human rights are something we have to reaffirm,” he says.

To do this, Amnesty NL focuses on raising awareness of human rights issues among its members. Mr. Stolwijk gives us an interesting example of why he thinks this is important: he mentions that when the Dutch government introduced a proposal to criminalize being in The Netherlands without proper documentation, Amnesty conducted a short survey among its members to ask them for their opinion. “A great deal of respondents said that they thought the proposal was a great idea. But Amnesty’s official stance on the matter is that this is a violation of human rights. When we told our members this, they changed their minds, but still we were so surprised to see that so many of our members thought it was a good idea: how can you be a member of an organization without knowing what that organization stands for?”

Given Amnesty’s broad portfolio, are there any particular areas of human rights that Amnesty prioritizes over others? “Human rights are inseparable; it is artificial to focus only on certain grave violations. We used to focus on freedom of speech, but in a way that’s nonsense. It’s only logical to include all human rights in the Amnesty charter, because all rights are equally important.”

Attorney Jelle Klaas, of Fischer Lawyers, a Harlem-based legal firm specializing in advocating for people who are excluded from basic socio-economic rights, has a different view. “What is the human to express your opinion or to protest if more and more land becomes private property, on which these rights must make way for the rights of the owner? What value has the right to protest or the right to privacy if the police can film us every second, may frisk us without cause and we are obliged to identify ourselves?” Contrary to Mr. Stolwijk, Mr. Klaas believes that all rights are not created equal, nor politically neutral. “Human rights are part of the ideology of the bourgeoisie: they are built upon the basic structure of an unfair world. My main problem with society is the state of the economy, the differences between rich and poor, and how wealth is distributed. We need a different system. The European Court of Human Rights is really a typically bourgeois institution, instituted by the ruling classes to give us the illusion that we can claim and receive true justice within the system.” Mr. Klaas argues that high-minded rhetoric about universal human rights does not matter to someone who cannot take care of his or her basic living needs. “As Brecht said: “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt Moral.” To people who are perpetually stressed about bad job contracts, or not owning a house, or whether they can pay rent, these higher human rights don’t seem to matter.

In an interview with The Economist (2007), Irene Khan, former secretary general of Amnesty International, has explained the reason for expansion of their agenda: “Working on individuals is important, but if we don't work on systemic change we just exchange one group of sufferers for another.” However, when asked whether it is indeed possible for all people to have equal access to equal rights, Marc Stolwijk without hesitation replied: “No. It is not possible; Amnesty International is not about major economic reform.”

But for Jelle Klaas the link between economic conditions and human rights is undeniable. He thinks that there is a hierarchy among people’s identities, and class is the most important social category from which most problems arise. “Take Angela Merkel, who does not face as much discrimination as, say, a working class woman. Because she is from a higher class. But if you’re from a lower class – and then imagine you are also black, or handicapped, or gay, then you’re really screwed. It’s not a coincidence that there are no treaties about class-related human rights. It is such a politically loaded topic.”

The problems with a ‘universal’ conception of human rights extend beyond the political sphere: they stem from the fact that human rights are part of an ideology. According to Mr. Klaas: “the whole idea of human rights started with the French Revolution, with these people who had been locked up for a long time and weren’t too happy with that, to say the least. So they introduced this idea of human rights for everyone, and that group of people is the current political elite.”  In other words, human rights were created at a particular time, in a particular place, for a particular reason.

Amnesty International, on the other hand, is not concerned with the discussions on the history, relativity, or ideological construction of human rights: “human rights, as defined in the Universal Declaration, are universal,” says Marc Stolwijk. He does not think that the common criticism that human rights are a western invention is accurate. “The Declaration was not just made up by western people, but by people representing religions and states from all over the world. The UDHR has in fact been signed by most states in the world, not just western states.” According to Mr. Stolwijk, the universality of human rights is not just apparent in the global ratification of the UDHR. The content of the Declaration also transcends national borders: “concepts such a justice, protecting the powerless from those in power, rejection of murder are not merely Western concepts, I think.”

Jelle Klaas retorts that this idea does not take into account that some of the purportedly universal rights enshrined in the Declaration are prominently western, such as the sacrosanct position of personal property: “Yes, we are free to think, to write, and to work, but not to give out the food surpluses that are being destroyed by supermarkets, to the hungry: property is property.”

Finally, Marc Stolwijk thinks it is worth noting that human rights are not a static thing and that cultures are not static. “In a way,” he says, “one could argue that cultures are growing toward each other in some sense. For example, the death penalty was considered legitimate in most parts of the world until about 50 years ago (including Western Europe, so one could argue that the death penalty was part of the European culture). Nowadays, it has been abolished in most of Europe, Africa, Latin America and some other parts of the world.”

Amsterdam-based culture critic Flavia Dzódan takes issue with this stance on the universality of human rights stating: “It is rather pretentious to tackle these issues from a Eurocentric perspective and expect that other cultures should abandon their world views and join ours. I don’t think it is possible to talk about universal human rights without taking into account the situational position of each community and culture where these rights are placed.”

She notes that it is exactly this conception of the transcultural universality of human rights that causes many problems regarding their violation in the world.  In order to get to the root of human rights problems, she argues, a change is needed in the way advocacy organizations conceive of rights and the people to whom they apply. According to Mrs. Dzódan, it is exactly this change that an intersectional approach to human rights can stimulate. Unfortunately, she does not think Amnesty International agrees: “I don’t think Amnesty has any consideration for intersectionality. They usually tend to look at human rights as ‘compartment boxes,’ each separate from the next and each historically isolated from the other. Human rights violations do not happen in a vacuum, they are the result of historical and cultural contexts. Amnesty tends to erase those in their campaigns to focus only on the present and now.”

Marc Stolwijk concurs that sometimes the message of Amnesty’s mass communication campaigns is simplified, yet it is rendered effective precisely because of its simplicity. He notes that Amnesty gives a face to immigrants and migrants, and shows that they are not just a statistic. Although Amnesty International promotes specific categories of human rights, they also recognize the vulnerability of people falling in between categories. “When we discuss the detention camps, the first thing we do is highlight the situations of vulnerable groups such as children, elderly or disabled.” This expands the identity of people who would otherwise be perceived as just another irregular migrant. “Human rights are about people. The role of Amnesty is to give face to the irregular migrants, underlining that they are people” says Mr. Stolwijk and “this also helps with campaigning” he adds.

Nonetheless, Mrs. Dzòdan thinks the fact that Amnesty’s campaigns tend to be simplified in favor of the language of universality is dangerous. “It presents human rights as brands that transcend national borders, as a product that people everywhere should adopt.” Rather than taking this global view, she thinks of rights as belonging to a specific community, and as taking into account the needs and workings of specific communities and their members. “Conceptions of the ‘self’ and ‘the individual’ have always varied between cultures and communities. The language of universality erases all of that, effectively erasing the cultures where these ideas belong.” When asked to what extent Amnesty takes this intersectional view of human rights advocacy in a cultural context, Mrs. Dzódan responds: “Amnesty takes a very corporate approach to human rights. They view a human rights issue as something that can be solved with a kind of recipe that must be applied. This stems from their idea that certain frameworks or models are universal.”

Arguably, the universal model of human rights is a form of present-day colonialism, not vastly different from the religious missionary work from colonial times. In fact, Jelle Klaas contends that it is this colonial legacy that is behind many present-day human rights violations, because the class-based social inequalities that result from it are rarely acknowledged: contemporary thought about human rights as universal disregards colonial history as an axis of discrimination. Rather, colonial history strongly intersects with other bases for discrimination 400 years after the fact.

Mr. Klaas  cites a case of a young Surinamese boy whom he defended in court. The reason that case was viable was because of the Durban Treaty from 2001, which holds nation states accountable for the consequences of their colonial history, effectively obligating them to observe the cultural and historical context of human rights. “It was a treaty that almost all countries except the United States signed, and I think The Netherlands ran away from it too. This young boy wanted to go to The Netherlands to study there because he had no opportunities back in Surinam. The reason for this was the way in which the Dutch imposed their will on Surinam, and essentially just used the area for our own benefit. So as a consequence of the Dutch colonial past, this Surinamese boy’s only shot at a future was to study in The Netherlands, but this was denied to him.” Mr. Klaas  drew upon the Durban Treaty because it obliges states to be mindful of the consequences of their colonial past, and to be mindful of the fact that they are, in a way, still exploiting the progeny of that colonial past by leaving them in a country that they have exploited and stripped of resources. He notes that both national and international human rights laws do not always take this fact into account. The law just looks at boys like Mr. Klaas’ client as individuals, without placing them and their situations in a cultural and historical context. “But when asking “why is this boy poor” or “why does he have to come to The Netherlands” you obviously need to look at the history and the context to understand his human rights.”  

As such, it seems that Amnesty International espouses a universalist view of human rights that does not take into account the intersectional nature of social reality. However, both Jelle Klaas and Flavia Dzódan take umbrage with this approach: Mrs. Dzódan argues that it is inappropriate and misguided for Amnesty to not only assume that human rights are universal, but to then impose those universal values on other cultures. Doing so ignores the unique historical context in which these cultures developed, and the many different axes on which people exist. The practical upshot of this is apparent in Jelle Klaas’ day-to-day work, as exemplified in the case of the Surinamese boy: equalizing all human rights, regardless of culture, history or social background ignores the fact that the human rights of a white Dutch child are in reality very different from those of a young Surinamese immigrant.

How, then, may Amnesty improve its policy to better reflect the intersectional, historically, and culturally bound up reality of the people whose ‘universal human rights’ it aims to protect? Jelle Klaas notes that there are people who say that “human rights are a farce and that we have no use for them. Because as long as we live in a capitalist system, rights have no meaning. The battle for human rights in a court filled with class-based justice only distracts from the real battle on the work floor and on the streets.” He himself, however, sees things differently: “We can expose the hypocrisy of the ruling class by calling upon human rights. By using the best pieces from their ideology, such as the Declaration for Human Rights, against them, our side can be made stronger and their side weaker. A young Karl Marx put it nicely: ‘One must force these petrified relationships to dance by singing to them their own melody.’” 

All in all, he has a positive outlook. When asked whether truly equal human rights are attainable, he responded: “Yes, but not in my lifetime. We need a lot of historical revolutions for that. This whole idea of class is a constructed thing, and it is pretty young. For most of our history we have been living together as equals, but then when political systems were formalized and suddenly people were in different classes, men and women or employees and bosses, and so on, this changed. But living as a collective, as equals, is in our human nature.”

Flavia Dzódan sees the potential in more culturally conscious human rights advocacy: “Amnesty would do a much better job if they provided local communities with tools to develop their own solutions and fostered a localized approach to problem solving based on the needs, the historical context, and the culture of each community.” Mark Stolwijk shares this sentiment, stating that Amnesty’s long term goals are indeed to work more closely to the ground, and to have partnerships with local activist groups. These are clearly attainable, if not very lofty, goals. Mr. Stolwijk notes that this is because the Amnesty culture is currently ruled by managerial, performance-based thinking that values pragmatism, measureable targets and “not fighting for what you believe in, but for what is possible.” However, Mr. Stolwijk also mentioned another, underlying way of thinking to which he, slightly guiltily, admitted to being more partial. This is a more church-like mentality that emphasizes belief in higher ideals, even if they seem impossible. “If you are an activist, you have to dream impossible things. In that, I am really just an old hippie.”   



Crenshaw, Kimberlé W. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Indentity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color”. Stanford Law Review (1991) 2141-1299.

Frye, Marilyn. The Politics of Reality. Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press, 1983.

“European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey (EU-MIDIS)”. Fundamental Rights Agency. http://fra.europa.eu/fraWebsite/eu-midis/index_en.htm

“Intersectionality: The Double Bind of Race and Gender: An Interview with Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Who Coined the Term,” Perspectives: A Magazine for and about Women Lawyers, Spring 2004.

“Many rights, some wrong”. The Economist. May 22nd, 2007. http://www.economist.com/node/8888792

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. United Nations. http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml

Dzódan, Flavia. Writer and independent blogger for www.tigerbeatdown.com. Amsterdam, The Netherlands. June 2012.

Hardy, Dave. Programme coordinator, Amnesty International The Netherlands. Amsterdam, The Netherlands. June 2012.

Klaas, Jelle. Attorney-at-law, Fischer Lawyers. Amsterdam, The Netherlands. June 2012.

Stolwijk, Marc. Policy officer, Amnesty International The Netherlands. Amsterdam, The Netherlands. June 2012.

Wekker, Gloria. Aletta E-Quality. Amsterdam, The Netherlands. June 2012.

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