This article reconceptualises collective rights through five social constructionist lenses (see for example, Searle, 1995; Hacking, 1999; Gergen, 2009), including a shift from an individualistic to a relational conception of the person, the recognition of the contingent nature of people’s lives and realities, the view of rights as values-based, the interdependence between individual and collective rights and the reciprocity between rights and responsibility, and a dialogic approach to governance and accountability. The author argues that such an analysis would enable us to develop an innovative conceptual framework where collective rights could be regarded as a source for peace, harmony, and well-being and could unite global communities in solidarity to pursue a better future for humankind and the planet. As part of this analysis, this article also narrates experiences of communities and organisations as cases-in-point to illustrate that how we understand the nature of collective rights can have a pivotal impact on the way governments and institutions create the conditionality for respecting and protecting collective rights and engage in processes (social, political, economic, religious, environmental, educational, and individual) aimed at achieving a culture of peace and harmony across the globe.
Keywords: collective rights entity; community; social construction; interests; values; well-being; dialogue; relational; human flourishing; peace; global community; diplomacy; open-source technology
- Collective Rights Inviting a Social Construction
Human rights essentially consist of a set of ethical principles, or a code of conduct, on the ground of which moral decisions can be made by the individual, the state, and the international organisation. One has these rights simply because one is a human being. These are irreducible moral rights of the ‘highest order’ (Donnelly, 1989: 12). This notion entails the essential moral nature of the human being and the conditions necessary for human life in dignity.
The awareness of human rights came about when those who considered themselves believers in or proponents of the assumed existence of a human being as such (i.e., with moral dignity, as described above) were confronted with people, such as refugees and other violently displaced people, who had lost all the qualities and relationships that count towards their being citizens or members of political communities, other than the mere fact that they were human (Arendt, 1958; Balibar, 2004, as mentioned in Žižek, 2005).
According to the Council of Europe (2004), the evolution of human rights began with two central ideas, encompassing personal liberty and protecting the individual against violations by the state. These are also regarded as ‘negative rights’ (the right to be protected from something), such as the right to freedom from torture. The second generation of rights relates to ensuring the necessities for human life and equality, prompting governments to guarantee individuals’ access to essential social and economic goods, services, and opportunities. These are considered ‘positive rights’ (the right to something) that set out the obligatory actions of states necessary to support and guarantee their protection, including economic, social, and cultural rights, such as the right to education. Collective rights are the third generation in this evolution, emerging particularly after the genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, in which individuals were systematically massacred as a result of their collective identity (Evans, 2008). Hence collective rights are held against the predations of and violations from their respective states, and they outline the rights of groups and communities, including the rights to sustainable development, peace, and a healthy environment, as well as the rights to sharing the common heritage of humankind, communication, and access to humanitarian assistance.
Human rights conceived in this way hinge on the primary idea of a human being as such, or the nature of being human. However, critics have readily pointed out that this human-being-as-such-ness has been lost in the rational process that assumes a single and universal idea of human rights irrespective of cultural differences and is imposed from outside the communities where people belong, e.g., from the sacred, nature, or God (Gregg, 2011). Žižek (2005) argues that in the process of this evolution, the nature of the person has increasingly become empty, formal, and abstract, and hence is no longer located in a moral sphere of identity, intention, and dignity. Indeed, such an abstract and symbolic individual cannot be ‘reduced to a private individual, to a bundle of personal attributes, desires, traumas and idiosyncrasies’ (ibid.: 117). Here, the challenge is not just directed at the rational or the western imperial domination of ideas, but equally at the possibility of senseless relativism as the result of a rejection of universality, especially in the light of diverse moral systems and traditions.
Another set of challenges confronts the compatibility of the three generations of human rights and asks whether collective rights can be classed as human rights – since the latter are only held by individuals – and whether the emphasis on collective rights will impinge on individual rights, and vice versa. The Council of Europe (2004) also unfolds a further concern about the possibility of states justifying certain repressive regimes against individuals in the name of collective rights, as in the example of severely curtailing civil rights for the sake of economic development. On this point, some scholars have argued that if individual rights are grounded in individual interests, then, by analogy, collective rights must be grounded in collective interests, thus implying that the interests of individuals have a collective aspect (Green, 1991). No doubt, this would beg a question on how we might guard against exploitation by political leaders who advance certain interests, in the name of the collective interests of dominant groups, against those who are vulnerable or at the margins. Hence this paper proposes to take a social constructionist approach to understanding collective rights through dialogical and relational processes, outlining the possibilities for communities to challenge such exploitation. Typically, as argued by Green (1991), collective goods require social cooperation to be achieved; equally, collective interests encompass the individuals’ interests as members of the group (ibid.). However, this may not always be the case, especially where there is a discord between the two, or where the individuals are no longer able to connect with the collective interests. Therefore it is necessary to go beyond the individual as the source of meaning, to recognise the social nature of the human’s being and life, and to embrace relationship as the basis for interests, values, and goodness (Gergen, 2009). This includes the multiplicity of ways in which we construct the world, integrating a sensitivity to moral ethics in their innumerable forms.
An additional question is raised around our conception of collective agents, such as corporations, ethnic groups, states, religious institutions, international organisations, and so forth. The unease lies in the fact that these are themselves social constructs (and so is the concept of the human being, as well as ‘collectivity’); likewise, there is disquiet around questions about the sorts of interests they aim to prioritise and set out to protect. Collective rights thus require an engagement with the plurality and diversity of how these social constructs are developed in different cultures, recognising the myriad ways of ‘putting things’ and of honouring cultural traditions and their underlying values. In this way, we may move from a situation where the rational, the absolute, and the mainstream are the only interpretations of individual and collective rights, and begin to invite and attend to all voices.
This means that our understanding and appreciation of human rights cannot be detached from the languages, traditions, and systems from which they arise, nor the peoples, groups, and communities they aim to serve and the myriad interests they seek to protect. Therefore, in our engagement in collective rights, it is important to distinguish, for instance, whose purposes the policies and practices serve, to whose interests they contribute, and towards what goods these rights are recognised and respected. That is also to say, it is only within communities of shared values that the claim to collective rights encounters few difficulties. Otherwise, the notion of collective rights will not lead to concerted actions, and the associated duties to be fulfilled by states and international organisations will remain abstract and vague.
For these reasons, our understanding of human rights (including collective rights) demands a social construction process in order that such claims can be located within the full range of their particularities, with an aim to clarify and inspire concerted actions amongst those who are held responsible for ensuring human dignity, including states, international organisations, civil societies, and individuals themselves.
Social constructionism acknowledges the contingent nature of concepts and beliefs – such as dignity, equality, morality, and the cultural standpoints behind them – and considers what matters and what is significant to us to be dependent on the way we talk about it, through a ‘language game’ and through the creation of meaning in our social relationships and collaborative activities (Gergen, 1991, 2009). In other words, social construction locates what is good, desirable, and true within community and in relational processes. It suggests that any understanding must derive from a shared way of being and relational meaning-making. In and through relationships, dialogues, and coordinated actions, we construct a world that we live in, and live in a world we construct. In a similar vein, social constructionism maintains that the individualistic conception of self is no longer a primary approach to understanding the self in a globalised era and must concede the importance of a relational conception of self, allowing the nature of the person to be placed within a web of relationships (Gergen & Gergen, 2004).
When it is applied to the understanding and practices of human rights, rather than accepting individual rights and collective rights as a set of imperatives, social constructionism invites new voices, new viewpoints, and new questions about values and goods, thus opening a host of possibilities for innovation and action. It not only enables us to reconsider collective rights curiously, radically, differently, and meaningfully; above all, it provides us with a focus on the pragmatics of rights and on seeking ways to build our future together.
- Collective Rights Through Social Constructionist Lenses
When taking a social constructionist approach, collective rights can be conceptualised for the communities that embrace them by taking into account the particularities of culture, history, group, and local environment. At the same time, social constructionism is open to a universal feature of collective rights that is constructed as quotidian, contingent, this-worldly (rather than other-worldly), and pragmatic (Gregg, 2011).
As a response to the concerns and challenges highlighted in the previous section, the following social constructionist lenses can help us understand collective rights through new perspectives. I will discuss the meaningfulness and advantageous implications of each using localised stories.
First, if we consider the self as relational rather than individualistic, our understanding of human rights and collective rights will rest upon an idea of the relational. These relationships that constitute the self are extended beyond the relationship between oneself and an other, to include relationships with one’s own and other communities and with the planet as well as with activities and processes and with our personal and collective past.
This shift from an individualistic conception to a relational and communal conception of self will change the meanings of human rights’ ultimate concern with people’s dignity and well-being and see human rights as only being achieved in and through relationships. In rejecting the premise of an isolated human being, social construction enables us to engage with an interdependence between individual and collective rights. Indeed, individual rights can only be fully respected and exercised through protecting and ensuring collective rights, and vice versa.
What is also highlighted here is that humans are social beings whose activities, processes, and relationships are coordinated actions within groups (Gergen, 2009). Thus, as shown in the case of Colegio Amor in Colombia (Box 1), the recognition of collective rights, such as the displaced people’s right to development, is integral to the protection of individual human rights – in this case, children’s right to education, including cultivating their social identities and collective cultural education.
Second, instead of a sweeping universality, any practices concerning collective rights must consider humans as living in phenomenologically rich relational realities that are contingent in several dimensions – historically, culturally, socio-economically, and politically. It suggests that such contingencies must be approached pragmatically rather than abstractly.
In this way, collective rights can only be born locally in the lived experiences, imagination, and articulation of those whose interests and well-being are the very concerns of these rights. This move away from rights as a priori to rights as localised and indigenous can be exceptionally motivating for individuals and groups because it helps eliminate any possibility of imposition (Gregg, 2011). As we shall see in the Indonesian Bukit Batu project (Box 2), only by supporting the contingent, the situated, and the quotidian can collective rights be universally achieved.
Third, the practice of collective rights must take a values-based approach, and because constructionist ideas invite radical pluralism, it can open up many possibilities of naming and valuing (Gergen & Gergen, 2004). The focus on values rather than moral imperatives can bring together the aspirations of communities across the immense diversity of cultural traditions, histories, economic advancements, ethical convictions, experiences of trauma, and emotional fragilities.
Similarly, a values-centred practice of collective rights is a move away from the individual as the source of meaning to a situation in which meanings are co-created and co-constructed in community and are determined by the quality of social interactions. As demonstrated in the Rwanda story (Box 3), arriving at common values for a group or a community must start from recognising the unique features of the specific socio-cultural, historical, and political contexts within which these values arise and are celebrated and lived. In turn, these values can only be lived and pursued throughout the individuals’ and groups’ locally grounded realities.
Fourth, there is a reciprocity between rights and responsibilities, and rights not only define the duties of those who are in positions of power, they equally inspire a sense of ethical responsibility in individuals and collective agents in terms of respecting each other’s rights, respecting individual and community well-being, and building peace.
This requires an interest in a pragmatic response to current systems, governments, and institutions, rather than mere critique and deconstruction. It calls for alternative narratives to imagine what is possible and desirable in integrating our rights and responsibilities reciprocally. This is akin to self-authorship, so that rights emerge from collective political action, based on personal agency (Gregg, 2011). This contrasts with a structuralist explanation, where the contribution of social actors is reduced to nothing more than being bearers of structural determinations. It is particularly strongly voiced by the participants in the Healing the Wounds of History project in Lebanon (Box 4).
Lastly, we can reimagine accountability in promoting and honouring collective rights. The assumption is that international organisations and international communities ought to play a key part in safeguarding collective rights, such as the rights of Syrian refugees to humanitarian assistance, or the right to peace in Palestine. But how? Social constructionists would encourage a relational approach to international governance and global transformation, because relational processes can bring people together to effect constructive change and benefit the common good. Relational processes of governance privilege dialogue that aims to draw divergent domains of meaning together and seeks to identify pragmatic means of collaboration and partnership. The question is not who is right and who is wrong; the concern is to develop promising alternatives through relationships and coordinated actions. Thus accountability is focused less on the measurement of success and failure, and more on creating spaces for dialogue and for developing narratives that illustrate what has worked well and what would promise hope for the new destiny of the community.
Ultimately, the task of governance is to create the conditionality and dialogic pathways so that individuals, organisations, and communities can contribute to a shared vision and the greater good. We can see this relational process unfolding in the current peacebuilding work in Cyprus (Box 5).
In summary, social constructionist perspectives have enabled a set of helpful responses to the challenges confronting collective rights and the practices of their promotion and protection. Such a framework can enable us to truly regard collective rights as a potential source for well-being, peace, and harmony in the global community.
As discussed above, the core underlying value of the first generation of human rights is freedom; of the second generation, dignity; and of the third generation, for collective rights, it is solidarity. In rejecting the rational, abstract, and universal version of human being as such, it is equally important to move away from any official or orthodox notion of freedom, dignity, and solidarity. Human rights, including collective rights, can only be conceived in the lived particularities of political communities. Such political communities must be situated in human contingencies – local, indigenous, historical, cultural, and socio-political.
- Conclusions and Implications
This article sets out to reconceptualise collective rights from a social constructionist perspective. In doing so, I have explored some of the key issues in current debates about collective rights, including the challenges posed by the conception of the person and the suspicion of universality as an imposition of a western imperialistic worldview upon the rest of the world; grappling with whether collective rights can exist independently of individual human rights; the tension between the common conception of seeing rights as personal entitlements and an alternative view of perceiving rights as equally an entitlement and a duty; and the question of accountability.
Social construction provides an opportunity to offer an account of collective rights that embraces the social nature of human beings and enables us to consider disparate and pluralistic contexts, worldviews, localised lives, and indigenous cultural practices. It inspires communities to take a values-based approach to the identification of priorities and goals. The interdependence between individual and collective rights, between entitlement and duty, can guide governments’ commitments, including creating appropriate conditions for groups, communities and societies to take responsibility for supporting each other in exercising their rights. Moreover, the relational and dialogic approach embedded in social construction processes can encourage and inspire collaboration and partnership across borders, breaking traditional boundaries and giving rise to innovative means of pursuing collective rights and new forms of communal life together.
The stories from Colombia, Indonesia, Rwanda, Lebanon and Cyprus recounted in this article help further elucidate the possible implications of this reconceptualisation in terms of where to lay emphasis in our ongoing pursuit of peace. Here are some of the emergent insights:
First, peace through collective rights involves relational processes in all aspects of our lives – personal, social, political, economic, and communal – as well as in the ways we engage in activities, participate in institutions, and narrate our collective past, present and future. In this conception, social institutions and international organisations are not simply political structures; they are also constituted in a web of relationships and are themselves communities. This relational view of collective rights can truly help address some of the failures in the current world systems, such as class alienation, inequality, and global collapses in the meanings of community.
Second, our understanding of collective rights entails a we-ness and encompasses a common striving for the flourishing of all, where our being is essentially our being-for-one-another, including our duty of care for the planet. This understanding is pivotal in preventing the instrumentalisation of human life, the loss of the significance of work, and the exploitation of planet earth for the satisfaction of the never-ending desire for consumption.
Third, social construction of collective rights inspires us to create dedicated spaces for dialogue as a primary approach to meanings, to promoting collective rights, and to developing peace, harmony, and transformation within the community and globally. Dialogue is an important pathway to bringing communities and groups together towards solidarity and collaboration and ending ongoing violence.
To conclude, collective rights, peace, harmony, and global well-being require international political commitments to creating necessary conditions that can humanise social structures and institutions and that can enable relational processes to flourish and to support the ongoing (trans)formation of our selves and our systems.
Dr. Scherto Gill
Guerrand-Hermès Foundation for Peace
Balibar, E. (2004). ‘Is a Philosophy of Human Civic Rights Possible?’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 103(2–3), 320–1.
Council of Europe. (2002). COMPASS: A manual on human rights education with young people, Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing.
Donnelly, J. (2003). Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. 2nd Edition. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
Evans, D. (2008). Human Rights: Four Generations of Practice and Development. In A. Abdi and L. Shultz (Eds.), Education for Human Rights and Global Citizenship (6-7). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Green, L. (1991). Two Views of Collective Rights. Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence 4(2), 315–28.
Gergen, K. (1991). The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life. New York: Basic Books.
Gergen, K. (2009). An Invitation to Social Construction Los Angeles: Sage.
Gergen, K. (2009). Relational Being: Beyond Self and Community. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gergen, K. & M. Gergen (2004). Social Construction: Entering the Dialogue. Taos Institute Publishing.
GHFP (Guerrand-Hermès Foundation for Peace). (2011). Annual Report 2011. Brighton: Guerrand-Hermès Foundation for Peace Publishing.
GHFP (Guerrand-Hermès Foundation for Peace). (2014). Notes of GHFP Seminar on Memory, Trauma and Peacebuilding. Brighton: Guerrand-Hermès Foundation for Peace Publishing.
Gill, S. (2010). Human-centred Education: The Case of Colegio Amor. Brighton: Guerrand-Hermès Foundation for Peace Publishing.
Gregg, B. (2011). Human Rights as Social Construction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hacking, I. (1999). The Social Construction of What? Cambridge: Harvard University Press
Louise, C. (2016). The Power of Dialogue: Getting Closer to a Solution in Cyprus. UNDP blog. Available at: http://europeandcis.undp.org/blog/2016/01/08/the-power-of-dialogue-getting-closer-to-a-solution-in-cyprus/.
Searle, J. (1995). The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free Press
Sen, A. (1998). “Individual freedom as social commitment”, India International Centre Quarterly 25/26(4/1), 53-69
Vasak, K. (1977). Human Rights: A Thirty-Year Struggle. The Sustained Efforts to Give Force of Law to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. UNESCO COURIER 30(11), 29
Žižek, S. (2005). Against Human Rights. New Left Review 34, 115–31.
 However, it is also necessary to be aware that, although our understanding of human rights is rooted in these, some traditions and systems can serve as political frameworks to articulate rationales for violating the rights of some individuals or marginalising particular groups.
 It is worth reminding ourselves that locating such an understanding within the community may carry the risk of obscuring the multiplicity of values, goods, and interests. Likewise, encouraging individual choices and freedoms must be ensured through political empowerment and social commitment (see Sen, 1998).
 Other schools of thought, such as communitarian thinking and ethical realism, would also support a relational approach.
 As stated in Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has duties to the community.
 Thomson & Gill (forthcoming) argue that defending human rights, including both individual and collective rights, can ensure greater human well-being.
 See Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the three additional collective rights, including the rights to development, the rights to peace, and the rights to a healthy environment.