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Human rights: the pitfalls of 'systemic' analyses

By Nicolas Agostini*

Thursday July 29, 2021


On July 12, 2021, as the UN Human Rights Council prepared to vote on a European Union-backed resolution addressing egregious abuses in Eritrea, the Filipino representative opposed the initiative by claiming that since it targeted an African country, it was grounded in racism. The diplomat urged states to reflect on the “values and biases with roots in racism that operate in our work in the Council.”

Black Lives Matter, Demonstration, ROME, - June 7, 2020

Authoritarian governments alleging bias to dismiss UN resolutions is not new. The Filipino statement, however, took place in a specific context: that of debates around ‘systemic racism’, which gained traction with the Black Lives Matter movement and translated into Council resolution 43/1. Following a recent report, which draws extensively from ‘systemic’ analyses, the Council added a layer to its work on racial justice and equality by creating a new mechanism. At the Council, more and more NGO statements, addressing a diverse range of issues and countries, characterize violations as “systemic”—often without thoroughly analyzing what might make them so.

While fighting the scourge of racism and police violence against Black people and people of African descent is a legitimate endeavor, human rights advocates should reflect on the pitfalls of indiscriminately injecting ‘systemic’ analysis into discussions. They should ask themselves when systemic analyses are relevant for human rights work, and whether an over-extensive, sloppy, and uncritical use of the concept might actually impede the progress they seek.

Attributing responsibility

‘Individual agency vs. structural forces’ is an age-old philosophical and sociological debate. Human rights actors have always navigated between twin goals: seeking accountability for individual acts and addressing structures that enable the perpetuation of violations (including institutions, laws, policies, and sociocultural environments).

For their part, eager to deny the existence of structural issues and escape responsibility for change, governments often attempt to individualize human rights violations, making them collections of unconnected news items. For instance, they will deal with incidents of police violence against Black people on a case-by-case basis.

Systemic analyses add value to human rights work. They enable a look at the broader picture: patterns of violations, and what gives rise to those patterns. The conviction of one officer (like Derek Chauvin’s for the murder of George Floyd) will not automatically improve the situation for Black people in the US. Societal structures, practices, and attitudes will not change overnight.

But if we move away from a focus on the individual (where no human rights violation is systemic) and shift to the other extreme, leaving no space for agency (every human rights violation is systemic), we risk ending up in a situation where attributing responsibility is trickier.

"An over-extensive use of systemic analyses risks delegitimizing values, norms and processes that foster common understanding and individual responsibility."

First, if power systems govern all social processes and interpersonal relations, how do you hold individuals fully accountable for their acts? For racists, systemic racism can be an extenuating circumstance, or even a way out. Obviously, structural issues and individual violations can coexist. State responsibility does not preclude individual criminal accountability, just as individual accountability does not preclude state action to prevent the repetition of abuses. However, if one focuses entirely on systems, one risks undermining the moral and legal basis for holding individuals accountable. Irrespective of systemic issues and historical legacies, human rights violations are linked to choices. For a violation to take place, someone must make a choice. Derek Chauvin chose to hold his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes. His colleagues chose to stand idly by. Most police officers choose not to engage in criminal acts.

Second, if we acknowledge the existence of ‘systems’ that have been designed to oppress categories of people, then how do we justify working with existing institutions—including judicial institutions? In the name of addressing embedded bias, one may be tempted to destroy these institutions, rejecting the need to follow due process—including basic principles such as the principle of legality or the presumption of innocence. An over-extensive use of systemic analyses risks delegitimizing values, norms and processes that foster common understanding and individual responsibility.

Introducing discernment

Used without precision and rigor, there is also a danger that systemic analyses may lead to lack of nuance and proportionality. A sloppy use of systemic analyses risks erasing the complexity of institutions, social phenomena, and interpersonal interactions.

It also risks undermining human rights methods. Levels of evidence required to expose abusive ‘practices,’ ‘policies,’ and ‘systems’ are not the same: The level of evidence required is lowest in the first case, higher in the second, and highest of all in the last case. By acknowledging systemic violations to be ubiquitous, we potentially deflect attention from those systems with the most serious issues, where human rights violations are intrinsically linked to policies, practices and institutions.

For instance, the widespread, systematic atrocities committed against China’s Uyghurs, Eritrean military conscripts, and victims of torture in Syria certainly fit the definition of ‘systemic violations’. But the Chinese, Eritrean, and Syrian political-institutional systems are incapable of addressing their own flaws. Domestic avenues for redress are non-existent; self-reflection and reforms are unthinkable—they would precipitate the fall of these systems. Can the same be said about all political-institutional systems? Can the same be said, without reservations, nuance, or a pinch of salt, about today’s US?

The current institutional, legal, policy, and sociocultural environment in the US is different from those in Xinjiang, Eritrea, or Syria. Nuance is needed to recognize that institutions, laws, policies, and societal practices and attitudes in democratic countries can contain both problematic and progressive elements. Discernment should guide human rights work.

Valuing cautiousness

Lastly, if they are used in an uncritical manner, systemic analyses risk paving the way for a lack of intellectual cautiousness. There is a thin line between embracing approaches that offer a comprehensive explanation of social structures and believing you have the ‘social world’ completely figured out.

For instance, if one applies a single analytical lens to look at police-minority relations, one may draw conclusions about each encounter between a Black person and the police without being familiar with the facts of each case, discarding the need for thorough investigations. Many phenomena cannot be reduced to a single explaining factor. Human behavior often evades theoretical grids. A fetish for systemic analyses can lead their proponents to claim that they know the truth, not just about the social world, but about each and every alleged violation. This can lead to cognitive distortions, such as perception and selection biases (discounting elements that disprove your theory, or, conversely, only paying attention to elements that confirm it) and a tendency to ignore confounding variables.

In this sense, cautiousness means avoiding generalizations that are not supported by a minimum amount of evidence. It also means refraining from imprisoning people in rigid categories (such as oppressor/victim), denying their agency, and assigning traits, thoughts, and behaviors to them based on immutable characteristics (which is also what racists do).

Minneapolis, MN / USA - May 26 2020: "I Can't Breathe" Protest for George Floyd.

"If every violation is systemic, systemic analyses of human rights violations, useful in the right circumstances, will lose all value."

A sweeping use of systemic analyses risks paving the way for more statements like the abovementioned Filipino one—and for more backlash, because if Western states are defined by systemic racism, then all initiatives they take (including the Eritrea resolutions) are racist. From this, we are only a step away from defending every violation that is criticized by Western states (and supporting those regimes responsible for them)—hugely counterproductive for human rights advocacy.

Systemic analyses (of issues including racism) can be useful, but they should be used conscientiously. Racist incidents and patterns of behavior can be discussed without always referring to ‘white supremacy’ or using critical race theory tropes. There is nothing to gain in being trapped in a mental universe where any critique of systemic analyses is deemed immoral or in bad faith, or where anyone who does not follow the prevailing narrative on racism is labelled a racist. This is the opposite of what human rights advocates need if they hope to positively influence the rest of society.

Systemic human rights issues exist, but not every human rights violation is systemic, and many of those violations that have systemic factors cannot be reduced to these dimensions alone. An uncritical, unshakeable reliance on all-encompassing systemic analyses and an exclusive focus on systems—with its corollary, disregarding individual agency, nuance, and cautiousness—are self-defeating. Ultimately, if every violation is systemic, systemic analyses of human rights violations, useful in the right circumstances, will lose all value.

Nicolas Agostini is a human rights advocate and researcher, currently working between Geneva and East Africa.