Book review: the human right to dominate

Book review – The International Centre for Peace and Human Rights offers a review of the following book: “The Human Right to Dominate” written in 2015 by Nicola Perugini, a professor at Brown University in the USA and Neve Gordon, a professor at the Ben-Gurion University in Israel. The review will first explain the general content of the book and its structure, before briefly describing the ideas raised in its chapters.


In order to explain the changes that the culture of human rights has recently undergone, the authors focused on the case of Palestine and Israel, and have analysed a large diversity of documents such as legal petitions, interviews of NGO directors, military and advocacy reports, and media campaigns. In this book, domination refers to “a broad array of relationships subjugation characterized by the use of force and coercion”. The practices used to assert domination over individuals, as well as the legitimisation of these practices are analysed.

Today, an increasing number of people use the expression “military necessity” in order to justify their will to insure and protect human rights. Several powerful countries around the world, such as the US and France, have invoked human rights for these purposes, thus allowing them to moralize their military activity and domination.

The book goes on to describe a poster conceived by Amnesty International, asking NATO to retain military forces in Afghanistan in the hopes of ensuring women’s freedoms, therefore indirectly insinuating that the deployment of violence can be necessary in the protection of human rights. This example demonstrates that interpretations of human rights can go in any direction, and that their correct and moral application (or lack thereof) depends on individual will. Another illustration is then provided to prove that some victims can be considered perpetrators in the eyes of some: in the US, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence invokes human rights to limit the widespread circulation of weapons, whereas the American Rifle Association argues gun owners are a persecuted minority that are consequently victims of human rights violations.

The authors then point out the existence of some arguments leading to the following conclusion: human rights, being a Westerns powers’ initiative, were created to better safeguard western domination throughout the world. During colonialism, the right to employ violence and dispossess indigenous populations was framed as a sovereign right.. In this sense, it is also worth realizing that states, the major perpetrators of gross human rights violations, are paradoxically also their main guardians. Indeed, through their sovereignty and their ability to choose how they apply these rights in their national legal systems, they decide how and when they protect their citizens from their own violations. This ambiguity is further detailed in the first chapter of the book.


Chapter one: the paradox of human rights

Israel’ creation following World War II illustrates well the paradox of the international human rights regime, and its relationship to domination. Indeed, it was established as a new ‘homeland’ for Jews in Palestine as a way to attempt to repair the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, but ended up generating additional human rights violations (such as the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages and the expulsion of many indigenous peoples from their native lands).

The authors explain that “(…) the crimes against humanity committed in Europe served to rationalize and justify the rights-abusive expansionist process of Israel national statecraft in the Middle East”. 

In the late 1980s, as Palestinians and NGOs began to invoke the human rights violations perpetrated in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), many petitions were addressed to Israel’s High Court of Justice, none of which resulted in convictions, thus casting light onto another paradox: “(…)the colonized had to resort to the colonizer’s court to seek protection.”.


Chapter two: the threat of human rights

This chapter gives numerous examples of how the invocation of human rights can in fact become threats to their very victims, by worsening the violations they endure. After the 2008-9 conflict between Israel and Palestine, NGOs working with the UN to assess the extent of the violations committed were accused by Israel of posing a threat to national security. The latter’s politicians appealed to the idea that these organizations were erroneously using a new concept dubbed “lawfare” against them. Another legal problem lies in the fact that universal jurisdiction is applicable only when the national courts are unable or unwilling to prosecute. The Israeli High Court of Justice invariably held both the ability and willingness to prosecute its citizens accused of violations in the OPT, but has constantly granted them impunity. Moreover, NGOs have had to be extremely cautious in sharing information abroad if they wish to continue receiving funding from the New Israel Fund, the largest donator to Israeli NGOs.

Several testimonies of people claiming to have been mentally and physically abused to give false testimonies pertaining to violations of human rights have also surfaced. These statements were then widely spread in public reports, and used to justify codes of conduct that would otherwise have been unacceptable.


Chapter three: the human right to kill

Once again, we are reminded that the language surrounding human rights has become the language of the strong. This chapter starts by explaining why and how America’s military is the largest human rights training institution, to legitimize the use of force and killing. Human rights experts are increasingly being invited to talk about what is permissible or not in contemporary warfare, not only to regulate the forms of killing, but also to offer the state a certain legitimacy. Some professionals argue that sometimes, the right to assassinate is necessary to protect the citizens and the state itself, thus transforming killing into a right.

The authors move on to spell out the prohibition of human shielding. Israel has been using different arguments to legitimize its constant targeting of civilian populations, one of them being that because Hamas terrorists hide their weapons in homes, hospitals or schools (which is illegitimate), they are awarded the right to bomb in the same way they would military targets (legitimate). Consequently, for Palestinians in Gaza, simple everyday life activities have become deadly following the establishment of the Israeli military’s ‘legitimate targets’ everywhere.


Chapter four: the human right to colonize

The language of human rights has also been altered by virtue of this subject, to legitimize some of the actions taken by Israel as a colonial power. Similar to the human right to kill, a published report containing numerous testimonies about violations committed in the colonized territory, rendered the Israeli settlers the principal victims. One of their assertions also supports that by wanting all Israelis to renounce the occupied territories, Palestinians are wishing for an ethnic cleansing, which is a gross violation of human rights.


As a conclusion, one may ask - after overwhelming evidence that powerful people can easily transform “(…) the one whose rights have been violated into the perpetrators of human rights abuse, the dominated into the dominant and the dominant into the dominated”-, if human rights still have meaning, purpose, and future. The authors believe they do. According to them, the elements that converted human rights into instruments of domination will also permit them to further develop into positive weapons.



By Taline Bodart