The Hypocrisy of Violence

By Charles Slidders
The institutional “mainstreaming” of human rights has left human rights
stagnant and mired in a quagmire of bureaucracy.  They have lost “their initial revolutionary and dissident purposes” and transformative potential.[1]  Violence is anathema to the human rights community, but it is violence that has resulted in many of the human rights we enjoy today.  Indeed, the two documents that “anticipate[] the contemporary human rights movement,”[2] the United States Declaration of Independence, 1776,[3] and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, 1789,[4] “emerged . . . out of war and revolution.”[5]  The Declaration of Independence was drafted while Americans were resisting British rule.  The French Declaration was part of the bloody French Revolution and drafted shortly after French citizens, in their iconic display of resistance and rebellion, stormed the Bastille, on July 14, 1789.[6]  The US and French Declarations, precipitated by violent resistance, acknowledged the existence of a right to violently resist tyranny and oppression. However, contemporary human rights treaties do not recognise a right to violent resistance.

The contemporary recognition of resistance is “peaceful” civil disobedience in the form of protest – an exercise of the right to freedom of assembly.  The exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly is being repressed in various countries in a variety of contexts by restrictions “imposed in conformity with law.”[7]  The United Nations Special Rapporteur in 2018 reported a trend of “the use of legislation to suppress the legitimate exercise of the rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and of association” and the “criminalization of, and indiscriminate and excessive use of force to counter or repress, peaceful protest.”[8]   States from geographically diverse regions have adopted legislation and regulations aimed at curbing freedom of assembly.

If states disperse peaceful protests, or otherwise restrict assembly, in contravention of the right of freedom of assembly they have violated human rights law. When peaceful protestors do not comply with illegitimate restrictions on the freedom of assembly, states frequently use violence to prevent the exercise of the right, further violating human rights. Protestors are left with no option but to resort to violence to resist oppression and oppose the violation of their human rights. 

The survival of any rights depends on voice, on the capacity of citizens to protest, dissent, organize, and mobilize. Once these rights are suspended, citizens would have no recourse other than to seize them back by force.[9]

This is exactly what happened in Libya during the Arab Spring.

In Benghazi, Libya, in early 2011, peaceful protestors were exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly.  Gaddafi sought to quell the protests and utilised violence to do so, and hundreds of civilians died.  The protestors resisted Gaddafi’s oppressive violation of their human rights and rebels took over Benghazi, and a violent confrontation ensued.   The United Nations Security Council recognised that the Gaddafi regime had engaged in “gross and systematic violation[s] of human rights, including the repression of peaceful demonstrators” and “[u]nderlin[ed] the need to respect the freedom[] of peaceful assembly.”[10] 

In response, the UNSC instigated a travel ban, an arms embargo, an asset freeze, and “most notably, authorize[d] ‘all necessary measures’” to enforce a no-fly zone with the explicit purpose of “protect[ing] civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” by the government.[11]  It then endorsed military action that was ultimately undertaken by NATO.  NATO enforced the no-fly zone, conducted air strikes against tanks, and provided air support for the rebels.[12]  However, the United Nations failed to explicitly recognize the legality of the violent resistance of Libya’s rebels.  In doing so, the international community incongruously failed to validate the violent struggle of the Libyan people, while endorsing violent intervention by external forces. 

In failing to specifically validate the exercise of forcible resistance by the Libyan population, the international community ignored the “resistance and dissent”[13] of the actual victims of a tyrannical and repressive regime.[14]  The international community removed human rights from their traditional association with the oppressed, and instead human rights became a justification for the use of violence by institutional actors.  The international community has emasculated the role of human rights as a mechanism of struggle and dissent.  It is only in a return to “the tradition of resistance and struggle” that “[h]uman rights [can] re-claim their redemptive role”[15] instead of “becom[ing] obscure[d] in ever more declarations, treaties and diplomatic lunches.”[16] 

Charles Slidders graduated from the University of Melbourne Law School more than 20 years ago. For the last 10-years he has practised as a litigator in New York City. Charles began his legal career working with an Australian indigenous land council and graduated with a LLM in International Human Rights Law in 2003. He is passionate about human rights and has now returned to study with the intention of working in the protection and promotion of human rights.


[1] Douzinas, C. (2000). The End of Human Rights: Critical Thought at the Turn of the Century. Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition. P. 380.

[2] Lippman, M. “The Right of Civil Resistance Under International Law and the Domestic Necessity Defense,” Penn State International Law Review: Vol. 8: No. 3, Article 2 (1990); available at: http://elibrary.law.psu.edu/ psilr/vol8/iss3/2.

[3] The United States Declaration of Independence, 1776, in Ishay, M. R. (2004), The History of Human Rights From Ancient Times To the Globalization Era, University of California Press, p. 95.

[4] The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, 1789, in Ishay, 82-83.

[5] Lauren, P. G. (2003), The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2d Ed.), p. 32.  See also Afshari, Reza, “On Historiography of Human Rights Reflections on Paul Gordon Lauren’s The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen,” 29 Human Rights Quarterly 1, 8 (2007).

[6] Ishay, 74.

[7] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, A/HRC/38/34 26 July 2018, ¶19 (the “Special Rapporteur’s Report”).  See also Orsolya Salát (2014) Comparative Freedom of Assembly and the Fragmentation of International Human Rights Law, Nordic Journal of Human Rights, 32:2, 140, 143; available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/18918131.2014.896971.

[8] Special Rapporteur’s Report, ¶19.

[9] Ignatieff, 47.

[10] S/RES/1970, 26 February 2011.

[11] Tocci, N., On Power and Norms Libya, Syria, and the Responsibility to Protect Transatlantic Academy Paper Series, p. 3 (2014); available at http://www.gmfus.org/publications/power-and-norms-libya-syria-and-responsibility-protect.

[12] Id., 9-10.

[13] Douzinas, C., 380

[14] Id.

[15] Douzinas, 380

[16] Douzinas, C. (2013).  Seven Theses on Human Rights. (7) Cosmopolitanism, Equality & Resistance.  Critical Legal Thinking, Law and the Political; available at http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/06/13/seven-theses-on-human-rights-7-cosmopolitanism-equality-resistance/.