Interview with Lori Allen

Interview with Lori Allen (SOAS) on her recent book A History of False Hope: Investigative Commissions in Palestine (Stanford University Press, 2020). The interview was conducted via email by Tobias Kelly, member of the Humanity editorial collective.

Tobias Kelly (TK): Can you tell us how you came to this project and how it relates to your previous work?

Lori Allen (LA): I see this book as being a prequel to my first book, The Rise and Fall of Human Rights: Cynicism and Politics in Occupied Palestine (Stanford University Press, 2013), which was an ethnography of the human rights world in Palestine. The story in that book reached back to the 1970s, and tracked the increasing entrenchment of a human rights imagination in Palestinian politics and society throughout the first and second intifadas and into the evolution of the Palestinian Authority. I was struck by how ubiquitous the work and words of the human rights system were among Palestinians living under military occupation, and The Rise and Fall explores how that came to be, and analyzes some of its (mostly negative) effects. What I did not answer in that first book was the question of how such an apparently ineffective system stayed so entrenched. Why did people invest such hope in human rights, when the human rights system could do so little to impact the political structures that maintained their unfreedom?

One of the standard narratives about the human rights system is that it really took off, and came to supplant other leftist politics, in the 1970s and 80s. With the fall of the Soviet Union, this narrative goes, human rights and politically driven sympathy for the suffering of victims came to supplant more ideologically driven politics. That was not a fully satisfying answer to my questions about the roots of human rights politics in Palestine, and the strength of the human rights system’s hegemony. Palestinians and their supporters have been going to the United Nations for decades, and to the UN’s predecessor League of Nations before that, making national and human rights claims since the beginning of the twentieth century—to no avail. A History of False Hope is my attempt to find better answers to this mysterious attachment to the human rights system and the liberal internationalism of which it is a fundamental part, which meant digging back in time. International investigative commissions were the perfect vehicle by which to examine a longer history, since these commissions have been going to Palestine and operationalizing international and human rights law since the conflict with Zionism began.

TK: Can you tell us more about why you think international investigative commissions have been so important, and what they tell us about the history of the region and its tangled relationship with human rights?

LA: First, let’s distinguish between international commissions that were active in the first half of the twentieth century, and those that have been dispatched later, under the banner of the UN. Earlier investigations in Palestine, mostly sent by the United Kingdom and the United States during periods of increased fighting, tended to have an explicit policy focus. The more recent UN commissions to Palestine also have been prompted by intensifications of violent conflict, but have been underpinned by a human rights/humanitarian agenda. Despite these distinctions, they have all been important for how they have given Palestinians and others a sense that the people in charge, or “the international community,” are paying attention. Commissions are an attempt to calm things, but they also are a means of displaying governmental attempts at trying to fix “the problem of Palestine.” This caring community is embodied in the commissions themselves, and in the international lawyers, humanitarians, diplomats, and statesmen that have acted as investigators. The UN commissions are a prime venue for the staging of an international community that cares—the performances of which I analyze throughout the book.

Human rights—as both a system of values and an institutional system of global governance—has a long history in Palestine, and was a language of claim making for Palestinians even before the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights. It has become increasingly so since then. What a close look at investigative commissions shows is how deeply engaged so many people, Palestinian and others, have been in these processes; how much energy has gone into mobilizing international law and the human rights system. Everyone from political representatives, technocrats, and lawyers to NGO activists, fishermen, and farmers have been involved.

The human rights system has not been a static one, however. And it is the continual transmogrification of its precepts and terms, the shifts in its priorities, bureaucracies, and forms of institutionalization, that have produced continually renewed hopes that it might yield justice for Palestinians. Hopes as yet unfulfilled.

TK: The history of human rights has been a booming and much debated field in recent years, and you come to the debates as an anthropologist. What, if anything do you think anthropological sensitivities and approaches bring to the table? What, if anything did you think was missing from the new histories of human rights?

LA: The many histories of human rights have brought fascinating new insights into developments of this system over many decades. They show how much of an impact international law has had on so many people’s struggles for independence, freedom, for basic justice. Jenny Martinez’s work on human rights and the abolition of the slave trade, and the scholarship of Jan Eckel and Roland Burke on the role of African states in shaping the human rights agenda have done a lot to expand and enrich our view of the international legal field.[1] The debates over when human rights became politically important—spurred most notably by Sam Moyn’s work—have sometimes missed out on what a long history human rights politics really has. And that has to do with how human rights is defined, why those definitions matter, and who is assumed to be a relevant character in the development of the human rights system.

Tracing such a history depends, of course, on what you determine counts, and whether the baseline is “human rights” as we understand it today. Does the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 mark a starting point, or is the transnational institutionalization and the NGO-ification of human rights politics the real watershed? Or does any mention of the term “human right” count? The analytical difficulty is compounded by the fact that human rights is both a rhetorical term that can invoke certain values and even feelings, and it can be defined externally—etically, in anthropological lingo—to capture a system of institutions, legal norms, diplomatic and legal actors, or however the analyst circumscribes the field to be analyzed. And sometimes analysts themselves are using the term to evoke values and feelings, and are trying to make political points through the ways they frame their research. By showing how this or that religious tradition harmonizes with human rights, for example, one may be making a political point about the goodness and value of this or that religion. It is because of what human rights stands for—in the eyes of many—that so much seems to be at stake in telling its history, in naming those who have made its history.

I think anthropology can bring two significant and distinct contributions to understanding such histories. First, anthropologists are inclined to make mountains out of what scholars in other disciplines might consider mere molehills. And this on the level of actors, of language, and most famously, of everyday life. We are inclined to pay attention to those who are normally figured to be politically unimportant social characters: the marginalized, the non-elite, those who have left barely a trace in the archives. We consider their views and contributions as being worthy of consideration, and sometimes discover their social and political significance, too. As such we are able to understand how human rights has come to stand for so much—to have the power it has—as rhetorical term, political ideology, organizing discourse, and system of institutions and norms.

In reading the archives to write my book, I noticed pictures of whole families coming to make their case for Palestinian independence to an early investigative commission in 1919, their raggedy clothes indicating their status. I read the testimonies given by school teachers, grandfathers, and political prisoners to UN investigators in the 1970s and more recently. What this research revealed, over and over across a century of history, is that engaging the human rights system, making their case to its arbiters, mattered to a lot of people in Palestine. This is a more grassroots way of understanding the normativity of human rights.

Second, anthropologists—at least the kinds of anthropologists I read—are conceptual rebels and politically critical. They take any norm or status quo situation as a box to be deconstructed; any power relation is both a puzzle and something to be challenged. Human rights is a particularly tough field of analysis, since the ideals and aspirations professed by its advocates are so laudable (rights, freedom, human dignity), and since human rights advocacy became a main channel for progressive politics. Of course, critical legal scholars, Marxists, and intellectuals and activists from the global south have long seen the biases in the system. It is anthropology—a deeply liberal discipline—that perhaps helped mainstream the critical take on human rights. This has emerged, at least in part, from the more globally expansive approach that anthropologists often take, going beyond the western-centric stories usually told about the origins of international law and human rights. Anthropologists are good, I think, at learning from the critical political views of their interlocutors.

What my research into the Palestinian case shows quite clearly is the long and deep involvement of Palestinians with international law and the human rights system. This becomes clear once you dig into the nitty gritty of what wide ranges of people were saying and doing; once you pay attention to the terms in which they were debating their conditions of repression and dispossession, how they understood their horizons of possibility and how they conceived of their rights and entitlements as humans, who they felt the need to persuade.

TK: The history—as opposed to the anthropology perhaps— of human rights has often been told from New York, London, or Geneva, and it seems to me that many of the criticisms of human rights too have often been rooted in particular places. What do you think it does when we start the history from Nablus, Beirut, Jerusalem, or Amman? What new insights does it produce and what new critiques does it open up?

LA: This is a wonderful way to frame the question. Taking the experiences and perspectives of people from the global south as a starting point enables a clearer view of the ways the human rights and international legal system have worked to maintain the hegemony of the global north, a point I gestured towards in my response to the previous question. When we see how the lofty goals and values of “human rights” are implemented on the ground, we can identify the limitations of this system and how those limitations have been baked in from the start. Who gets to make their case and in what terms; how the conversation is ring-fenced by political, bureaucratic, and discursive strictures—these are easier to notice when looking from the perspective of those who suffer from these constraints.

We can see a great example of this in how the League of Nations Permanent Mandates Commission functioned—something of a precursor to the human rights and UN system. Back then, people in countries governed as European “mandates”—those being tutored into civilization by the supposedly more advanced European countries—could not make complaints or demand changes that questioned the mandate system itself. If a Palestinian’s petition to the League challenged the premise of the system, that Europeans should be in charge of them, their petition would be automatically binned (as opposed to being reviewed, ignored, and then binned, as was typically the case with petitions that obeyed the rules). The banishment of systemic challenges from the system happens in subtler ways these days. But we see the persistence of this mode revealed in the work of anthropologists and others, (including yours)—showing, for example, how asylum seekers, migrants, and victims of torture must speak the right language of suffering to be heard, to be offered some small relief.

The dynamic and transnational dimensions of human rights, humanitarianism, and international law also are more apparent when one begins from the political margins. Every chapter of my book tracing the history of international humanitarian and human rights law in Palestine reveals a deeply transnational story, as Palestinians worked with the gossamer webs of solidarity stretching across countries and continents. The Great Arab Revolt, a rebellion against British and Zionist colonialism of Palestine that lasted from 1936-1939, involved people across the Arab world calling for Palestinian national and individual rights and condemning British and Zionist violations of them. The Special Investigative Committee of the UN General Assembly that has issued an annual report on Palestine for four decades has involved representatives of Sri Lanka and Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Ecuador, among many others. Because Palestinians in Palestine have never lived under a representative government, a nebulous “international community” and “the world” have been their key political interlocutors. The UN and human rights system promote the notion that there is an international community that cares. But as I argue in this book, appealing to “the world” can distract attention from the underlying political dynamics that prop up the system as it is.

TK: You are rightly critical throughout the book of the false promises and wrong turns of human rights institutions. But human rights are not only about the formal institutions and committees set up by various manifestations of the “international community.” Do you think there are any parts of the history of human rights that you might seek to recover, that could have had, or could still have emancipatory potential?

LA: I don’t think there is emancipatory potential in anything other than collective human action against repression and injustice. So whatever helps motivate and organize such collective effort contributes to that potential. To the extent that the human rights system has helped coalesce those energies and maintain those aspirations, it has had emancipatory potential.

Please forgive me if I elaborate on this answer in a roundabout way: I sometimes wonder if most if not all of my academic production is a working out of the yin and yang of my own hopes and disappointments that I’ve experienced from engaging with Palestine and the human rights system. I first began learning about Palestine as a BA student, when I focused my research on Palestinian women and their inspiring contributions to the nationalist resistance against Israeli occupation. That’s when I learned about the first intifada (the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation that began in 1987), and started to understand something about both the courage of many Palestinians fighting for their rights, and about the brutality of Israel’s repression of all Palestinians, whether activists or not. Then as a Masters student at the University of Chicago, I spent much of a year reading the horrific accounts of Israeli torture of Palestinian political prisoners recorded in human rights reports, as research for my MA thesis. As I did this research, I often thought, if only “the world” knew about the injustice of this situation, surely “they” would do something to stop it. I was young and naïve, righteously outraged and hopeful. The human rights system put authoritative words to my sense of outrage and hope that things could change—feelings shared by many others. For many Palestinians— and others too, I think—the fact that the human rights system echoes and amplifies their own knowledge of how they have been denied their rights can provide some encouragement. It alleviates their “ethical loneliness,” as I write about in my book (borrowing the term from political philosopher Jill Stauffer). To the extent that liberation struggles require morale-boosting solidarity, the human rights system can contribute to forming that.

I, like many, thought the human rights system—including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that spells out a number of basic principles, the Convention against Torture, the Convention for the Rights of the Child, the 1961 Refugee Rights Convention, and the many other human rights declarations and instruments—had the status and power of law. These documents articulate what seem like such obvious principles: that people should not be tortured, that children should not be abused, that people should have the right to move freely, have freedom of conscience, and be educated, and so on. They resonate with many people’s sense of basic justice and fairness. Insofar as these documents enshrine these principles with the backing of “the international community,” they maintain a set of important liberal (and in some cases progressive) values as aspirations, at least. Even if the liberal system is incapable of ensuring their realization in people’s lives. There’s value in that, in naming and maintaining the aspirations—especially these days when so many political leaders and their followers are fighting against those norms.

Oppressed people, people denied their freedom, their rights, people confined to systems that hobble their creative capacities, don’t need the human rights system to tell them they are being wronged. But the human rights system can help explain that to others. What people do with that knowledge is another issue. To turn that knowledge into political change requires collective human action.

TK: You mention international criminal law only a few times in the book, but there was a time when international criminal law seemed to be replacing human rights as the dominant frame through which at least some people understood the hope for justice and accountability for Palestinians, but also more broadly. Do you think many of your criticisms of investigative commissions and the international human rights regime also apply to international criminal law as well?

LA: I have thought about the International Criminal Court and have followed the ICC’s very ponderous attention to the case of Palestine. I think the legacy of the ICC in Palestine and elsewhere so far indicates that we should temper our hopes in it. The first preliminary investigation of the situation by the Court began in 2009, and here we are twelve years later with the 5 February decision (technically by a pre-trial chamber) finally affirming the ICC’s territorial jurisdiction over Palestine, just months before the Prosecutor’s term ends. (It’s hard not to wonder if this coincidence is just a coincidence. Did Fatou Bensouda come to this decision so late, leaving the new Prosecutor—British barrister Karim Khan who will take over in June—to deal with this particularly prickly problem?)

This recent ICC decision sparked a range of responses, including praise from the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, who hailed the decision “a victory for justice and humanity, for the values of truth, fairness and freedom, and for the blood of the victims and their families.” Whether this is a PR line or an expression of genuine hope that the Court can enforce accountability and change the political dynamics, it is rooted in a conviction that the international community can pressure Israel to shift course. But the international community is not united in its views on the conflict, and the lack of widespread international reaction to the recent ICC decision from governments around the world suggests a need for a new strategy. The recent decision itself left open the possibility that “further questions of jurisdiction” may still arise. And as legal scholar Victor Kattan has observed, since Israel is not a party to the Rome Statute, “the response of other states to the chamber’s decision is important. Should these states refuse to cooperate with the Prosecutor, Israel will have little to fear.” To put it rather simply, broader geopolitical dynamics will continue to influence how and whether international law plays a role in Palestine. What is needed, I think, is grassroots pressure upwards that will make parliamentarians and politicians understand the importance of accountability in this conflict.

There was a great uptick in public discourse about the possibilities of international criminal law in Palestine when the 2009 Goldstone Commission Report put the topic back on the table. The final chapter of my book discusses that report’s emphasis on the category of international crime and I argue that this anti-impunity turn stirred further hope in international law. But we can see that the Goldstone Report achieved nothing. I will be surprised if the ICC accomplishes more.

TK: You pin the blame throughout the book on the false promises of the human rights regime. But as you say in one of your previous answers, collective action and solidarity are essential for change. Might we also think of the failure of human rights to deliver on their promises as also being about the failure of collective organization and solidarity to mobilize human rights in a meaningful way; we need to look as much to strategies of collective mobilization as to the internal logic of human rights regimes to understand their false hopes?

LA: This is another excellent question and I agree. The human rights system—including its organizations, authorities, the human and humanitarian values it is built on—has never had power independent of the people trying to mobilize it. It is a moral-political discourse that has the uneven authority of a complicated international consensus to put pressure on governments through “naming and shaming.” It can be a persuasive discourse, if mobilized in the context of effective arguments and broader pressure attached to specific demands. The system does not, however, carry with it automatic penalties or powers of punishment.

Because criticism of Israel runs political risks, most politicians would prefer to ignore what Israel is doing to Palestinians, and prefer to accrue points by supporting Israel. Politicians do not generally suffer by ignoring Palestinians. Nor have businesses, until the BDS campaign brought enough people together to demand that attention. Consider how the EU has and has not dealt with goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements. As reported in 2019, the Court of Justice of the European Union “ruled that EU countries must identify products made in Israeli settlements on their labels.” But as the boycott campaign has argued, the EU should not just demand labels, but should ban all business with the settlements, which are illegal under international law. And consider also the case of Ariel University, based in an illegal Israeli settlement in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). It is involved in European taxpayer funded research programmes in breach of EU guidelines. EU guidelines strictly forbid Israeli institutions established in the OPT from participating in EU research programmes. But Ariel University has participated in past and ongoing EU-funded projects. There are activists drawing attention to these kinds of breaches, such as the No Ariel Ties campaign. I think it is only consistent groundswells of public pressure by citizen-voters such as these that can force political representatives to rethink their political calculus and force them to uphold the international laws they have signed on to.

TK: To end, I want to ask you, what comes after false hope? You started writing this book in a very different world, a world where human rights regimes seemed dominant. But the world into which the book has emerged is very different, and human rights seems to be on the back front in many ways. What do you see emerging in the near future? Is this pattern of false promises one that you think will repeat itself, or has the hope placed in human rights been largely depleted, and are new configurations possibly emerging?

LA: When reviewing history or even a contemporary scene, analysts can see patterns and tendencies in social and political life. Certain political science types might predict coming dynamics on the basis of such patterns. But I like what one of my graduate school supervisors, the eminent historian Rashid Khalidi often says during the Q&As after his talks when people ask questions such as yours: “I’m a historian; I don’t have a crystal ball.”

For my part, I have neither the wide and wise perspicacity of the professional historian nor the crystal ball of a pundit. What I do have is a deep-seated faith in people’s urge towards freedom and a conviction that change is always possible and always happening. As my meditation app reminded me recently, if you stand looking at a river flowing, it is never the same river. The social world and political life are, like the river (and our minds), always changing even if they appear similar from moment to moment. New configurations calling for freedom are always emerging. The real question is about how those configurations can coalesce into movements of enough solidarity and weight.

I’ve been reading Robert O. Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism and am struck by three things: his argument about the novelty of fascism, his analysis of the conditions that made fascism possible, and his emphasis on the role of feelings and zeal (more than ideology and reason) in the power of fascism.[2]  If a destructive new phenomenon such as fascism can emerge in particular conditions, other new forms that are positive and creative can also emerge in different conditions—something that pulls together people’s sense of justice and their freedom aspirations, that draws on and generates the joy of working in solidarity. Look at The Movement for Black Lives. Watch Steve McQueen’s movie, Mangrove, about black civil rights struggles in the UK. Struggles for rights and freedom continue and shapeshift. Consider the wave of pushback against the anti-Palestinian IHRA anti-Semitism definition that institutions across Europe have adopted in an attempt to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel. The pushback is coming from people signing onto petitions and speaking out as Israelis, Jews, Palestinians, Arabs, academics. Insistence on academic freedom and freedom of speech remains widespread.

See the Arab uprisings that began a decade ago. Although not yet successful in achieving bread, freedom, and dignity for the people who stood up for themselves against authoritarian regimes, they were a start. Their failures can offer lessons to coming generations that will try again. Most of the planet is oppressed by a much smaller number of hyper-wealthy exploiters. The odds are in our favour.

As more people see how united is the exploiting class, how illegitimate is this system that keeps the hyper-wealthy in power, they will recognize possibilities of shared solidarities in their economic class, in each other across nations, and through their “wounded attachments” (in Wendy Brown’s catchy phrase) and build on those shared foundations.

At least, I hope so.


[1] Jenny S. Martinez, The Slave Trade and the Origins of International Human Rights Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). Jan Eckel, “Human Rights and Decolonization: New Perspectives and Open Questions,” Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development 1, no. 1 (Fall 2010); Roland Burke, Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

[2] Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).

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About Lori Allen

Lori Allen is Reader in the Department of Anthropology at SOAS University of London. Her book, The Rise and Fall of Human Rights: Cynicism and Politics in Occupied Palestine (Stanford University Press, 2013) won the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology Book prize. Her articles on human rights, Palestinian politics, violence, and nationalism have appeared in Cultural Anthropology, American Ethnologist, Comparative Studies in Society and History, MERIP, and other publications. Her latest book, A History of False Hope: Investigative Commissions in Palestine (Stanford University Press, 2020), offers a major reconsideration of the international political management of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by analyzing a century of Palestinian engagement with liberalism and international law.

About Tobias Kelly

Tobias Kelly is professor of political and legal anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests include human rights, torture and ill-treatment, and freedom of conscience. He has carried out fieldwork in Israel/Palestine, the United Kingdom, and at the United Nations. He is the author of two monographs: Law, Violence and Sovereignty amongst West Bank Palestinians (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and This Side of Silence: Human Rights, Torture and the Recognition of Cruelty (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011). He is currently working on an anthropological history of conscientious objection.

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