Human Rights as Politics and Idolatryby Michael Ignatieff
Michael Ignatieff draws on his extensive experience as a writer and commentator on world affairs to present a penetrating account of the successes, failures, and prospects of the human rights revolution. Since the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, this revolution has brought the world moral progress and broken the
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Michael Ignatieff draws on his extensive experience as a writer and commentator on world affairs to present a penetrating account of the successes, failures, and prospects of the human rights revolution. Since the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, this revolution has brought the world moral progress and broken the nation-state's monopoly on the conduct of international affairs. But it has also faced challenges. Ignatieff argues that human rights activists have rightly drawn criticism from Asia, the Islamic world, and within the West itself for being overambitious and unwilling to accept limits. It is now time, he writes, for activists to embrace a more modest agenda and to reestablish the balance between the rights of states and the rights of citizens.
Ignatieff begins by examining the politics of human rights, assessing when it is appropriate to use the fact of human rights abuse to justify intervention in other countries. He then explores the ideas that underpin human rights, warning that human rights must not become an idolatry. In the spirit of Isaiah Berlin, he argues that human rights can command universal assent only if they are designed to protect and enhance the capacity of individuals to lead the lives they wish. By embracing this approach and recognizing that state sovereignty is the best guarantee against chaos, Ignatieff concludes, Western nations will have a better chance of extending the real progress of the past fifty years. Throughout, Ignatieff balances idealism with a sure sense of practical reality earned from his years of travel in zones of war and political turmoil around the globe.
Based on the Tanner Lectures that Ignatieff delivered at Princeton University's Center for Human Values in 2000, the book includes two chapters by Ignatieff, an introduction by Amy Gutmann, comments by four leading scholars--K. Anthony Appiah, David A. Hollinger, Thomas W. Laqueur, and Diane F. Orentlicher--and a response by Ignatieff.
This book . . . confirms Michael Ignatieff's reputation as one of the most interesting commentators on human rights issues. . . . An excellent little book. It deserves to be widely read among all those interested in human rights issues. . . . One finds oneself eagerly anticipating Ignatieff's next contribution.
"Michael Ignatieff is one of the few people who give political theory a good name. He writes about interesting things in an interesting way, without using jargon and without any attempt to engage in covert practical politics. His essays on human rights display all of these virtues . . . and should be read immediately by anyone who has more than a passing interest in the political landscape of the twenty-first century."--Oliver Letwin, Times Literary Supplement
"Bracing. . . . If anyone is superbly equipped to scrutinize the hybrid of theory and practical exigency at the heart of human-rights thinking, it's this unique, independent veteran of the world's war zones. . . . [This is] the shrewdest, subtlest, most realistic assessment of the logic of human rights in years."--Carlin Romano, Philadelphia Inquirer
"One of the most pleasing aspects of Michael Ignatieff's frequent contributions to the human rights debate is the clarity with which he writes about a subject beset as never before by uncertainty and disagreement. Not least of the achievements of Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry . . . is the simplicity and common sense Ignatieff introduces. And at a time when it has become fashionable to deride the gains made by the human rights movement over the years, his cautious optimism is refreshing."--Caroline Moorehead, The Spectator
"This book . . . confirms Michael Ignatieff's reputation as one of the most interesting commentators on human rights issues. . . . An excellent little book. It deserves to be widely read among all those interested in human rights issues. . . . One finds oneself eagerly anticipating Ignatieff's next contribution."--David Petrasek, Ethics and International Affairs
"This elegant book is a spirited attempt to put flesh on the bones of . . . politics and reunite theoretical questing with real-world situations."--Alex Clark, The Sunday Times (London)
"[A] cogent analysis of the crusade for human rights. . . . The author gives a sympathetic analysis of its problems. . . . His views ring true, and he writes lucidly."--Kirkus Reviews
"A philosophical liberal and a strong believer in the power of constitutions, Ignatieff boldly confronts difficult issues. . . . [He] illuminates complexities likely to make headlines as the call for intervention regarding worldwide human rights continues to grow. This book will undoubtedly provoke controversy within the human rights community."--Publishers Weekly
"Carefully crafted, simple and direct prose working in the service of insightful analysis and passionate yet restrained advocacy . . . presented in a style that will both engage specialists and attract intelligent general readers--by a committed liberal humanist (and sympathetic critic) on the difficulties of the contemporary struggle for human rights. It is a 'must read' for anyone seriously interested in, or desiring a thoughtful general overview of, the struggle for universal human rights in contemporary international society."--Jack Donnelly, International Affairs
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Human Rights as Politics
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Human Rights and Moral Progress
In If This Is a Man, Primo Levi describes being interviewed by Dr. Pannwitz, chief of the chemical department at Auschwitz. Securing a place in the department was a matter of life or death: if Levi could convince Pannwitz that he was a competent chemist, he might be spared the gas chamber. As Levi stood on one side of the doctor's desk, in his concentration camp uniform, Dr. Pannwitz stared up at him. Levi later remembered:
That look was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third German [reich].
Here was a scientist, trained in the traditions of European rational inquiry, turning a meeting between two human beings into an encounter between different species.
Progress may be a contested concept, but we make progress to the degree that we act upon the moral intuition that Dr. Pannwitz was wrong: our species is one, and each of the individuals who compose it is entitled to equal moral consideration. Human rights is the language that systematically embodies this intuition, and to the degree that this intuition gains influence over the conduct of individuals and states, we can say that we are making moral progress. Richard Rorty's definition of progress applies here: "an increase in our ability to see more and more differences among people as morally irrelevant." We think of the global diffusion of this idea as progress for two reasons: because if we live by it, we treat more human beings as we would wish to be treated ourselves, and in so doing help to reduce the amount of cruelty and unmerited suffering in the world. Our grounds for believing that the spread of human rights represents moral progress, in other words, are pragmatic and historical. We know from historical experience that when human beings have defensible rightswhen their agency as individuals is protected and enhancedthey are less likely to be abused and oppressed. On these grounds, we count the diffusion of human rights instruments as progress even if there remains an unconscionable gap between the instruments and the actual practices of states charged to comply with them.
Calling the global diffusion of Western human rights a sign of moral progress may seem Eurocentric. Yet the human rights instruments created after 1945 were not a triumphant expression of European imperial self-confidence but a war-weary generation's reflection on European nihilism and its consequences. Human rights was a response to Dr. Pannwitz, to the discovery of the abomination that could occur when the Westphalian state was accorded unlimited sovereignty, when citizens of that state lacked normative grounds to disobey legal but immoral orders. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights represented a return by the European tradition to its natural law heritage, a return intended to restore agency, to give individuals the civic courage to stand up when the state ordered them to do wrong.
The Juridical, Advocacy, and
Historically speaking, the Universal Declaration is part of a wider reordering of the normative order of postwar international relations, designed to create fire walls against barbarism. The juridical revolution included the UN Charter of 1945, outlawing aggressive war between states; the Genocide Convention of 1948, protecting religious, racial, and ethnic groups against extermination; the revision of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, strengthening noncombatant immunity; and finally the international convention on asylum of 1951 to protect the rights of refugees.
Before the Second World War, only states had rights in international law. With the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the rights of individuals received international legal recognition. For the first time, individualsregardless of race, creed, gender, age, or any other statuswere granted rights that they could use to challenge unjust state law or oppressive customary practice.
The international rights revolution was not led by states that already practiced what they preached. America and the European nations had not completed the juridical emancipation of their own citizens or subject peoples. Indeed, many of the states that contributed to the drafting of the Universal Declaration saw no apparent contradiction between endorsing international norms abroad and continuing oppression at home. They thought that the Universal Declaration would remain a pious set of clichés more practiced in the breach than in the observance. Yet once articulated as international norms, rights language ignited both the colonial revolutions abroad and the civil rights revolution at home. The juridical revolution should not be seen apart from the struggle for self-determination and national independence among the colonies of Europe's empires and, just as important, the battle for full civil rights by black Americans, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1965.
Fifty years on, most modern states have ratified the international human rights conventions, and some countries have incorporated their rights and remedies into the structure of their constitutions. The European Court of Human Rights, established in 1953, now affords citizens of European states the capacity to appeal against injustices in civil and state administration to the European Court in Strasbourg. European states, including Britain, now accept that decisions taken by their courts or administrative bodies can be overturned by a human rights court independent of their national parliament and court systems. New nations seeking entry into the European Union accept that they must align their domestic law in accordance with the European Convention, even jettisoning capital punishment, since it falls afoul of European human rights standards.
In the developing world, ratifying international human rights covenants has become a condition of entry for new states joining the family of nations. Even oppressive states feel obliged to engage in rhetorical deference toward human rights instruments. While genuflection toward human rights is the homage that vice pays to virtue, the fact that oppressive regimes feel so obliged means that vice can now be shamed and even controlled in ways that were unavailable before 1945.
The worldwide spread of human rights norms is often seen as a moral consequence of economic globalization. The U.S. State Department's annual report for 1999 on human rights practice around the world describes the constellation of human rights and democracyalong with "money and the Internet"as one of the three universal languages of globalization. This implies too easily that human rights is a style of moral individualism that has some elective affinity with the economic individualism of the global market, and that the two advance hand in hand. Actually, the relation between human rights and money, between moral and economic globalization, is more antagonistic, as can be seen, for example, in the campaigns by human rights activists against the labor and environmental practices of the large global corporations. Human rights has gone global not because it serves the interests of the powerful but primarily because it has advanced the interests of the powerless. Human rights has gone global by going local, imbedding itself in the soil of cultures and worldviews independent of the West, in order to sustain ordinary people's struggles against unjust states and oppressive social practices.
We can call this global diffusion of human rights culture a form of moral progress even while remaining skeptical of the motives of those who helped to bring it about. The states that signed the Universal Declaration never actually believed that it would constrain their behavior. After all, it lacked any enforcement mechanism. It was a declaration only, rather than a state treaty or a convention requiring national ratification. The draftersmen and women like Eleanor Roosevelt, René Cassin, and John Humphreywere willing to live with a mere declaration because they believed that it would raise human rights consciousness around the world and in so doing restrain potential perpetrators of abuse. We can respect their achievement while remaining skeptical about their faith. We have good reason to be doubtful about the preventive impact of human rights codes. Yet if human rights has not stopped the villains, it certainly has empowered bystanders and victims. Human rights instruments have given bystanders and witnesses a stake in abuse and oppression both within and beyond their borders, and this has called forth an advocacy revolution, the emergence of a network of nongovernmental human rights organizationsAmnesty International and Human Rights Watch being only the most famousto pressure states to practice what they preach. Because of this advocacy revolution, victims have gained historically unprecedented power to make their case known to the world.
The advocacy revolution has broken the state's monopoly on the conduct of international affairs, enfranchising what has become known as global civil society. Here, too, we can believe in progress even while remaining dubious about the details. The phrase "global civil society" implies a cohesive moral movement when the reality is fierce and disputatious rivalry among nongovernmental organizations. These groups frequently claim that they represent human interests and human rights more effectively than governments, and while this is sometimes true, NGOs are not necessarily more representative or more accountable than elected governments. Global human rights consciousness, moreover, does not necessarily imply that the groups defending human rights actually believe the same things. Many of these NGOs espouse the universalist language of human rights but actually use it to defend highly particularist causes: the rights of particular national groups or minorities or classes of persons. There is nothing wrong with particularism in itself. Everyone's universalism ultimately anchors itself in a particular commitment to a specially important group of people whose cause is close to one's heart or convictions. The problem is that particularism conflicts with universalism at the point at which one's commitment to a group leads one to countenance human rights violations toward another group. Persons who care about human rights violations committed against Palestinians may not care so much about human rights violations committed by Palestinians against Israelis, and vice versa.
Human rights activism likes to portray itself as an antipolitics, in defense of universal moral claims designed to delegitimize "political" (i.e., ideological or sectarian) justifications for the abuse of human beings. In practice, impartiality and neutrality are just as impossible as universal and equal concern for everyone's human rights. Human rights activism means taking sides, mobilizing constituencies powerful enough to force abusers to stop. As a consequence, effective human rights activism is bound to be partial and political. Yet at the same time, human rights politics is disciplined or constrained by moral universals. The role of moral universalism is not to take activists out of politics but to get activists to discipline their partialitytheir conviction that one side is rightwith an equal commitment to the rights of the other side.
Because human rights activists take it for granted that they represent universal values and universal interests, they have not always taken as much care as they might about the question of whether they truly represent the human interests they purport to defend. They are not elected by the victim groups they represent, and in the nature of things they cannot be. But this leaves unresolved their right to speak for and on behalf of the people whose rights they defend. A more acutely political, as opposed to moral activism might be more attentive to the question of whom activists represent and how far the right to represent extends. Few mechanisms of genuine accountability connect NGOs and the communities in civil society whose interests they seek to advance.
Yet even if we grant that many NGOs are more particularist, and less accountable, than they claim, many others perform an essential function. By monitoring human rights abuses and bringing these abuses to light, they keep state signatories of human rights conventions up to the mark, or at least expose the gap between promise and practice, rhetoric and reality. Without the advocacy revolution of the NGOs, in other words, it is likely that the passage of so many human rights instruments since 1945 would have remained a revolution on paper.
Extraterritorial moral activism predates the Universal Declaration, of course. All human rights activism in the modern world properly traces its origins back to the campaigns to abolish the slave trade and then slavery itself. But the catastrophe of European war and genocide gave impetus to the ideal of moral intervention beyond national borders and to the proposition that a network of international activists could shame their own states into intervening in delinquent states in the name of universal values. Thanks to human rights advocacy, international politics has been democratized, and the pressure that human rights advocates can bring to bear on state actorswitness the campaigns on behalf of Soviet Jewry, or the international struggle against apartheidhas forced most states to accept that their foreign policy must at least pay rhetorical attention to values, as well as interests. Indeed, human rights considerations are now increasingly used to make the claim that in cases where values point one way and interests the other, values should trump. The United Nations system itself is beginning to reflect this new reality. Until the 1960s, UN bodies were wary of criticizing the human rights behavior of member states. The apartheid regime of South Africa was the first exception, and after this breach in the wall there came others: the denunciation of the Greek junta in the 1970s, and the critique of repression in the Eastern bloc in the 1980s. After forty years of deference toward the sovereignty of states, the United Nations decided in the 1990s to create its own cadre of human rights activists under the leadership of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The commissioner's office still lacks financial resources and real support from UN member states, and the commissioner has the power only to name and shame defaulting governments. Still, every time a state is denounced for its human rights record, it becomes harder for it to secure international loans or political and military help when it is in danger. Naming and shaming for human rights abuses now have real consequences.
Beyond the power to name and shame governments (and also private corporations) that violate human rights covenants, the international community has also created new instruments to punish violators. This is the enforcement revolution in human rights. The International Tribunal at Arusha secured the first convictions under the Genocide Convention since its promulgation in 1948. The prosecutors at The Hague have secured the first international convictions for war crimes since Nuremberg. The first international warrant for the arrest of a sitting head of state has been issued. The first forensic investigation of war crimes sites, immediately following a violation, was undertaken in Kosovo. These are important steps by any measure. The tribunal has done much to break the cycle of impunity in Rwanda, Bosnia, and now Kosovo. Each arrest of a suspect and each conviction by a tribunal help to substantiate the reality of a universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity. These tribunals, however, are temporary instruments created to respond to contingent catastrophes. The next step is the creation of a permanent International Criminal Tribunal. The statute for such a tribunal has been agreed on; and once ratified by a majority of states, it may finally be established, admittedly with its powers diluted and diminished, chiefly as a result of objections by the United States.
It is at this point, of course, that uncomfortable aspects of the human rights revolution reveal themselves, at least insofar as the United States is concerned. America's insistence on watering down the powers of the International Criminal Tribunal has opened up a significant rift with allies, like Britain and France, that can claim descent from the same family of rights traditions. What bothers the American administration is not merely the prospect of seeing American military personnel brought before tendentious tribunals. Nor is American resistance to international human rights merely "rights narcissism"the conviction that the land of Jefferson and Lincoln has nothing to learn from international rights norms. It is that Americans believe their rights derive their legitimacy from their own consent, as embodied in the U.S. Constitution. International rights covenants lack this element of national political legitimacy. Since the early 1950s, the American Congress has been reluctant to ratify international rights conventions. This ratification processwhich, after all, is intended to vest these conventions with domestic political legitimacyhas often delayed full international implementation of the conventions or has introduced so many qualifications and reservations about American participation as to leave them enfeebled.
America's reluctant participation places it in a highly paradoxical relation to an emerging international legal order based on human rights principles. Since Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the committee that produced the Universal Declaration, America has promoted human rights norms around the world, while also resisting the idea that these norms apply to American citizens and American institutions. The utopia to which human rights activism aspiresan international legal order with the capacity to enforce penalties against statesis inimical to the American conception that rights derive their legitimacy from the exercise of national popular sovereignty.
Europeans and Canadians, for example, may feel that American death penalty statutes are a violation of the right to life in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration, but a majority of Americans believe that such statutes are the expression of the democratically expressed will of the people. Hence international human rights objections are seen as both irrelevant and intrusive.
Human Rights and Nationalism
American congressional objections to international human rights instruments may seem to be an expression of American "exceptionalism" or "imperialism," depending on one's point of view. Yet Americans are hardly the only people to believe that their own civil and political rights are both more legitimate and more valuable than the rights enshrined in international covenants. In most liberal democracies, citizens look first to their domestic rights and remedies, and only when these are exhausted or denied do they turn to human rights conventions and international bodies. National groups who do not have states of their ownKurds, Kosovar Albanians, and Tamilscertainly make use of human rights language to denounce their oppression, but for ultimate remedy they seek statehood for themselves and the right to create a framework of political and legal protection for their people.
International human rights has furthered the growth of nationalism, since human rights covenants have encouraged, if not endorsed the core claim of nationalist movements to collective self-determination. But colonial groups and oppressed minorities have put more faith in obtaining a state of their own than in the protection of international human rights regimes. The classic case of this preference for national rights rather than human rights is, of course, the state of Israel. The Universal Declaration was, in large measure, a response to the torment of the Jewish people. Yet the survivors' overwhelming desire to create a Jewish state, capable of defending Jews everywhere against oppression, reveals that they trusted more to the creation of a state of their own than to the uncertain benefits of universal human rights protection within other people's national states.
Those who stand most in need of human rights protection in the modern worldhomeless, stateless peoples, minorities at the mercy of other ethnic or religious majoritiestend to seek collective self-determination, preferably in the form of a defensible state of their own or, if the situation allows, self-rule within an autonomist or federal association with another people. Collective self-government provides defensible rights, legitimized by popular sovereignty and enforced by local courts, police, and punishments. No wonder nationalist movements that promise this solution seem attractive to stateless, homeless, rightless peoples around the world.
Yet nationalism solves the human rights problems of the victorious national groups while producing new victim groups, whose human rights situation is made worse. Nationalists tend to protect the rights of majorities and deny the rights of minorities. Even if one grants that collective self-determination on nationalist lines is going to be the preference of most persecuted groups seeking rights protection in the modern world, there still remains an important place for universalist human rights regimes. Minorities need the right to appeal against particularist and unjust rights rulings by the ethnic majorities they live beside. This is especially the caseas in the example of Israelwhere ethnic majorities rule peoples who are not citizens and who do not come under full constitutional protection of national laws. In places like the occupied territories of the West Bank, Palestinian subjects of Israeli military rule stand in need of both international and domestic rights monitoring and protection.
Excerpted from Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry by Michael Ignatieff, with commentary by K. Anthony Appiah, David A. Hollinger, Thomas W. Laqueur and Diane F. Orentlicher. Copyright © 2001 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Gary Bass, author of "Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals"
Martha Minow, Harvard University
Meet the Author
Michael Ignatieff, a writer, historian, and broadcaster, is Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. His books include "Isaiah Berlin: A Life, Blood and Belonging, The Warrior’s Honor", and "The Needs of Strangers". His novel "Scar Tissue" was nominated for the Booker Prize, and his book "The Russian Album, A Family Memoir" won Canada’s Governor General's Award and the Heinemann Prize of Britain’s Royal Society of Literature.
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