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Issue #19, Winter 2011
Utopia Lost
Human rights as utopian politics may have failed us, but human rights as catastrophe prevention is the least we must insist on.
Yehudah Mirsky
The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History By Samuel Moyn • Harvard University Press • 2010 • 337 pages • $27.95
wo large questions dog the theory and practice of human rights in our time. Although many claim that these rights have a long ancestry in the history of human thought, why do they seem to have emerged in force only in recent decades? And why does the language of human rights lend itself so easily to abuse, malevolence, and near meaninglessness, to the point where we’ve nearly come to expect that UN human-rights bodies will be chaired by dictatorships?
Samuel Moyn’s brilliant and bracing new book explicitly sets out to answer the first question, and in doing so goes a long way toward answering the second. It also gestures toward a third crucial question: Where do we go from here?
Moyn’s arresting thesis is that, as his title implies, “human rights” as we know them–a growing body of international law, rhetoric and, occasionally, policy–are not only a recent invention, but a utopian one at that, whose rise to prominence on the world stage resulted, perhaps paradoxically, from the ideological collapse in the 1970s of the utopias of the left. His subject is less human-rights activism than the conceptual and rhetorical history of those rights. Richly researched and powerfully argued, this volume will be the starting point for future discussions of where human rights have been, why they look like they do, and how to think about them down the road.
A historian at Columbia University, Moyn has written several well-received volumes of European intellectual history. Here, Western intellectuals, activists, jurists, and other elites are his focus. He begins with a brief historical survey and observes that rights in the modern sense–individual entitlements to civic and political freedom, expression, and material well-being–emerged of a piece with the modern nation-state. He notes that after a seeming eighteenth-century apotheosis, rights talk as such declined in the nineteenth century, except among laissez-faire capitalists who used it to ward off regulation. That century did, however, see the advent of an international humanitarianism in which liberal moral sentiments, Christian evangelicalism, and advocacy by transnational groups galvanized mobilizations across borders to abolish slavery, protest forced labor in Congo, and protect persecuted Jews. While Moyn rightly points out that those groups did not use rights rhetoric, they were likely more important to the development of contemporary human-rights activism than he suggests.
Yet the most powerful moralizing impulses of the nineteenth century, Moyn argues astutely, were those associated with nationalism. Today, when nationalism seems synonymous with chauvinist violence, it’s hard to remember that it once was a preeminently liberal cause. Up to the First World War, nationalism was a moral claim pressed by discrete minority groups against repressive empires: Czarist, Ottoman, British, French, Hapsburg, and so on. After the war, with three of those gone and the dissolution of the others already in motion, those same minorities were left to fight it out with one another in the imperial ruins.
Moyn’s narrative gathers steam with the Allies’ efforts to remake the world order and create the UN in the wake of World War II. The legacies of liberal humanitarianism were apparent in the Nuremberg trials and in 1948 in the adoption of the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Moyn argues, though, that these documents and what they represented were far from the Allied Powers’ central objectives during the war and after. Human rights as such, though noble, were not a solution to any of the problems facing them in the postwar era: securing social welfare, maintaining domestic peace, minimizing armed conflict. Nor were they muscular enough for the struggle against totalitarianism. For the powers–the Nuremberg trials notwithstanding–human rights were more than propaganda but less than policy, a way of articulating, a la Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms,” the basic moral impulses of the Allies’ war effort, without giving them concrete expression. While Raphael Lemkin’s Genocide Convention did indeed emerge in deliberate response to the Holocaust (as did another UN creation that year, the State of Israel), the writing and adoption of the Universal Declaration reflected other concerns. The Declaration announced in its first article that “[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood,” and proceeded to enumerate rights to life, liberty, due process, property, and a number of social and economic entitlements, including “a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” The rights enunciated by the declaration were to be achieved through states and citizenship, and thus, Moyn writes, it “more preserved a memory of the rights of man and citizen than it pointed ahead to the utopia of supranational governance through law.”
In the first decades of the Cold War human rights were justly identified with anti-communism. Meanwhile, anti-colonial movements spoke a different language. Postwar anti-colonialists from Gandhi to Nkrumah to Nasser, Moyn writes, trumpeted national and not individual rights, and rarely human rights. Self-determination to statehood was their goal, and if they looked beyond the sovereign state, it was to forms of internationalism other than human rights, such as collective development, Pan-Africanism, or Pan-Arabism. Anti-colonialism, in other words, competed with human rights; and if decolonization universalized anything, it was national liberation.
Indeed, it seems to me that a dynamic similar to that of post-Versailles nationalism took hold in the wave of postwar decolonization. Self-determination and national liberation mutated from a moral claim against empires into a license for violence and repression. In other words, what happened in Europe and the Mideast earlier in the century repeated itself in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, but in a Cold War context, with the abstractions of Marxism and the romance of revolution providing the utopian template for violence in Maoist China, Castro’s Cuba, Kaunda’s Zambia, and elsewhere.
ISSUE #19, WINTER 2011
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Hal Morris:
Amen to human rights as catastrophe prevention. Considering the amount of starvation, gruesome large scale ethnic murder, slavery, child soldiers and rape as military options, we have a long, long way to go with that.
The idea of perfection often stands in the way of doing good, besides which if there is such a thing as a perfect society, there is extreme and violent disagreement on what it might look like, whereas there is a lot of agreement that people should be saved from the things mentioned above.
In many ways, too, big improvements in the quality of life of the most miserable can be both the least expensive and the best thing to do for the world. And the pits of deepest misery are, inevitably, breeders of enraged people with nothing to lose, and as has been shown, the least educated (especially w.r.t. women) and poorest, have the most impact on out of control population growth.
Hal Morris
Feb 16, 2011, 7:26 PM
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Yehudah Mirsky served in the State Department's human rights bureau in the Clinton Administration and is now a fellow at the Van Leer Institute and at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute.
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