Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry: (The University Center for Human Values Series)
Michael Ignatieff, Amy Gutmann
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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.
justice—conflict, and, because they do, the rights that define them as entitlements are also in conflict. If rights conflict and there is no unarguable order of moral priority in rights claims, we cannot speak of rights as trumps.24 The idea of rights as trumps implies that when rights are introduced into a political discussion, they serve to resolve the discussion. In fact, the opposite is the case. When political demands are turned into rights claims, there is a real risk that the issue at
independence become inevitable.31 Yet the case of Sri Lanka, where there has been a secessionist movement among the minority Tamil population since 1983 against the Sinhala-dominated government, indicates just how difficult it is to reconcile minority rights, state sovereignty, and individual human rights. After independence from Britain in 1947, there was substantial, and deeply resented, discrimination against the Tamil language together with denial of access to state employment. But
international treaties were drafted was highly exclusionary. With this diagnosis, the cure suggests itself: the transcultural process by which “universal” rights are constructed must become truly inclusive. And as Ignatieff suggests, we must be committed to the ideal of an “intercultural dialogue in which all parties come to the table under common expectations of being treated as moral equals.” In some versions, strategies that fall under the rubric of procedural inclusiveness respond directly
the states they give obedience to. People from non-Western traditions may not recognize this as dignity, though they might concede, if pressed, that it is hard to think of dignity without some idea of freedom, without some idea of choice and agency. Ironically, it is often those who are deprived of their liberty, slaves and prisoners, who remind us best of the connection between dignity and freedom. They refuse to surrender the tiny margin of autonomy that is left them, and they use it to assert
globalization.7 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.8 Human rights