Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry by Michael Ignatieff

Is the world moving forward or backward when it comes to honoring and
protecting basic human rights? In Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry,
Michael Ignatieff sees both progress and retrenchment. Since the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, there has been a “global diffusion” of the
central ideas and language designed after World War II to “create fire walls
against barbarism.”

Virtually no government claims to be wholly unaccountable to the world
community for the treatment of those within its borders. A vibrant array of
nongovernmental organizations — from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty
International at the global level to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and
the Tunisian Human Rights League at the local one — report on and agitate
against human-rights abuses in almost every country, and their campaigns command

And yet just in the last decade, at a time when the human-rights movement’s
influence seemed greater than ever, the fire walls proved at times to be paper
thin. The international community was tragically slow to act in Bosnia and failed
to save 800,000 people from barbarism in Rwanda. “In the next fifty years,”
Ignatieff warns, “we can expect to see the moral consensus that sustained the
Universal Declaration in 1948 splintering even further.”

The two essays that form the core of Ignatieff’s book were originally
delivered as lectures at Princeton University in 2000. Since this book’s
publication, Ignatieff, the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy
at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has sounded an even more pessimistic
note. In a recent New York Times article, he suggested that “the question
after September 11 is whether the era of human rights has come and gone,” citing
evidence that a number of countries, including China, Egypt, Russia, the Sudan,
and even Australia, are exploiting the war against terrorism to cloak their
human-rights abuses. (One might say the same about the United States, which since
September 11 has detained thousands of immigrants without charges or access to
counsel, questioned legions of other Arab-American men around the country, and
set up military tribunals — lacking in basic due-process protections — to try
suspected terrorists.)

On the hope, though, that moral progress is still possible, Ignatieff intends
his book to force human-rights proponents to think carefully about what they wish
to achieve and how they ought to proceed. Advocates often face resistance, from
many quarters, on the very notion of a universal human-rights norm — that all
people of the world can agree on rights and restraints that apply everywhere,
from a police interrogation room in Brooklyn to a detention camp in Central Asia.
Ignatieff concedes that thoughtful people in all cultures wonder where the line
should be drawn, and who should be doing the drawing. “Human rights discourse,”
he asserts, “ought to suppose that there are many differing visions of a good
human life, that the West’s is only one of them, and that, provided agents have a
degree of freedom in the choice of that life, they should be left to give it the
content that accords with their history and traditions.”

Ignatieff’s advice is to embrace a “minimalist” approach, as opposed to an
expansionist vision that views every positive condition of human life as a matter
of legal entitlement. Be careful, Ignatieff warns, not to ground human rights in
the essential nobility of the human spirit, given abundant evidence to the
contrary. If not based in a faith in fundamental human dignity, rights should
flow from “assumptions about the worst we can do, instead of hopeful expectations
of the best.” In the end, the common ground amounts to a version of the golden
rule: “not much more than the basic intuition that what is pain and humiliation
for you is bound to be pain and humiliation for me.”

An appealing part of Ignatieff’s argument is that deliberation and discourse,
more than rules, is the essence of a human-rights culture. The activist tendency
to present a “a set of moral trump cards” is part of what Ignatieff sees as the
problem of “human rights as idolatry.” If human rights are the one true faith
(and their instruments sacred texts), there is always the danger of another
crusade. While of course there are some abuses that are “genuinely intolerable”
— hence the effort to define a minimalist core — most are in the realm of
competing rights, and their resolution “never occurs in the abstract kingdom of
ends, but in the kingdom of means.” If there is agreement on the need to keep
talking, with respect for the views of others, and if it is genuine, then you’re
well on your way to a rights culture.

There is much that is attractive about such an approach. But
there are problems, too. First, as Princeton provost Amy Gutmann points out in
her introductory essay, however minimalist a human-rights program is, there
always will be arguments about what is in and what is out: “What counts as a
minimalist set of human rights is by no means either obvious or agreed-upon even
by good-willed people,” she writes.

It seems simple enough, for example, that torture and murder are to be
ruled out unequivocally, because “people from different cultures may continue to
disagree about what is good, but nevertheless agree about what is insufferably,
unarguably wrong,” as Ignatieff writes. But there is slippage all the time,
sometimes from unlikely quarters. In recent months we have seen arguments emerge
(from civil libertarian / provocateur Alan Dershowitz, among others) that there
are some situations in which governments ought to have torture as an option (if,
say, a known terrorist believed to have information about an impending attack is
being held). And what about the death penalty as practiced by Alabama and Texas
and condemned by Amnesty International — traditionally the most minimalist of
human-rights groups — and by every European ally of the United States? If there
is a minimal standard that human-rights advocates can count on it is the
inviolability of the body. Cross that line, sanctioning torture and
state-sponsored killing, and you brutalize the culture.

Though Ignatieff is an elegant writer, and though he makes an important
contribution in his discussion about the centrality of deliberation, a lot of
what he has to say seems oddly out of sync with the reality of contemporary
human-rights activism. If minimalism is meant to strengthen the credibility of
Western rights advocates, it is likely to have no such effect in much of the
world, particularly in many countries where the challenge to universalism is
greatest. That is because Ignatieff’s minimalist approach leaves little room for
the social and economic rights also embodied in international covenants and in
many national constitutions. No one who works on human-rights issues in the
developing world can fail to be aware that virtually all frontline human-rights
advocates there — not to mention many in Europe and the United States — do not
accept such a hierarchy of rights. Though economic rights — such as the right to
basic subsistence — are still largely aspirational, that doesn’t mean they are
not deeply important to human-rights advocates (and their critics) in much of the
world. In much of Africa and Asia, it is the perceived selectivity of many
Western human-rights advocates, not their broader concerns, that undermines their

Ignatieff acknowledges, as most traditionalists do, that it is hard to take
advantage of political and civil rights when subsistence is in question, and
invokes Amartya Sen’s observation that no famine has occurred in a country with a
free press to argue for the primacy of political freedom as a prerequisite to the
“struggle for social and economic security.” Indeed, I think this is exactly
right as a matter of priority and strategy. But concentrating on civil and
political rights has not been sufficient to pursuade some in developing countries
that activists are properly concerned about issues of basic sustenance.

More compelling are Ignatieff’s reservations that military interventions on
behalf of human rights as recently practiced are “consuming their legitimacy”
rather than reinforcing respect, as they have been “unsuccessful” and
“inconsistent.” Here, however, Ignatieff is himself inconsistent with the
minimalism he espouses. In Bosnia, the United States and its allies may not have
“succeeded in anchoring a human rights culture in shared institutions,” but
helped put an end to ethnic slaughter. It could have done the same in Rwanda, had
the United States seen Central Africa as being as vital to its national interest
as is Central Europe.

In traditional human-rights discourse, threats to rights are seen as coming
principally from despotic and overreaching states, so most rights advocacy seeks
to limit the power of governments. Ignatieff challenges advocates to overcome
this mindset. But many already have. Writing about Russia five years ago in
The American Prospect, Stephen Holmes made exactly that argument. The most
sophisticated rights advocates are well aware, as Ignatieff rightly notes, that
weak and disintegrating states, not over-powerful ones, have spawned human-rights
crises in the Balkans, the Great Lakes region of Africa, and Central Eurasia.
They understand that you can’t have a rights regime without a functioning state
at the center, and that state failure calls for concerted regional and
international action and assistance.

The problem, as Ignatieff recognizes, is that such a task is beyond the
capacity of the human-rights community. He poses some tough and uncomfortable
questions about the limits of the movement’s power and reach, noting that “few
mechanisms of genuine accountability connect [nongovernmental agencies] and the
communities in civil society whose interests they seek to advance.” It is the
paucity of constituency, not of vision, that is the most serious shortcoming of
the human-rights movement today.

Another problem is the hypocrisy and inconsistency of the United States when
it comes to human-rights enforcement. In a passage that should shame us all,
Ignatieff writes:

The most important resistance to the domestic application of
international human rights norms comes not from rogue states outside the Western
tradition or from Islam and Asian societies. It comes, in fact, from within the
heart of the Western rights tradition itself, from a nation that, in linking
rights to popular sovereignty, opposes international human rights oversight as an infringement on its democracy.

Ignatieff speculates that of all the ironies in the history of human
rights, the one that would most astonish Eleanor Roosevelt, who pushed so
ardently for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “is the degree to which
her own country is now the odd one out.”

Ignatieff’s essays are bookended by a critical introduction by
Gutmann, who edited the volume, and comments at the end by K. Anthony Appiah,
David A. Hollinger, Thomas W. Laqueur, and Diane F. Orentlicher, along with
Ignatieff’s response. Hollinger adopts the voice of a “patriarchal, theocratic
authoritarian” to pose tough questions for the minimalist approach: “Your human
rights agenda is a slippery slope. … you remind me of those American liberals
in the 1950s and early 1960s who said that the end of segregation would not mean
intermarriage.” Orentlicher, responding to Ignatieff’s warnings about human
rights as “idolatry,” questions his resistance to those who would link human
rights to the sacred, writing that “universal acceptance of the human rights idea
depends on its legitimation within diverse religious traditions, and not just
alongside them.”

On the whole, though, Ignatieff’s respondents are too much like him in
their relationship to human-rights issues — they include a philosopher, two
historians, a political scientist, and a law professor — for the book to have
much of an edge as the similarly conceived volumes in Beacon Press’s New
Democracy Forum series often do. I found myself wishing that the commentators had
included former government officials such as Harold Hongju Koh or John Shattuck
(both of whom headed the State Department’s human-rights section during the
Clinton years), or human-rights activists such as Dorothy Thomas, founding
director of Human Rights Watch’s Women’s Rights Division, or Xiao Qiang of Human
Rights in China. They might have tempered Ignatieff’s well-framed arguments with
a wider range of experience.