The Multilateralist

Is human rights just the latest utopia?

Samuel Moyn recently published The Last Utopia, a fascinating examination of how the influential and well-funded human rights movement we know today emerged. Moyn is a professor of history at Columbia University and edits the journal Humanity. I spoke with him about the movement’s past–and what it says about the future. Multilateralist: You go to ...

Samuel Moyn recently published The Last Utopia, a fascinating examination of how the influential and well-funded human rights movement we know today emerged. Moyn is a professor of history at Columbia University and edits the journal Humanity. I spoke with him about the movement's past--and what it says about the future.

Multilateralist: You go to great lengths to demonstrate that the human rights movement we see today only emerged in the 1970s and was not a natural extension of earlier rights movements or even  post-World War II instruments such as the Universal Declaration. Why does this matter?

SM: If readers agree that contemporary human rights concepts and movements didn’t emerge from the past naturally -- from the Bible, or the Enlightenment, or even the post-World War II and post-Holocaust moment -- they will see them as recent and contingent features of our world. If my approach is right, human rights became part of our moral universe not so much because God gave them, or man found them in nature, or turned to them out of horror at the Holocaust, as most people think. Instead, human rights acquired their current prominence for a completely different set of reasons: globally, as an alternative to the failed nationalism and communism the world once found more appealing; and in the United States, as a moral response to the failed liberal internationalism of the early Cold War, and especially the era of Vietnam engagement. Ultimately, I leave it up to readers what to do with my findings even if they agree with them. They might choose to reexamine their commitment to human rights as the highest ideals, or transform how they pursue human rights. After all, it turns out that even in the short-term our basic moral concepts might be pretty open to change.

Samuel Moyn recently published The Last Utopia, a fascinating examination of how the influential and well-funded human rights movement we know today emerged. Moyn is a professor of history at Columbia University and edits the journal Humanity. I spoke with him about the movement’s past–and what it says about the future.

Multilateralist: You go to great lengths to demonstrate that the human rights movement we see today only emerged in the 1970s and was not a natural extension of earlier rights movements or even  post-World War II instruments such as the Universal Declaration. Why does this matter?

SM: If readers agree that contemporary human rights concepts and movements didn’t emerge from the past naturally — from the Bible, or the Enlightenment, or even the post-World War II and post-Holocaust moment — they will see them as recent and contingent features of our world. If my approach is right, human rights became part of our moral universe not so much because God gave them, or man found them in nature, or turned to them out of horror at the Holocaust, as most people think. Instead, human rights acquired their current prominence for a completely different set of reasons: globally, as an alternative to the failed nationalism and communism the world once found more appealing; and in the United States, as a moral response to the failed liberal internationalism of the early Cold War, and especially the era of Vietnam engagement. Ultimately, I leave it up to readers what to do with my findings even if they agree with them. They might choose to reexamine their commitment to human rights as the highest ideals, or transform how they pursue human rights. After all, it turns out that even in the short-term our basic moral concepts might be pretty open to change.

Multilateralist: Your description of the way human rights filled the vacuum left by other discredited utopias is provocative. Should we expect human rights to share their fate?

SM: Not in the same way. Human rights were imagined and promoted in their breakthrough years since the 1970s as a “minimalist” utopia, which were not subject to the same defects as “maximalist” utopias that died across the post-World War II era. Human rights came to take over our idealism in part as common denominators, but also because they were less ambitious, as well as less risky — in particular, in not courting violence in the name of liberation. They were appealing for activists precisely because they promised tangible aid for specific victims, rather than grandiose visions for humanity as a whole.

Now, however, people are willing to set aside some of the very minimalism that allowed human rights to survive as its rivals failed. For example, the new doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” that is a form of human rights idealism is willing to countenance violence, albeit as a last-ditch option, as in the Libyan campaign today. That said, I don’t predict that human rights will join prior utopias in the dustbin of history. Having not aimed as high, they cannot enter spectacular crisis. Instead, my own view is that human rights will be supplemented by some new vision. There is no particular reason to think that world history will continue indefinitely with the level of apparent agreement and low-level ideological conflict of the past few decades. “Human rights” have thrived in an ambiance without big and divisive choices. When that changes, human rights will recede, or play a different role.

Multilateralist: One of the dilemmas for the human rights movement that you describe in the book is whether and how to become political. In the United States, human rights has been most closely  associated with the Democratic party, and Jimmy Carter helped establish the movement when he made human rights a key tenet of U.S. foreign policy. More recently, we’ve seen a number of Human Rights Watch officials take jobs in the Obama administration. Does that kind of linkage endanger the movement’s core strength?

SM: I don’t think so. From the beginning Human Rights Watch has maintained close links to Democratic administrations in this country. And the organization has always seen exerting pressure on the United States in its diplomatic relations with others as a principal tool. Though this could mean closing the daylight between human rights and American interests in some cases, the organization has maintained its critical autonomy on a range of issues.

The larger problem is in identifying what it means to stand for human rights as a political agenda, especially as time passes and the concerns of the movement broaden. It was the Soviet and Latin American dictatorships that sparked the moral response of human rights in the first place. And it’s clear what it means to invoke such principles against terrible regimes today. But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also calls for a wide variety of other entitlements that are much more divisive and require political engagement and imagination and not just the pretense that everyone already agrees about basic norms.

So my concern is that a model that makes sense for a limited range of cases has now been generalized to address all problems. The rise of human rights has coincided in world history with a collapse of political alternatives. Yet campaigns against more structural kinds of injustice involving class, race, or gender have never been able to make do with morality alone. The same would have to be true for any movement to redistribute wealth and power in a world riven by inequality.

Multilateralist: You’re worried that talking about issues in human rights terms is an attempt to place a growing array of issues beyond political debate?

SM: The kind of partisanship that characterizes domestic politics is a valuable thing, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t be a desirable feature of international politics. But instead of developing democratic institutions above the state — except insofar as our governments send representatives to various global fora — we have used the idea of human rights to pretend the main principles are already a matter of consensus. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

Consider, for example, the rise of the New International Economic Order (NIEO) in the 1970s, which set out to undo a post-World War II order that many nations had no role in crafting. (Due to the persistence of empire, only a fourth of the countries currently in the UN were even around in 1948 to vote on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). We could regard the NIEO as targeting the same issues as human rights activists and institutions concerned with poverty today, but in a completely different way. In the era of human rights, we don’t have much open debate about big global alternatives. The worry about international human rights is that, while it provides an appealing language in cases where the world is set on preventing evil, it promotes moralization — and frequently legalization –of issues like how to organize the global economy that ought to be a matter of partisan politics, just as they are at home.

Multilateralist: A common criticism of the human rights movement is that it is an updated form of Western colonialism or, at the very least, a fundamentally Western doctrine that is now being presented as universal. Human rights advocates typically respond on two levels. First, they say that nobody actually wants to be tortured, ethnically cleansed or subject to arbitrary detention. Second, they say that the signatures of almost all countries on the key human rights documents such as the Universal Declaration means that these rights have been accepted as universal. How do you view that debate?   

SM: Not with much interest. Even if you identify “the West” with the values of liberalism, that liberalism was fundamentally statist for a very long time and was more linked with national emancipation and imperial expansion than the globalization of humane values involving individual protection. It’s true that most governments around the world have signed on to most key rights treaties. Governments (often run by Westernized elites in any case) want their states to play the game of being a state in the international order, and signing such treaties is what states do, which does not mean their behavior changes. This is just one reason it seems to me pretty unhelpful to speak in broad terms about the fit of human rights with local cultures, whether “Western” or otherwise. In any case, the debate you invoke seems of declining relevance. The days when the “Asian values” supposedly at odds with human rights are a distant memory, even in view of China’s apparent coming hegemony.

David Bosco is an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of books on the U.N. Security Council and the International Criminal Court, and is at work on a new book about governance of the oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

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