Book Reviews

Utopia Lost

Human rights as utopian politics may have failed us, but human rights as catastrophe prevention is the least we must insist on.

By Yehudah Mirsky

Tagged HistoryHuman Rights

The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History By Samuel Moyn • Harvard University Press • 2010 • 337 pages • $27.95

Two 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.

By the mid-1970s–after the rise of Third World dictatorships, the long morning after the heady failures of 1968, the tarnishing of America in Vietnam, and the relative thawing of the Soviet system that enabled the emergence of dissidents such as Sakharov and Sharansky, who earlier would simply have been shot–human rights finally found their moment. After languishing in obscurity both in practice and, as Moyn shows in a fascinating chapter, in academia, they offered Western elites a way to square a number of circles; under their banner one could, at least in theory, oppose both Soviet totalitarianism and anti-communist juntas.

Where did it all come from? Moyn writes that through the 1950s, human rights were mostly discussed by Christian intellectuals, such as Jacques Maritain and Charles Malik, who, he says, saw in them “a third-way, personalist and communitarian alternative to liberal atomism and materialist communism alike.” This view was kept alive by activists like Moses Moskowitz of the Consultative Council of Jewish Organizations and the redoubtable Roger Baldwin, who from 1942 onwards headed the International League for the Rights of Man; founded the year before, the League was at the time a rarity, a human-rights organization unaffiliated with a specific religious, ethnic, or national group.

Until, that is, Amnesty International, which “invented grassroots human rights advocacy,” and brought it to the fore of public consciousness. The organization was founded in 1961 by London attorney Peter Benenson, who, at the time, said he hoped “to find a common base upon which the idealists of the world can co-operate,” especially “since the eclipse of Socialism.” He tellingly said in the same interview that the concrete effects of this work on political prisoners and others mattered less than “harness[ing] the enthusiasm of the helpers.” Though Benenson himself was Jewish, Amnesty drew on Christian peace groups’ search for an outlet for their idealistic politics that could bypass governments, and Amnesty’s mass participation letter-writing campaigns brilliantly did the trick. Unlike earlier human-rights groups, Amnesty seemed above politics in its willingness to criticize Communists and non-Communists alike (which, in the charged atmosphere of the Cold War, was hard not to see as a political stance).

Amnesty International certainly raised the profile of human rights, but it wasn’t until 1977 that they were invoked as official policy. That year, the annus mirabilis of human rights, began with Jimmy Carter’s declaration that “our commitment to human rights must be absolute.” The year also saw the emergence of Charter 77, the heroic civil-society group that criticized the Czech government, and by implication the Soviet bloc as a whole, on the basis of human rights enunciated in the so-called “Third Basket” of the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which linked Western ratification of the status quo in Eastern Europe to Soviet bloc adherence to human rights. (The Soviets had agreed to the provisions, assuming that they could ignore them as easily as they did the rights provisions of their own constitution.) The kind of non-dogmatic dissent taught and embodied by Central European humanists like Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, Adam Michnik in Poland, and Gyorgy Konrad (author of Antipolitics) in Hungary resonated with both progressive anti-communists and leftists, present and former, reeling from the dashed hopes of 1968. For its part, the burgeoning Soviet Jewry movement, which Moyn downplays, gave human rights traction by linking them to the persecution of a recognizable group with a meaningful constituency abroad.

Moyn reads the embrace of human rights by the disillusioned Western left as an effort “to drop utopia and have one anyway.” It was “the aspiration to achieve through a moral critique of politics the sense of a pure cause that had once been sought in politics itself.” The legal character of human-rights language contributed to the sense that here would be a moralism with teeth; the left’s dream of redemption, having committed multiple suicides in the Soviet Union, Maoist China, assorted Third World dictatorships, and the desolate halls of the UN, would, without having to take sides in the Cold War, live to fight another day.

But anti-communists, liberal and conservative alike, had something to say about this too. Crucial here, though Moyn doesn’t make it part of his story, is Jeane Kirkpatrick’s consequential distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes in her classic (and ambassadorship-winning) 1979 Commentary essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards.” With characteristic neoconservative disdain for realism’s live-and-let-live attitude toward dictatorships, she argued that authoritarian but non-totalitarian regimes (of the sort then terrorizing Latin American societies) were far from mortal threats to civilization and could be nudged toward change, while totalitarians were impervious to such nudges and could only be vanquished.

If the utopianism of human rights and the dystopianism of Kissingerian realism were on opposite ends of the spectrum, the neoconservative approach fused morality with politics. It set the terms for the schism between human-rights activism and democracy promotion, a key ambivalence running through the entire story of human rights that Moyn touches on only briefly. But Moyn does note that anti-communists uncomfortable with the ease with which the idea of human rights could be used to attack the United States had recourse in the form of political development work and democracy promotion. His claim that the discourse of human rights arose from the attempt to rescue utopianism from its failures lends further weight to the insight of democracy scholar Tom Carothers that a deep philosophical divide separates the human-rights and democracy communities: the former groups (such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch) are deeply mistrustful of sovereignty and national governments, democracies included, and seek to restrain and contain them as much as possible, while the latter (such as the National Endowment for Democracy and Westminster Foundation) favor and want to see more of them, their inevitable imperfections notwithstanding. These are, of course, broad-brush generalizations, and some organizations (Open Society Institute, Freedom House) seem to work with both models, but the distinction will be familiar to anyone who has worked in the field.

Moyn’s story ends in the 1980s with human rights well in place as a fixture of the ever-evolving framework of international law. The decades since have seen the stunning collapse of the Soviet Union and its replacement with democracy in some places, and in others, notably Russia itself, odd mixtures of authoritarianism and embattled pockets of democracy. In the early 1990s, Western commitments to human rights were put disastrously to the test in Rwanda and the Balkans. Genocide was stopped in neither place by the Genocide Convention or by institutions devoted to human rights, but rather by force of arms and the Rwandan Patriotic Front in the former and NATO in the latter. Officials and advocates hoped that the creation of international tribunals for both genocides (in which this writer was, as a then-official in the U.S. State Department, marginally involved) would foster accountability and some measure of deterrence. Perhaps even the building blocks of an apolitical international legal order were being laid in place. Alas, while the various institutions of international law do regularly make the world a better place, these more extravagant hopes were, and are, doomed. They would require for their fruition the universal adoption of Western liberalism, and a willingness by governments–and by transnational entities–to renounce their interests, ideologies, and a good bit of human nature. Meanwhile, democracy promotion has been compromised, perhaps irrevocably, by the Bush Administration’s unforgivable mishandling of Iraq and willful misunderstanding of the process of democratization, which it mistakenly assumed amounts to calling elections in polities where the basic conditions for republican self-government scarcely exist.

If Moyn is right, and I think he is, that “human rights” as such are in many respects a utopian project, we can more easily explain their perversions. The twentieth century illustrated the deadly disjunction between utopian thinking and the reality of human lives. By the same token, “democratization” can take grim utopian turns too, as any number of Iraqis or Gazans can tell you. The multiple confusions here, and their awful results on the ground, seem to be part of the reason for the disappearance of both human rights and democracy from the Obama Administration’s agenda.

How, then, to think about human rights and move forward?

The term “human rights” is, in many respects, the contemporary articulation of basic and enduring impulses toward just rule, respect for the human person, and the avoidance of man-made suffering. Human rights have come to be the lingua franca of those moral impulses and indeed may not be serving them well. Human-rights language is deeply rooted in certain strands of modern Western politics. The drive to moralize politics and rein in power is deeper, richer, and has taken more varied forms over the course of history than “human rights,” whose abstraction and formalism makes it a pliant tool in the hands of illiberal regimes and actors.

A number of commentators have in recent years urged a more minimalist grounding of human rights in order to broaden its appeal. Canadian MP, activist and intellectual Michael Ignatieff writes in his powerfully argued essay “Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry” that we had best:

forgo…foundational arguments altogether and seek to build support for human rights on the basis of what such rights actually do for human beings.…Such grounding as modern human rights requires, I would argue, is based on what history tells us: that human beings are at risk of their lives if they lack a basic measure of free agency; that agency itself requires protection through internationally agreed standards; that these standards should entitle individuals to oppose and resist unjust laws and orders within their own states; and, finally, that when all other remedies have been exhausted, these individuals have the right to appeal to other peoples, nations, and international organizations for assistance in defending their rights.

This minimal definition of human rights serves to recognize the limits of what the concept can and cannot do, and respects those traditions, religions, and cultures whose adherents are genuinely unmoved–or worse–by the full panoply of the Western rights traditions, notwithstanding their possible sympathy with some of its deep moral impulses.

Meaningful “human rights” talk would argue that there are certain core moral intuitions that are so constitutive of being human (in philosopher Michael Walzer’s arresting phrase, “morality close to the bone”) that they can provide a basis for profound transnational and cross-cultural criticism, precisely because they leave ample room for their varying, culturally distinctive articulations. (The logic of the Genocide Convention was a step in that direction; its problem is its built-in doomsday mechanism, that once you call something genocide you are under a legal obligation to send the Marines.) Thus we can talk about human rights in China not because Confucius would have agreed with Montesquieu, but because we all can agree that even minimal respect for human dignity makes for a more pacific world.

Put a little differently, the moral purposes of American constitutionalism are deeply linked to procedural values; freedom of speech, association, and religion are corollaries of the rules of the road that keep everybody moving while trying to minimize inevitable evils and frictions. Similarly, the moral purposes of human rights can be sought in the rules of the road that will keep the world moving, while trying to minimize the inevitable evils and frictions. In his closing chapter, Moyn, paraphrasing distinguished legal authority Henry Steiner, notes a valuable distinction “between human rights as catastrophe prevention and human rights as utopian politics,” and in some ways that is just the distinction I am trying to make.

Of course, it’s not 1945 anymore, or even 1989. The past 60 years have seen the vast elaboration of human-rights-related treaties, conventions, bodies, and protocols, not to mention NGOs and academics. But no human-rights regime will deliver us from politics and its endless compromises, and thinking that it could is a dangerous delusion. Globalization does not guarantee human dignity and may even work against it. Meanwhile, sworn enemies of the values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of 1948 have learned and are learning to make cynical use of them all.

Yet to dismiss the moral impulses driving human-rights promotion–the desire to moralize politics, and thus prevent human suffering–and not grant those impulses a place at the international table, is to turn our back on one of humanity’s most precious and unexpected achievements: the existence of even a minimal international consensus and commitment, rhetorical in some places but genuine in many others, that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity,” and that that endowment must find expression in the concrete workings of government and law. That endowment can serve as a fundamental guiding principle and flower with the arrival of the Messiah. Until then, for ill–and for good–we are left with politics.

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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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