The Birth and Death of Human Rights Doctrine

The Last Utopia traces the history of human rights policy.

The Last Utopia.

Iran-Contra convict Elliot Abrams and Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth have little in common besides interesting eyebrows, but they do share one other thing: an aversion to Obama’s human rights policies. The president doesn’t even have a human rights policy, according to Abrams. The administration confuses rhetoric with reality, says Roth. Indeed, the one criticism of the administration that the left and right share is that the Obama-ites have been insufficiently faithful to human rights doctrine.

Human rights—the notion that the protection of the immutable rights and freedoms of every individual on the planet supersedes all other concerns—did not always enjoy this prominent place in our political debate. Most historians have located the ideology’s origins in previous eras, from the ancient Greeks and Hebrews to the Enlightenment to post-World War II. In his erudite new book, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Samuel Moyn proposes a more recent source. He argues that it was only in the 1970s, when other utopian ideologies—socialism, anti-colonialism, and anti-communism—fell by the wayside that human rights assumed its stature as the ultimate moral arbiter of international conduct.

As Moyn tells it, human rights might trace its philosophical lineage to earlier times—few ideas emerge from the intellectual womb as orphans—but its dominant role was not assured until a particular point in time. He takes issue most forcefully with the belief that human rights’ ascension was an answer to the extermination of European Jewry. “Contrary to conventional assumptions, there was no widespread Holocaust consciousness in the postwar era, so human rights could not have been a response to it,” he writes.

Communism and anti-communism defined global ideological debate in the immediate postwar era, soon joined by revolutionary nationalism. The Last Utopia’s best chapter chronicles the hold anti-colonialism had both on the masses in developing countries and on leftist intellectuals in developed nations. Sanctified by Woodrow Wilson, Lenin, and the Atlantic Charter, the doctrine had broad appeal. “It was the promise of self-determination,” Moyn agues, “rather than any supervening concept of international rights that resounded around the world at that time.” Indeed, if human rights were the dominant foreign policy concept after the Holocaust, as conventional wisdom holds, nobody told Mao, Ho-Chi Minh, Nasser, Nehru, Mandela, Castro, or any of the Soviet or American leaders.

Any of the American leaders until Jimmy Carter, that is. Carter’s election coincided with a number of international and developments that made human rights a timely idea. Anti-communism had died in Vietnam (though it briefly revived during the Reagan administration). Anti-colonialism disillusioned its supporters, as rulers in Third World countries proved often to be more brutal than the foreign masters they ousted. Dissenters in the Soviet Union invoked human rights as their cause, forcing themselves on the consciences of the world. And across all western countries, where faith in dominant institutions—governments, churches, schools, and police—had been severely eroded, an untainted, morally pure, transnational movement exerted real allure. “The best general explanation for the origins of this social movement and common discourse around rights remains the collapse of other, prior utopias, both state-based and internationalist,” as Moyn puts it.

Carter adopted human rights without entirely thinking through its consequences, however. His shortsightedness became clear as he tried to balance Cold War concerns with a strictly moral foreign policy. Though he invoked the phrase in his inauguration speech and pushed several friendly but illiberal governments to reform, Carter could not sustain a consistent human-rights-oriented administration. But the idea that a government should prioritize human rights in its dealings with other nations was a powerful one, and has lasted to this day. Moyn fears that human rights have evolved from an agenda focused on preventing catastrophe “through minimalist ethical norms” to one focused on “building utopia through maximalist political vision,” a divisive, political turn that jeopardizes the entire endeavor.

Where Moyn misses the mark is in his timing. The Last Utopia reads as if it had been written in the heady days of the 1990s, when Westerners were most concerned with a foreign policy (when they paid attention to foreign policy at all) that spread human rights across the world. Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo—these interventions surely had multiple motivations, but bringing an end to grievous human rights violations was chief among them. The failure to intervene in Rwanda, or earlier in the Balkans, haunted Western intellectuals and policymakers. Had Moyn’s book come out in the 1990s, his worry that human rights risked becoming a utopian project would have carried more weight. Moyn would have had good company: “I would like to see our government gradually withdraw from its public advocacy of democracy and human rights,” the great diplomat-historian George Kennan stated in 1999. Other perceptive heretofore-liberal internationalists—journalist David Rieff, political scientist Tony Smith, historian Tony Judt—were also presciently worrying about humanitarian intervention progressing into reckless imperialism.

And then came 9/11. The attacks get hardly a mention in the book, despite dramatically altering the trajectory of nearly every government in the world. The overriding concern since then has been protecting Western homelands from terrorism. Promoting human rights has receded into the background. This shift is most evident in the public response to the killings in Sudan over the past decade. Outside of the NGO and Hollywood activist communities, the call for intervention is practically nonexistent. After Rwanda, such silence would be unimaginable if America were not already embroiled in two wars and focused above all on keeping al-Qaida at bay.

That mission itself testifies to the shift: Torture, secret prisons, and the rendition of terrorists—blatant and brutal human rights violations all. The Obama administration has increased drone attacks that slaughter civilians in Afghanistan. In June, the Washington Post revealed that the administration has Special Operations forces currently operating in 75 countries and has undertaken unilateral raids in Yemen, western Pakistan, and Somalia. Obama has relieved the minimal pressure exerted by the Bush administration on despotic but friendly regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and China. Whatever all of this is, it is not an excessive devotion to human rights.

To be sure, human rights activists at Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International continue to work at applying what Kennan called the “legalistic-moralistic approach” to world affairs. And there are some neoconservatives who embed a human rights worldview within a larger quasi-moral foreign policy perspective that that calls on America and its allies to use force in the service of maintaining global stability and spreading democracy. But the actual record of governments over the past decade illustrates the problems with abandoning human rights, not the dangers of fetishizing them. A prudent foreign policy cannot be dictated by human rights, but neither can it be contemptuous of them.

Far more dangerous than the NGO push for human rights, these days, is the exploitation of human rights by governments. The Bush administration cynically claimed it was concerned with liberating Afghani women from the Taliban when it invaded Afghanistan, but this was a priority neither of policymakers nor of the public. And the administration disastrously appropriated the language of human rights in its invasion of Iraq, illustrating the real dangers of pushing for a rights-based foreign policy. In his terrific Pact with the Devil(2007), Tony Smith outlines how the administration adopted the language of well-meaning liberal internationalists to pursue its hardline nationalistic ends. Any talk of “spreading” human rights and democracy is always vulnerable to becoming a form of imperialism and risks being appropriated by governments looking for moral cover in their pursuit of power. Moyn overlooks all this, more concerned with academic debates than with the political context in which the debates are occurring.

Moyn has harsh words for human rights advocates and is correct to observe that a politics oriented around human rights could be a dangerously overzealous one, oblivious to the limits of power and wisdom. But insisting that governments honor their already-existing human rights commitments is a different story. Maintaining hard-won laws like Habeas Corpus and the right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment is hardly utopian—it is, in fact, a conservative project.

Even Kennan, 35 years after his original pronouncements against a moral foreign policy, wrote that “there are times in these recent years when I have found myself wishing that there were a bit more of morality in our concepts of what is legal, and more attention to legality in our concepts of what is moral, than I see around me at this time.” As Americans contemplate yet more years devoted to chasing a terrorist organization with as few as 500 members, they would do well to keep human rights—preserving them, not spreading them—in mind.

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