Monday, August 30, 2010

Rights Stuff

In The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Columbia University Historian Samuel Moyn tells a story with more twists than its participants typically remember

The following review was posted last weekend on the Books page of the History News Network site.

If there's one goal that seems to have universal human currency since the Second World War, it would be human rights. Ever since the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the concept has been celebrated as a foundation of international law: never something that could be taken for granted, and yet something to which all nations would pledge allegiance. Even nations that denied human rights -- and, of course, there have been many --  nevertheless paid lip service to them, and committed offenses against them as secretly as possible (which, thanks to organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, has not always been so easy). Many consider human rights synonymous with the very idea of civilization itself. In this provocative little book by Columbia University historian Samuel Moyn, however, the global history of human rights is rife with irony, if not contradiction.

The first and perhaps most potent irony is that a concept whose appeal and power derives from principles that transcend the nation-state has almost always rested on national sovereignty. Widely regarded touchstones like the Declaration of Independence (1776) or the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) derived their justification and effectiveness from state power: rights followed flags. Even in those rare cases where activists challenged a government's power to project itself into the lives of citizens (a key word here), it has almost always been on the basis of the state's own criteria (like a constitution). This high degree of dependence on the state would eventually be overcome, but fuzzy thinking on the part of those who championed the cause would make that difficult and obscure how it happened.

Indeed, Moyn asserts that the history of human rights is, in effect, a history of amnesia. He challenges the widespread perception that the modern movement's core energies derived from the experience of the Holocaust, as suggested by the timing of UN Declaration in its immediate aftermath. But, as he shows, this is very misleading. In fact, all kinds of other agendas took precedence of human rights in the years after World War II, principal among them the Cold War. The emerging U.S.-Soviet rivalry, combined with older powers' efforts to salvage disintegrating empires, effectively made the UN itself largely beside the point. And that meant high-flown rhetoric celebrating transnational human dignity was as well. The Last Utopia opens on a note of mordant humor; the UN celebrated the 20th anniversary of Human Rights with an international conference in the Tehran of the Shah Rezi Pahlevi (!), much of which was devoted to denunciations of Israel. There can be few more vivid illustrations of the irrelevance of independent internationalism.

Which brings us to another irony. The postwar decades did witness the emergence of a global anti-colonial movement that brought about the dissolution of old European empires, as well as the emergence of independent Third World nations that sought to escape the clutches of superpower domination. One might think that the rhetoric as well as the concepts of human rights would have been embraced as a vehicle in such quests. They were not. That's partly because insofar as the energies and language of the movement had much life, they were propelled by intellectual forces (notably a re-energized Catholic Church) that were correctly seen as conservative. Moreover, the meaning of concepts like "self-determination" had a decisively collective character -- it was peoples, not persons, who were seen as the repository of freedom. In particular, revolutionary movements on the left still had utopian hopes attached to them, particularly in the Latin America of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

And here we have perhaps the final irony: the modern human rights movement was at least as much a matter of disillusionment as it was idealism. In particular, it was the experience of 1968, and the realization that neither side in the Cold War -- or its proxies -- could be trusted to treat national, ethnic, or religious communities in a non-exploitative manner. A very specific set of contingencies brought about decisive change. Among the most important was the U.S. failure in Vietnam, which created an opening in the Democratic Party that allowed Jimmy Carter to become president. It was Carter's human rights campaign of 1977, a campaign that somewhat unintentionally both took on a life of its own, that allowed a genuine international movement to take root. This one was grounded far more in non-government organizations than in the UN, depended on grass-roots organization (typified by the explosive growth of Amnesty International in the late seventies), and had a decisively secular orientation. In the thirty years that followed, it was this movement that took the airy abstractions of international law and began to breathe real life into them. While there's still a long way to go in this regard, it's clear that a kind of critical mass has developed here in what has become a global discourse with a language, protocols, and membership that sees itself as engaged in a meaningful enterprise.

And yet, for all this, Moyn sees the human rights movements at a crossroads. To a great degree, that's because its adherents have never really grappled with the implications of some of these contradictions. For example, in its impatience with ideology, the human rights movement has drawn its strength from a perception that it is essentially apolitical. Insofar as this is really possible -- and it may well be so when it comes to things like opposing torture or genocide, two commitments that have really come into focus in recent decades -- it is also limited. One reason why the movement never got much traction in mid-century is that political communities in the Third World were looking for rights that were often economic and collective: it's good not to be tortured, but it would sure be nice to have a job. In a way, the triumph of human rights reflects the collapse of any effective challenge to the logic of global capitalism, and in that regard may be legitimately considered conservative. Or, at any rate, elitist: Moyn that the role of expertise in NGOs now has crowded out some of its attractive grass-roots features of Amnesty International in its heyday.

Although Moyn doesn't really explore this, one also wonders how well the individualistic premises at the core of human rights will fare in a world in which the Confucian foundation of Asian cultures, as opposed to the Christian foundations of western ones, will dominate. Whether or not this is right question, The Last Utopia makes a compelling case for a specifically historical understanding of the world (even if it is a bit repetitive at times; the content of the last chapter, for example, might have been folded into themes of the preceding ones).  As he chides its uncritical adherents, human rights were made, not discovered. They're contingent, not timeless. And if they're evolutionary, it's an evolution of mutations and sudden emergence, not gradual change. It's the people who have their stories straight who are most likely to realize their ends.