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A Review of Michael Ignatieff's Recent Book, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry


Friday, Oct. 19, 2001

Michael Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry (Princeton University Press 2001)

Through his essays in journals like the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, Michael Ignatieff is probably America's most prominent intellectual voice on human rights. As Director of Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Ignatieff also stands at the pinnacle of the academic human rights establishment. In his new book, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, Ignatieff takes stock of the achievements and limitations of the international human rights movement in the fifty-three years since 1948's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

At the heart of the book is a paradox. According to Ignatieff, the human rights movement has brought about a transformation in world affairs: three linked revolutions in legislation, advocacy and enforcement. Yet at this moment of apparent triumph, Ignatieff believes the movement is also in crisis. It has lost confidence in its own theoretical foundations and methods, and is under attack from outside as an expression of Western cultural imperialism.

Ignatieff's book is an attempt to reformulate the case for human rights in a way that is informed by these problems, but not overcome by them. The book contains two essays, together with replies from a number of prominent academics. Ignatieff's writing is concise, elegant, and provocative. His book seems likely to become a defining statement of a kind of human rights advocacy without illusions: forthright but not hubristic.

Idolatry Versus Politics

Ignatieff's argument is framed by the two concepts of his title, which represent for him the opposing poles of human rights thought. "Idolatry" is his term for the tendency to regard human rights as a "secular religion" (a phrase borrowed from Elie Wiesel). According to Ignatieff, this conception of human rights has led to moral self-righteousness and rhetorical over-reaching.

By contrast, Ignatieff makes the case for a "political" conception of human rights. In his view, the argument for human rights should be made on pragmatic and historical grounds: Because they protect people's ability to function as free agents, human rights principles are the most effective defence against the suffering caused by abuse and oppression.

Ignatieff argues that a human rights movement that dispenses with grand metaphysical claims is more likely to display an open-minded and self-questioning spirit. He believes human rights advocacy can be most effective when it engages other cultures in dialogue, rather than approaching them from a position of moral superiority. Human rights, in his view, should be seen as "a language that creates the basis for deliberation."

Not Relativism, But An "Irreducible Minimum" of Freedom

This does not imply that Western values should be imposed upon the rest of the world wholesale. However, it does mean that individuals within all cultures must be empowered to make certain fundamental choices for themselves. For instance, women in Afghanistan who seek an education or professional health care provided by a woman deserve to be supported.

In such circumstances, Ignatieff argues, human rights advocates are not imposing a foreign culture, but rather allowing oppressed people to help shape their own. In a memorable phrase, he writes that the idea of human rights "has gone global by going local" — meaning that individuals and groups around the world have used it as a tool to advance their own indigenous agendas.

State Sovereignty And the Limits to Intervention

According to Ignatieff, a political conception of human rights should also bring a greater awareness of the limits to what human rights campaigns can achieve. His combination of first-hand experience and intellectual sophistication allows him to write with authority about the interaction of human rights theory and practice. In particular, he makes a convincing argument that no international instrument can guarantee people's security as effectively as a strong domestic government.

Human rights advocates have often tended to see the idea of state sovereignty simply as a stumbling-block to international justice. Ignatieff reminds us that the record of intervention has been, at best, mixed. He alerts us to the danger of overriding sovereignty too lightly. And he warns that our confidence in our own purity of motive should not blind us to the dangers of concentrating more power in our own hands.

Nevertheless, as he admits, there are some circumstances where the moral case for overriding sovereignty is unanswerable. During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when nearly a million people were killed in the course of a few months, our values should have compelled us to step in.

Ignatieff argues that uncertainty about when intervention is legitimate has undermined the confidence of the human rights movement. One possible approach here, which Ignatieff does not consider, lies in the idea of crimes against humanity. These have a distinct standing in international law — the people who commit "crimes against humanity" are subject to criminal prosecution as individuals, whereas other human rights abuses, in contrast, are always a state matter.

It may be that evolving international practice will come to accept intervention into the the affairs of individual states where crimes against humanity are involved — with the future prospect of an independent international court to decide when such crimes have taken place. But Ignatieff's concerns about the danger of counter-productive interventions will still be relevant.

More a Sensibility than a Foundation for Rights

Early in the book, Ignatieff writes that the essential message of human rights is that there are no excuses for the inhuman use of human beings. Human rights tell us that there are some things that no state can legitimately do to individual citizens in the name of the collective good or the general will. Ultimately it is hard to square this assertion with the idea that human rights are simply the beginning of a political dialogue. Some human rights issues — those that interfere with the irreducible minimum of freedoms to which Ignatieff refers — must be beyond debate.

No doubt it is prudent to make the case for human rights in pragmatic and political terms. As Ignatieff says, that is the best way of building support for them from people who do not share the human rights advocate's world-view.

But the language we use to justify human rights is different from the foundation they have in our own thought. If we do not believe that the core of human rights is above politics, it is hard to see how they can have even the force that Ignatieff claims for them.

Anthony Dworkin is a writer and journalist based in London. He was until recently a producer with BBC Current Affairs.

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