The Quiet Counterrevolution of Human Rights Idealism

The human rights movement, in its focus on atrocity, has been way too selective, leading us away from thinking about structural wrongdoing.

Transcribed from This is Hell! Radio’s 27 June 2014 episode and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the full interview:

“Human rights really only make sense when we think about them in a world after empire.”

Chuck Mertz: On the line with us right now is historian Samuel Moyn. Good morning, Samuel.

Samuel Moyn: Hi, thanks for having me.

CM: Samuel Moyn is author of Human Rights and the Uses of History and is the Bryce professor of European legal history at Columbia University, where he has taught since 2001. His previous books include 2012’s The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. Samuel’s book Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History, which he co-wrote with Darren M. McMahon, was published in paperback earlier this year, and he co-authored two books last year: 2013’s Global Intellectual History, which he wrote with Andrew Sartori, and The Breakthrough: Human Rights in the 1970s with Jan Eckel.

Here’s how you describe your writings in your new book: “the emphasis of these essays falls on distinguishing the abuses from the uses of history for thinking about the present and future of one of the most central notions and one of the most illustrious political movements of our time: Human Rights.”

What has been the impact of abusing Human Rights, exploiting Human Rights, on our ability to exercise our human rights? Have we gotten to the point where human rights has become an idea like ‘terrorism,’ where one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter? Is one person’s human rights offender another person’s politically targeted victim?

SM: I think it’s a very tough question. I came into thinking about this topic first by trying to find out when people began using the phrase ‘human rights,’ and I thought it went back centuries. But really in English we only started using it in the 1970s. In our time, as you say, lots of people use the phrase for lots of different reasons. The troubling thing is when the powerful use the phrase; when presidents want to stigmatize some enemy, they use it, and others do too.

My favorite example is the Chinese. Starting in the ‘70s, the United States has published State Department Human Rights reports every year, revealing how well or badly different countries behave. Every year there is a report on China—and the next day China comes out with a human rights report on the United States. And of course there is a lot to say, in the age of mass incarceration, the War on Terror and so on.

But there’s no word or concept that is immune to abuse. All we can do is fight in politics and in the public sphere about how we should best use the idea or the word or phrase. There’s not some better idea that, if we dropped Human Rights, wouldn’t be subject to abuse. My own view is that Human Rights have been subject to abuse, but there’s no alternative to just fighting to use the idea the right way.

CM: I think that there are a lot of people who think that the process of institutionalizing human rights, of enforcing them, has been done with two key things: one is the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and the other is the International Criminal Court.

When it comes to actually enforcing human rights, when it comes to making certain that human rights are a part of our future, how far do the International Criminal Court and the Universal Declaration actually go?

SM: Not far enough—or depending on your perspective, maybe too far. But I think we have to distinguish between the two things you identified and then maybe add a third. So let’s start with the Universal Declaration. As you say, the phrase ‘human rights’ is already in the United Nations Charter of 1945, but kind of as a throw-away line, since the UN charter is the outcome of a superpower agreement. The Great Powers were going to rule the world, and that meant a world of empire, of ultimately American and Soviet hegemony. Human Rights didn’t really take off. That’s why I say it’s only in the ‘70s that most people say they began to hear of the phrase.

The thing I think you left out is the human rights movement, which is not part of the states that wrote both the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration. That came from below, and it didn’t come in the 1940s. It came in the 1970s and continues into our time. I think we really have to focus on what it’s been doing in the last forty years, not just what states and presidents have been doing.

The International Criminal Court is a cooperative project between states and the human rights movement in civil society. But we can be pretty depressed about it up to this point. It doesn’t include some of the major powers, including the United States and China.

In practice, of course, it’s a court for policing the weak. Sure, it tries to help those who are the weakest of the weak, the victims of atrocity. But the only people who really stand a chance of paying the price for atrocity are African dictators or non-state actors in Africa—warlords like Joseph Kony. And it’s not that those people aren’t guilty of horrendous crimes, but there are lots of crimes in the world that aren’t part of the ICC’s gambit. That means that the institution has lots of limits.

CM: You were just mentioning how the human rights movement and the words ‘human rights’ didn’t really appear until the 1970s. I’m sure a lot of people don’t think of Human Rights as something new. A major tenet of your book is to rethink the origins of Human Rights.

When I think of the origins of Human Rights, I do have this image of something that is set in stone, something that is handed down from the Greeks or the Romans or from the Enlightenment.

But when you write about the origins of human rights, you talk about the anti-torture movement of the 19th century. And I was thinking about the abolition movement, the anti-slavery movement of the 19th century as well, and thinking maybe that is the beginning of a human rights movement, just without the language.

How much does the human rights movement of the 1970s—and the Human Rights philosophy that we use today when we’re talking about humanitarian intervention and liberal internationalism—have to thank those 19th century movements? Or are they disconnected from one another politically?

SM: As in most things, there are old components and new components. First of all, though, I don’t want to put too much emphasis on the novelty of the word or phrase Human Rights. There are closely related words or phrases, like ‘natural rights,’ that Americans offered in 1776 as their reason to leave Great Britain. The French les droits de l’homme, the ‘rights of man,’ were a central part of the French Revolution—a reason to first sideline the king, and then to overthrow him.

It’s more important to focus on the question: what was the actual political project of these various movements in the past? In the two I just mentioned, the American and French Revolutions, the project was to attack power and gain sovereignty for ‘our own people.’ The Americans founded the first post-colonial state, and their goal was to set up a sovereign nation. And the French wanted to destroy, eventually, monarchy for their own sake.

Whereas nowadays we tend to think of Human Rights as a cause that’s about other people’s suffering. Moreover, we reject violence as our means, whereas when the Americans and French invoked Rights, it was for the purpose of picking up a weapon, to go out and engage in what some people then called ‘terrorism.’

Then we get to the other things you mentioned. Torture was attacked internally within countries, in domestic politics, in the 18th century—but because the developed West was imperialist for most of modern history, there was no global anti-torture movement until the 1970s, when Amnesty International made it one of its most prestigious causes and won the Nobel Prize, in part for claiming torture should be beyond the pale everywhere.

I think there are a lot of similarities between anti-slavery and Human Rights as social movements. They both relied, to some degree, on naming and shaming. And of course slavery is one of the worst human rights violations we can imagine. But there were lots of different kinds of anti-slavery. Much of it was Christian, much of it was humanitarian…but very little of it was about giving agency to blacks. In fact, there was a very close connection, all the way into the 20th century, between anti-slavery and empire.

Most people who were for anti-slavery in Great Britain, for example, wanted to ban it in Africa and put Africa under the ‘stewardship’ of white Europeans. So even then, anti-slavery—if it was a Human Rights movement—was already subject to the abuse of the idea of Human Rights that we see in our own day. It was the rationale for the scramble for Africa.

And so there’s a mixed picture of continuity and change. I think that human rights really only make sense when we think about them in a world after empire. When abroad there are people suffering, we rightly care about them—and we don’t think formal empire is a credible tool. In fact, we think of it with horror. So the international human rights movement was built to find some way other than imperialism of addressing the suffering of the world, which has rightly been taken off the table.

CM: A lot of people would say that Human Rights is something that is not debatable. It is something that we all agree on. We all agree that people have human rights. But you believe that we need to have some more partisanism when it comes to that debate.

Why do you want to have debate on Human Rights when we all are supposed to be on the same side?

“The rise of Human Rights has involved a marginalization of the revolutionary idea—especially one that would flirt with violence.”

SM: That’s a great question. To begin to answer it, let’s go back to torture. It’s really only in the last forty years that we have begun to regard it as an absolute wrong no matter where it occurs. Until only very recently, lots of people would have regarded it as a useful tool of order abroad. And now we all agree, except for a few recent American politicians, that it’s off the table. And I think we can celebrate that.

What that means is that we had a fight over what to believe, and the good people won that fight. They succeeded in taking torture off the table. But that’s not because it was declared a Human Right; it’s because the right people won the argument.

The same thing, of course, happened with slavery. The United States was founded as a contradiction, a compromise among people who couldn’t agree about whether it was right or wrong to hold slaves. They had to have a fight. Now, after the fight is over and a lot of blood has been spilled, we can say that there’s a human right not to be held in bondage. It makes us feel good, and it might be true as a philosophical matter—but it didn’t keep us from having to fight.

So when I think about human rights now, I wonder: can we afford to just proclaim them and say they’re beyond contest, when the truth is that people still disagree about so many of them? Take economic and social rights. Those rights are in the Universal Declaration from the get-go. The right to work, even the right to paid vacation are part of the Universal Declaration and written into international law. But obviously it’s the case that these are not broadly accepted principles—certainly not in our country, but even around the world.

For them to be broadly accepted, is it going to be enough to just say they’re Human Rights, or do we have to find some way of struggling over their acceptance and institutionalization? So I think the emphasis is wrong; that’s the point of the call for partisanship. We have to reckon with the fact that people disagree, and just as in those older causes, we have to figure out how to foreground the disagreement and have a fight.

CM: You mention how Human Rights can even be counterrevolutionary. You make a point about Václav Havel: how, when he became president of the Czech Republic, his focus was on human rights. That focus on human rights had led to the Velvet Revolution. But then, you say, people shouldn’t have been surprised when Václav Havel’s government supported the attack on Iraq for humanitarian purposes, for getting people out from under the yoke of Saddam Hussein.

I was surprised at that, but I wasn’t thinking about it through the framework that you were thinking about it. So explain how Human Rights can be counterrevolutionary.

SM: I think it depends on what you mean by ‘counterrevolutionary.’ There’s no denying that human rights are born out of revolution. They are about people mobilizing for their rights, and as I said, the first human rights activists—you might call it “Human Rights 1.0”—in the American and French Revolutions were about creating their own state, setting it up using violence if necessary. That was clearly revolutionary; the American and French cases defined what a ‘revolution’ is.

Then you fast forward to the Universal Declaration. There’s no revolution going on then. It seems to be about decorating a Great Powers settlement. By the 1940s, somehow the powerful had captured what Human Rights are about.

In part, that’s because Human Rights were seen as an alternative to socialism. In the 1940s, the Left was having a disagreement about whether to be democratic socialists or follow the Soviets in adopting Communist politics. That debate divided West Europeans especially, where there were lots of socialists but also lots of very powerful communist politicians.

The people who were for International Human Rights really wanted to contain that debate, and invoked liberal norms around the individual in order to contain the threat of revolution, whether it was socialist or communist. Once we get to the 1970s and on to today, it seems as if the rise of Human Rights was part of a process of taking revolution altogether off the table as an option.

That’s not to say there can’t be revolutions anymore. Maybe that’s what was at stake in the Arab Spring. Maybe people were even returning to the revolutionary potential of Human Rights. But I think, in a broader sense, the rise of Human Rights has involved a marginalization of the revolutionary idea—especially one that would flirt with violence.

“The human rights movement, in its focus on atrocity, has been way too selective, leading us away from thinking about structural wrongdoing.”

CM: International human rights have been invoked in recent arguments around water shut-offs in Detroit. What has been the impact of neoliberalism and privatization on Human Rights?

SM: I think that is a burning question. First off, if it works politically to say something’s a human rights violation, we should do it. But we have to also step back and ask the harder questions.

We know lots of political changes happened in American or world history before the human rights movement became popular, and before there were these international documents. Much of it worked by decrying structural injustice. If people are having their water rights violated it’s not just by accident, but because of the economic picture, which needs to be named and shamed. So far the human rights movement hasn’t given us the ways of thinking about society and history we need to make that move.

Some people have worried, in fact, that neoliberalism emerged in tandem with the human rights movement. And if you buy the story that where we once had socialism we now have Human Rights, we have lots of cause to worry.

Older kinds of politics, especially the class politics we used to have, were about structural injustice. Whereas it seems that neoliberalism is safe and sound in a world where we only have Human Rights. That’s something that’s going to be worth considering in the years to come.

CM: You write that “one of the worst outcomes of the imaginative linking of the Holocaust and human rights is that it allows people to believe that the sole alternative to a humanitarian and human rights framework is genocidal violence or, at best, immoral complacency. The alternative to our contemporary humanitarian culture of human rights is not doing nothing. It is doing something else and perhaps something better.”

But what’s wrong with scaring people into supporting Human Rights by telling them the worst possible thing that could happen if Human Rights aren’t supported? What’s wrong with fear-mongering people into believing in Human Rights?

SM: Nothing, if the outcomes are good. But I’ve tried to show that actually the Holocaust wasn’t in the forefront of people’s minds in 1945 or 1948, and the Universal Declaration wasn’t a response to the mass murder of the Jews. Still, it’s popular to say that it was, and to justify the promotion of Human Rights by remembering the Holocaust with all of its horrors. Now, I have no problem with that. If myths work in politics, we should use them—as long as it leads to good results.

But it often doesn’t. My worry is that Holocaust memory sometimes constricts our ethical and political possibilities. Save Darfur is a good example of that. If we think about international politics mainly as a charnel house—we look out at it and what we fear most is atrocity—then we’ll focus on episodic and relatively ‘superficial’ evils rather than on the big structural (call them neoliberal) evils that have been really pervasive in the last thirty years.

So my complaint is really not about fear-mongering. It’s about what the fear-mongering leads to. The human rights movement, in its focus on atrocity, has been way too selective, leading us away from thinking about structural wrongdoing—which might be less glamorous for Sean Penn to talk about; it’s much easier to talk about what’s on CNN, what can be represented vividly on television. It’s much harder but much more important to talk about the long-term structural evils the people of Detroit were suffering from before their water was shut off.

CM: I really appreciate your being on the show with us this morning, Sam.

SM: Thanks, Chuck.

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