This essay’s a little mushy, but I think it’s also good. It aims to replace the standard liberal internationalist line about human rights in international law and politics – that a bundle of specific human rights was born of the unimpeachable moral outrage of Nuremburg, is now deeply rooted in the fabric of international law, and can therefore be deployed to eradicate impunity – with an account according to which “human rights as an inspirational concept” did not emerge until sometime during the Carter Administration, has always been pliable enough to be harnessed to multiple conflicting political agendae (from HRW’s to PNAC’s), and was antedated by a sordid, political version of human rights discourse that was used by Cold War rhetoricians to justify the continuation of empire.
Then, once it banishes human rights to the periphery of the history of international law and politics, the article traces an alternative account of the concept’s rise, and, in light of this alternative history, asks whether the human rights framework should be retained. The alternative history:
Human rights came to the world in a sort of gestalt switch: a cause that had once lacked partisans suddenly attracted them in droves. While accident played a role in this transformation, as it does in all human events, what mattered most was the collapse of universalistic schemes and the construction of human rights as a persuasive “moral” alternative to them. These prior universalistic schemes promised a free way of life but led to bloody morass [decolonization leads to failed states – CF], or offered emancipation from capital and empire but were now felt to be dark tragedies rather than bright hopes [Soviet Union, natch – CF]. They were the first candidates for replacing the failed premises of the early postwar order, but they failed too. In this atmosphere, an internationalism revolving around individual rights surged. Human rights were minimal, individual and fundamentally moral, not maximal, collective and potentially bloody.
Why, rooted as it is in a despairing idealism, human rights should arguably be jettisoned:
In his recent manifesto for a reclaimed social democracy, Ill Fares the Land, my late colleague Tony Judt stirringly calls for a revival of an unfairly scuttled domestic politics of the common good. Judt argues that if the left, after a long era of market frenzy, has lost the ability to “think the state” and to focus on the ways that “government can play an enhanced role in our lives,” that’s in part because the ruse of international human rights lured it away. The antipolitics of human rights “misled a generation of young activists into believing that, conventional avenues of change being hopelessly clogged, they should forsake political organization for single-issue, non-governmental groups unsullied by compromise.” They gave up on political tasks, Judt worries, for the satisfying morality of Amnesty International and other human rights groups.
The whole thing, anyway, is worth a read.
Update: I forgot to hat tip.