The Rise and Fall of the Human Rights Empire

Vasuki NesiahToday human rights is the dominant language for justice claimsof both social movements and states. It is the banner under which utopian projects seek audibility on the global stageand foreign policy initiatives strive for global legitimacy. With human rights invoked by boththose who captain the ships of globalization, and those who contest its terms and trajectory, internal tensions and contradictions have moved to the forefront. Some have celebrated thenexus between human rights and global governance as the triumphant culmination of efforts building a post-war consensus through cosmopolitan humanism. Others are considerably discomfited by the pervasiveness of human rights in emerging modes of governance. This discomfort was fueled by the fact that war proponents often invoked “human rights” as the grounds for intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq.

For the faithful, this confluence of human rights and imperial projects was little more than the cynical misappropriation of human rights, a betrayal of its true compass. For the skeptics,­ this merely affirmedthe ideological and structural ties between liberal political moralism and global capital.

Against this backdrop, Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia has reinvigorated the debate about why human rights became the anchor of political ethics. In his 2010 book, Moyn targets the sacred cows of the human rights era. Rather than see the rise of human rights as the unfolding of cosmopolitan progress, he situates it in the powerful synergy between transnational social movements and power politics in the Cold War moment. Moyn tells a story that stretches from the global repercussions of the dissolution of the Bolshevik experiment to the local dynamics ofpost-Nixon electoral cleansing in the United States that brought about Jimmy Carter’s unlikely candidacy. By re-historicizing the agendas that propelled the ascentof human rights, he draws attention to the political projects at stake when human rights are invoked to support or defeat a cause.

Yet there are also weaknesses in Moyn’s account. The book is primarily a story of individual civil and political rights rather than economic and social rights, collective rights and other counter- traditions. His story is also distorted by a focus on the trajectory of human rights in North America and Europe, and the dramas that played out on that stage. Euro-American individuals such as Jimmy Carter, organizations such as Amnesty International, and political movements such as that of the Russian dissidents emerge as the primary protagonists in the human rights story. Human rights histories that are linked to abolitionist efforts, anti-colonial movements, economic rights claims, and the like fade from view.

Today many struggle for social justice and civil liberties through the language of human rights, just as many struggle against a human rights apparatus that works in tandem with regime-change initiatives and imperial “good governance” projects. Human rights may emerge both for and against the Bush regime and its legacies. Rather than a fixed bundle of rights with a singular history, “human rights” is a contested political terrain that has continuities and discontinuities with traditions as diverse as that of Frantz Fanon and Vaclav Havel, the struggles of Occupy Wall Street, and the campaigns against the slave trade. In other words, the human rights field includes a multiplicity of (sometimes contradictory) projects.

Human Rights in History

In the dominant cultural imaginary of the United States, the 1970s was the decade when all was lost: the decade that dragged down the radical aspirations of the 1960s to dump them, disempowered and disillusioned, on the doorstep of the 1980s Reagan Revolution. This was not, in other words, a historic moment of political inspiration and creativity. Moyn suggests, however, that the energy of the decade lay elsewhere; namely, in the invention of the human rights movement. When human rights gained traction as the lingua franca of East European dissidence it emboldened transnational solidarity and catalyzed a social movement that was so successful that it became the favored foreign policy framework of the most powerful states in the West. He notes that the year 1977 was bookended on the one hand by Carter’s January inauguration and Amnesty International’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in December.

In arguing for the catalytic role of the 1970s, Moyn is also arguing against the more familiar human rights histories. There are two popular origin myths. In the first, the late-18th-century revolutions in the United States and France represented a unique historical moment that birthed the idea of individual human rights. Moyn argues that these revolutions were about the nature of the social contract in particular Western states rather than international human rights. A second story is of “rights” as a post-war creation when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) emerged from the ashes of World War II to give rise to a new consciousness about international human rights. Here Moyn argues that the UDHR and the UN apparatus that birthed it were about the death of millions, not the birth of a movement – “a funeral wreath laid on the grave of wartime hopes.”

Moyn provides a convincing and even gripping story about dissidence in Eastern Europe and the dramatic cross-cutting political developments that led to human rights assuming greater importance. The claim of apolitical moralism, which enabled the symbiosis between Eastern European dissidents and Western foreign policy, catapulted the human rights movement into stardom in the 1970s. Theliberal imperialism that reigns today subsequently adopted this mantle of apolitical moralism. The post-Cold War merger of global governance and liberal humanism empowers the strand of human rights that rose from the ashes of the alternative utopias of socialism and national independence.

The human rights tradition is better understood not as a single, linear history but as a family of ideas, practices, and institutional projects that may bear some family resemblance from point A to point B but may also carry many mutations and divergences. The latter approach will find some version of human rights vocabulary in abolitionist struggles, anti-colonial moments, the late 18th-century revolutions, the UN apparatus, labor struggles, civil rights struggles, struggles around sexual freedoms, and more.In some cases, individual rights can be enjoyed in meaningful ways only in the context of groups (language rights for example); in other cases some rights are advanced effectively only when aggregated into a collective claim (labor rights, for instance); and in yet other cases, the group is in fact the relevant unit for understanding the content of a right (indigenous rights claims take this form). Such claimants have often had to fight against the tide to gain recognition in dominant human rights institutions. For instance, the Reagan administration famously argued that economic and social rights were “aspirations,” not rights. Like all families, the human rights tradition is internally diverse and even internally conflicted, and a singular history does a disservice to the counter-hegemonic projects that have framed their claims through human rights language.

Moyn is resistant to this approach. He tells the story of a particular notion of human rights as individual, civil, and political rights. This paradigm anchors major human rights institutions, from nongovernmental bodies such as Human Rights Watch to UN bodies such as the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights. He discusses the anti-colonial self-determination movements as an example of movements that had a moral anchor and mobilizing power that we may misrecognize as human rights struggles. He says that even if those making self-determination claims invoke human rights they “emphasized collective sovereignty, not individual prerogative, and the supremacy of the nation-state, rather than its subordination of global law.

However, for many in the global South, the claims about self-determination as human rights were advanced not because they didn’t get the individualist conception of human rights, but because they found political value in an alternative vision that emphasized that human rights were incompatible with colonialism. Arguably this was the spirit of the Free Mandela campaign’s expression of an anti-colonial movement in a human rights register. This approach may not have captured the imagination of foreign policy wonks in the global North, and it wasn’t the only political tradition animating independence struggles. However it was one historically important articulation of the human rights project.

Human Rights Today

Today, the ethical charge of human rights as the dominant political vocabulary for justice is accompanied by claims about its practical significance as a precondition for development, peace, and political society. This dual ethical and instrumental thrust has made it open to adaptation and appropriation by diverse interests, to those contesting the abuse of power as well as the most powerful actors in international policy-making.

There is value in keeping these moments of contestations alive rather than letting human rights be defined by its most powerful gatekeepers. Human rights discourse has extraordinary power. When justice claims gain recognition as “human rights,” it has significant consequences in the distribution of resources and meanings. For many, social and economic rights claims form a language that renders economic exploitation visible.

Yet human rights promises are often illusory. Gramsci’s embrace of an optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect is relevant here. Although human rights was often used as the telescope to make critical issues visible, it may well be that the telescope was held at the wrong end and that it is the human rights apparatus that appears amplified and empowered today. From torture to food insecurity, many of the issues that we sought to address through the human rights framework have persisted while the human rights framework itself has become empowered.

This does not mean that we should reject human rights, but it means we need a more situated analysis of what human rights is doing in a given context. Moyn contributes to our collective conversation by confronting the pieties of the field and opening the terrain up to political challenge. In this way, his work contributes to those subjugated counter-traditions mentioned earlier, even if it doesn’t do justice to their story within human rights history. Moyn directly confronts the political stakes at issue in the invocation of human rights; a confrontation that recognizes that if human rights is to be “vital and relevant” in today’s world, “human rights is not so much an inheritance to preserve as an invention to remake – or leave behind.”

Guest Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Vasuki Nesiah is associate professor of practice at the Gallatin School in New York University. Currently her main areas of research include the law and politics of international human rights and humanitarianism.