Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry:

Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry:

Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 216
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry:
    Book Description:

    Michael Ignatieff draws on his extensive experience as a writer and commentator on world affairs to present a penetrating account of the successes, failures, and prospects of the human rights revolution. Since the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, this revolution has brought the world moral progress and broken the nation-state's monopoly on the conduct of international affairs. But it has also faced challenges. Ignatieff argues that human rights activists have rightly drawn criticism from Asia, the Islamic world, and within the West itself for being overambitious and unwilling to accept limits. It is now time, he writes, for activists to embrace a more modest agenda and to reestablish the balance between the rights of states and the rights of citizens.

    Ignatieff begins by examining the politics of human rights, assessing when it is appropriate to use the fact of human rights abuse to justify intervention in other countries. He then explores the ideas that underpin human rights, warning that human rights must not become an idolatry. In the spirit of Isaiah Berlin, he argues that human rights can command universal assent only if they are designed to protect and enhance the capacity of individuals to lead the lives they wish. By embracing this approach and recognizing that state sovereignty is the best guarantee against chaos, Ignatieff concludes, Western nations will have a better chance of extending the real progress of the past fifty years. Throughout, Ignatieff balances idealism with a sure sense of practical reality earned from his years of travel in zones of war and political turmoil around the globe.

    Based on the Tanner Lectures that Ignatieff delivered at Princeton University's Center for Human Values in 2000, the book includes two chapters by Ignatieff, an introduction by Amy Gutmann, comments by four leading scholars--K. Anthony Appiah, David A. Hollinger, Thomas W. Laqueur, and Diane F. Orentlicher--and a response by Ignatieff.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4284-1
    Subjects: Political Science, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. vii-xxviii)

    “No one shall be subject to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.” This statement of Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is part of what Michael Ignatieff aptly calls “the juridical revolution” in human rights since 1945. Other critical international documents of the revolution include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions of 1948, the revision of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and the international convention on asylum of 1951.

    Covenants without swords are but words, Thomas Hobbes famously wrote. What kind of revolution is marked by so many words that...


    • Human Rights as Politics
      (pp. 3-52)

      InIf This Is a Man, Primo Levi describes being interviewed by Dr. Pannwitz, chief of the chemical department at Auschwitz.¹ Securing a place in the department was a matter of life or death: if Levi could convince Pannwitz that he was a competent chemist, he might be spared the gas chamber. As Levi stood on one side of the doctor’s desk, in his concentration camp uniform, Dr. Pannwitz stared up at him. Levi later remembered:

      That look was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came...

    • Human Rights as Idolatry
      (pp. 53-98)

      Fifty years after its proclamation, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has become the sacred text of what Elie Wiesel has called a “world-wide secular religion.”¹ UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called the Declaration the “yardstick by which we measure human progress.” Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer has described it as “the essential document, the touchstone, the creed of humanity that surely sums up all other creeds directing human behavior.”² Human rights has become the major article of faith of a secular culture that fears it believes in nothing else. It has become the lingua franca of global moral thought, as...


    • Grounding Human Rights
      (pp. 101-116)

      The first part of Michael Ignatieff’s characteristically thoughtful and elegant essay draws our attention to three major facts:

      First, that there really has been a human rights revolution. In the years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and with increasing urgency since the end of the Cold War, a great international system of what he calls “juridical, advocacy, and enforcement” instruments has developed for protecting our human rights. These rights are encoded not only in the UN treaties, declarations, and conventions but also in regional agreements, and in much recent constitution making around the world. That is,...

    • Debates with the PTA and Others
      (pp. 117-126)

      If I were a patriarchal, theocratic authoritarian, an official of a sovereign nation-state organized in relation to a traditional culture, eager to use the technologies of the West but equally eager to avoid social and political liberalization, I would be very suspicious of Michael Ignatieff. I’d say to him something like the following. You, Ignatieff, claim that you don’t have designs on the entirety of my culture, so long as folks can leave it when they wish. You say that your human rights agenda is limited to providing the basis for what you call “any life whatever,” and that you...

    • The Moral Imagination and Human Rights
      (pp. 127-140)

      Michael Ignatieff begins his first essay with an incident reported by Primo Levi inIf This Is a Man: Levi is standing opposite the chief of the chemical department at Auschwitz. His life depends on convincing this erstwhile colleague that he—Levi—is a competent chemist and hence more useful to the camp alive than dead. He remembers that Dr. Pannwitz, the man on the other side of the desk, stared up at him with a “look [that] was not one between two men . . . [a look] which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium...

    • Relativism and Religion
      (pp. 141-158)

      “Human rights,” Louis Henkin wrote in 1981, “is the idea of our time.”¹ But as Michael Ignatieff reminds us, human rights is an idea without an idea—an idea, that is, without a professed ideology. Conspicuously absent from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is language evoking commitment to a particular belief system, and this was hardly an oversight: After all, the drafters of this instrument hoped to secure universal adherence in a world starkly divided by tradition, religion, and above all ideology.

      But as Ignatieff notes, their efforts were never wholly successful, and the final decade of the twentieth...


    • Dignity and Agency
      (pp. 161-174)

      Tom Laqueur takes issue with the degree to which I associate moral progress with the development of human rights. Such progress has occurred, he concedes, but international human rights has not had much to do with it. The decisive factor in the gradual reduction of cruelty and unmerited suffering in the Western world, he argues, has been not the growth of transnational rights instruments but the creation of regimes of constitutional law and political stability in Europe and the North Atlantic world since the sixteenth century. This struggle for political stability created the domestic rights regimes, which gradually ended the...

    (pp. 175-176)
  8. INDEX
    (pp. 177-187)