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Imperialists for “Human Rights”

The language of "human rights" has become the language of Western aggression.

A US aircraft dropping cluster bombs. US Air Force

Historical writing comes in different shapes and sizes. Seed-like microhistories — the kind Jill Lepore has popularized in recent years in the pages of the New Yorker — start small before blossoming out into the air of the present and digging their roots into the soil of age-old questions. Inflated global histories, by contrast, swiftly bounce like a beach ball from one event, country, or time period to another, covering in a handful of pages what other scholars might in a lifetime.

Acute in its attention to epochal shifts, the style of legal historian Samuel Moyn’s 2012 book, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, might best resemble a scalpel. His is a reconstructive history whose procedures include trimming down sweeping claims and excising carcinogenic histories absorbed in a singular moment (i.e. the French Revolution).

Moyn’s goal in The Last Utopia is to specify, not broaden, the history of human rights. Against scholars who look back centuries to find its origins, he argues human rights only appeared with the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 1948. And even then, it entered like a whisper into an international political and legal scene marked by demands for Holocaust reparations, the establishment of the welfare state, and an end to colonialism.

If anything, The Last Utopia attempts to answer the question of why the concept of human rights didn’t make much of a fuss when it entered our vocabulary in the late 1940s and, by contrast, why it seemed to take off suddenly some time in the mid-1970s.

Moyn’s latest book on the subject, Human Rights and the Uses of History, has something else in mind. Instead of meticulously suturing the fragments of an alternative history, the book’s eight essays continually question scholars who like to mold the history of human rights into the size that most snugly fits their historical style.

Human Rights and the Uses of History serves as both a backstory and a companion to The Last Utopia. Each chapter wades through the theories of Moyn’s scholarly interlocutors, like Lynn Hunt and her celebrated book Inventing Human Rights, in order to give readers a sense of where Moyn stands in comparison.

Moyn’s book is a flawed but important challenge to today’s consensus around human rights. Here we have a powerful account of how this seemingly benign phraseology is often pressed into the service of Western imperialism. In well under two hundred pages, Moyn razes most of the myths about the development of human rights into a rallying cry inside academia, the NGO world, and officialdom. Still, he misses an opportunity to engage with more full-throated critics of rights as such — namely, Marxists.


Though Moyn doesn’t mention Georgetown University law Professor Rosa Brooks in Human Rights and the Uses of History, he certainly could have. Brooks, a former Defense Department counselor who first cut her teeth in the comparably utopian NGO world, epitomizes the advocate-cum-scholar-cum-bureaucrat. Like Samantha Power and so many others, she started out condemning atrocities abroad before being appointed to serve the world’s hegemonic power.

Brooks, unsurprisingly, is a critic of Moyn’s. She fails to see the import of his human rights history revisionism. She’s incredulous about his skepticism. “Why would anyone question the US government adopting such a good thing like human rights?” she says. In addition to Brooks, many of the figures Moyn critiques in the book erase the once-clear distinction between scholar and policy analyst. What is revealed throughout Human Rights and the Uses of History is that what might superficially appear to be a scholarly book of contemporary history often turns out to be a mere government tool to justify current imperial ambitions.

Such is the case with John Ikenberry, a Princeton professor and one-time State Department staffer. A defender of so-called liberal internationalism — the idea that the US should “promote democracy abroad” regardless of its toll on sovereignty or life — Ikenberry reasons that hegemony can be benevolent, if only partially. His Liberal Leviathan is but a defense of Bush’s “neoimperial grand strategy” in words liberals can stomach. Throughout history American hegemony has enjoyed “liberal characteristics,” Ikenberry claims at one point in the book. Moyn’s riposte: “This is like saying that a poor man has ‘wealthy characteristics’ because he is wearing a clean shirt, and very different from saying he is rich.”

Much to Moyn’s chagrin, many in the US and elsewhere believe that human rights violations — anything that deprives an individual of “the right to life, liberty and the security of person,” according to Article Three of the Universal Declaration — ought to be handled by an international legal system that can override national laws. And when that kind of enforcement doesn’t work, it’s up to the most powerful states to intervene on behalf of violated citizens, who almost always come from poorer, “failed” states.

Though not entirely ignoble, such logic is invariably used selectively. Human rights NGOs and the UN may sporadically “condemn” the US and Western European countries, but it ultimately grants them impunity while judging others, like Venezuela, perpetual violators. The Westphalian assumptions that motivated the Universal Declaration — that the West or Western-friendly nations should never use international law to breach each other’s national sovereignty — also authorized the spate of US military interventions in the 1990s in places like Iraq, Somalia, Sierra Leone, and Yugoslavia.

During that time the US not only slaughtered thousands of innocent civilians through mass bombing raids, but also supported the leadership of right-wing war criminals like Agim Ceku. Much the same is happening today in places like Libya, where calls back in 2011 for intervention based on the Qaddafi government’s human rights violations have precipitated the current humanitarian crisis. And still, human rights-oriented interventionism blithely flourishes.

If Moyn is weary of scholars retrofitting their work to reflect the concerns of the current administration, it doesn’t mean he ignores the present. President Obama emerges at crucial moments in the book to underscore how much these debates over human rights actually influence Washington’s elite policymakers.

But while Obama has embraced and expanded many of George W. Bush’s policies, he hasn’t taken up his predecessor’s rhetorical embrace of human rights. “Few developments seem more surprising than the fact that Barack Obama rarely mentions human rights,” Moyn notes. “Especially since past enthusiasts for them like Samantha Power and Anne-Marie Slaughter have major roles in his foreign policy shop.”

This might help explain Brooks, Ikenberry, and others’ bureaucraticism. As Brooks put it in a 2010 panel discussion of The Last Utopia, “Bureaucracies are what get things done. Slowly, inefficiently, badly, sloppily, etc., but they are indeed what get things done.” She went on: “If you hear less about human rights from top US politicians that may not be because human rights have failed, that may be because human rights have been more integrated into day-to-day business than they have been in the past.”

But this doesn’t help explain why Obama has jettisoned what had been an important weapon in the presidential arsenal of moralistic jargon. In its stead, Obama seems to have adopted “human dignity.” In speeches, he’s associated the concept with everything from gay rights to Pope Francis to, back in 2010, the corruption charges levied at US Representative Charles Rangel (he should “end his career with dignity,” Obama said).

Human dignity and human rights, however, are two different concepts. According to the legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron, whom Moyn critiques in one chapter, dignity holds the universal and egalitarian promise of Immanuel Kant’s kingdom of ends. “We should allow the legal, democratic process itself to lift the poor and marginalized into that vaunted status,” Moyn summarizes Waldron. Such is the latter’s unshakable faith in history’s progressive trajectory. “At this late date it is naïve to appeal to the workings of providence,” Moyn tells us. “In fact, a closer look at the historical details of dignity’s trajectory suggests that its prominence today is directly related to a crisis of progress.”

That we need concepts like dignity to make us alive to injustices that range from torture to genocide doesn’t bode well for Obama and other proponents of “human dignity.” But far worse is the fact that books like Waldron’s Dignity, Rank, and Rights, according to Moyn, obscure the “struggle for the freedoms of blacks, women, and workers,” for whom “no theories of human dignity were required.”

The very importance of the term itself rests on the fact that it was included in the UN Charter; now, it’s become common parlance not only among Washington’s liberal elite but also academics that aspire to join its ranks. The term “dignity” was inserted into the United Nations Charter by postwar Catholics whose prewar affiliations with fascist regimes in Austria, Portugal, and Spain suggest, contra Waldron, that dignity had little to do with a liberal, Kantian impulse. With the elevation of dignity, the nineteenth-century struggle for a better world had been replaced by a twentieth-century fear of a worse one.

Whereas dignity’s relation to human rights was baked into the UN Charter in 1945, the concept shares a more oblique association with torture. Launched in 1973, Amnesty International’s anti-torture campaign led to Nobel Peace Prizes for founding member Seán MacBride in 1974 and the organization as a whole in 1977. The fact that human rights discourse developed during the 1970s instead of the 1940s, Moyn argues, has much to do with liberal crusaders like Amnesty.

But at the same time, the increasing visibility of torture — upon which human rights organizations like Amnesty have staked their claim to fame — had more to do with the West’s retreat from colonialism than with some categorical sin. “The truth seems to be that torture acquired its insidious glamour as the worst thing they do — once Western violence was done, and the places it had shaped for so long now looked like scenes of indigenous misrule,” Moyn writes.


Human rights discourse isn’t entirely insidious. The rise of the leftist Spanish party Podemos is partially due to its use of human rights language. And for all its faults, appeals to human rights can help bolster support for ending poverty and oppression.

But this qualified praise for human rights begs the question: why use the term at all? If it originates from the top rather than the bottom — and the project attracts the most support from those in power — what is its utility? What remains, beyond its ability to pull at the heartstrings of Westerners, beyond its ability to justify calls for humanitarian intervention abroad? How can these two political projects — human rights and humanitarian intervention — even be disentangled? Questions like these go unanswered in Human Rights and the Uses of History.

Still, evidence of Moyn’s uncomfortable relationship with human rights is sprinkled throughout the book. Unlike the authors whose books he challenges, corrects, or upends, Moyn doesn’t partake in the gleeful celebration of human rights as a new utopia. Instead, he pries open its blind spots and pillories its uses, whether deployed as an excuse for militarism or historical bowdlerization.

More often than not, Moyn endorses leftist critiques of human rights. He especially impugns proponents for their failure to account for economic injustice, concluding one chapter with this resounding sentence: “No one has figured out how to broaden the prohibition against the suffering caused by torture to include the suffering caused by global inequality of wealth and power.”

He’s equally critical of individual figures. For Moyn, Ikenberry shows us that “a domestic commitment to liberal values had very little impact on the chilling and sometimes violent quest for wealth.” Michael Rosen, whose book Dignity receives measured scorn in the chapter on human dignity, gives us a neat and accurate history of dignity; but dignity, in its opposition to torture, “has proved far less helpful when some of us insist that our fellow humans care about one another’s broader welfare or collective emancipation,” Moyn writes.

And Jenny Martinez, author of the book Slave Trade and the Origins of International Human Rights Law, misses the International Criminal Court’s all too obvious limitations: “strong and wealthy nations are never going to legally mandate their own loss of superiority and money — and no court will dare call them enemies of mankind for not doing so.”

If economic injustice is one of the book’s most important motifs, it also gives rise to one of its most important tensions. Human rights proponents, Moyn stresses, must advocate for the “real conditions for the enjoyment of any rights” — the “entitlement to economic welfare” being the most fundamental of these conditions. Indeed, if human rights verbiage aids Western aggression, it is also to blame for tragically ignoring the economic welfare of its own citizens.

But curiously, Moyn doesn’t engage with Marxism, at least one position that might push him toward fully supporting economic emancipation. Many Marxists, to be sure, would endorse Moyn’s lampooning of Ikenberry, not to mention Power and Slaughter. And Moyn writes, perhaps rightly, that many Marxists don’t take human rights seriously enough.

But the ones he mentions — Slavoj Zizek, a Lacanian psychoanalyst, and Robin Blackburn, a historian of slavery — hardly count as Marxists seriously concerned with human rights. Blackburn’s American Crucible, Moyn concludes, “demonstrates that human rights have become so powerful as a moral framework that even Marxists — who once criticized ‘bourgeois’ rights and formalistic abstraction in general as useless for emancipation — now see no alternative but to recalibrate their politics in terms set by the explosion of human rights in our times.”

But the problem with this kind of claim is that Moyn himself never really takes the Marxist criticism of human rights seriously. That Marxist critique might emphasize the connections between human rights, capital, and private property; the need for overcoming individual conceptions of rights in favor of collective ones; or the fact that no human rights campaign has ever stemmed from Article 25 of the Universal Declaration — “the right to a standard of living for the health and well being . . . including food, clothing, housing, medical care, and necessary social services.”

Moyn often appears sympathetic to substantial parts of this critique, but stops short of endorsing its rejection of the bourgeois emphasis on individual rights. At other times, he seems to reject that critique for being too aloof and for not paying attention to the empirical or ethnographic realities of human rights — its workers and its discourse.

Moyn is a brilliant scholar, and in Human Rights and the Uses of History he shows his intellectual heft. He elegantly crashes the parties of human rights cheerleaders of all stripes. He reveals their work in all its misguided splendor. Yet that’s part of the problem: the ease with which he dispatches them suggests that he should’ve taken on a more difficult opponent — like Marxists.

Though its well-written and entertaining victory lap is something to behold given the human rights consensus, Moyn’s book would’ve greatly benefited from engaging his fellow critics on the Left. His history of human rights is a process of truncating its longue durée. But by avoiding Marxism he undoubtedly abridged it too far.