Consider only a few examples: if President Obama bemoaned how “we tortured some folks” in the aftermath of 9/11, Trump gleefully declared “torture works,” even endorsing the much-maligned practice of waterboarding; and when the International Criminal Court called out the mass execution of some 12,000 alleged drug lords by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte as examples of “crimes against humanity,” Trump lavished praise on the autocrat for his “incredible job” in combating drug violence.
More broadly, Trump has ingratiated himself to dictators the world over, from Russia’s Putin to China’s Xi Jinping. He has championed the use of violence as an effective tactic for both his white nationalist base at home and for the United States military against any enemy abroad. And he has gutted the State Department’s human rights and democracy programs in the pursuit of his campaign promise of “America First.”
In actuality, human rights entered crisis long before the age of Trump, at least since President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. President Obama, for his part, slowly retreated from deploying the language of human rights, which had served as a guiding light of US foreign policy since President Jimmy Carter declared in his 1977 inaugural address that the United States’s “commitment to human rights must be absolute.” If human rights once symbolized the idea of the United States as the world’s “beacon on a hill,” Obama’s actions reflected a more concerning volte-face: he shamelessly sanctioned the use drone warfare, which was euphemistically called “targeted killings” with “collateral damage” — that is, discriminating assassinations with significant and underreported civilian deaths. Still, Obama made many of us believe anew in the possibility of politics, in the possibility of hope itself, only to be supplanted by a man who turned politics into a game of hatred and a farce. The hope Obama inspired in disaffected liberals now looks like a funhouse of mirrors, and pessimism is now the prevailing mood in our age of human rights. Those of us who believe in human rights and seek to advance their cause frankly do not know what to do.
If human rights are to survive our fraught present and endure in the future, it is incumbent upon scholars to adopt a far more critical stance toward the study of human rights than they have so far been willing to do. Of course, academics have responded to the urgency of this crisis in a myriad of ways, and some had warned of the coming catastrophe from the politics of human rights. Despite the assault on human rights, some scholars cling to an uplifting and triumphalist story of the rise of human rights, one that leaves us both unable to understand the present and incapable of navigating the future. In this myth, humanity’s history is rendered as a slow but steady account of progress that will culminate in an Elysium of human rights. Far from helping us make sense of the challenges of our confusing present of human rights, these quixotic quests ransack the past in search of feel-good narratives of moral ascent and stirring stories of “hope” in the future — as if the misrepresentation of the past will magically bring about a brighter future in the name of human rights.
Beyond the vexing question of what constitutes human rights — if there is a right to free speech, is there also a fundamental right to health care? — the central dilemma of human rights history is one of origins. Where do human rights come from? And when was the decisive moment in which they emerged? Though it seems like a pedantic debate among scholars, the question of origins is important because the staunch defenders of human rights drop a plumb line through the past in order to validate their status today.
Of course, the study of the past is invariably inflected by the shape of the present. But some prominent intellectuals continue to affirm the passion they feel for human rights today by leading a treasure hunt for their deep origins. In a dizzying culling of events across time and space, scholars have attributed the breakthrough of human rights to such varied sources as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, the Stoics, Jesus Christ, medieval monasticists, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the founding of the United Nations.
But the simple fact of the matter is that our contemporary conception of human rights crystallized only yesterday in the vast expanse of historical time, as recently as the 1970s. Historian Samuel Moyn has been telling us so for over a decade now. His efforts to disturb what he saw as the damaging distortions of these redemptive stories of human rights history began in March 2007 when he fired off a polemic in the pages of The Nation. It targeted acclaimed historian Lynn Hunt, one of the past presidents of the flagship American Historical Association, who had just published Inventing Human Rights: A History. For all the credit Hunt was due for her prescient penchant for the next trend in history, including the centering of cultural analyses of the past in a field long dominated by social and political history, Moyn said she got human rights all wrong. Her rosy version of human rights history, in which novel reading and other empathy-generating practices apparently led people to ban torture, he wrote, reflected the “tardy fruit of the fashion of human rights in politics” and the convenient “backstories to the vogue of human rights.” The counterrevolution to the uncritical acceptance of human rights had begun.
Moyn did not stop there. In a series of ripostes, he picked away at the arguments of an array of prominent intellectuals. What inspiring lessons does the history of 19th-century British humanitarianism offer us, he asked us in his 2008 review of Gary Bass’s Freedom’s Battle, if we miss how appeals to the suffering of strangers were instrumentally deployed by British agents of empire, just as President George W. Bush’s invocations of Saddam’s torture chambers had been? Why is it, he prodded us in a 2013 reflection on the work of acclaimed Harvard literary scholar Elaine Scarry, that we think of torture as the worst human rights abuse imaginable — and not, say, the massive inequality that mars our world?
Underlying these critiques was not a rejection of human rights, although many smarting targets misconstrued Moyn’s arguments as such. On the contrary, Moyn was doggedly committed to exposing how human rights abetted what was, since the 1990s, an abiding faith in liberal internationalism, in the academy as much as among the so-called international community. This ideology, whose bible was then-journalist Samantha Power’s Pulitzer-winning book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, saw the world of tomorrow as necessarily furthered by a commitment to international institutions and universal values — consonant, for them, with human rights. (A sign of the liberal internationalist times, Power traded her pen critiquing power for a key to the corridors of power when she entered politics as a foreign policy advisor to then-Senator Obama, climbing to its highest echelons as the US Ambassador to the United Nations during Obama’s second term.)
The euphoria for liberal internationalism troubled Moyn. He noted how it too often overlooked sanctimonious feelings of moral superiority that always go hand-in-hand with more dubious projections of power — whether in the invasion of Iraq, the indiscriminate deployment of American power throughout the world in the name of humanity, no less a devotion to what was once considered the uncontested globalizing ethos of free markets and trade.
The apogee of Moyn’s revisionism came in 2010 with the publication of his highly successful and endlessly controversial The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. In the place of celebratory treatments of a centuries-long, relentless progression of human rights, Moyn proposed a radically new paradigm. “The drama of human rights,” he contended in one of the book’s most controversial claims, “is that they emerged in the 1970s seemingly from nowhere.” In support of this assertion, he explained how human rights registered a “nearly five times” increase in citations in The New York Times in the year 1977 alone. The shocking suggestion was that human rights had suddenly fallen from the sky. Human rights had no deep origins at all.
This was not a cause for blind celebration, Moyn cautioned, for it was in reality a defeat for far more capacious visions of social justice (e.g., a “welfare world” as advocated by Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal). Rather than a panacea to cure the problems of our times, his thesis was that the very ethic of human rights “emerged historically as the last utopia — one that became powerful and prominent because other visions imploded.” (The alternative visions were socialism in the first world, communism in the second, and revolutionary nationalism in the third.)
The Last Utopia threw shots across the bow of myriad scholarly camps, from political science to anthropology, sociology to philosophy; its impact reverberated far beyond the academy. The buttoned-up elites at Human Rights Watch even invited him to give a workshop on the import of his proposition for the group’s future. Almost no one fully endorsed his radical argument. The main point of The Last Utopia struck many scholars and activists as either a disturbing epiphany or a cynical mischaracterization of the past. How could an intellectual historian dare claim that the concept of human rights emerged from nowhere?
If guilty of an overstated thesis and silent on the decade of the 1990s, when the language of human rights became the moral lingua franca of our times, and when it was weaponized in the service of humanitarian interventions across the globe, The Last Utopia was one of those rare and brilliant books that compelled readers to reexamine their most cherished beliefs. It fundamentally changed the tone and tenor of human rights history, vaulting Moyn into the ranks of the country’s leading public intellectuals.
In the decade since, his star has continued to rise, first at Columbia, then at Harvard, and now at Yale. But where people saw a troubling pessimism in Moyn’s hard-nosed take on the recent history of human rights, close observers acknowledged that Moyn was committed to the realization of a better world, for he routinely expressed sympathy with and admiration for the project of human rights. His point was simply that there is a limit to how much hope we should invest in human rights if we want to make the world just and fair.
Samuel Moyn’s salvos must have surprised political scientist Kathryn Sikkink, who had been fighting a related intellectual war for over two decades.
For years she had gone toe-to-toe with one of the most epistemologically conservative and male-dominated sub-fields in the academy: the so-called “realists” of international relations. Realists believed that the international order orbited an axis of material power, but Sikkink and others argued that ideas and “norms” such as human rights, mattered, too. In contrast to the “realists,” she and her brethren were “constructivists” in that they thought that the world did not operate according to iron laws (e.g., nations are driven solely by the pursuit of power), but rather that we construct the world of the political and the social at particular moments and particular times.
While the realists dismissed the breezy allure of “ideas” and the impact of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as frivolous distractions from the primordial axis of power, Sikkink set out to prove that the realists had a blinkered vision of politics.
Partnering with political scientist Margaret Keck, Sikkink wrote the 1998 book that made her career and inspired thousands of academics and practitioners around the world: Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Relations. The central conceit of the book is that what scholars awkwardly call “nonstate actors,” such as NGOs like the premier global human rights organization Amnesty International, played a far more important role in global politics than had been recognized. Ushering in a theoretical revolution in international relations, Keck and Sikkink developed a theory for actors working “beyond borders” in a “transnational advocacy network" with other friendly governments, foundations, NGOs, and intergovernmental structures like the UN.
In the two decades since the publication of Activists Beyond Borders, Sikkink penned two significant books that were widely discussed not just in the ivory tower but in the halls of power in Washington: Mixed Signals: U.S. Human Rights Policy and Latin America and, even more prominently, The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing the World. Crucially, her scholarship was in direct dialogue with human rights practitioners. This reflected the trajectory of Sikkink’s own career: in the late 1970s, before her academic career, she was an intern at one of the first human rights organizations in Washington, the Washington Office on Latin America, established in 1974.
Where Activists Beyond Borders was fresh and bold, Mixed Signals was more conservative and diligent. “The overall lesson I take from my study of U.S. foreign policy,” Sikkink wrote at the end of her study, “is one of both hope and humility.” But a binary of hope and humility did little to assuage the realists who remained unconvinced that Sikkink’s coveted non-state actors had much suasion at all. And her analysis raised the question of degree: how much could we hope for?
Shifting away from the bread-and-butter world of human rights advocacy to the landscape of transitional justice in her 2011 The Justice Cascade, Sikkink explained the remarkable phenomenon of putative justice. It brought hard-hitting quantitative rigor to tally the impact of what scholars call “transitional justice” — the quest to try former perpetrators of state crimes.
The Justice Cascade made a partially convincing case for the worldwide spread of what political scientists call “norms.” Norms are constructed concepts, like the rejection of torture, that over time come to seem almost commonsensical and morally true. Who is for torture? Well, Dick Cheney and Donald Trump — the exceptions prove the rule of our era of human rights crisis.
She focused on the norm of individual criminal accountability, or trying past dictators for the horrors they committed while in power, which she argued grew out of Dirty War in Argentina in the mid-1980s, spreading across the Americas and to parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia in the 1990s. In the background again a few key questions lingered: “how global was this justice cascade?”; “and how far had it really ‘cascaded.’” As Sikkink herself lamented, “International relations theory has been notoriously weak when it comes to explaining change.”
The ideas of Samuel Moyn and Kathryn Sikkink were destined to collide, and they did so when Moyn unfavorably reviewed The Justice Cascade, again in the pages of The Nation. Pulling no punches, Moyn hit hard at Sikkink’s naïveté and obtuseness. Sikkink portrayed her protagonists as lone warriors, he explained, not the “elites” that they were in reality. More to the point, Sikkink did not examine the political conditions and historical realities that made this particular version of justice the one that was (only somewhat) globalized. Rejecting the central metaphor of the book, which naturalized the spread of norms as if they flowed like water (in a “cascade”), Moyn invoked historical facts. It was the “destruction of the Latin American left, along with the fall of its counterrevolutionary enemies,” Moyn shrewdly noted, that provided the conditions for the flowering of transitional justice.
In his most forceful dismissal, Moyn made it clear that this purported victory for the left was actually a defeat “because people had stopped searching for a promised land where the fight for equity involves more than litigating past crime.” In other words, Sikkink’s “justice cascade” did little to address the growing concerns over inequality and the solidification of hierarchies of power spawned by the rise of conservative ideologies and practices (e.g., the structural adjustment programs of the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank). That is, justice used to look toward improving the entire world, not vindicating specific victims by putting the past on trial. The cost of this particular crusade, he implied, had been too high, because it had defined justice in a terribly narrow way, as if the quest for justice for past wrongs responded to the crisis of justice in the present and future.
Sikkink’s latest book, Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century, encapsulates the mission that has defined the arc of her career: to redeem the project of human rights against realists who do not accept its potential and polemicists, like Moyn, who have tarnished it. Sikkink admirably believes in human rights and wants to salvage them for the future. Yet her heartfelt concern over the future of human rights politics has now led her astray.
On the first page, she states that we urgently need to know: “[H]ave human rights law, institutions, and activism produced positive change in the world?” Of course, they have, in some modest ways, as political scientists like Beth Simmons have explained in granular detail since 2009. But in Evidence for Hope, Sikkink confesses she has a “bias for hope” for human rights in the 21st century — and here, she borrows and misconstrues the meaning of influential economist Albert Hirschman’s 1971 Bias For Hope: Essays on Development and Latin America. In evaluating the book, then, we must ask: Is there enough real reason for hope in Kathryn Sikkink’s Evidence for Hope? And, if so, what can we hope for?
This “bias for hope” leads Sikkink to read a bias into her evidence. For example, one of her aims is to advance the project of globalizing the history of human rights, which many believe is necessary in order to show that human rights were not just creations imposed by Western hegemons after World War II. She does so by engaging in archival research in Latin America, and by drawing on her wide network of scholars, activists, and friends throughout the Americas. Globalizing human rights history is an admirable and much-needed intervention, for that history is dominated by American and European perspectives; Moyn himself was trained as a European intellectual historian. But one should always enter the archive wary of the allure of confirmation bias, the desire to find evidence that buttresses what one already believes is valid. In short, the evidence for hope is lacking, for the book is the first piece of scholarship that Sikkink has written that is analytically self-referential rather than passionately sound.
Sikkink discloses early on that Evidence for Hope does not cohere as a monograph; she tells readers to treat the book as an “a la carte” menu for disenchanted liberals. The first chapter speaks directly to the reader, titled: “Anger, Hope, and the Belief that You Can Make a Difference.” She then pivots to offer her reader a “response to the critics.” This is a defensive chapter in which Sikkink chastises Moyn as the leading light of the human rights critics, alongside political scientist Stephen Hopgood and Eric Posner, two other scholars who have also thrown cold water on the utility and future of human rights ideas and institutions. It is an unfair characterization, conflating Moyn with two other brilliant thinkers who pushed their arguments even further than he did.
It evinces a distressing retrenchment in Sikkink’s thinking since she arrived at Harvard University to take the Ryan Family Professorship of Human Rights Policy in 2014. For one, it is as if she already had the story figured out long ago, for she only superficially engages with the evolution of human rights literature. Sikkink appears content to merely find whatever evidence she can to rebut her critics — who do, in fact, share the same desire to make the world a better place — rather than reckon with the reality that the enterprise of human rights is at a crossroads.
Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Sikkink’s next two chapters are a cherry-picked fairy tale of the Global South’s (what we used to call the Third World) contribution to the making of human rights politics. In the same way she only glances as Moyn’s arguments, she deploys the recent work of other scholars without coming to terms with their conclusions (in the interest of full disclosure, this includes my own work). This is a surprise, considering Sikkink’s Mixed Signals is a sharp analysis of the history of US human rights policy. But in her quest to restore the agency of the Global South — especially Latin America — she remains blind to what Moyn identified as Lynn Hunt’s original error. Sikkink treats human rights “as a body of ideas somehow insulated from history — as if they were a set of beliefs analogous to heliocentrism or relativity, needing only discovery and acceptance.”
But the discovery of the idea of human rights was not a one-time affair like the articulation of a theory of relativity. There is no primordial truth of human rights to be uncovered, for they are in a state of perpetual flux and in tension with the globalized nation-state. How we read Evidence for Hope, therefore, pivots on how we make sense of the chasm in moral and ethical and geopolitical worlds since Barack Obama came into office, inspiring many with his poetic “audacity of hope” and his belief that “yes, we can,” and the world of today where a monumental disgrace is the president.
Of course, Sikkink is in part responding to this mood of cynicism. Her work will endear for its groundbreaking mapping of transnational activism — in many ways, Activists Beyond Borders became something of a bible for scholars and activists interested in cross-border activists such as environmental or anti-slavery activists, as much as its utopian defense of human rights. One can admire her desire to comfort us in this dark age of Trump, to help us believe that hope is still there and that human rights can be salvaged. But, with the project of international human rights at a turning point in an age of nationalist retrenchment, there is little cause for celebration, much less hope. If this analysis is to imbue hope in disillusioned believers in human rights, we must ask: what is hope for? To paraphrase Melville: if our chests had been cannons, we would have shot our hearts upon them long ago.
Kathryn Sikkink’s march with the banner of human rights through the fantasy land of liberal internationalism could be usefully contrasted with that of Michael Ignatieff, her predecessor as head of the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Harvard Kennedy School. Ignatieff long has been seen as one of the principal theoreticians of human rights, a task to which he has devoted his career since reporting on the Bosnian Civil War in the late 1990s, where Samantha Power also cut her teeth.
Unlike Sikkink, Ignatieff has been chastened by the tumult of global politics in recent years. He deserves praise for wrestling with the devolution of our moral worlds over recent decades. Unlike the conservative architects of American interventions in the Middle East, Ignatieff did not willfully mislead us into war. Indeed, in The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World, Ignatieff betrays an admirable recognition of the poverty of our moral politics today.
Once comfortably seated on his perch at the Kennedy School as the human rights oracle, Ignatieff saw his reputation implode after he became the leading liberal internationalist apologist for the Iraq War. Chastened now, he wonders if our cherished cosmopolitan ideas of human rights have been popularized as the “ordinary virtues” of a common humanity. Flush with funds from Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, which underwrote the endeavor, Ignatieff teamed up with researchers and translators to find answers to these questions by globetrotting to seven seemingly random cities around the world: from Jackson Heights, New York, the most diverse neighborhood in the United States, to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, to the corrupt African National Congress–led South Africa, to nuclear-torn Fukushima. He and his team held workshops and conducted interviews in each location with journalists, academics, and politicians — what they call the “local” cosmopolitans — alongside residents of slums and police officers. In some ways, the project shares an eerie similarity to early 20th-century anthropology.
The most disappointing sections of The Ordinary Virtues recapitulate the triumphalist narrative of human rights history, such as when he claims that human rights “went global because the language was picked up by colonial peoples as the vocabulary which legitimized their struggle.” Why cling to a fantasy of the history of human rights if you acknowledge, however belatedly, their shallow capacity to change the world?
Still, Ignatieff is not as interested in human rights history as Sikkink or Moyn, and his more critical approach toward human rights offers us lessons for how we think of the relationship between human rights theory and practice. Whereas Sikkink continues to blindly champion human rights, Ignatieff has now turned against them. “Among the very poor,” Ignatieff tells us, “human rights and global ethics were terms most had never heard of.” They are “abstractions” that are “of little use to these people.” Ignatieff concludes that the future of human rights is not bright. From Brexit to the rise of little Marine le Pens and revanchist nationalism, to the rise of Trump and the destruction of democracy in Brazil, the world of today is marked by “democratic majorities” who disavow “universalist claims […] in the name of a democratic defense of local values.”
Soberingly, Ignatieff confesses that the “globalization of our economies does not produce globalization in our hearts and minds.” This is because Ignatieff once lyrically called human rights “the most we can hope for.” But Ignatieff is also guilty of seeing “equality” in the same two-dimensional way that Sikkink views “justice,” turning a blind eye to the distributive forms of justice to which Moyn, following Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, now rightly encourages us to turn our attention.
Weary of debates over the origins of human rights, Samuel Moyn has just completed his latest foray into human rights history; it speaks to the urgency of our contemporary politics more than to other debates. In Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, Moyn suggests that our current vocabularies of global justice — above all our belief in the emancipatory potential of human rights — need to be discarded if we are work to make our vastly unequal world more equal.
As an intellectual historian, Moyn spends almost no time in the archives, preferring to synthesize from a broad and eclectic array of thinkers across time and space. He throws in sharp relief the value of this kind of synthetic history, for history is ever-shifting, and Moyn reintroduces us to prophets of equality that have long been forgotten. Through nine chapters that span the Jacobin insurgency of the French Revolution to the present, Moyn traces the fall of a vision of distributional equality and the rise of a less ambitious vision of universal sufficiency. Distributional equality seeks to equalize the playing field for all. Is it just, for example, Moyn asks us, if the combined assets of only eight men are equal in value to the combined assets of half of humanity, almost four billion people? Universal sufficiency, in contrast, seeks to provide a basic minimum of guarantees for all, and is best encapsulated by the growing attention to the poverty of the world. Best read as a companion history to Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Not Enough explains how — across the fields of development, moral advocacy, philosophy, and governmental policy — the ideal of sufficiency gradually supplanted what was once an ideal of equality for all.
Once again a thorn in the side of the human rights movement, Moyn disabuses advocates for human rights that they have done much of anything but unwittingly further this turn toward sufficiency as the watchword of global justice. Consider that human rights activists focus on a specific type of spectacular atrocity. Amnesty International for the first four decades of its lifespan denounced only a handful of rights abuses perpetrated by the state: political prisoners imprisoned for their ideas, torture, and the death penalty. It famously assumed a strict stance of neutrality with the goals to “name and shame” autocratic regimes and to “inform others about violations of human rights.” As one executive said in 1977, “[S]ome may draw political conclusions from the facts we present, but Amnesty International as an organization does not.” Until the turn of the 21st century, Amnesty and the other most prominent global human rights group, Human Rights Watch, saw human rights only as civil and political rights, and not social and economic rights.
This prioritization, Moyn argues, meant that human rights advocates took their eye off the ball, if the ball is the most pressing problem in global justice today, inequality. Inequality now is seen as the primary consequence of what commentators call “neoliberalism.” This is a theory of political economy that Moyn shows dates to Austrian-British economist Friedrich Hayek in the 1930s. It reached its critical breaking point with the implementation of the free market ideas of University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman; he trained a generation of “Chicago Boys” who later returned to their homeland to advise Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s quest to slash government budgets, crush labor unions, and privatize industries. These policies generated growth for the country at the same time they signaled the death knell of the country’s once robust welfare state.
If Chile is ground zero for the advent of our neoliberal world, the key turning point was the elections of Ronald Reagan in the United States (1980) and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom (1979). In signing onto neoliberal reforms, Reagan and Thatcher led what was a worldwide retreat from the welfare state, which decisively entered crisis at that moment. Moyn notes that, for all it discriminated on the basis of race and gender, the welfare state was the most egalitarian institution the world has ever seen. Its relative defeat, then, was the critical point at which inequality exploded, both within nations and among them, and the power of multinational corporations soared in the absence of any accountability. The swan song for the ideal of equality was the much-forgotten New International Economic Order (NIEO) of the 1970s. Moyn restores the novelty of the NIEO, noting how it was a radical package of demands by the countries of the Global South, primarily states in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that almost all had been under European colonial rule. It called for a massive reorientation of the rules of the global economy in the service of a principle of equality among nations. Given that Euro-America got rich on the labor and resources of the Global South, these politicians argued, it followed that the Global North must level the playing field through tariff reductions, developmental grants, and more favorable terms of trade.
The apparent paradox exposed in Not Enough is what makes the book another tour de force: what are we to make of the fact that our age of human rights was coterminous with the age of neoliberalism? Moyn rejects claims by popular journalists like Naomi Klein, which are echoed by some Marxist scholars, that human rights were somehow complicit in the coming of neoliberalism. (It is rather ironic that Sikkink once thought Moyn was a “disillusioned ex-Marxist.”) If not to blame, Moyn says that human rights were no more and no less than a “powerless companion” to the more pervasive turn toward their “neoliberal Doppelgänger.” In short, Moyn implores us to consider: what is the value content of justice in our age of human rights, and how do we try to rectify inequality, if the social and economic rights enumerated in international human rights law put no ceiling on wealth creation? “Human rights, even perfectly realized human rights,” he writes, “are compatible with inequality, even radical inequality.”
If there is one reason to consider Evidence for Hope and The Ordinary Virtues, it is that they gesture toward a more global history of human rights. For if a global history of human rights has any lesson to teach us for how to make human rights work, it must also reach far beyond the Euro-American frame in which Samuel Moyn finds himself most comfortable. Moyn’s criticism of human rights history takes us only so far if we want to fully imagine a globalized history of human rights — both the paths foreclosed and the opportunities awakened. But what will the human rights history look like after Samuel Moyn? And what does its shape mean for our contemporary concerns with the realization of a better world promised by the utopia of human rights?
To start, human rights history has already adopted what one of its leading revisionist scholars, Jan Eckel, aptly calls a “polycentric” approach. This is one that incorporates a multitude of actors in a variety of different places around the world. It is a daunting and exhausting enterprise, one that builds on the patient accumulation of multilingual, multiarchival research in continents and countries across the globe. Eckel’s masterful account Die Ambivalenz des Gutens (The Ambivalence of the Good; an English translation is forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania Press) is the best example so far of this sweeping new version of human rights history. He traces the evolution of the idea and practice of human rights from its genesis after World War II to the contemporary moment, attending to a layered analysis of human rights politics as mutually constituted by high political actors like Eleanor Roosevelt as much as Soviet dissidents and NGOs like Amnesty International.
My own book, Sovereign Emergencies: Latin America and the Making of Global Human Rights Politics, tacks between the local to the global as it foregrounds the centrality of Latin America to the articulation of the global human rights world of today. On the surface, my project shares similarities with Kathryn Sikkink’s efforts to globalize human rights history. But I reject the notion that there was a primordial Global South or Latin American vision of human rights. Despite a few lonely pioneers like Amnesty International, the actors in my story — academics, lawyers, activists, state officials, Marxists, and clergy from Latin Americans, Europeans, and Americans — stumbled upon the language of human rights and were, at first, strangers in a new land. Confused by a document that was codified 25 years earlier in 1948, they called the UDHR the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man. Latin American socialists and Marxists debated ad nauseam the utility and ethics of deploying human rights language as a means to protest the military dictatorships that came to power in Brazil (1964), Uruguay (1973), Chile (1973), and Argentina (1976). Only for some did human rights become the “last utopia.” In the emergency of political violence, Marxists made a fateful choice: strategically embracing the lexicon of human rights in a rearguard maneuver against the ostensible omnipotence of a “bureaucratic authoritative” state that was allied and supplied with the military might of the world’s preeminent superpower, the United States. The Latin American human rights advocates did not trace their work back decades in line with a fanciful “tradition” of human rights, as Sikkink wants us to believe. Their embrace was, at first, mostly strategic — and the fact that they stumbled over pronouncing the term should make us hesitate when we invent creation stories about the past for our own benefit.
Even as we acknowledge the flowering of a more critical and polycentric history of human rights, one that is concerned about the import of history for the policies of today and tomorrow, we must remember that the hope for a better world will not benefit from the imagined genealogies of a human rights past.
Those with endowed chairs in the name of human rights owe us more. They owe us more because our scholarship, if it is to matter at all, is necessary for practitioners of human rights. It provides models and strategic lessons for marginalized populations and victims of state violence on the advantages and drawbacks of couching social justice claims in the language of international human rights. If Moyn is correct that the brushes of human rights are “not enough” to paint on a broader canvas of social justice to address inequality, then we might need to abandon our confidence in human rights and find alternative brushes.
As scholars of human rights, we have an obligation to adopt a perspective of critical empathy toward our subjects. But we must also remember that history is not a game of connect-the-dots on a progressive ascent of mankind to a human rights utopia. The world is too ugly and we are too wise to think otherwise. Our obligation as producers of history is to write about human rights while attending to the subtle ways the contemporary moment and our individual subjectivities shape the questions we ask and the answers we seek — not the answers we think we have already figured out many years ago. The problems we face today are too urgent for anything else.
Patrick William Kelly is a postdoctoral fellow at the Buffett Institute for Global Studies. He is currently writing a global history of AIDS. His email is email@example.com.