Class notes for 27 September


The Glendon reading is from a book about the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The main chapter that we read contains the whole of the UDHR, interspersed with Glendon’s analysis of the contents.

Still, some like to have their UDHR neat. The link is to a copy of the UDHR in English, but there are other languages available there as well.

The UDHR is widely praised by supporters as an historical watershed: they claim that it represents the first major attempt to ‘pierce the veil of sovereignty’ that has protected states from interference with violation of their citizens’ rights. For a more skeptical view about the novelty of human rights restrictions on sovereignty, see Stephen D. Krasner, Sovereignty: organized hypocrisy. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999).

How are we doing?

The fiftieth anniversary of the UDHR prompted many articles about the state of human rights in the world. Two that I found particularly good are:

  1. David Manasian, “A Survey of Human-Rights Law” The Economist December 5, 1998. [Web - only some parts are free]
  2. Ignatieff, Michael. “Human Rights: The Midlife Crisis.” New York Review of Books May 20 1999. [Web - costs $4]

Ignatieff has since published two books about human rights that are unique in blending a journalist’s knowledge of how the world works and theoretical preoccupations. They are: Human Rights as Politics and Ideology and The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror, both published by Princeton University Press.

In general, various human rights organizations issue reports, detailing the extent to which human rights are respected around the world. Here, for example, is the 2005 Report from Human Rights Watch.

Other groups can be found via the Human Rights Program’s Resources page.

Cultural crises

One thing that stands out for me in reading Glendon’s history of the UDHR is how different the nature of opposition to the UDHR is now.

During the Cold War, human rights were contested by the adherents of two broadly progressive political ideologies: liberalism (the US, e.g.) and communism (the Soviet Union, e.g.). Both sides accepted the ideal of universal human rights and of the desirability and possibility of human progess. They disagreed about the prominence accorded to, say, political and civil as opposed to social and economic rights, but they agreed, in theory, on many of the basic terms in which the disagreement was carried out.

Now, the most prominent challenges to the UDHR come from those with reactionary political ideas: groups who view progress as an undesirable move away from the way things were.

For example, Osama bin Laden dreams of restoring the political unity of the Islamic world as it was under the caliphate and sees the world as fundamentally divided between believers and non-believers.

Ethnic conflict is another sort of challenge for human rights that was not on the surface of the cold war conflict and, again, involves a desire to restore the (possibly mythical) past and the thought that there are fundamental distinctions between the members of different groups of human beings.

I’m not sure exactly what to make of that, but it seems to me to be a significant, or at least an interesting, difference.


Both Ignatieff and Manasian praise the efficacy of non-governmental organizations (NGOs): private groups that monitor human rights, advocate on their behalf, and provide services to those in great need.

One set of problems with the role that NGOs have taken is that they are not public agencies. We do not entrust the enforcement of civil rights to private groups, why should we do so for human rights? In addition, the fact that they are private means that they are not accountable to anyone, even though they can have quite significant effects on the countries in which they work. Political institutions, by contrast, are subjected to quite demanding criteria of legitimacy.

Leaving those general problems aside, the strategies of human rights NGOs have come under fire. One concern is that the strategy of shaming governments no longer works (Ignatieff mentions this).

Another complaint concerns the alleged over-reliance on law and under-use of power. David Rieff is an articulate defender of this criticism: Ignatieff cites several pieces that seem relevant. Another is: Rieff, David. “The Precarious Triumph of Human Rights.” New York Times Magazine, August 8 1999, 36-41.

Power and Law

The respective roles of power and law have become major issues in international politics, most recently in disagreements between the government of the US and those in Europe over the war in Iraq.

I reviewed some of the relevant arguments in 2002. This is most of what I wrote then; I have not kept it up to date.

The United States is widely viewed as impeding efforts to develop an international legal system for handling human rights problems. For example, it has attempted to derail attempts to develop an effective international criminal court (this is discussed in the Ignatieff article). The United States does this despite frequently invoking human rights in defense of its foreign policy. Many people around the world find the combination irritating, to say the least.

But while some, like Ignatieff, think that human rights are best protected by legal institutions such as the International Criminal Court, others think that human rights will be best protected if predominantly powerful states act on their behalf. That means that the states committed to human rights, such as, in their view, the United States, will have to retain their advantage in power and that means avoiding, where possible, legal encumbrances on the use of power.

The two sides are frequently characterized as “European” and “American.”

On the all-important question of power - the efficacy of power, the morality of power, the desirability of power - American and European perspectives are diverging. Europe is turning away from power, or to put it a little differently, it is moving beyond power into a self-contained world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation. It is entering a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity, the realization of Kant’s “Perpetual Peace.” The United States, meanwhile, remains mired in history, exercising power in the anarchic Hobbesian world where international laws and rules are unreliable and where true security and the defense and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might.

Source: Robert Kagan, “Power and Weakness” Policy Review June/July 2002. [Web]

Of course, not all Americans favor the power solution and not all Europeans favor the legal one. It happens that the United States is the dominant power in the world and that Europe is developing an extensive system of transnational law. So American actions tend to be seen as evidence for or against the power view while those of European states are seen in the other way.

The case for power

Fareed Zakaria nicely summarizes the case for the power view (though he does not necessarily endorse it himself).

When the crisis in the Balkans began, in 1991, the President of the European Council, Jacques Poos, of Luxembourg, declared, “This is the hour of Europe. If one problem can be solved by the Europeans it is the Yugoslav problem. This is a European country and it is not up to the Americans.” It was not an unusual or an anti-American view. Most European leaders, including Thatcher and Helmut Kohl, shared it. But several bloody years later it was left to America to stop the fighting. By the time Kosovo erupted, Europe let Washington take the lead. During the East Asian economic crisis, East Timor’s struggle for independence, successive Middle East conflicts, and Latin-American defaults, the same pattern emerged. In many cases, other countries were part of the solution, but unless America intervened the crisis persisted. During the nineteen-nineties, American action, with all its flaws, proved a better course than inaction.

Source: Fareed Zakaria, “Our Way” The New Yorker October 14 and 21, 2002. [Web]

The Bush administration made a similar argument about Iraq: Iraq has violated numerous security council resolutions proving that laws and legal institutions are insufficient by themselves. What this illustrates, in their view, is that laws are only as good as the power standing behind them. If the UN cannot or will not enforce its rules, that will show that the rules and the institution are hollow. If that proves to be the case, the US will exercise its power on its own.

For a sympathetic analysis of the administration’s ideas about American power, see John Lewis Gaddis, “A Grand Strategy of Transformation” Foreign Policy Nov-Dec 2002 [Web].

Objections and Iraq

On the other hand, the power view faces two kinds of objection and both are illustrated by the Iraq case.

First, it assumes that one overwhelming power will be committed to human rights. For all its rhetoric about bringing democracy to Iraq, it seems unlikely that the US will bring this about. (In 2002, I noted that it would have been satisfied with a coup against Saddam Hussein, for example).

On the other hand, there is little evidence that the legalists would do much better. Leaving Saddam Hussein in place, out of respect for Iraqi sovereignty, would hardly do much for the cause of human rights in Iraq. And many of the politicians and intellectuals who object to American rights narcissism come from countries in which there are business interests with significant and profitable commercial ties to the Iraqi regime. Those interested in such stuff can debate about which side’s moralizing is more annoying.

There is this consideration in favor of the legalists: power can be corrupting and the need to accommodate others through the formulation of laws has a way of keeping one honest. If Americans really believe that they are the good guys and that their virtue will shine through the temptations of power, then, as Hendrick Hertzberg points out, they have a naive view of human nature.

The second problem with resting the enforcement of human rights on power rather than law is that it seems to lack legitimacy. Even if the dominant power in the world really does have a deep commitment to human rights, there will be questions about whether it has the right to enforce them.

For example, the American concern with UN resolutions sometimes seems selective. The US painted Iraq as a test case for the efficacy of the United Nations, which seems fair enough since the UN had passed many resolutions that Iraq had violated. But many US allies are in violation of UN resolutions too: see these stories in the Christian Science Monitor and Ha’aretz. There is no suggestion that their non-compliance must be resisted or that the UN will have been exposed if they are not brought to heel. (Three years on, we’re still waiting).

If human rights and international laws are only selectively enforced, the power enforcing them can be criticized as unfair and, thus, as lacking legitimacy. Again, given the nature of political and diplomatic power, it is hard to believe that a single power will never act selectively. At least, this has never been the case in recorded history.

These objections notwithstanding, it remains the case that human rights have only really been protected when a dominant state—recently, the United States—has used its power in their defense.