the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2010 May 10


It was never the people who complained of the universality of human rights, nor did the people consider human rights as a Western or Northern imposition. It was often their leaders who did so. — Kofi Annan
Any individual’s version of human rights would be objectionable to some other individual, if not all other individuals. It may be that such disagreements lie at the heart of much social conflict — I consider myself to have one right, you consider yourself to have a different and incompatible right, we struggle over the outcome. But the suggestion of Michael Ignatieff1 that human rights is meant to be a discussion, a negotiation, a politics, derives from a very different conception. The institutionalization of conflict implied by the potential for contradictory rights would be replaced by a constant give and take, and this would be desirable in many ways. John Agnew’s recent celebration of politics and compromise presents a strong case for hashing our differences out through the democratic process. But this requires that we actually have democracy, and the pre-conditions for it. If Ignatieff is to be taken seriously, even those pre-conditions are a matter of negotiation. In short, though Ignatieff is associated strongly with the cause of human rights and takes some strongly-supportive positions, human rights cannot be a politics and still be understood as most users of the term intend.

The concept of a right is content-neutral. We cannot know in using it what the specific right in question is. But the concept is not instrumentality-neutral. We do know, in using it, that the right in question is absolute. That is, the conventional language of rights is such that, if something is not absolute, it is not a right. For example, if you have a right to live alone on a given parcel of land, I cannot have the same right, for then you would not be alone, and it would be nonsensical to speak of living alone as your right. To take an example closer to the standard, if you have the right to speak, I cannot be entitled by right to your silence, and the government cannot have a right to prevent you from speaking. It is this understanding of right that is present in the work of touchstone theorists such as Thomas Paine and Jean Jaques Rousseau2; it is also this understanding of right that underlies the work of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

While these illustrations could be interpreted as specific rights, human rights are by definition universal. That is, they are rights that belong to all humans, and that belong to each of us, individually, because we are human. As such, human rights are membership rights, in the distinction provided by Anthony Appiah; they are in that class of “group rights” which belong to each member of a group individually by virtue of belonging to the group — in this case, humans.

Our present discourse often frowns, in rhetoric at least, on absolutism. But language has a logic to it. It is absolute that a and ~a cannot simultaneously be true. It is similarly absolute that two genuine rights cannot conflict. Two supposed rights can conflict, but if so, no more than one of them can actually be a right. While this sort of semantic absolutism — for most users, the word ‘right’ simply does not have the loose meaning Ignatieff ascribes to it — is not the same as cultural or moral absolutism, Ignatieff’s view does tend towards cultural relativism as well. This, too, does not represent the tradition of human rights. Even a minimalist content of human rights is meant to be universal and absolute. The cultural-relativist position, in the present day primarily a reaction to the excesses of European imperialism, holds that we are simply unfit to judge the moral choices of another culture. Cultural relativism is consistent with human rights for value-neutral cultural traits. Language is such a thing. Many aspects of religious metaphysics qualify as well; there is no inherent moral preference between monotheism and polytheism, for instance. More prosaically, tastes in cuisine are outside of morality.3 In such examples, it really would be a kind of cultural imperialism to limit the choices of individuals or societies. But the general reasoning of cultural relativism is racialist and isolationist. The cultural relativist will not make moral demands on Africans or Arabs, but feels perfectly comfortable making moral demands on Europeans.4 The cultural relativist might be outraged by the actions of one group of Europeans against another, but remain passive when a group of Africans or Arabs does exactly the same thing to another group of Africans or Arabs. And to state the irony most plainly, the cultural relativist is not comfortable allowing a group of Europeans to force its values on a group of Africans or Arabs, but is comfortable allowing one group of Africans or Arabs to force its values on another group of Africans or Arabs.

What the cultural relativist is promoting, in theory, is self-determination. Self-determination in the usual sense belongs to peoples. It is, again using the distinction of Appiah, a collective right. Whereas a membership right belongs to individuals in a group, a collective right belongs to the group as a whole. Robert Jackson, explicitly referring to a term and not a concept, points out that ‘self-determination of peoples’ became interpreted as

the negative right of ex-European colonies — which usually contain different peoples but are not peoples themselves — to constitutional independence under an indigenous government regardless of conditions or circumstances. [p41]
Jackson intends this as a critique of the limited application of the “right”; he is examining and dissecting the Westphalian system that Ignatieff seems so comfortable with.5 Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined communities’ might be a better starting point for identifying peoples, though we would need to go further, and accept the empirical differences — of language, of religion — that mark off peoples quite apart from any sort of created identity, and to accept that peoples are a recognizable part of all human history, not a fabrication of the modern world.

Ignatieff discusses the broader self-determination, such that a meaningful debate on the topic is still possible (the colonial “peoples” have mostly exercised self-determination already). Sadly, though, he largely rejects it. He views the Westphalian state (often “nation-state”, which rather begs the question) as a force for stability in the world, and as, other things being equal, the best chance for the protection of human rights. But this is willful ignorance. He knows well, as his discussion of the interventions (and the need for interventions) in Rwanda and Kosovo shows, that the state not only frequently fails to protect individuals, but is often itself the greatest perpetrator of abuses.6 He excuses himself from the fact of abuse by pointing to the possibility of abuse, that a new state born of self-determination may in turn oppress its own minorities. This may well be true, and history provides examples. What history does not support is the insinuation — it can be called nothing else — that these potential abuses will be just as bad, and therefore justify allowing the continuation of abuses that are already taking place.

Perhaps the greatest folly of the relativist position is the insistence that democracy not be imposed on other societies, that they be allowed to choose their own form of government. Democracy is also content-neutral. Democracy cannot be imposed; democracy is what is left when we stop imposing something else. It is impossible for a people to choose democracy, or any other form of government, for that matter; there can be no choice unless there is already democracy. Democracy, in other words, is simply the neutral mechanism that allows a people to determine its government for itself. Free and fair elections at regular intervals define democracy, and everything else is a policy of the elected government. An elected government can choose communism or capitalism or shari‘ah. But if it is not elected, then nothing it does counts as the self-determination of the people. The people have had no say in the matter.

It is reasonable to suppose, after all of this, that self-determination as a collective right is a manifestation of an individual human right of self-determination. If the genuine self-determination of peoples is a value, the genuine self-determination of individuals, who by contrast actually possess the faculty of will, must be a value as well. The framework of human rights recognizes this. Our rights, whatever they are, are attached to us personally and directly, and are, as Jefferson had it, not alienable. These rights are not the dispensation of a government, and we are not therefore dependent on any government’s good will to possess them. Ignatieff is right at least that, as we are dependent on a government’s good will to enjoy our rights, a codification of universals such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, non-binding though it is, may equip us morally in the struggle with our government to see those rights realized. The UDHR or a similar moral instrument only works, though, based on its presumption of universality. It was not meant to be a starting point for negotiations; as he himself points out (2001b), it was the end result of negotiations, and these negotiations were targeting something that would be acceptable across cultures.

Ignatieff’s trust (if not outright faith) in the state, and his coolness (if not outright hostility) to self-determination, do not represent the spirit of human rights. We can look to his own excellent example of Sri Lanka, where he suggests (rightly) that the Tamil minority would be ill-served by a single-party tyranny (presumably of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the secessionist government of the time), and might be better protected by “substantial self-government and autonomy for the Tamil people within the framework of a democratic Sri Lankan state no longer dominated by the Sinhala majority.” [p32] But since the latter is already such a farfetched fantasy, why should the Tamils dream of it and not dream instead of a democratic Tamil Eelam?

And human rights is not simply an empty frame made to hold the outcome of a protracted negotiation. This gives too much power to tyrannies disinclined to yield any rights whatsoever. And though it would be a misreading (see 2001b) to associate Ignatieff with cultural relativism, he arms the cultural relativists, and they in turn arm the tyrants. Thoroughgoing cultural relativism does not distinguish between the genuine will of individuals and the majority or even minority view of “cultures”, and there is not, there cannot be, an empirical method for determining everything that qualifies as a culture, particularly if Anderson is right. That leaves any ruler or ruling party free to claim its subjects as an autonomous culture for whom it is entitled to speak, to negotiate, to make decisions, for whom it has the right of “self”-determination. This has been used to justify abuse quite as frequently as we might predict.

But then we must ask whether, outside of fanciful jataka tales, there are any real thoroughgoing cultural relativists. We must ask whether any Westerners believe that the hanging of a young couple by their own families in response to an intercaste marriage is an expression of legitimate cultural values on which we cannot pass judgement. We must ask how many Western women would want to live themselves in a society where transgressions of well-established local norms can lead to having their faces dissolved by acid or to honor killings by their male relatives, where local culture only permits the education of males and thus a girls’ school can be blown up, with the girls still in it. We must ask, in light of Clarke’s arguments on the International Criminal Court, whether any Westerners would be not be begging for outside intervention, from any corner, if it were themselves and their families, and not the black people of Sierra Leone, being subjected to the terror campaign by the Revolutionary United Front (leader Foday Sankoh, indicted by a UN tribunal), in which civilians of all ages had their hands, their feet, their ears, their noses, and their lips hacked off.

The crimes of whites during the colonial era were real, and we should not forget them. We should not, however, use this as a reason to suppose that there are no universal moral standards of behavior, or that we, as speakers of European dialects and biological descendents of Europeans, cannot say or do anything about them. It is questionable in any case to suppose that “Enlightenment” values were the particular product of Christian Europeans and could not have appeared elsewhere. And it is a mistake, a tragic mistake, to propose the eternal rejection of universal humanitarian values and human rights simply because a supposedly-monolithic European culture has finally embraced them after centuries of hypocritical atrocities. The abuses and atrocities which mark the need for absolute and universal human rights are real, and they are not dependent on the moral rectitude of the messenger. In the words of George Orwell:

These things really happened, that is the thing to keep one’s eye on. They happened even though Lord Halifax said they happened. The raping and butchering in Chinese cities, the tortures in the cellars of the Gestapo, the elderly Jewish professors flung into cesspools, the machine-gunning of refugees along the Spanish roads — they all happened, and they did not happen any the less because the Daily Telegraph has suddenly found out about them when it is five years too late.

1. This is primarily a consideration of Ignatieff 2001a. All references are to that work unless clarified.

2. ‘Jean-Jacques’ is a modernization. In fact, his name would have been written as ‘Jean Jaques Rouſſeau’.

3. It should be possible to say that modes of dress is a similar thing, but we know that elements of dress are highly controversial, with some ascribing significant moral content to dress, and others insisting that choice of dress is a right.

4. ‘Europeans’ here includes as well the European diaspora.

5. Not at all incidentally, Jackson mentions Ali Mazrui’s term ‘racial sovereignty’, which refers to the notion that there can be no rule of non-whites by whites. Rule however unwelcome of some non-whites by other non-whites is not subject to the same sanction; non-whites are not entitled to self-determination if ruled by other non-whites.

6. Kamari Clarke speaks from a similar position of ingenuousness; after acknowledging the prevalence of non-democracies in Africa in the post-colonial era, she remarks laconically that these states “were dismissed by international donors as “corrupt.” Furthermore, at times their military officials were themselves the perpetrators of violence against their citizens.” [p77] The scare quotes and the expressions ‘dismissed’ and ‘at times’ are the rather-generous distance Clarke places between these régimes and the accusations against them.


John Agnew. ‘Waterpower: politics and geography of water provision’. Presentation to national conference of Association of American Geographers, Washington, 2010 April 15.
Benedict Anderson. ‘Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism’, revised edition. Verso, 1991.
K. Anthony Appiah. ‘Grounding human rights’, p101-16 in Gutmann, ed.
Kamari Maxine Clarke. ‘Fictions of justice: the International Criminal Court and the challenge of legal pluralism in Sub-Saharan Africa’. Cambridge University, 2009.
Amy Gutmann, ed. ‘Human rights and politics and idolatry’. Princeton University, 2001.
Michael Ignatieff. (2001a) ‘Human rights as politics’, p3-52 in Gutmann, ed.
—————. (2001b) ‘Human rights as idolatry’, p53-98 in Gutmann, ed.
Robert H. Jackson. ‘Quasi-states: sovereignty, international relations and the Third World’. Cambridge University, 1990.
Ali Mazrui. ‘Towards a Pax Africana: a study of ideology and ambition’. University of Chicago, 1967.
George Orwell. ‘Looking back on the Spanish War’. New Road, 1943.
Thomas Paine. ‘The rights of man’. J.S. Jordan, 1791.
Jean Jaques Rousseau. ‘Discourse on the origins and foundations of inequality among men’. Marc Michel Rey, 1755.
—————. ‘On the social contract, or principles of political right’. Marc-Michel Rey, 1762.



Home of the Stewardship Project
and O.T. Ford