A Critique of Human Rights

Here is an interesting-looking book from Princeton University Press that critiques the concept of universal human rights: Rights as Weapons: Instruments of Conflict, Tools of Power, by political scientist Clifford Bob of Duquesne University. (Full disclosure: Professor Bob was a participant in a conference our Tradition Project co-sponsored in June 2017, on the differing conceptions of tradition in American and Russian politics, at the Bruno Kessler Foundation in Trento, Italy). Here’s the description of the book from the Princeton website:

Rights are usually viewed as defensive concepts representing mankind’s highest aspirations to protect the vulnerable and uplift the downtrodden. But since the Enlightenment, political combatants have also used rights belligerently, to batter despised communities, demolish existing institutions, and smash opposing ideas. Delving into a range of historical and contemporary conflicts from all areas of the globe, Rights as Weapons focuses on the underexamined ways in which the powerful wield rights as aggressive weapons against the weak.

Clifford Bob looks at how political forces use rights as rallying cries: naturalizing novel claims as rights inherent in humanity, absolutizing them as trumps over rival interests or community concerns, universalizing them as transcultural and transhistorical, and depoliticizing them as concepts beyond debate. He shows how powerful proponents employ rights as camouflage to cover ulterior motives, as crowbars to break rival coalitions, as blockades to suppress subordinate groups, as spears to puncture discrete policies, and as dynamite to explode whole societies. And he demonstrates how the targets of rights campaigns repulse such assaults, using their own rights-like weapons: denying the abuses they are accused of, constructing rival rights to protect themselves, portraying themselves as victims rather than violators, and repudiating authoritative decisions against them. This sophisticated framework is applied to a diverse range of examples, including nineteenth-century voting rights movements; the American civil rights movement; nationalist, populist, and religious movements in today’s Europe; and internationalized conflicts related to Palestinian self-determination, animal rights, gay rights, and transgender rights.

Comparing key episodes in the deployment of rights, Rights as Weapons opens new perspectives on an idea that is central to legal and political conflicts.

Islam and Human Rights

In my experience, the Western human-rights community overlooks, or downplays, human rights documents that come from non-Western sources. A good example is the Cairo Declaration, a statement of human rights announced by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in 1990: few human-rights courses in American law schools spend significant time on the Cairo Declaration, notwithstanding its importance in global human-rights debates. That may be because these non-Western sources offer a challenge to Western understandings of “universal” concepts like human dignity. But I’ve written about that subject elsewhere.

Here is a new collection about the OIC from Penn Press, The Organization of Islamic Cooperation and Human Rights, edited by Marie Juul Petersen (Danish Institute of Human Rights) and Turan Kayaoglu (University of Washington – Tacoma). The publisher’s description follows:

Established in 1969, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is an intergovernmental organization the purpose of which is the strengthening of solidarity among Muslims. Headquartered in Jeddah, the OIC today consists of fifty seven states from the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The OIC’s longevity and geographic reach, combined with its self-proclaimed role as the United Nations of the Muslim world, raise certain expectations as to its role in global human rights politics. However, to date, these hopes have been unfulfilled. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation and Human Rights sets out to demonstrate the potential and shortcomings of the OIC and the obstacles on the paths it has navigated.

Historically, the OIC has had a complicated relationship with the international human rights regime. Palestinian self-determination was an important catalyst for the founding of the OIC, but the OIC did not develop a comprehensive human rights approach in its first decades. In fact, human rights issues were rarely, if at all, mentioned at the organization’s summits or annual conferences of foreign ministers. Instead, the OIC tended to focus on protecting Islamic holy sites and strengthening economic cooperation among member states. As other international and regional organizations expanded the international human rights system in the 1990s, the OIC began to pay greater attention to human rights, although not always in a manner that aligned with Western conceptions.

This volume provides essential empirical and theoretical insights into OIC practices, contemporary challenges to human rights, intergovernmental organizations, and global Islam. Essays by some of the world’s leading scholars examine the OIC’s human rights activities at different levels—in the UN, the organization’s own institutions, and at the member-state level—and assess different aspects of the OIC’s approach, identifying priority areas of involvement and underlying conceptions of human rights.

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Human Rights Anti-Universalism — From the Left

Most critics of human-rights universalism come from the Right. Conservatives oppose human-rights universalism because they believe it slights important local traditions, is anti-historical, and pretends to a global agreement on the nature and definition of rights that does not exist. A book released this year by Palgrave Macmillan, Human Rights and Relative Universalism, suggests that some Progressives also have their doubts about the globalizing project. The author is Marie-Luisa Frick (University of Innsbruck). Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

This book argues that human rights cannot go global without going local. This important lesson from the winding debates on universalism and particularism raises intricate questions: what are human rights after all, given the dissent surrounding their foundations, content, and scope? What are legitimate deviances from classical human rights (law) and where should we draw “red lines”?

Making a case for balancing conceptual openness and distinctness, this book addresses the key human rights issues of our time and opens up novel spaces for deliberation. It engages philosophical reasoning with law, politics, and religion and demonstrates that a meaningful relativist account of human rights is not only possible, but a sorely needed antidote to dogmatism and polarization.

Call for Papers: Human Dignity, Law & Religious Diversity

Here is a Call for Papers for the sixth ICLARS conference, scheduled for September 2020 in Cordoba, Spain:

The general theme of the conference is: Human Dignity, Law, and Religious Diversity: Designing the Future of Inter-Cultural Societies. The aim is to analyse how the notion of human dignity, which is the central axis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, can help create common ground between competing understandings of human rights. Human rights were conceived as an instrument to achieve social
cohesion and harmony but have often become a battlefield for conflicting ethical and political positions. This betrays the very notion of human rights, which are universal by nature and should be aimed at uniting, not dividing, society.

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“Christos Yannaras” (Andreopoulos & Harper, eds.)

9781472472083From Routledge, here is a collection of essays on the work of Christos Yannaras, one of the most important Orthodox Christian theologians working today: Christos Yannaras: Philosophy, Theology, Culture. In the Orthodox world, Yannaras is known for his skepticism about much contemporary human-rights discourse, which, he believes, is too heavily influenced by Western individualism. His work is therefore a challenge to easy assumptions about the universality of international human rights–a topic we will address at our Tradition Project meeting later this year in Rome.

The Routledge collection is edited by Andreas Andreopoulous (University of Winchester, UK) and Demetrios Harper (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki). The publisher’s description follows:

Christos Yannaras is one of the most significant Orthodox theologians of recent times. The work of Yannaras is virtually synonymous with a turn or renaissance of Orthodox philosophy and theology, initially within Greece, but as the present volume confirms, well beyond it. His work engages not only with issues of philosophy and theology, but also takes in wider questions of culture and politics.

With contributions from established and new scholars, the book is divided into three sections, which correspond to the main directions that Christos Yannaras has followed – philosophy, theology, and culture – and reflects on the ways in which Yannaras has engaged and influenced thought across these fields, in addition to themes including ecclesiology, tradition, identity, and ethics.

This volume facilitates the dialogue between the thought of Yannaras, which is expressed locally yet is relevant globally, and Western Christian thinkers. It will be of great interest to scholars of Orthodox and Eastern Christian theology and philosophy, as well as theology more widely.

Roth, “P. C. Chang and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”

15890Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that all human beings are “endowed with reason and conscience,” a phrase which suggests a Western, individualist worldview. In fact, as Mary Ann Glendon recounts in A World Made New, the phrase appears in the document largely at the instigation of the Chinese delegate, P.C. Chang, who wished to temper Western individualism. The original text referred only to “reason,” which Chang sought to balance by adding the Chinese word, ren, for a Confucian concept which would be roughly translated in English as “two-man mindedness”–benevolence, or empathy. The drafters apparently found it impossible to translate ren in a felicitous way and so settled on “conscience,” which has a rather different connotation. It’s interesting to think about what human rights law would look like today if Chang’s more communitarian concept had made it into the document.

This story is no doubt discussed in a forthcoming book from the University of Pennsylvania Press, P. C. Chang and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by scholar Hans Ingvar Roth (Stockholm University). The publisher’s description follows:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is one of the world’s best-known and most translated documents. When it was presented to the United Nations General Assembly in December in 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the writing group, called it a new “Magna Carta for all mankind.” The passage of time has shown Roosevelt to have been largely correct in her prediction as to the declaration’s importance. No other document in the world today can claim a comparable standing in the international community.

Roosevelt and French legal expert René Cassin have often been represented as the principal authors of the UN Declaration. But in fact, it resulted from a collaborative effort involving a number of individuals in different capacities. One of the declaration’s most important authors was the vice chairman of the Human Rights Commission, Peng Chun Chang (1892-1957), a Chinese diplomat and philosopher whose contribution has been the focus of growing attention in recent years. Indeed, it is Chang who deserves the credit for the universality and religious ecumenism that are now regarded as the declaration’s defining features. Despite this, Chang’s extraordinary contribution was overlooked by historians for many years.

Peng Chun Chang was a modern-day Renaissance man—teacher, scholar, university chancellor, playwright, diplomat, and politician. A true cosmopolitan, he was deeply involved in the cultural exchange between East and West, and the dramatic events of his life left a profound mark on his intellectual and political work. P. C. Chang and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the first biography of this extraordinary actor on the world stage, who belonged to the same generation as Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek. Drawing on previously unknown sources, it casts new light on Chang’s multifaceted life and involvement with one of modern history’s most important documents.

Rhodes, “The Debasement of Human Rights”

9781594039799_FC-310x460Several recent books, most notably Patrick Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed,” argue that liberalism is collapsing on itself, a victim of its own success. These arguments are resisted by classical liberals, who maintain that the problem is not liberalism, but newer, progressive corruptions. A new book from Encounter, The Debasement of Human Rights, by author Aaron Rhodes, fits into the latter camp. Rhodes sees a problem with contemporary human rights law – one of liberalism’s great achievements – but says the problem is that human rights law has departed from its natural law roots and become statist. Readers can judge for themselves. Here is the publisher’s description:

The idea of human rights began as a call for individual freedom from tyranny, yet today it is exploited to rationalize oppression and promote collectivism. How did this happen? Aaron Rhodes, recognized as “one of the leading human rights activists in the world” by the University of Chicago, reveals how an emancipatory ideal became so debased.

Rhodes identifies the fundamental flaw in the Universal Declaration of Human of Rights, the basis for many international treaties and institutions. It mixes freedom rights rooted in natural law—authentichuman rights—with “economic and social rights,” or claims to material support from governments, which are intrinsically political. As a result, the idea of human rights has lost its essential meaning and moral power.

The principles of natural rights, first articulated in antiquity, were compromised in a process of accommodation with the Soviet Union after World War II, and under the influence of progressivism in Western democracies. Geopolitical and ideological forces ripped the concept of human rights from its foundations, opening it up to abuse. Dissidents behind the Iron Curtain saw clearly the difference between freedom rights and state-granted entitlements, but the collapse of the USSR allowed demands for an expanding array of economic and social rights to gain legitimacy without the totalitarian stigma.

The international community and civil society groups now see human rights as being defined by legislation, not by transcendent principles. Freedoms are traded off for the promise of economic benefits, and the notion of collective rights is used to justify restrictions on basic liberties.

We all have a stake in human rights, and few serious observers would deny that the concept has lost clarity. But no one before has provided such a comprehensive analysis of the problem as Rhodes does here, joining philosophy and history with insights from his own extensive work in the field.

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