What's Wrong with Human Rights? (Religion & Philosophy)

The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

What's Wrong with Human Rights? (Religion & Philosophy)


"The Attack on Human Rights" by Mcihael Ignatieff, in Foreign Affairs (Nov.--Dec. 2001), 58 E 68th St New York N.Y. 10021.

Even human-rights activists have been plagued by doubts in recent decades: Isn't the claim that all humans are endowed with certain inalienable rights just a mask the West uses as it seeks to impose its values on other cultures? The critics--from Muslim fundamentalists to postmodernist academics in the West--have a point, argues Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. But it's not the one they think they have.

"Rights discourse is individualistic," he says. "But that is precisely why it has proven an effective remedy against tyranny, and why it has proven attractive to people from very different cultures." Setting basic standards of "human decency" empowers the powerless.

The push for human rights has not come exclusively from the West, Ignatieff points out. Though the West took the lead in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, representatives of Islamic and other non-Western traditions also took part. Moreover, the document itself--coming in the aftermath of World War II and at the dawning of the Cold War--was much less a proclamation of Western superiority than a warning to avoid recent European mistakes.

In the half-century since, says Ignatieff, it has become more apparent that the West does not speak with one voice about specific human rights. …

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