Human rights language is the main currency of international ethics. Government officials everywhere praise human rights. It is a card that is difficult to trump. Despite criticisms of his administration for allowing the torture of prisoners, George W. Bush said in an interview: "No president has done more for human rights than I have."(1) At the conclusion of their 2010 meeting in Libya, the twenty-two Arab League members said that the need is "to support the principles of fraternity, tolerance, and respect for human values that emphasize human rights."(2) Were they aware of what this proposal might entail?
What everyone seems to agree upon might actually be empty rhetoric to avoid doing something about a problem. From the earliest uses of "human rights" there has been a danger that the phrase would be used as a political tool or else would refer to an unrealistic hope that morality could replace politics. Jacques Maritain, who headed a UNESCO survey of philosophers concerning human rights, concluded that "we agree upon the rights but on condition that no one asks us why."(3) That attitude is not adequate today. The need is to deepen and strengthen the idea while also acknowledging its limitations.
I have been teaching a course on human rights for the last dozen years. At least that is the way the director of the international education program at NYU always refers to the course. I usually call it the course on international ethics. I have never felt comfortable with the name of the course being human rights. While the advocacy of human rights or the preaching of human rights made sense to me, an academic course did not. So as to avoid becoming a preacher in the classroom, my strategy was to approach the course mainly as history. But even the history of human rights left me with the feeling that there were some big unanswered questions about the nature and the very existence of human rights.
I finally got hold of my doubts about the history, nature, and practical value of human rights with help from a 2010 book by Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History.4 The book enabled me to identify my problem although it suggested to me a path to follow that is not the same as the author's. Moyn's provocative thesis is that a human rights movement did not begin until 1977, the first year of Jimmy Carter's presidency.5 There had been scattered uses of the term "human rights" earlier in the twentieth century, and the idea was promulgated by the United Nations in 1948. The term "human rights" began to gain momentum in the late 1950s but it was not until the 1970s that "human rights" became commonly used both by readers of the daily newspaper and by lawyers, politicians, and international aid workers.
The United Nations document was called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Although it is now revered as a monumental achievement, it did not attract much attention at the time of its adoption.6 One problem is its title in which the term "universal" seems to be misplaced. The Declaration itself was surely not universal; it received a stamp of approval by 48 nation-states (eight others abstained). Human rights literature tends to treat the Declaration as sacred scripture, which is a disservice to what the document accomplished. The writing and the approval of the Declaration were extraordinary achievements. Under the guidance of Eleanor Roosevelt, there were no negative votes; even the abstentions by the Soviet bloc were testimony to Roosevelt's skill and patience.
Unfortunately, the Declaration's focus was on a long list of supposed rights, an approach which undercut a realistic claim that a few rights are indispensable for every human being, that is, they are universal. The split between the United States and the Soviet Union was reflected in a dichotomy of political and economic rights; the split was already present in 1948 and became embodied in the two Covenants that followed in 1966. …