Dark Ages of Human Rights? Linda A. Malone Reviews Inventing Human Rights

By Malone, Linda A. | Harvard International Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Dark Ages of Human Rights? Linda A. Malone Reviews Inventing Human Rights


Malone, Linda A., Harvard International Review


The leader of the most powerful nation in the world embarks on military campaigns purportedly to spread the revolution of democracy, but which instead lead to worldwide accusations of imperialistic aggression. Strongly supportive of religious freedom and protective of religious minorities, he nevertheless restricts freedom of speech and the press in the asserted interests of national security. His position on civil and political rights seems inherently contradictory. His unbending focus on nationalism leads to a nadir in respect for human rights; their advocacy is portrayed as being selfish and unrealistic, endangering the security of the state. Ultimately the leader alienates both sides of the political spectrum, being too liberal for the religious traditionalists and too conservative for the rights activists.

So goes the description of Napoleon Bonaparte in Lynn Hunt's Inventing Human Rights, a history of the genesis, the decline, and the hopeful rebirth of human rights from the 1700s to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By the time Napoleon was removed from power, Hunt writes, "he was denounced by both traditionalists and defenders of rights as a tyrant, despot and usurper," his only legacy being "a few more secrets in the art of tyranny." As these words suggest, a disturbing conclusion of Hunt's book is that those who do not know this history are doomed to repeat it, with the current epoch repeating the dark ages of human rights in the 1800s.

There is a tragic irony to this history when Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, domestic spying, and overt defense of torture dominate the news in the United States. History does not support the suggestion that the United States is confronting a threat to its very existence that the country has never before experienced, as some have claimed. Rather, this line of argument is a highly suspect justification often used by politicians seeking to justify their own disregard of human rights.

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Hunt condemns these current human rights developments in the United States, but she also regretfully notes that the concepts, theories, and very terminology of human rights were largely American constructs from the very beginning. It was a quintessentially American dictate that governmental legitimacy had to be justified by its guarantee of human rights. The 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights proclaimed that "all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights"--which, according to universalist philosophers like Locke, included life, liberty, and property. Such universalist thinking enabled US revolutionaries to imagine the rupture of tradition and British sovereignty necessary that led to the founding of the United States of America.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this entertaining and instructive book is Hunt's attempt to explain why the notion of human rights was born in this time period of civil society. Her conclusions have potential implications for our own era, when societal divisions and political violence tend to elevate the security of the state above protection of individual liberties.

The idea that individuals have rights paramount to the interests of the feudal lords, the king, the landowner, and the state, originates from an incipient sense of individual autonomy. According to Hunt, this is traceable to as varied elements as a rising sense of shame over bodily functions to the novels of the 1700s. A significant consequence of the growing sense of individual autonomy was the rejection of torture as a means of testing guilt, eliciting confessions, and extracting the names of accomplices. As early as the 1780s, Voltaire, Beccaria, and others had made the complete abolition of torture as well as other forms of cruel punishment a fundamental human rights demand. Voltaire would first use the term "human right" in his Treatise on Tolerance on the Occasion of the Death of Jean Calas, where he powerfully depicted the brutal torture of a man proclaiming his innocence, even as his body was being publicly destroyed on the false suspicion that he murdered his son. …

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