EDITOR: Amy Gutmann. Includes commentaries by four other authors and reply by Ignatieff.
The sight of Slobodan Milocevic in the dock before the UN Tribunal in the Hague and of the Afghan prisoners in cages at the US Naval Base in Cuba are metaphors for the themes explored in this book. How do we respond to the worst abuses of human rights? How do we render national leaders answerable before the bar of humanity? How do we make the new global regime effective without destroying the nation state upon which protections for human rights have depended until now? How do we also make rich and powerful countries accountable for their human rights infringements?
Michael Ignatieff is described by one of the commentators in this book as a person born in Canada, of Eastern European ancestry, who teaches at Harvard University and lives in London. Perhaps such geographical ambivalence gives him a perspective of global issues that a more hidebound author, tied to a particular country, culture and religion, could not offer.
The book sets out Ignatieff's thoughts on human rights. These are contained in two chapters that respectively portray the human rights discourse as politics and idolatry - the latter an antidote to blind faith about the ultimate triumph of human rights treaties. The chapters constitute Ignatieff's Tanner Lectures for the Princeton Center for Human Values, given in 2000. They are wrapped around with an extended introduction by Amy Gutmann, who teaches politics at Princeton, and commentaries by four distinguished American professors of law and politics. The result is a kind of symposium in which six very intelligent thinkers offer their insights into one of the most dynamic forces of our time - the attempt to force a paradigm shift in international law and politics from unaccountable nations to a global system that renders nations and leaders answerable for grave human rights abuses.
Ignatieff's appointment at Harvard involves teaching human rights policy. He writes powerfully and simply, beginning his first essay with a vivid image from one of Primo Levi's books. Levi describes his encounter with a concentration camp doctor who enjoyed unaccountable power to determine whether he would live or die. Starting with this arresting image, Ignatieff explains that his concern is with the reality of human rights protection. Yet much of this book is taken up with exploration of unresolved theoretical questions upon which the author and his commentators are extremely well qualified to offer opinions.
One such question is why human rights should be respected at all. What is the source of their moral force? Some writers contend that it can only lie in a notion that human beings have a "divine" spark attracting a religious source for the imperative to protect rights. Secularists oppose this view. The then Soviet delegation vetoed the reference to God in the draft preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. According to the alternative philosophy, the human rights of others are respected because we can see in others reflections of ourselves.
Just as this was one of the controversies that emerged for Eleanor Roosevelt and her colleagues when the Universal Declaration was being negotiated, so too, at that time, the seeds of another controversy began to emerge. The representatives of Saudi Arabia objected to provisions relating to the rights of women and freedom of religion. Ignatieff points out that the refusal of the Saudis to accept the Universal Declaration afforded a portent of the contemporary debates concerning the approach of fundamentalist Islam (and other beliefs) to assertions of universal rights.
Other manifestations of relativism in human rights discourse are explored. One of them, of special interest to Australians, is the demand of some leaders in Malaysia, Singapore and elsewhere for the "Asian model" of communitarian values. Ignatieff is unsurprised by such demands. Those whose power stems from "patriarchal" authority, he explains, are unlikely to embrace enthusiastically notions that tend to undermine their power.
Interwoven with these theoretical debates are some very perceptive comments of a highly practical and political kind. For example, Ignatieff points to the close relationship between the collapse of the Soviet Union and new pressures to impose human rights requirements on states that were formerly left alone. Thus he explains the revived interest of Western countries in the right to self-determination for East Timor as a product of the declining need to support Suharto's regime in Indonesia as a bulwark against the spread of Chinese Communist power. But Ignatieff questions the wisdom of some of the West's current posturing. He is especially sceptical about elevating human rights concerns to the point that they undermine national stability. For Ignatieff, the breakdown of law and order and its replacement by chaos and violence is a most serious threat to human rights. It means that those with power (often majorities) can freely oppress those without (usually minorities). He therefore assigns greater priority to constitutionalism than to most human rights interventions.
Ignatieff does not mince his words over the double-standards of Western countries seeking to impose their vision of human rights on others. For example, he notes the criticisms made by the United States and Britain of nations such as Turkey, for oppressing the educational and linguistic rights of minorities, like the Kurds. But he points out that the same nations supply expensive military equipment to oppressive regimes that enables them, in practice, to stamp out the very rights that they are preaching.
Ignatieff saves up some of his harshest criticism for the United States for what he sees as its refusal to accept for itself the scrutiny by institutions conducted by reference to global human rights standards. The American psyche is well attuned to preaching human rights and democracy to the world. But when the world takes the United States to task for human rights breaches in its prisons, in its enforcement of capital punishment and its treatment of Afghan prisoners, the reaction is one or resentment or indifference. For Americans, their Constitution is the last word on human rights. All too often, it seems, global human rights are only something needed by lesser races. The commentators pick up, and endorse, Ignatieff's comments in this regard. A measure of the resentment about such double-standards can be seen in the fact that, in 2001, for the first time, the United States was not elected to the UN Human Rights Committee. If it will not play the game according to the world's rules that it largely helped to shape, the world, it seems, does not want it on the governing board.
Some of Ignatieff's views are controversial, such as his disenchantment with the right of peoples to self-determination as stated in the UN treaties. He sees the grouping of "peoples" in mini-states as potential vehicles for nationalist totalitarianism. In this, he is certainly right to point to the risks and the need for constitutionalism and effective judicial protection of minorities. But no one looking at the map of the world today could deny that most of the flashpoints for the acutest dangers for peace and security arise from unfulfilled demands for self-determination of distinct peoples. In the wars and conflicts that such demands produce, lie great dangers for life, prosperity and human rights.
Ignatieff's call for the strengthening of the state so as to protect its citizens from chaos can only be accepted with qualification, given that most of the worst affronts to human rights in the last century, and not only in Western countries, resulted from excessive state power.
The commentators pick up on Ignatieff's interesting mixture of theoretical and practical analysis of his subject. One makes the point that the responses of human rights protest must vary according to the intended audience. Quiet diplomacy with China might make some headway. But with Turkey, allied in NATO and knocking on the door of Europe, open criticism may be the only way to secure real change.
Another commentator questions Ignatieff's assumption that human rights discourse has become intoxicated with triumphalism. How could this be so, he asks, with so many millions dead in India/Pakistan, Biafra, Vietnam, Chile, Cambodia and Rwanda since the Universal Declaration was adopted?
The book closes with a reply by Ignatieff to the commentaries. At the end, he comes back to the image of Primo Levi standing before the director of the chemical department at Auchwitz. His bottom-line is that abuses of human rights and basic human dignity are at least as deeply imbued in the human psyche as is the notion that we must give each other respect and space to live our lives as we individually choose. At the end, Ignatieff endorses the thesis of another writer in this area, Judith Shklar, who preached "putting cruelty first". Recognising that liberal freedoms and constitutionalism may still be some way off, the priority in human rights protection, according to Ignatieff, is to prevent the worst excesses of torture, killings, rapes and other abominations. Despite the noble texts of the United Nations treaties, international institutions failed to prevent the Rwanda genocide. This was so although people with power to do something could not pretend, as many Germans did in 1945, that they were unaware of the genocide that was happening. Ignatieff is not an opponent of the world human rights movement. His minimalism is aimed at targeting action more deliberately so that the practical outcomes will represent less hot air and more lives saved.
The debates recounted in this beautifully produced book from Princeton University are relevant to Australia, indeed to all countries, as the world enters the next phase of human rights discourse after September 11. It is timely to have these insights into where we are and where we should be going. Even when their solutions are contestable, there is no doubt that Ignatieff and his colleagues are asking the right questions.
AUSTRALIAN LAW JOURNAL BOOK REVIEW
HUMAN RIGHTS AS POLITICS AND IDOLATRY AUTHOR: Michael Ignatieff
PUBLISHER: Princeton University Press
EDITOR: Amy Gutmann. Includes commentaries by four other authors and reply by Ignatieff.