Posts Tagged ‘Samuel Moyn’

Commission on Unalienable Rights: a more nuanced critique by Moyn

July 14, 2019

On July 12, 2019 Samuel Moyn published in Prospect an rather different, less alarmist approach to the efforts of the US State Department to redefine human rights [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/07/11/trump-marches-on-with-commission-on-unalienable-rights/]. The author [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/04/25/has-the-human-rights-movement-failed-a-serious-critique/] makes the point that, first, it looks like the commission will exercise no real power and second that ‘rights proliferation’ is an entirely mainstream and reasonable concern. He also makes interesting points on the composition of the Commission. Whatever one’s views on this are, the piece is worth reading in its totality:

Michael Brochstein/(Sipa via AP Images – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the State Department in Washington.

The announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that he has formed a new Commission on Unalienable Rights is being cited as one more reason to decry Donald Trump for busting norms and persecuting the worst-off. It is, The New Yorker wrote, an act of “unbelievable hypocrisy” for Trump to wrap himself in the mantle of human rights when he has violated them left and right, laid siege to a liberal international order founded on them, and embraced autocracy the world over.

It’s a natural response, but a closer look at the panel suggests that the criticism ought to fall on the symbolic politics of the commission, and our response needs to involve more than just championing the human rights Trump has been trashing, as if the status quo ante 2016 was working well.

It was remarkable, when Pompeo announced the commission at the State Department, how fulsomely he embraced the whole idea of human rights. It is a testament to the fact that—even under Trump—it is an idea that remains non-negotiable, something leaders must redefine in theory even when others suspect them of betraying it in practice.

Pompeo’s apparent worry, to judge from The Wall Street Journal op-ed he penned the day of the announcement, is what is known as rights “proliferation.” Specifically, he charged that, after the Cold War, rights advocates “turned their energy” to “new categories of rights.”

The commission’s very use of the word “unalienable,” which figured in America’s Declaration of Independence before falling out of general usage, trafficked in a founder fetishism that implied that it is the good old rights that matter, not newfangled ones or new claimants. And Pompeo doubled down on this nostalgia in his repeated shout-outs to 1776, and his admonition not “to discover new principles but to ground our discussion of human rights in America’s founding principles.”

Critics have understandably guessed that the goal is to emphasize religious freedom and free-market principles, treating abortion and LGBT rights as illicit, and possibly economic and social rights too. “In effect,” Masha Gessen wrote, also in The New Yorker, “the new commission will contemplate who is and isn’t human, and who, therefore, possesses inalienable rights.” Fetuses will be accorded rights, and the LGBT community stripped of them.

It’s a reasonable fear and something to watch. But the really significant thing about the commission may lie elsewhere.

For one thing, it looks like the commission will exercise no real power. Critics fear that its true purpose is to make an end run around other parts of the State Department, such as the legal adviser’s office and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, but those departments are also run by Trump appointees.

For another, rights proliferation is an entirely mainstream and reasonable concern, backed by such august rights thinkers as Baroness Onora O’Neill, a British liberal philosopher and House of Lords member. If everything is a right, nothing is. If there are new rights, it is not obvious the old ones have the same currency. Finally, it is never totally clear what it means to call something a right to begin with—especially since most rights are not intended to function as trumps but rather signal that policymaking somehow ought to take account of the priorities that rights name. These questions will not go away. Indeed, the idea that they are already settled, through appeal to the authority, consensus, and orthodoxy of the human rights movement, resembles the Foundermania in which Pompeo indulged.

None of this means that Trumpian human rights ought not to be treated with alarm. But for now, the international consensus around human rights among transnational experts is simply too strong to allow this commission to magically shift it. Indeed, the response to Pompeo’s announcement, which reportedly surprised Foggy Bottom, proves how weak the commission is likely to be.

For that reason, it is more interesting to focus on what this move says about the conservative movement under Trump and its changing understandings of internationalism. And to understand that, it is critical to shift from Pompeo to the members of the commission he appointed.

“Human rights” have for decades, and for conservatives and liberals alike, described the values America should stand for in global affairs, especially in a world of despots. The founders announced a revolution to that world, but mainly to secure human rights for (some) Americans in their new state. Yet like liberals and conservatives for decades, the commission, originating in the State Department, presumes that human rights are already safe for the domestic politics of the United States, or someone else’s problem. Pompeo is not changing internationalist premise, and has no power as secretary of state to do so.

Before Trump, conservative internationalism has differed from liberal internationalism on details. Conservatives in the Cold War dithered about whether to support autocrats abroad but in the end, after the ascendancy of neoconservatism, embraced “democracy promotion.” As for American liberals, this has led them to idealize America’s global military ascendancy and to support many wars. And like those liberals, after a near miss under Jimmy Carter’s presidency when human rights were born, conservatives have embraced a vision of human rights abroad that ignores economic and social rights like the entitlement to a job or basic necessities—even though they were part of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights that Pompeo also invoked.

It is perfectly legitimate to resist militarism and neoliberalism, central fixtures of U.S. foreign policy for decades on both sides of the aisle. In fact, one might have thought that Trump, who ran as a kind of anti-war candidate playing on the economic stagnation of the rest at the expense of the rich like himself, would have raised doubts about what conservatives and liberals alike have taken human rights to be about. But no. A more debatable path for conservative internationalism is suggested by the commission’s membership.

Led by Mary Ann Glendon, the controversial Harvard Law professor and staunch right-wing Roman Catholic, the most interesting thing about the commission is not its inclusion of some house publicists of the interdenominational religious right, most of whom have (like Glendon) treated the “theocon” magazine First Things as one of their main outlets. Rather, it is the inclusion of others with links to the secular far right, or at least curious about it. Former New Left intellectual Russell Berman, along with his fellow German literature specialist David Tse-Chien Pan, both have spent lots of time working for Telos, the onetime New Left journal that since the 1980s has promoted the thinking of the European far right. As political scientist Joseph Lowndes has writtenTelos has a fascinating if small role in the American circles that led to contemporary far-right nationalism.

It is no more than a hint, in short, but the most fascinating thing about the commission’s membership is therefore that it appears to be a laboratory for new collaborations between the religious right and the secular far right. And in particular, it is a setting for experimenting with what the future of conservative internationalism should look like.

If it means, as commission member Peter Berkowitz wrote recently, that “a certain restraint is again crucial to conserving a free and open international order” after decades of promoting human rights abroad the wrong way, that is one thing. But there are other possibilities. If it means a conservative internationalism that, as Quinn Slobodian has argued, actually extends free trade while striving for racially and religiously homogeneous societies, conservative internationalism will look very different.

Ironically, neither the founders nor “natural law”—the favorite concept of several of the religious conservatives on the panel—will help it decide this dilemma on the right, which is the real story of Trump’s presidency when it comes to foreign policy. And much more is at stake than saving human rights from its new defenders in resisting the future conservative internationalism may have in store.

https://prospect.org/article/can-pompeo-redefine-human-rights-trump-era

Has the Human Rights Movement failed? A serious critique.

April 25, 2018

The last year or so there has been a lot soul-searching within the broader human rights movement, questioning its relevance or even survival at a time of resurgent ‘anti-human rights’ attitudes in the superpowers (regression in China, USA, and Russia, with the EU vacillating between careful diplomacy and trade interest). A number of smaller countries have also taken enthusiastically to human rights bashing (just to mention Turkey, Philippines, Hungary, Venezuela and Burundi). In all these cases the leadership seems to imply that human rights are niceties that no longer have the support of the majority of their population, which could well be true due to the extent that their control over the media and relentless whipping up of populist feelings make this self-fulling.This blog has tried to monitor – at least illustrate – this phenomenon on many occasions [too many to list]. Now comes along an interesting piece written by professor Samuel Moyn of Yale university under the provocative title “How the Human Rights Movement Failed” (published on 23 April 2018 in the New York Times). The piece is a must read (in full) and I give the text below in green. Even if I disagree with some important parts, it remains a coherent and thought-provoking article (once you get over feeling offended by the idea that you are a plutocrat).

The key notion is expressed in the following quotes:

“.those who care about human rights need to take seriously the forces that lead so many people to vote in majoritarian strongmen in the first place.”

and

The truth is that the growth of international human rights politics has accompanied the very economic phenomena that have led to the rise of radical populism and nationalism today. In short, human rights activism made itself at home in a plutocratic world.

Where I most disagree with the author is that there is lot more going on in the human rights movement than the defense of civil and political rights or playing along with elites. Either he does not know it or ignores it on purpose. The thousands of human rights defenders working in their own countries are fully aware of the realities on the ground and are often prioritizing social, economic, cultural and community rights [just a cursory sample of blog posts on environmental activists will show this: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/environmental-activists/]. International and regional NGOs mostly help and protect them! Also, the author seems to underestimate the potential attraction of the human rights cause in civil society (especially victims and young people), whose mobilization is still patchy. If the human rights movement can overcome its fragmentation and use media better this potential could turn tides. Say I!.

Here the piece in full/ judge for yourselves:

The human rights movement, like the world it monitors, is in crisis: After decades of gains, nearly every country seems to be backsliding. Viktor Orban in Hungary, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and other populist leaders routinely express contempt for human rights and their defenders. But from the biggest watchdogs to monitors at the United Nations, the human rights movement, like the rest of the global elite, seems to be drawing the wrong lessons from its difficulties.

Advocates have doubled down on old strategies without reckoning that their attempts to name and shame can do more to stoke anger than to change behavior. Above all, they have ignored how the grievances of newly mobilized majorities have to be addressed if there is to be an opening for better treatment of vulnerable minorities.

“The central lesson of the past year is that despite considerable headwinds, a vigorous defense of human rights can succeed,” Kenneth Roth, the longtime head of Human Rights Watch, contended recently, adding that many still “can be convinced to reject the scapegoating of unpopular minorities and leaders’ efforts to undermine basic democratic checks and balances.” 

That seems unlikely. Of course, activism can awaken people to the problems with supporting abusive governments. But if lectures about moral obligations made an enormous difference, the world would already look much better. Instead, those who care about human rights need to take seriously the forces that lead so many people to vote in majoritarian strongmen in the first place.

The truth is that the growth of international human rights politics has accompanied the very economic phenomena that have led to the rise of radical populism and nationalism today. In short, human rights activism made itself at home in a plutocratic world.

It didn’t have to be this way. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was promulgated in 1948 amid the consolidation of welfare states in Europe and North America and which formed the basis of the human rights agenda, was supposed to enshrine social protections. But in the 1970s, when activists in the United States and Western Europe began to take up the cause of “human rights” for the victims of brutal regimes, they forgot about that social citizenship. The signature group of that era, Amnesty International, focused narrowly on imprisonment and torture; similarly, Human Rights Watch rejected advocating economic and social rights.

This approach began to change after the Cold War, especially when it came to nongovernmental advocacy in post-colonial countries. But even then, human rights advocacy did not reassert the goal of economic fairness. Even as more activists have come to understand that political and civil freedom will struggle to survive in an unfair economic system, the focus has often been on subsistence.

In the 1990s, after the Cold War ended, both human rights and pro-market policies reached the apogee of their prestige. In Eastern Europe, human rights activists concentrated on ousting old elites and supporting basic liberal principles even as state assets were sold off to oligarchs and inequality exploded. In Latin America, the movement focused on putting former despots behind bars. But a neoliberal program that had arisen under the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet swept the continent along with democracy, while the human rights movement did not learn enough of a new interest in distributional fairness to keep inequality from spiking.

Now the world is reaping what the period of swelling inequality that began in the 1970s through the 1990s sowed.

There have been recent signs of reorientation. The Ford Foundation, which in the 1970s provided much of the funding that made global human rights activism possible, announced in 2015 that it would start focusing on economic fairness. George Soros, a generous funder of human rights causes, has recently observed that inequality matters, too.

Some have insisted that the movement can simply take on, without much alteration of its traditional idealism and tactics, the challenge of inequality that it ignored for so long. This is doubtful.

At the most, activists distance themselves from free-market fundamentalism only by making clear how much inequality undermines human rights themselves. Minimum entitlements, like decent housing and health care, require someone to pay. Without insisting on more than donations from the rich, the traditional companionship of human rights movements with neoliberal policies will give rise to the allegation that the two are in cahoots. No one wants the human rights movement to be remembered as a casualty of a justifiable revolt against the rich.

If the movement itself should not squander the chance to reconsider how it is going to survive, the same is even truer of its audience — policymakers, politicians and the rest of the elite. They must keep human rights in perspective: Human rights depend on majority support if they are to be taken seriously. A failure to back a broader politics of fairness is doubly risky. It leaves rights groups standing for principles they cannot see through. And it leaves majorities open to persuasion by troubling forces.

It has been tempting for four decades to believe that human rights are the primary bulwark against barbarism. But an even more ambitious agenda is to provide the necessary alternative to the rising evils of our time.

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Samuel Moyn is the author of “Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World.