BOOKTALK - Human Rights: Newer Than You Think

The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History
By Samuel Moyn
Harvard University Press
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SM: Right. A lot of people say self-determination needs to be reseparated from human rights, or that we need to set human rights against self-determination, which absorbed human rights into the U.N.

CM: When did the U.N.’s Human Rights Commission—and later the Human Rights Council—become so politicized?

SM: This is the story of the new states versus the U.S. and the old Allies, which have real power in the Security Council. But the new states become hegemonic in the General Assembly. From that point on, they drive the project, and very progressively in certain ways: Without them, there would have been no human rights covenants. But there is a double standard: When they think about human rights they think of anticolonialism and  Israel. They rarely think about themselves.

CM: This year’s Nobel Peace Prize went to one-time Columbia instructor Liu Xiaobo and it has people thinking about human rights again. The ham-fisted reaction of the Chinese government reminds me of the old Soviet Union.

SM: Human rights are an incredibly effective tool in cases of repressive or authoritarian regimes. That was their persuasive role late in the Cold War. In 1978, when Jimmy Carter traveled to China, his association of the U.S. with human rights norms helped spark the formation of the first Chinese human rights dissident group, which was inspired by earlier groups in the Eastern bloc. You could say that was the beginning of the tradition that led to the 2010 Nobel.

CM: Who grants human rights? Are they God-given, or are they granted by the state? Is that something that one senses intuitively?

SM: That is ultimately a religious or philosophical question. We can find commitments to justice and compassion in the Levitical commands or in Greek philosophy, and we have learned to cherish these values. But what is their grounding? On this, I’m not a professional, but the power of human rights since the 1970s has relied on our ability to co-exist in championing rights without requiring that everyone agree on their sources. As the philosopher Jacques Maritain said—with a smile—in 1946, “We agree about the rights but on condition that no one asks us why.”

Michael B. Shavelson

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