Michael Ignatieff draws on his extensive experience as a writer and commentator on world affairs to present a penetrating account of the successes, failures, and prospects of the human rights revolution. Since the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, this revolution has brought the world moral progress and broken the nation-state's monopoly on the conduct of international affairs. But it has also faced challenges. Ignatieff argues that human rights activists have rightly drawn criticism from Asia, the Islamic world, and within the West itself for being overambitious and unwilling to accept limits. It is now time, he writes, for activists to embrace a more modest agenda and to reestablish the balance between the rights of states and the rights of citizens.
Ignatieff begins by examining the politics of human rights, assessing when it is appropriate to use the fact of human rights abuse to justify intervention in other countries. He then explores the ideas that underpin human rights, warning that human rights must not become an idolatry. In the spirit of Isaiah Berlin, he argues that human rights can command universal assent only if they are designed to protect and enhance the capacity of individuals to lead the lives they wish. By embracing this approach and recognizing that state sovereignty is the best guarantee against chaos, Ignatieff concludes, Western nations will have a better chance of extending the real progress of the past fifty years. Throughout, Ignatieff balances idealism with a sure sense of practical reality earned from his years of travel in zones of war and political turmoil around the globe.
Based on the Tanner Lectures that Ignatieff delivered at Princeton University's Center for Human Values in 2000, the book includes two chapters by Ignatieff, an introduction by Amy Gutmann, comments by four leading scholars--K. Anthony Appiah, David A. Hollinger, Thomas W. Laqueur, and Diane F. Orentlicher--and a response by Ignatieff.
The strength in this sensible, dense collection of essays about the burgeoning human rights movement lies not in the answers it gives but in the questions it raises. Based on lectures Ignatieff delivered at Princeton in 2000, the book opens with two long essays by the historian, journalist and novelist who directs the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard, followed by comments from four leading scholars, including K. Anthony Appiah, with a final response from Ignatieff (Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond). A philosophical liberal and a strong believer in the power of constitutions, Ignatieff boldly confronts difficult issues. He tries, with some success, to balance the often conflicting needs for human rights and for the sovereignty of nation-states: "the problem in Western human rights policy is that by promoting ethnic self-determination, we may actually endanger the stability" necessary for human rights, because "we can be certain that self-determination for some groups will be purchased with the blood of the minorities in their midst." He also laments rhetoric that casts human rights as what Elie Wiesel called a "secular religion," maintaining that this notion alienates cultures wherein religion dictates governmental policy. Only when these trends are tempered, he contends, will human rights make serious inroads throughout the world, which he believes is more ready for these rights than is generally thought. The respondents cordially critique Ignatieff's practical arguments as watered down and morally relativist. Those looking for specific policy proposals for addressing these difficult issues may be unsatisfied. But Ignatieff illuminates complexities likely to make headlines as the call for intervention regarding worldwide human rights continues to grow. This book will undoubtedly provoke controversy within the human rights community.