Friday, January 13, 2012

Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, reviewed on Lawfare

Samuel Moyn,  The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, gets a thoughtful review from Alice Diana Beauheim at Lawfare. She writes:

Moyn’s book, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, systematically debunks the notion that human rights are generally the gradual culmination of humane, enlightened Western thought or even specifically a reaction to the carnage and genocide in the Second World War.  Instead, he argues that the post-World War Two structures and organizations that have since been claimed by the human rights movement arose from a surprisingly specific source:  the victorious powers seeking an alternative ideology to the rising post-war demand from the colonial world for national liberation, de-colonialization, and an end of empires.  Among the Allied leaders planning the post-war order, to be sure, Roosevelt (like nearly all his fellow Americans) was instinctively hostile to empire and colonialism, but that was scarcely the view of Churchill or De Gaulle, seeking to preserve theirs – or Stalin, seeking to create one.

For Moyn, then, the driving motivation behind the inclusion of “human rights”—which he notes was a “throwaway line,” not a fully conceptualized program—in the founding documents of the UN was to create an alternative to national liberation and self-determination demands by extending basic civic rights to subject peoples, at least on paper.  For the colonized, however, this vague idea of human rights did not stir the soul in the same way as national liberation and self-determination, let alone point to the same political ends.  Human rights as a concept was left on the shelf for decades gathering dust.
Continue reading here.

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