Rewriting Human Rights

The Jockey Club, Nairobi, Kenya, 1988
Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos
The Jockey Club, Nairobi, Kenya, 1988

Several years ago, The New York Times published an Op-Ed by Pharrell Williams, the singer-songwriter whose mega-hit “Happy” topped the charts in 2014 and whose accompanying music video has now been watched by more than a billion people. “Happiness,” Williams announced, “is a human right. It’s neither a luxury nor a triviality. It’s given to you at birth, but you must recognize its existence. It’s as important as the breath of air in your lungs.”1 Readers of the Times could rejoice: their unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness was now a right to happiness itself.

The history of human rights has often been told as a series of such upgrades. One kind—call it horizontal—involves enlarging the circle of who counts as fully human, from white male property owners to all white males, and subsequently to religious minorities, racial minorities, women, the disabled, and sexual minorities. Another upgrade—call it vertical—involves expanding the catalog of rights themselves. This story usually begins with the right to private property and the classic civil and political freedoms of speech, assembly, worship, and voting, before embracing “second-generation” social and economic rights to employment, education, housing, and health care, followed by “third-generation” group rights to collective self-determination, access to natural resources, cultural heritage, peace, and clean air and water. New upgrades in both dimensions continue to emerge: animal rights and children’s rights, the right to health (not just health care), identity, and now, happiness.

Human rights have been fruitful and they have multiplied. But today the family tree is showing signs of rot. Well before the arrival of an American president who treats them with contempt, human rights had come under suspicion as the latest version of the West’s civilizing mission, as window dressing for military aggression, or simply as ineffective instruments of political change. Even in cases of the most egregious violations, international human rights courts often take a decade or more to render justice to a relatively small number of defendants. Of those indicted for crimes against humanity during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, more than a dozen, including former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević, died before the conclusion of their trials. The extrajudicial technique of “naming and shaming”—publicly calling out perpetrators of human rights violations—also shows symptoms of decay, insofar as it requires its targets to be susceptible to culturally specific forms of shame, or as Julien Benda once put it, to be barbares honteux de leur barbarie. As the dominant moral language of our time, moreover, human rights appear to be impotent, or at best mute, when it comes to the dominant moral challenge of our time: surging economic inequality both within and among countries.

No one has done more than Samuel Moyn to unsettle the story of human rights as a triumphal march…

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