Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry
may raise some hackles for its controversial approach to a sacrosanct subject, but Michael Ignatieff's arguments are carefully wrought and compassionate. Ignatieff is director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, and his work is part history of the evolution of human rights in international politics and part caution that it not become a new religion. He writes, "We need to stop thinking of human rights as trumps and begin thinking of them as a language that creates the basis for deliberation."
The book centers on two essays by Ignatieff. In the second, "Human Rights as Idolatry," he identifies three main challenges to the universality of human rights: Islam, East Asia, and, most interestingly, the West itself. According to Ignatieff, the West is forsaking its political heritage of individualism and thereby eroding the foundations upon which a truly universal system of human rights may be built. In addition to the author's intriguing essays, there is an introduction by Amy Gutmann, as well as comments from K. Anthony Appiah, David A. Hollinger, Thomas W. Laqueur, and Diane F. Orentlicher. The critical reactions to Ignatieff, together with a short response of his own, have the makings of an intelligent and accessible debate. --Eric de Place
From Publishers Weekly
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.
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