‘The Most We Can Hope For . . .’: Human Rights and the Politics of Fatalism
In his 2001 Tanner Lecture series entitled ‘Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry’, Michael Ignatieff parries almost every known progressive political and philosophical quarrel with international human rights work: human rights are vague and unenforceable; their content is infi nitely malleable; they are more symbolic than substantive; they cannot be grounded in any ontological truth or philosophical principle; in their primordial individualism, they confl ict with cultural integrity and are a form of liberal imperialism; they are a guise in which superpower global domination drapes itself; they are a guise in which the globalization of capital drapes itself; they entail secular idolatry of the human and are thus as much a religious creed as any other.1 Ignatieff is thoughtful and non-dismissive with each of these challenges, at times persuasively refuting them, at times accommodating and adjusting the aspiration or reach of human rights in terms of them. Working through them also allows him to develop and rest his own case for human rights: human rights activism is valuable not because it is founded on some transcendent truth, advances some ultimate principle, is a comprehensive politics, or is clean of the danger of political manipulation or compromise, but rather, simply because it is effective in limiting political violence and reducing misery. If, in the last fi fty years, human rights have become the international moral currency by which some human suffering can be stemmed, then they are a good thing. ‘All that can be said about human
rights is that they are necessary to protect individuals from violence and abuse, and if it is asked why, the only possible answer is historical’ (Ignatieff 2001: 149).