Over at Opinio Juris, Rudi Teitel takes Samuel Moyn to task for his suggestion that the human rights movement has lost some of its moral purity. This is an incorrect assertion on Moyn's part, and not only for the reasons Teitel identifies. It's also a definitional problem with how Moyn thinks of the development of human rights. It can be a primarily romantic and moral struggle because he does not begin the story of human rights until the rise of non-governmental actors in the 1970s: Charter 77 and Amnesty International, in particular.

But this sort of picture falls apart if the beginning of the human rights movement is set at the end of World War II. Arguments over the Convention on Genocide and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are shot through, as the saying goes, with political considerations of varying degrees of nobility. Human rights have always had an element of moral purity, and that purity has always been compromised by the fact that rights must (mostly) be guaranteed and protected by governments that sometimes have interests that are not compatible with protecting those rights. None of this should be particularly surprising, I would think, given that this is a standard and accepted element of domestic political considerations (the state has to govern its people, and then it has to govern itself).

What seems to me to be dangerous is, instead, the notion that politics somehow taints moral struggle, as though the willingness to consider and deal with the day-to-day reality of governing is somehow incompatible with having greater and more noble aims. When I teach my law-and-society class, I like to focus in on the U.S. Supreme Court's jurisprudence on race and education for precisely this reason. The moral vision will tell you, correctly, that segregation is wrong and unconstitutional. What it will not tell you is how to go about fixing the problem: do you bus students around? for how long? etc etc. In the same way, human rights can tell you that South Africa's apartheid regime is wrong, and explain why, but it provides no blueprint to rebuild South African society after apartheid has ended. But human rights needs to be able to accept the importance of both these tasks.

No comments: