"Human rights" today has become a global agenda. While previously functioning as part of broader political ideologies (say, progressive liberalism), "human rights" in our time operates as an autonomous ideology or global program—equipped with its advocates and missionaries, and also its detractors. As history teaches, the status of missionaries is always ambivalent, because one can distinguish between the quality of the message and the role of the messenger. While the message may be intrinsically sound, the modus operandi of the messenger may be suspect or obnoxious. Thus, to take a very egregious example: the Christian gospel may announce "good news" to the world, but the manner in which Christianity was extended into the New World, by Spanish missionaries and soldiers, was surely bad news for the Indians. It is estimated that, in the course of less than a century, the European excursion into the Americas resulted in the deaths of some seventy million native inhabitants, victims of killing, starvation, and disease.1 A later historical example is the spreading of French revolutionary ideas throughout Europe by Napoleon's armies.
If nothing else, historical examples of this kind are a summons to caution. In our time, advocates of human rights are typically (though not always) citizens and emissaries of the "West"; and one does not have to be a student of Noam Chomsky in order to realize that the West today has amassed the most formidable arsenal of military, economic, and technological power—a fact that buttresses talk of global hegemony. In this situation the distinction between message and messenger becomes relevant again. On the whole, one would hope for fewer messengers who are zealots and for more self-critical, reflectively engaged individuals; differently phrased, one would wish for fewer Juan Ginés de Sepúlvedas, and more of the likes of Bartolomé de Las Casas.2
The name of Las Casas evokes again the message of "good news." Basically, human rights are meant to be good news for the underprivileged, the downtrodden, and the dispossessed. As one can show, this has historically been the function of human rights—from the assertion of baronial rights against kings in the Magna Carta to the proclamation of citizen rights against feudal absolutism in the French Revolution to the demand for social and economic rights in the era of industrial capitalism. Thus, rights were always meant to be a protective shield of the weak against the mighty; however, detached from their historical and social contexts, rights (taken abstractly) have a double-edged status: they can also serve as weapons of aggression and domination in the hands of the powerful. The baronial rights against the king can turn into privileges asserted against peasants and serfs; the revolutionary rights of citizenship can deteriorate into weapons of exclusion wielded against foreigners and strangers. In our own time, the property rights claimed by a few immensely wealthy [End Page 173] individuals or corporations can serve as instruments to keep the vast masses of humankind in misery and in (economic as well as political) subjugation. Here is an illustration of the complex and deeply conflictual relation between West and non West and between North and South in our present world.3 Generally speaking, rights-claims should always give rise to questions like the following. Whose rights (or liberties) are asserted, against whom, and in what concrete context? Do rights-claims advance the cause of justice, equity, and human well-being, or are they obstacles on this road? Basically, these questions boil down to the simple query: Are rights rightly claimed, or what is the "rightness" of rights (a query that is etymologically inscribed in the connection between ius and iustitia and in the subjective and objective senses of the German Recht).
What these considerations indicate is that rights are in a certain sense contextual—which does not necessarily vitiate their universality. In order to ward off governmental manipulation, rights are often claimed to be universal and absolute—although this, correct in this usage, is otherwise equivocal: property rights, for instance, may very well be a universal claim; but this leaves untouched questions of the amount of property and the rightness...