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The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (review)

From: Human Rights Quarterly
Volume 34, Number 1, February 2012
pp. 294-299 | 10.1353/hrq.2012.0019

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A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.

Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1895).

When we think long and hard enough about what an ideal world would look like, it is striking to notice how quickly human rights enter the picture. So many of the staples of any plausible utopia are projects that have now been taken up in the name of human rights: The global relief of suffering; the protection and restoration of human dignity; the provision of equal economic and social opportunities to all; the purging of corruption and dishonesty from politics; the achievement of world peace; freedom from crime, fear, alienation, and torture; harmony with the planet, its ecosystems, and species; loving relationships, success, spiritual fulfillment, and even affordable unrestricted internet access for all. All of these admirable goals have somehow become bound up with the idea of human rights as we commonly understand it today.

What is the significance of this imaginative entanglement—that is, the entanglement of human rights, on the one hand, with utopia, on the other? Well, for one, it means that many of our traditional utopian aspirations (e.g. peace, prosperity, and general well-being) have found a natural home in the modern idea of human rights. This has the effect of exerting an outward pressure on such rights to incorporate more and more of what we deem good. For instance, Article 23 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights affirms a human right to "national and international peace and security." That there is a legally posited human right to world peace is good evidence that such rights have become placeholders for almost any worthy cause whatsoever.

On the other hand, the inverse is also true. The Enlightenment idea of human rights—and, with it, the far older notion of a right—has found a secure home in our modern utopian imagination. The effect that this has had on our utopian ideals is not entirely clear. At the very least, it seems unlikely that our vision of utopia is in some (parallel) sense pressured to expand as a result of its incorporation of human rights. It is doubtful that human rights bring with them some new concern that was hitherto neglected by our conceptions of utopia. Rather, it seems to me far more likely that our utopian imagination is in fact restricted by its preoccupation with rights (human or otherwise). What I want to do in what follows is to try to clarify the nature of this restriction, and to highlight some of its dangers.

This article is more of a response than a book review. Towards the end of his fascinating new book on the history of human rights, The Last Utopia, Samuel Moyn, a historian at Columbia University, wonders whether human rights will be able to continue carrying the burden of their utopian status through the coming centuries or even decades. Moyn is worried about the fate of human rights when they are conceived as a utopian project. But he never stops to consider the fate of utopia when it is conceived as a rights-based ideal. Nor does he consider how our utopian imagination, too, carries a burden in light of its connection with human rights. It is this missing element of Moyn's analysis that I want to consider in what follows.


One interesting thing to note about the contemporary hold that human rights have on our social and political imagination is how recent a phenomenon this is. The more or less standard story we're told about human rights is that (after a lengthy post-Enlightenment slumber) these rights recaptured the global imagination in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and, in particular, the Holocaust. Most importantly, widespread and acute postwar revulsion to Nazi brutality culminated in the international signing of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, so the story goes, what we've...

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