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The South Atlantic Quarterly 103.2/3 (2004) 451-463

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"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 infinitely malleable; they are more symbolic than substantive; they cannot be grounded in any ontological truth or philosophical principle; in their primordial individualism; they conflict 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 nondismissive 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 [End Page 451] 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 fifty 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" (149).

Responding to the commentaries published along with his lectures, these are Ignatieff's final words:

What should our goals as believers in human rights be? Here my slogan would be the title of the justly famous essay by my old teacher, Judith Shklar, "Putting Cruelty First." We may not be able to create democracies or constitutions. Liberal freedom [in some societies] may be some way off. But we could do more than we do to stop unmerited suffering and gross physical cruelty. That I take to be the elemental priority of all human rights activism: to stop torture, beatings, killings, rape, and assault and to improve, as best we can, the security of ordinary people. My minimalism is not strategic at all. It is the most we can hope for.

An instrument for abating the grievous suffering of targeted individuals and groups, stanching the flow of human blood, diminishing cries of human pain, unbending the crouch of human fear—who could argue with this, especially when the historical present features so much politically let blood, politically inflicted pain, and politically induced fear? Indeed one cannot argue with it, nor will I. If human rights achieve this, and nothing more, there is no quarrel to be had.

My question, of course, is whether this is all the international human rights project does, that is, whether Ignatieff holds himself to the minimalism and pragmatism of these sentences and whether, apart from Ignatieff's own formulations, this minimalism and pragmatism can be made to hold in the discursive operation of human rights. It will turn out that Ignatieff himself does not actually stay within the bounds of this minimalist defense, and that the "more" he claims for human rights is an important part of his brief for them and an important aspect of their discursive operation. But in addition to Ignatieff's own transgressions of the boundaries he sets, there is this: it is in the nature of every significant political project to ripple beyond the project's avowed target and action, for the simple reason that all such [End Page 452] projects are situated in political, historical, social, and economic contexts with which they dynamically engage.2 No effective project produces only the consequences it aims to...